What I want to know, I tell the actor and producer Griffin Dunne right at the beginning of our conversation, is whether any director other than Martin Scorsese has ever asked him not to have sex during the shooting of a movie?

“It never came up before,” Dunne says, laughing. But, yes, in 1985, when he was 29 and cast in the lead role in the black comedy After Hours, opposite Rosanna Arquette, that’s exactly what Scorsese asked of him

“Marty has a way of directing in a sort of roundabout way," Dunne, now 69, recalls. "I was a young man and he knew me. I was a night owl and I liked to party.”

So Scorsese asked him to abstain during filming. “He knew as the anxiety of celibacy would build up I’d get a certain kind of look in my eyes, a very horny, lustful, desperate looking thing, which carried me through the entire movie … Until it didn’t.” 

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Indeed. On one weekend during the shoot Dunne couldn’t keep to his word. Back on set on Monday morning Scorsese pulled him aside and asked him point blank if he had broken his promise.

“And then it turned out that fear looks just like lust on camera,” Dunne says now. “The fear that I’d screwed up the movie and the scene and everything and disappointed the director.

“All those things combined brought me back to a desperate state.”

Today, some four decades later, Dunne is sitting in his East Village home in New York City, thinking back to the days when he was nearly famous, when his star was on the rise, before bad choices and terrible circumstances altered his trajectory.

Dunne has written a memoir, The Friday Afternoon Club, about his life and that of his parents and grandparents; a richly storied saga that takes in the Mexican revolution, pioneering heart surgery, cattle ranches and early 20th-century adultery. The word picaresque seems appropriate.

Dunne’s own story is also notable. Growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Dunne’s best friend’s uncle was President Kennedy, his mother’s best friend was Natalie Wood and his aunt was the writer Joan Didion. His parents threw parties and anyone who was anyone in Hollywood would attend. And as a teenager Dunne’s best friend was Carrie Fisher.

Carrie Fisher and Griffin Dunne Carrie Fisher and Griffin Dunne (Image: Connie Freiberg)

The book is a wonderfully funny, lush thing which reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie. (“ I thought of that too,” Dunne admits. “I sent the book to Wes not for any other reason than I just had a feeling he would like it.”)

But at its heart there is a horror story. At the beginning of the 1980s, Dunne was making a name for himself after appearing in John Landis’s film An American Werewolf in London. At the same time, his sister Dominique, also an actor, had just appeared in the film Poltergeist. On set Steven Spielberg, no less, had told Dunne his sister was going to be a star.

But on Hallowe’en 1982 Dominique was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, a chef called John Sweeney. She died five days later. The subsequent trial, Dunne contends, was a farce and Sweeney was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter and served three years in prison.

All of this is recorded in painful, tragic detail in the book. I have to ask, Griffin, why put yourself through reliving it?

“Well, I didn’t look at it like that. I didn’t look at it like it’s some challenging emotional conquest that I was forcing myself to climb.

“I actually thought I would write a book that was quite different.” 

He had imagined, he says, a sort of David Sedaris-style family memoir. “I’ve always kept a collection of stories that not only happened to me, but to my family and my ancestors going back to the 19th century. They were real rascals.”

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As he arrived at his own story and that of his sister, however, he understood what was coming.

“I went, ’Oh my God, I know where I’m headed here.’

That didn’t stop him. “I realised those life-changing events in our family were the pulse of the book. I just felt compelled to do it. 

“The irony is I’m from a family of writers. My father, my aunt and uncle were very successful writers and they wrote very candidly about themselves. They were very honest in their essays about anger or struggles with alcohol. Joan would write about getting a divorce from her husband and publish it in a monthly column and John, her husband, would edit it.

“I wanted to bring that kind of candour and frankness and honesty about myself that they did in their work. But I couldn’t have written it whilst they were alive. Because there’s a lot of loss in this book. I don’t think I would have had the perspective if they had not passed on so long ago.”

As a result, this is a book of long-gone yesterdays. In the 1960s Dunne’s father, Dominick, worked in television in Los Angeles and there was a constant stream of familiar faces coming in and out of the family home. The early part of the book is full of delicious cameos: Truman Capote dancing in the family’s backyard. Directors John Huston and William Wellman having a fist fight on their front lawn. Sean Connery even turns up to save the author, then aged eight, from drowning in the family pool.

When did Dunne realise this wasn’t a normal childhood?

Griffin's mother Lenny Dunne and DominiqueGriffin's mother Lenny Dunne and Dominique (Image: unknown)

“When you’re a kid every adult looks about the same. They all look the same general age, which is just ‘old’. My parents were very social. They gave parties in our house that went on quite late and people got really drunk and they were really loud. But they were really having a lot of fun. 

“These people would dress up, put on black tie cocktail dresses and have a little orchestra playing in the corner of the dining room and get completely bombed and then get up and be at the studio gate at 9.30 the next morning making movies.

“Everybody lived on cigarettes and about four hours of sleep.”

As he grew older Dunne began to move in his own starry circles. As soon as he met Debbie Reynolds' daughter, Carrie Fisher, when he was 16 and she was 15, he realised they would be friends forever. 

“The funniest, quickest-witted, generous person I would ever know,” he says when her name comes up. “I had a feeling I rarely have when I meet someone where I know very quickly, ‘Oh my God, this person is going to be in my life.’ 

“We based our friendship on young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. We just thought those two were us.”

He talks about Fisher, who died in 2016, with warmth and candour. “She was so precocious, so sophisticated and also so incredibly innocent. She was incredibly curious about sex. She’d never had sex, but she could talk about it and give advice to other people who were having sex about having sex.”

