If Carolyn Pfeiffer’s life were a movie, it would strain credulity. Her new memoir, Chasing the Panther: Adventures and Misadventures of a Cinematic Life, traces Pfeiffer’s improbable journey from small-town North Carolina into the epicenter of European cinema in the 1960s. There she became a confidant to a wax museum’s worth of famous names—everyone from Omar Sharif to Claudia Cardinale to the Beatles—while bearing witness to the making of epochal films like Doctor Zhivago and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, all against a backdrop of sweeping social change. In the 1970s, Pfeiffer returned to America to cofound her own production company, where she oversaw titles such as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Koyaanisqatsi, and Stop Making Sense before moving into academia, heading up the Los Angeles Film School, then taking charge of the University of Texas at Austin’s pioneering film initiative Burnt Orange Productions. 

Fortunately, Pfeiffer doesn’t see her life as a movie. “It’s more of a limited series,” she says over video call from her home in Marfa, where she has lived for the last decade. There’s no series in the works just yet (although when I ask who could play her, Pfeiffer doesn’t hesitate: “Jennifer Lawrence.”) But Chasing the Panther, which Pfeiffer cowrote with her former Burnt Orange colleague Gregory Collins, conjures a cinematic sweep nevertheless, volleying from London’s Swinging Sixties to moonlit horseback rides in Cairo. At the same time, it is remarkably intimate. Pfeiffer balances her triumphs with deeply personal trials that include the loss of her young daughter, being groped by Sean Connery and Federico Fellini, and being sexually assaulted by a famous actor’s bodyguard. Hers is a story of fortitude and self-actualization that any reader could connect to, even if they don’t know their Visconti from their Truffaut. 

Ahead of a July 22 and 23 retrospective at the Austin Film Society on Pfeiffer’s work, Texas Monthly spoke with her about choosing what went into Chasing the Panther, as well as some of the stories she didn’t write down . . . yet. (Says Pfeiffer, ever the producer: “We’ll have to see how part one goes before we decide if there’s going to be a part two.”)  

Q&A with film producer Carolyn Pfeiffer
Carolyn Pfeiffer and Claudia Cardinale on the set of 8 1⁄2 in 1962.Gideon Bachman/Courtesy of HarperCollins

Texas Monthly: You have an impressive recall of events and conversations from sixty years ago. Were you keeping a journal during that time?

Carolyn Pfeiffer: I was writing letters to my mommy every week. I’m 85 years old, and in those days, we wrote letters home. I didn’t keep a diary, but I kept meeting books, with things like flight numbers on them. Also, quite a few people were still alive when we started writing, so I could cross-check with them. 

TM: Are you a nostalgic person?  

CP: Not really. Do you find me nostalgic?  

TM: Maybe not! But if I’d witnessed this much history, I’d find it hard to not be constantly reminiscing.  

CP: No, no. I’m very fond of most of what I experienced, and it’s really vivid to me, to have seen these great masters work. But I’m always looking forward. Even at my age, I’m excited about the future. I’m working on other film projects. I stage-manage a local theater production, and we’re doing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. We’re in year four of rehearsals, and we’re going to finally put it on in September. The great thing about living in Marfa is that I’m surrounded by the arts all the time. 

TM: How did growing up in a small rural town make you who you are?  

CP: I don’t know if these things make you. It didn’t give me a ton of tools to deal with the more sophisticated world. But it gave me freedom. When I was a kid, I could go out our back door right after breakfast and I didn’t have to be home until lunchtime. I didn’t even have to say where I was going. There was a sense of safety. We also have that in Marfa. I mean, many people here don’t lock their doors. 

I do know that when I was quite young, I’d be put on the train to go to Washington, D.C., which is where I was born, to visit my aunts and uncles. So at a fairly young age, I learned that it’s okay to travel. You don’t have to be afraid of getting on a plane or a bus. I think I was also just born curious. 

TM: A lot of your story hinges on being in the right place at the right time, or befriending the right person. Do you believe in fate?  

CP: I believe in chance. Fate and destiny are stronger words. When I went to Europe, there were not many young American girls there at that time, so I was an anomaly. The Italians were trying to learn English because the Americans were starting to make English-language films in Europe, and they needed European actors that could speak English. So I got all these gigs teaching English to Italian actors, which eventually led to Claudia [Cardinale]. Once I’d had Claudia, and we’d done Fellini and Visconti, I had a bit of a pedigree. If you’re lucky enough to get a chance, then you have to take advantage of that and deliver, and then maybe you’ll get another chance. 

TM: What is it about you that’s allowed you to move so easily in the celebrity world?

CP: If you work on a film, there’s a bond. It’s our baby, our creation. So you have these very strong friendships over a short period of time. And when you’re a publicist, when you are part of someone’s team, people’s guards are down. If you’re in the dressing room with an actress in Las Vegas, she’s not going to be worried about whether she has her clothes on. So that’s why I’ve been able to have so many warm relationships with so many talented people. It’s almost an unspoken language. Unless you have been exposed to it, it seems intimidating, but you learn how to handle it. 

