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From covered wagons to Reagan sighting a UFO, the history of the Sepulveda Pass

The latest estimate is that a 10-mile additional HOV-lane on the San Diego Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass will be complete in mid-2014.

Photos from movies, history and recent construction.
Photos from movies, history and recent construction.
Los Angeles County Archives, Hollywood Escapes, CalTrans, Getty Images, Mike Szymanski
The freeway expansion is almost completed
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

That will include the completion of three bridges, 27 off-ramps, 18 miles of retaining and sound walls and more. It caused the “Carmageddon” fears that were unwarranted in the summer of 2011, and it drew attention to the history of the Sepulveda Pass, known for its own fascinating history.

It's about a year late, has cost about $1.1 billion, but after four years of construction, it should help commuters, cause less pollution and shorten driving time. Since the Sepulveda Pass was revamped in July 2011, less than a week of filming was permitted in the area, according to Philip Sokoloski, of FilmLA that issues permits for the area.

The combined six days of shooting were for five different productions: an independent romantic comedy called Save the Date which has still not set a date for release; two TV commercials, a TV reality show Cool Deal and a promotional spot for NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

From an action scene with Rae Dawn Chong and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, to the closing credits of Valley Girl–from Natalie Wood driving it in Sex and the Single Girl to Steve McQueen driving it in Bullit, the pass has been known to represent the gateway to Los Angeles, or a transition to an Everyman’s suburbia.

In fact, when Steven Spielberg planned the shot at the opening of E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial—as an alien ship hovers over suburbia—he wanted it to look like the breathtaking expanse of San Fernando Valley lights that motorists see when they're coming over the Sepulveda Pass.

Ultimately, a matte painting was used for the shot, but it’s clearly reminiscent of the view from the Mulholland Bridge, part of which is now replaced. The Sepulveda Pass is not only a crucial corridor for the link between the Valley and the Westside, it's also a storied cultural icon in Los Angeles history.

The Mulholland Drive bridge is near the homes of Jack Nicholson, Pamela Anderson and Charlie Sheen.

It's the road Marlon Brando took to drive home, and part of the route James Dean drove on his final ride to the desert. It’s where Michael Knight took his first ride with the talking Knight 2000 in the pilot episode of Knight Rider in 1982, and at the Sunset Boulevard exit is where O.J. Simpson ended his slow police chase in his Ford Bronco in 1994.

The 10-mile stretch between the Valley and the Westside that is being shut down is an unusually undeveloped area, interrupted only by a few private schools, religious institutions, and the Getty Museum and Skirball Cultural Center.

Between 1956 and 1968 the U.S. Army called the area LA-96C, where they watched for Soviet nuclear submarines and were ready to strike with Nike missiles.

It's also an area noted for UFO sightings and mysterious helicopters. Actress Shirley MacLaine tells a story that she heard from comedian Lucille Ball about Ronald and Nancy Reagan arriving several hours late to a party and explaining they had an encounter with aliens along the Sepulveda Pass.

The story goes:

Ronald Reagan told Lucy that he and Nancy were driving on Mulholland Drive when a UFO landed near their vehicle. Although this story has been told before, a number of new details were added. For example, Shirley MacLaine says Lucille Ball told her that Reagan claimed a ladder appeared and an alien climbed out of the craft. The alien told him to quit his acting work and go into politics.”

One of the earliest descriptions of the passage—when it was a dirt path used by covered wagons—was recorded on Aug. 5, 1769 by Father Juan Crespi, who stood at the precipice where the bridge now stands:

“We saw a very pleasant and spacious valley. We descended to it and stopped close to the watering place, which is a very large pool. Near it we found a large village of heathen, very friendly and docile; they offered us their seeds in baskets and other things made of rushes.”

The Sepulveda Pass didn’t open as a roadway for motor vehicles until 1935. Not long after that, it became a heavily-traveled link between the Valley and the coast. Soon, it linked what at one point were the two busiest crossroads in the world, the 405-101 (San Diego and Ventura freeways) to the 405-10 (San Diego and Santa Monica freeways).

