Donald Farr
Former Editor, Mustang Monthly
June 13, 2013

Everybody knows Gone in 60 Seconds, the movie that starred "Eleanor" as a customized '67 Mustang fastback and major league actors Nicholas Cage, Angelina Jolie, and Robert Duvall. But what some don't know—and many have forgotten—is that the 2000 film was a remake of H.B. "Toby" Halicki's independently-made movie with the same name, filmed in 1973 and released in 1974. It featured the original Eleanor, a yellow '73 Mustang SportsRoof (although astute Mustangers know that it had a '71 or '72 front valance and hood) that Halicki drove himself in one of the most memorable and longest car-crash scenes in movie history.

Made without the help of a major studio, the first Gone in 60 Seconds was an unlikely box-office hit, raking in $40 million as car-crash fans flocked to theatres to see 93 cars wrecked and rolled during the 40-minute chase scene, which the Los Angeles Free Press described as "the most incredible auto-chase ever." The plot involves a scheme to steal 48 cars, each one with a female name, but Eleanor steals the show as the Mustang eludes police while banging and crashing through Long Beach and other southern LA communities. The formula was later copied for The Blues Brothers and Dukes of Hazzard.

Even with its cult following, many Mustang fans knew little about the movie's background and its creator until Halicki's widow, Denice Shakarian Halicki, released the newly restored film in high-definition last Christmas as a DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Pack with interviews and cameraman commentary. As H.B. Halicki's first venture into movie-making, it was filmed on a budget with Halicki serving as producer, writer, director, actor, stunt-driver, and even promoter as afterwards he hauled Eleanor—with "Gone in 60 Seconds" emblazoned across the bashed-in doors—around the country to display in front of theatres.

After the movie's financial success, Halicki built the H.B. Halicki Junkyard and Mercantile Company, a private get-away where he stashed his collection of cars, guns, and what became known as the world's largest antique toy and automobile collection. He also continued with film-making, releasing The Junkman in 1982 and Deadline Auto Theft in 1983. Just three months after marrying Denice, a former model and his fiancé for the previous six years, Halicki was killed in 1989 in a freak accident on the set of Gone in 60 Seconds 2.

Denice was determined to keep her husband's legacy alive by completing the unfinished film. But with Gone in 60 Seconds 2 tied up in probate court, fate intervened when Michael Lynton, president of Disney/Hollywood Pictures and a big fan of the original Gone in 60 Seconds, approached Denice about a remake of the 1974 movie. Denice agreed and, as the executive producer, she worked with writer Scott Rosenberg and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Released in 2000, the modern Gone in 60 Seconds grossed $237 million worldwide and triggered unprecedented popularity for the new pewter and black Eleanor.

At the same time, Denice began work with producer and business partner Michael Leone under her Halicki Films banner to restore all four of H.B. Halicki's films, including the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Reformatted for wide screens and digitally remastered for surround sound, the films look and sound remarkably modern, other than the 1970s clothing and 52.9 cents-per-gallon gas station signs in the background.

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Unfortunately, in Mustang circles, Denice is probably more well-known for her legal struggle with Carroll Shelby. When Unique Performance, with Shelby as a partner, began rebuilding '67-'68 Mustang fastbacks in the likeness of the movie character Eleanor, Denice felt she had to protect her rights and sued for copyright and trademark infringement. The four-year dispute ended in 2008 when the Ninth Circuit court agreed with Halicki that "Eleanor" is a copyrighted character that belongs to Halicki. In fact, Halicki's case was recently used by Warner Brothers/DC Comics to establish exclusive ownership rights to the 1966 and 1989 Batmobiles as copyrighted characters.

Besides the movies, Denice was one of the partners in the Iacocca 45th Anniversary Mustang along with Leone, who designed Iacocca's 2009 Mustang. In fact, Denice maintains a close relationship with Iacocca, who allowed a rare interview for the Gone in 60 Seconds DVD.

The original Halicki films are now available in stores and at www.gonein60seconds.com. The Gone in 60 Seconds DVD/Blu-Ray also includes interviews, extra footage, and commentary. A SPEED TV documentary, The Life and High Times of H.B. Halicki, is part of the "Trilogy" DVD with Halicki's second and third movies.

Intrigued by the information revealed in interviews, documentary, and commentary, we chatted with Denice and Michael about the original Gone in 60 Seconds and its Mustang star, Eleanor. During a trip to Southern California, we were also able to visit Denice and choose photos for this story from the movie's original stills.

MM: How did you meet Toby Halicki?

Denice: We were formally introduced at his office in 1983. Toby was sitting at his desk and the gentleman who introduced us said to Toby, "This is the dream girl that I told you about." Then he looked at me and said, "This is the dream man I told you about." And that's how it started. Toby told me that it was love at first sight.

