Pale Male Takes a Star Turn


This meeting of the “fellowship of the bench” was called to order at 10:04 a.m. at the bench, facing Conservatory Water, the model-boat basin in Central Park.

Present were four people who had spent hours on the bench, staring at the Fifth Avenue buildings on the horizon and hoping for a glimpse of somebody they helped make famous: Frederic Lilien, a cinematographer; Janet Hess, who wrote the script for Mr. Lilien’s latest film; Marie Winn, who wrote a book about the central character in the film; and Rik Davis, a photographer who has followed the central character’s comings and goings for years.

A quorum was present, but the central character was not.

“Any sign of him yet?” Ms. Hess asked.

Ms. Winn shook her head and said, “He’ll show up.”

Let the record reflect that he did, 14 minutes later: Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk with the Fifth Avenue hangout and the worldwide following, soared over their heads. Pigeons scattered as he flew on a southwest heading. The pigeons did not want to end up being his brunch.

The main item on the agenda was to discuss Mr. Lilien’s film “The Legend of Pale Male,” which opens at the Angelika Film Center on Wednesday.

Pale Male did not take part in the discussion. He made a stopover in a tree a hundred yards or so from the bench. He was gone before you could lift your binoculars to your eyes. Mr. Davis, looking through a spotting scope, reported that Pale Male’s longtime companion, Lola, was perched atop the apartment building at 980 Fifth Avenue.

“The Legend of Pale Male” is about Mr. Lilien, who had worked as a messenger, a travel agent, a receptionist and the manager of an Upper East Side hair salon. Then he encountered Pale Male. They had lunch together, sort of — Mr. Lilien was eating a sandwich; Pale Male was eating a pigeon in a tree. Mr. Lilien, smitten, bought his first camera and went to the park every day, looking for Pale Male.

In the film, Mr. Lilien recounts all of this and says that Pale Male “took me under his wing.” It was he who also talked about the “fellowship of the bench” to describe the Pale Male regulars.

Mr. Lilien remembered the day little hawks’ heads poked out of their nest on an apartment-building window ledge high above Fifth Avenue. He remembered the protests that followed the co-op board’s decision to have the nest taken down. “We had known for some time that some residents had wanted the telescopes, the nest, even Pale Male to disappear,” he said.

“The Legend of Pale Male” is different from Mr. Lilien’s first film, “Pale Male.” In “Pale Male,” the narrator was Joanne Woodward. In “The Legend of Pale Male,” the narrator is Mr. Lilien himself.

“We felt like we were Pale Male’s biographers,” said Ms. Hess, who wrote the script. “We tried for two years to start the film with the protest” against the removal of the nest, she said. “I was trying to make ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for Pale Male, leading up to the moment where George almost jumps off the bridge.”

Mr. Lilien, who is Belgian, said he had arranged “a deal” with a Belgian waffle maker — anything to promote the film. He and Ms. Hess said the trailer was on iTunes and had received 400,000 hits in four days. Ms. Hess said someone called from Taiwan. “They had translated the trailer themselves, and put that up,” she said.

Then someone on the bench mentioned Charles Kennedy, a naturalist who died in 2004. Someone else said he would have described Pale Male as the Cary Grant of wildlife heroes: “He’s urbane, he would look impeccable in a suit, the girls loved him and the men wanted to be him.”

The meeting was adjourned at 11:10 a.m. Pale Male was long gone.

Respectfully submitted.