Because of the busy traffic, not many movies and TV shows are allowed to film on the freeway or bridge, or anywhere near the Sepulveda Pass. Film LA’s Philip Sokoloski said his office doesn't have jurisdiction to issue permits on the freeway, and rarely would it ever allow films to be shot too close to the heavily-trafficked area.

Amy Lemisch, of the California Film Commission, who does have authority to issue permits for the area in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, said, “Most of the time when people need a freeway, they go to a more remote area, not there. It’s just too much of a nightmare all the way around to plan for that.”

A recent permit this past December allowed the Mulholland Bridge and Sepulveda Pass area to be used for the TV show Exit 19, a crime drama for Lifetime television about a mom who is also a homicide detective. Now called The Protector, it is set in New York. according to the latest logline, so it’s unclear how much of the bridge or pass will remain in the show.

In May 2008, a permit was granted for the multi-award-winning indie movie The Things We Carry about two sisters torn apart while caring for the drug-addicted wacky mother. Some scenes are clearly shot along the streets of Studio City, and halfway through the trailer (see the video section), in a Yellow Cab, the scene in the background is the Sepulveda Pass.

Even David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive didn’t get too close to the actual Sepulveda Pass. In fact, only the first scene from Mulholland Drive that shows the Valley side, in the dark, is after the accident and the screenplay reads: "The cars are traveling so fast, that they seem to almost float as they fly with psychotic speed down both lanes of Mulholland Drive." All the rest of the scenes show the Hollywood side of Mulholland Drive.

The true story biopic The Soloist, the TV series NCIS and even the 1960s TV show Adam 12 have filmed in the area, but nothing more than a glimpse of the spectacular view is used.
Harry Medved, author of Hollywood Escapes and a film historian, noted a few of the movies filmed in and around the area including the 1966 film Harper starring Paul Newman which featured close-ups of the old bridge in the opening credits. Also Two-Minute Warning with Charlton Heston and King of the Mountain with Harry Hamlin. He also points out the Stone Canyon reservoir not too far away is in Chinatown and the Bel Air Glen is in the classic two-headed transplant movie, The Thing With Two Heads as well as motorcycle-riding Ann Margret in The Swinger.

David Hockney painted a painting called Mulholland Drive, Tom Petty mentions a “glide down over Mulholland" in his song Free Fallin’ and at Disneyland’s California Adventure, the rollercoaster ride Mulholland Madness was once called Mulholland Highway.

This is also the site of the off-ramp near the Skirball Cultural Center where comedian Bill Cosby's son, Ennis Cosby, was shot and killed in January 1997 after his car got a flat tire. Mikhail Markhasev, a Ukrainian immigrant, was convicted of shooting Cosby in the head and is serving a life sentence.

That freeway exit—and the site that often held flowers in Ennis Cosby's memory—was completely removed with the current construction.

Also with the new construction it will be more difficult to jump off the bridge, which was done by several people over the years. Los Angeles Police doesn’t keep statistics on suicides that take place in any specific area, nor do many suicides get reported in the media unless it’s a major disruption. Remembrances of suicides that occurred off the bridge are anecdotal.

William Campbell wrote about a 56-year-old woman in 1993 who squeezed through the railings of the bridge and jumped to her death (see:

Longtime local resident Sean McCarthy recalled, “In 1964 the mother of a child from my school jumped to her death from the Mulholland Bridge. That is when they placed the rather high safety fence all along its length.”

The new look may be a way of erasing some of the area’s tragic history. Michael Allen Weintraub, the 17-year-old son of former Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Roberta Weintraub, was killed driving through the pass at Mountaingate Drive after hitting a utility pole. That pole is also gone.

(Keep up with the schedule here:

Meanwhile, peruse the photos and video of the pass from the past.

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