This is maybe too long a story, but when I was living in Los Angeles, working at Alive Films, I was invited to lunch at Neverland Ranch by Michael Jackson, because Alive gave him VIP screening prints of its films and he wanted to show his gratitude. This is around  “Billie Jean,” the peak of his adult fame. And I ended up sitting next to Michael Jackson. I thought, “My God, how do I start a conversation with Michael Jackson?” I said, “Michael, tell me, what do you feed the giraffes?” I went instantly into zoology. You just try to figure out some way to establish a level of comfort.

TM: You have so many incredible films on your résumé, but I have to confess that the one I’ve probably seen the most is Cool as Ice.  

CP: Get out of here! Not too long after I got to Marfa, I was at a bar with some young Marfans, and they said, “Is it true you produced Cool as Ice?” [Laughs.] The thing I’m most happy about with Cool as Ice is that it was Janusz Kamiński’s first proper feature. He was an unknown cinematographer who’d done a Roger Corman movie, and of course he’s now won, I don’t know, six Oscars, and he’s Steven Spielberg’s main guy. But you know, I also remember getting a phone call in bed, very early morning, and it’s someone telling me that Vanilla Ice has just been arrested for pulling a gun on a kid in a supermarket parking lot. I just said, “Okay, that’s it.” This movie that they all think is going to make so much money, you’ll never be able to pull back from that. And they didn’t! It was a financial disaster. Just beyond stupid. But I’m glad you liked it! Did you really like it?  

TM: Well . . . I saw it a lot, let’s put it that way. I’ve also seen Stop Making Sense and Koyaanisqatsi quite a few times, and those I genuinely love. 

CP: Stop Making Sense is a fantastic film, but I was not a part of the creation, just overseeing the release—which is still a very important part of the process. Koyaanisqatsi was the first film we distributed at Island Alive. We loved it, but we were like, “Here’s a title no one can pronounce.” No stars. No narration. Even Philip Glass [the score composer] wasn’t that well-known. How are we going to sell this darn thing? We got lucky because Francis Ford Coppola was an admirer. I think he stole—or borrowed—a few techniques in some of his work following that. So Francis “presented” it. That gave us something to hang it on. We had no money. We couldn’t afford billboards, so we made hand-painted banners and stretched them across Sunset Boulevard. Very ground-level promotion. But the film is magical. And it is really a cult film now. 

TM: Another thing that didn’t make the book: you owned the master franchise for TCBY in Jamaica?  

CP: I did! My late husband, Jon Bradshaw, and I bought an old house in deep rural Jamaica. Our dream had always been that we were going to move to Jamaica. And after he died, I really needed a change. But that meant leaving the film industry. So I left Alive and packed up and moved with my daughter. Then somebody came up the drive one day and offered me a movie, so I was back into production within a year. But in order to move, I had to figure out a way to support us. My brother said he’d be interested in investing in a Jamaican franchise, so he did all the research and came back with TCBY.  I went up to Little Rock, Arkansas, to Yogurt University, and we built four shops and an airport outlet. At one moment, our little shop in Jamaica—I use movie terms—was the top-grossing in the Western world. 

The rest of the story gets sad. When my brother died, there were some difficulties with his wife, and I decided that it was probably wiser for me to bail out. But by that time, my daughter was high-school age, and I was offered the job to be the founding president of Los Angeles Film School. 

TM: What did you learn from running Burnt Orange Productions at UT?

CP: I loved seeing these students apprenticing on professionally made films. And I’m sorry it was shut down. We’d run out of funding, and it’s hard to have something that is both consistently commercially successful and has to work on an academic timeline. We had a lot of restrictions. But when I moved to Marfa, I was told that I believe 75 percent of the two-hundred-something students who had worked on those films were all working in the industry. So I feel like we delivered academically. I’m still in touch with quite a few of them.  

TM: It’s hard not to feel as though the era you write about in Chasing the Panther is over—that the film industry has fundamentally changed. 

CP: A lot of the best stuff is streaming now.  It’s an ever-evolving industry. What I remember about working in Italy was the intimacy. If Fellini wanted Marcello [Mastroianni], he didn’t call his agent, he called Marcello! But I try not to let that kind of thing depress me. I mean, at my age, I’m not in the eye of the storm. The last films I’ve worked on have been documentaries. They’re easier to finance, and they’re very rewarding. The last documentary that I have a credit on is Robert Irwin: A Desert of Pure Feeling. We patched it together like the old indie days—worked on it half the time for free, then we’d get a little money and work a little bit more. That’s the filmmaking I’ve done all my life. I’ve worked on some big movies, and it’s wonderful to start a film that’s fully financed. But sometimes it’s just something you really want to do. But I don’t have the physical stamina to fully produce anymore. I can’t do the sixteen-, eighteen-hour days. I have to have my nap. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.  

TM: What do you hope readers take away from your story?  

CP: If there is a message, it’s that life is not easy. And when you’re down, you just have to believe there’s something nice around the corner and dust yourself off. It’s a very British take on life, I suppose! But that is what I’d hope for. And that it’s a good read. When I told Omar [Sharif] many years ago that I was going to do my memoir, he just said, “Make it interesting, darling.” And hopefully we have.