James ‘Buddy’ Edgerton, whose family modeled for a number of Rockwell paintings, and who co-wrote a book about the artist in 2009, is shown
James ‘Buddy’ Edgerton, whose family modeled for a number of Rockwell paintings, and who co-wrote a book about the artist in 2009, is shown with co-author Nan O’Brien, right. The book is expected to be the basis for a feature film. (Courtesy photo)

PITTSFIELD -- A feature film based on the life of Norman Rockwell is moving toward production at what could prove to be an opportune moment. The news comes amid controversy over a new Rockwell biography and shortly after a record auction bid for one of the late artist's paintings.

The film will be based on the book "The Unknown Rockwell: Portrait of Two American Families" by James "Buddy" Edgerton and Nan O'Brien, which was released in 2009. The Edgerton family lived next door to Rockwell when he lived in West Arlington, Vt., for more than a decade, prior to moving to Stockbridge in 1953.

According to the author's son, James Edgerton Jr. of Shelburne, Vt., the timing for the film seemed right given Rockwell's enduring popularity, even before the $46 million auction price paid for "Saying Grace" earlier this month and the release of the controversial new Rockwell biography by Deborah Solomon.

He said his father and other members of the Edgerton family join members of the Rockwell family who've denounced aspects of Solomon's "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" that speculate whether he had repressed homosexual or pedophilic tendencies.

Edgerton said the filmmaker, whom he doesn't want to name before the film is officially announced, had stopped at the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vt., to learn what were the top biographies about Norman Rockwell. One of those mentioned was the elder Edgerton's book. Since the Edgerton family now lives nearby, the necessary connections were quickly made, he said, and talks led in October to a contract for the film rights.

"I have had contact with him [the filmmaker] recently, and the script is now about 98 percent complete," Edgerton said. "I expect him to send it to me any day now," he said, adding, "There have been some discussions about who might play Norman."

The filmmaker also might shoot footage for a documentary on the artist at the same time, Edgerton said.

Edgerton said the family had floated the idea of a film and talked with an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles prior to the recent meeting with the filmmaker and subsequent film contract.

As for the Solomon biography, he said that while aspects of the book were good, "It was the sexual innuendo part that got under everybody's craw."

He added, "The timing is right for this. I think Norman's place in history is being defined. People are spending millions for his paintings, so obviously they respect his work. ... I don't want her assertions to become factual without a fight."

Edgerton was the last member of his family to serve as a model for Rockwell, posing as a Cub Scout for "Growth of a Leader" at age 9 in 1964, after he and his father had traveled to Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge. The artist, famed for paintings he did for covers of the Saturday Evening Post and other publications over five-plus decades, remained lifelong friends with members of his family, he said.

Rockwell died in Stockbridge in November 1978 at age 84.

Edgerton said his great-grandmother Elva, both grandparents, James and Clara Edgerton; all three of his aunts, Edith, Joy and Ardis; and his father, Buddy Edgerton, were painted by Norman Rockwell. He said his father modeled for the first painting done in Rockwell's new studio in West Arlington and for the last before the artist moved to Massachusetts in 1953.

Edgerton's grandparents operated a dairy farm, he said, and lived in a farmhouse 50 feet from the house where Rockwell lived with his second wife, Mary, and their three sons. Moving to Arlington in 1939, Rockwell first lived in a different house in town, Edgerton said. But his first studio burned to the ground, and the artist decided to move to a different home, closer to neighbors, and to construct a new studio.

Buddy Edgerton was a 13-year-old at the time, in 1943, his son said, and Rockwell paid the teen 75 cents an hour to help construct the studio building.

Knowing Rockwell as a neighbor and good friend, Buddy Edgerton said he believes the sexual theorizing in the Solomon book to be "a bunch of crap" and doesn't want to "see Norman's legacy tainted," his son said.

He added, "And my family probably knows Norman better than anyone still alive on the planet."

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien