John Derek had become keenly aware of his mortality.
In the summer of 1986, the 59-year-old writer-director who had recently turned his eye to B-movie smut and, occasionally, outright pornography, suffered a mild heart attack at his home in Santa Barbara. Derek survived, but the experience moved him enough to add a touch of autobiography to his next grand feature—1989’s Ghosts Can’t Do It.
That film turned out to be an execrable, ill-conceived, comically offensive sex comedy wherein a widow (portrayed by ‘80s pinup and Derek’s real-life spouse, Bo Derek) attempts to find a young man to murder so that the ghost of her deceased husband can possess him and regain his virility. A senescent Anthony Quinn plays the John Derek stand-in, who spectrally advises his wife in a key business dispute with a young wheeler-dealer who clearly has designs on the widow.
But who to cast in such a role? Who could possibly bring the right combination of authority, suavity, and acumen that Quinn’s character would be moved to simultaneously possess and destroy?
See if you can guess, from this contemporaneous description of his on-set behavior:
“’They shot around him,’ said [a production] aide. ‘He’d come in and out of meetings and shoot a take or two, then leave. They gave him a script, but I don’t think he ever sat down and learned his lines. I think he ad-libbed most of it, but everybody seemed pleased.’”
No points for getting it right. Derek’s skeezy romp marked the first screen credit for our ad-libber-in-chief himself, the pathological crowd-pleaser and cue-card scofflaw we now refer to as Mr. President. Donald J. Trump’s appearance in Ghosts Can’t Do It was the first of more than a dozen cinematic cameos spanning the last four decades. From family fare like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York to the Sandra Bullock rom-com Two Weeks Notice, Trump appeared repeatedly as himself, mostly in New York-centric films, attempting to maintain his public reputation at a time when his business empire was on the brink.
Over the course of the 1990s, Trump’s film (and a few television) cameos reinforced his imperious, world-beating persona at a time when his personal life and balance sheet were crumbling. By imprinting himself in the cultural consciousness, against all empirical evidence, as a near-omniscient mogul, Trump carved out a space that would lead to his Apprentice run and, ultimately, the White House.