In the end she first had sex with him.

Debbie Reynolds with her daughter Carrie FisherDebbie Reynolds with her daughter Carrie Fisher 

“She always made a joke that she needed somebody to break her hymen before somebody else got there. I pitched in.”

Thanks to Star Wars, Fisher was soon primed for stardom, and for a while Dunne seemed to be following a similar trajectory. He made a big impact with American Werewolf in 1981 and After Hours saw him take a lead role a few years later.

But he also turned down both David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Sex, Lies and Videotape and said yes to films that no one wanted to see, including opposite Madonna in the comedy Who’s That Girl? 

Was there an element of self-sabotage about his choices?

“Well, I used to look back on it with a certain kind of regret. ‘What stupid choices I made.’ Changing agents when I was kind of hot, or taking a really bad movie, or deciding not to be in front of the camera but behind the camera as a producer and watch other actors in a movie I didn’t even cast myself in.

“I think I had conflicting feelings about fame and celebrity. When I was a kid growing up in the sixties my father placed a great deal of importance on fame. He loved famous people. He wanted to be friends with famous people. From a very young age that always made me a little uncomfortable. He had some real growing to do before he lost that superficial side of himself.”

And maybe Dunne didn’t trust how easily success seemed to come. “I didn’t even have to read for American Werewolf. I’d never even done a movie and Landis just gave it to me. He saw something in the way I spoke and then it led very quickly to After Hours.  So I guess I had that blind arrogance that a lot of young people have who attain success at a young age. You just sort of assume it’s going to keep happening.

“And I was both reluctant about getting all that attention because with all that attention comes criticism. 

“I felt too young for that. And I was so unformed I probably would have been the kind of person who attained success and then burns out on booze. One of those stereotypes - a young, has-been actor.

“So, producing movies kept me grounded in reality. And I also learned a great deal. I worked with great directors  - Sidney Lumet, Lasse Hallstrom, John Sayles and later Marty.

“It wasn’t until I wrote this book that I really understood all the conflicting feelings I had and kind of forgave myself.”

Anyway, he says, he saw what fame could be like when he worked with Madonna right at the peak of her 1980s fame.

“She was amazing. She was hilarious. We had a lot of laughs. But, boy, did that not look like fun … To be famous like that. These crazy, pinwheel-eyed people coming after you and wanting to grab you. And the lenses. I would hallucinate these 4ft-long camera lenses out of the corner of my eye for a year after I finished the movie. And helicopters hovering over our heads. We had to redo the sound for every outdoor shot because of the helicopters."

Instead, Dunne became a character actor and a very good one. You can catch him in the recent US political TV drama The Girls on the Bus.

Still, one wonders what might have happened if he hadn’t got the phone call to say that his sister had been attacked. Does he think his life would have been very different?

“Yeah, I do. If I had someone like that as a counterbalance who I trusted and loved …  I think we would have looked after each other and I think we would have become very successful as a brother-sister acting team. I have no doubt about that.”

I guess we can’t avoid the horror any longer. Dominique’s death invariably casts a huge shadow over the book and in Dunne’s life. That tragedy was then compounded by the subsequent trial. 

“None of us had been in a courtroom. It was very daunting. We were particularly worried about how the trial would affect my mother’s health. She had MS.” 

Dunne argues in the book that the trial judge blocked crucial evidence, while the defence lawyer misrepresented his sister’s relationship with her killer. 

The jury’s decision was a hammer blow. And yet from this distance Dunne pulls out some positives. “This thing changed our lives in … Oh God, so many countless ways. My mother became a victims’ rights advocate, a very powerful one. It didn’t deplete her health - the trial or the horrific verdict.

“She would wheel onto talk shows, this incredibly shy woman, and talk about what happened and she introduced laws that changed penal code in California and then went onto other states as well.”

His father, meanwhile, kept a diary of the trial that was later published in Vanity Fair. He would go on to report on the OJ Simpson case and Phil Spector’s trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson.

“I think part of his success was that he brought himself to these trials emotionally. He didn’t write about the fascination of OJ and his knife. It was with tremendous consideration of Nicole (Simpson's ex-wife) and her family. And with Lana Clarkson, he wanted to defend her honour and reputation. And I think that was what made him a great reporter. 

Griffin Dunne, far right, in The French DispatchGriffin Dunne, far right, in The French Dispatch (Image: free)

“And that was one of the other things that propelled me to write the book was I knew that all the people were all different. All of us had our flaws, our struggles. But I also knew how they were going to come out after this trial. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

As for Dunne himself he writes of eventually giving up on his hatred of Sweeney. How easy was that, you have to wonder?

“What I had to give up was the obsessive keeping track of the person. Of the obsessive finding out if he had a girlfriend, finding the girlfriend and contacting the girlfriend. If he had a job, contacting the employer. It became a job in itself. It always took something out of me.

“The vengeance of it sort of felt good at the beginning, but I came to see it required a lot of negative energy and it was all going towards this person. It was getting in the way of the good stuff - of thinking about my sister.

“And then over time I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to give this piece of shit any more of my thought. Organically it just shifted back to my memories of my sister when she was alive, not as a person who was murdered or on life support of any of that."

And so The Friday Afternoon Club is ultimately a celebration rather than a commemoration.

“The last effort I will give about this guy is writing this book. I didn’t write the book to get payback on him but he is part of the story, he’s part of our life and he changed our life forever, so he gets his small part. But that’s the beginning and end of it.”

The Friday Afternoon Club, Griffin Dunne, Grove Press, £20