MM: What led Toby to making films with car crashes?

Denice: He had been a car guy since he was a little boy. His family was in the tow truck business so he learned about car wrecks early on. He had such a fascination and knowledge of cars and what he could do with them.

During a break in the action, Halicki discusses an upcoming scene. Eleanor has already taken a beating.

MM: Is that what gave him the idea for the movie, Gone in 60 Seconds?

Denice: He was 15½ when he came out from New York to California with an uncle who couldn't read or write, so he worked on cars to make a living. Later he owned a towing and impound business where he got to know the local police. He loved the police; they were his buddies. And then somebody talked him into investing in a movie. He was on the set one day and said to himself, “I can do this." So he took what he knew, cars, and merged them into a movie. That's where it all came together.

MM: Why did he pick a Mustang for Eleanor?

Michael: He says it in the movie—it was the last of the Mustang fastbacks. Ford was coming out with the Mustang II and everything was going to change because of the fuel crisis. Denice has letters he wrote to Lee Iacocca to try to get a Mustang for the film.

Denice: What's so creative about him is Eleanor. He takes this Mustang and makes it a leading lady. Eleanor is the only Mustang in history to receive a star title credit.

MM: He was working on a strict budget, correct?

Denice: It was the price of one lunch for the 2000 remake (laughs). With independent film-making, you only have so many dollars. He was just starting off. Not only was he the writer, he was also the stunt driver, director, actor, producer, and financier. What's funny, there's a crash scene on the bridge and he's driving a Cadillac in a lady's hat and wig. He actually drove a lot of the other cars because he knew how to drive them.

Michael: He did gorilla film-making. He owned the sheriff's tow-truck impound lot, so he knew what was going on. He didn't always get permission to film, so he'd shoot on a Sunday because he knew the people who watched for that sort of thing weren't working.

MM: In the documentary, we learned that he got hurt during the movie's climactic final jump.

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Denice: Toby got a compressed spine on the famous jump at the end of the chase. When you watch it in slow motion, you can see how dangerous it was. It was close; Eleanor almost went over. That was done with ramps. There were no special effects.

Michael: He did all the stunts himself. He prepared Eleanor for her 128-foot jump, going 30 feet in the air, by welding skid plates underneath and bars all the way through her. He also had a pair of brake handles mounted on the transmission tunnel, so whichever way he wanted the car to go, he could spin her. His jacket had slits in it so you couldn't see that he was wearing a harness.

Denice: He spent 250 man-hours putting in a NASCAR rollcage and a special belt for himself, which was good because of that big crash into the telephone pole.

MM: Which was really an accident by accident?

Denice: Many of them were. He would have to stop, get her fixed, and go on.

Michael: When he hit the telephone pole, he had to load Eleanor on a truck and take the pole too because they needed it for the next frame. They came back the next Sunday, dropped the pole off in its spot, and started filming again. They had to take the pole because if they didn't, the city would pick it up and they wouldn't be able to shoot the next scene.

MM: Was there more than one Eleanor?

Michael: Actually, there were two. The second one was in the car wash at the end. There's really only one Eleanor that did the stunts and 40-minute chase scene. Denice still owns the original Eleanor.

MM: We understand Toby was filming Gone in 60 Seconds 2 in 1989 and Denice had a part in it.

Denice: Toby's Gone in 60 Seconds 2 has a great story about an international thief and I was going to star in it with Toby as his accomplice. What is great for Toby's fans is that he shot the action first because that was important to him. There were over 400 cars, 80 police cars. I am working on making a new Gone in 60 Seconds 2 based on his 1989 movie.

MM: Can you tell us how Toby was killed?

Denice: It was during the filming for Gone in 60 Seconds 2. I had just handed him a cigar and started to walk away when I heard someone yell—to this day I believe it was him—“Run, Denice, the tower is falling!" So I just ran. There was a pole tied to a 160-foot water tower for one of the stunts. And when the tower started to fall prematurely, the cable snapped, hit one of the power poles, and the pole hit Toby. We had been together for six years but had been married only three months, so it was devastating to lose him in the same summer that we got married.

MM: How were you able to keep the copyrights to Toby's movies?

Denice: It was 1989 when Robert Kardashian came in to help me. I knew nothing about attorneys and the probate court to save Toby's legacy and films, so I needed help. He was actually the middle man between me and the attorneys so he could explain to me what they were talking about and explain to them what I needed. Through that, we fell in love and got engaged. I actually lived with Robert from 1990 to 1996 and helped him raise his four children. To this day I'm very close with the kids (Ed. note: Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, and Robert Jr. from the reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians).

MM: How were you involved in the remake?

Denice: I have the rights to Gone in 60 Seconds and Eleanor for both the original and remake. My dream was to finish what Toby started by completing Gone in 60 Seconds 2, which had a separate copyright. So for five years, whenever I talked to attorneys, my theme was to finish 1989's Gone in 60 Seconds 2. Then I met Michael Lynton, who was president of Hollywood Pictures, which was under Disney. He was a huge fan of Gone in 60 Seconds. So he tracked me down to talk about doing a remake of the 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds and I agreed. We started filming the remake in 1999 and I was on the set for long hours, which was a great joy. On the 10th anniversary of Toby's death, on August 20, 1999, Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Eleanor, and I were on the set filming the remake. E! Entertainment came out to do interviews with each of us. They allowed me to use my interview on the DVD.

MM: We heard a story about taking the original Eleanor to the set for the remake.

Denice: Michael helped me get Eleanor up and running. We brought her on the set during the filming of the remake. Nicolas Cage and Jerry Bruckheimer are huge car guys. Nic unveiled the original Eleanor on the set and the stunt men drove around in the two Eleanors.

MM: Who decided to use a modified Shelby for the remake?

Denice: Actually, she's not a Shelby. Eleanor was a regular '67 Mustang that was customized in-house by the studio specifically for the Gone in 60 Seconds remake. Eleanor was created as a fastback Mustang but dolled up with things that had never been done before for her one-of-a-kind look.

Michael: At the last minute, somebody stuck a GT 500 sticker on it and Denice had to go through that whole court case stuff. That was a terrible time for Denice because she had to take Shelby to court. Denice is the only one who has legal right to authorize or license "Eleanor" for automobiles and merchandise.

The power pole accident was really an accident that was left in the film. Coming off the freeway, Halicki changed lanes too soon, tapping another car with the rear of Eleanor and sending the Mustang spinning into the pole. After repairs, Eleanor continued leading the chase.

Denice: I never met Shelby until after the movie was out. Lee Iacocca introduced me to him. What was so hard for me was that I had gone through so much in the probate courts to protect the rights to be able to make the remake movie and have Eleanor reprise her leading lady role, so when I found out people were infringing, it was like, "Are you kidding? After all I've been through?"

MM: What do you think Toby would have thought about the remake?

Denice: I think he would have been right in the middle of it. It was quite an honor to have Jerry Bruckheimer as producer—he is his own set of genius. He's also is a big car collector. So is Nicolas Cage. And gorgeous Angelina loves cars. So we had the best of the best involved. I consider it such an honor everyone who was part of the Gone in 60 Seconds remake made this dream come true.

MM: How did the idea for the DVD/Blue Ray package come about?

Michael: Denice did it. We came out as an independent in Walmart, Best Buy, etc., because Denice wanted to do it that way, independently. The film held up. When you do it in Blu-Ray, it's restored amazingly. The cars look brand-new. As old as that film is, it's still pretty good in HD. It makes it look as though Toby just shot the film yesterday. We didn't change anything, but we went out of our way to enhance it with today's technology.

MM: It was fun watching the movie again, especially with the cameraman commentary. The chase is such an iconic scene.

Denice: Right before the 40-minute chase, Toby says one line and then lets Eleanor do the rest of the speaking for him. That's why she's the star. That little Mustang, you were not going to stop her.

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Eleanor Side Stories

Halicki compressed his spine when performing the movie's chase-ending jump. He walked with a limp afterwards.

For the scene at the Cadillac dealership, Halicki used two of his own cars for the crash into the row of Cadillacs out front. He placed oil under the tires of his cars to help them slide for a more dramatic crash. The trick worked too well; Halicki's cars slid into new Cadillacs that were for sale. Halicki had to purchase the damaged cars from the dealership.

Toby's friend, J.C. Agajanian, was an extra in many of the scenes. He was almost hit by a sliding car in the Cadillac dealer scene.

Many of the 93 cars were reused again by positioning them so the previous damage could not be seen.

Some of the freeway scenes were filmed in actual LA traffic. Halicki would mount a camera in Eleanor and take off to grab some footage.

The wedding sequence at the beginning of the movie was shot in New York with Halicki's family.

In the scene where the garbage truck rolls over on a Dodge Charger, a cable was used to make sure the stunt worked. You can actually see the cable in the fillm. Halicki had purchased an old garbage truck for the stunt.

Halicki practiced the final jump at Ascot Raceway. However, the actual jump was on a downhill angle and Halicki ended up going faster than planned, so Eleanor almost landed on her nose.

Dominic Sena worked with Toby Halicki as a cameraman for his second movie, The Junkman. Coincidentally, Sena was the director of the remake in 2000.