Who: L.Q. Jones is a veteran actor and filmmaker who has, by his own estimate, appeared in 114 films and 400-500 TV episodes. Born Justus Ellis McQueen, his big screen career began with the role of Marine “Pvt. L.Q. Jones” in the 1955 World War II drama, Battle Cry. That same year, he earned his first TV Western credit as “Smitty Smith” in an episode of Cheyenne. With the help of mentor Raoul Walsh, Jones scored more TV roles and became a familiar face to Western series viewers over the next several decades. As the 1960′s dawned, Jones became a favored character actor for director Sam Peckinpah, appearing in several of his films — including 1962′s Ride the High Country and 1969′s The Wild Bunch. In 2005, Jones appeared prominently in German filmmaker Mike Siegel’s comprehensive documentary Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah, and recounted his many collaborations and run-ins with the famously-temperamental director. In the mid-’60′s, Jones and actor Alvy Moore co-founded the production company LQ/JAF (standing for L.Q. Jones And Friends), which produced four films, and featured acting turns by Jones and fellow Peckinpah alumni Strother Martin and Jason Robards. The last of the LQ/JAF films was 1975′s A Boy and his Dog, which Jones directed and wrote, after optioning the Harlan Ellison novella upon which it was based. The film was shot at Coyote Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert, and vividly depicts the post-apocalyptic year 2024, wherein 18 year-old Vic (Don Johnson) wanders the American wasteland with his talking dog, named Blood (Tiger the dog). The film would mark Jones’ last film-directing credit, but he continued landing roles as an actor over the next 30 years. On TV, he was a regular on the 1980′s Western soap opera The Yellow Rose. In films, he was cast by Martin Scorsese as Robert De Niro’s cowboy hat-wearing County Commissioner nemesis, Pat Webb in 1995′s Casino. Jones’ last acting credit to date was as country crooner “Chuck Akers” in Robert Altman’s film, A Prairie Home Companion.
How did you come to direct the film version of Harlan Ellison’s short story, A Boy and his Dog?
We were working on another picture that we had made, and my secretary reminded me that my cinematographer John Morrill had dropped off a book. He said to read it. I told him I would, and he was to come by the next day. And I hate to say this, but I hadn’t read it. Anyway, he said I’d better do it. So I finished work at 6 or 7 o’clock, went home and finished up with family and the rest of it, and it was around 1 o’clock in the morning when I started reading it. I said, “What the heck, maybe I can get through this pretty quick.” I got about a third of the way through, and I said, “Gee, this is really a shame.” Because the idea was so good, and Harlan’s work was so good, that you can’t possibly get any better. And I’ve still got two-thirds left. I got through with the second third, and was saying exactly the same thing. I finished up the book, literally I collapsed on the floor in laughter for the ending. I said, “This is ridiculous. It’s perfect. He’s pulled it off, and all I’ve gotta do is get in touch with him, and find a way to buy it.” That’s how we came about it, and we finally managed to scrounge up Harlan.
We made the deal to buy the rights to do it. I was leaving to work as an actor on a picture, and I was gonna be gone three months. I asked Harlan how long it was gonna take, so we’d know what things to start doing. He said, “Well, this is if not my very favorite, certainly the top three of what I’ve done. I’ve done it in my head a dozen times, and so I should be able to whip it out in a couple of weeks.” Well OK, I’ve heard that before, of course. And after two months, I hadn’t received anything. So I called my partner and said, “What the heck is going on?” He said, “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” So he called, and Harlan said, “Oh, I’ve had some of this come up, some of that come up. I’ll dash it right off.” Well, I got back in town after about four months, instead of three, and we had nothing. So I said, “Harlan, we’ve gotta make a move here.” And so he said, “OK, no problem. I’ll get it done.” Well, three weeks later he sent me 14 pages. And I said, “This may come as a shock to you, Harlan. I cannot shoot 14 pages.” He said this, that and the other happened. I said, “Harlan, I have no choice. I’m running out of money here very quickly. I’ll wait another month, and if you don’t have it, the worst thing you can imagine is going to happen.” He said, “What’s that?” And I said, “I’m going to write it, because I have to shoot the darn thing.” Now, you have to go back to ground level zero, and Harlan was never happy with anything that he had written that someone had made into a picture or a television thing. It wasn’t in the contract, but we agreed that nobody could change anything. You had to work out things to make the whole thing go together, but you couldn’t change it. You had to do it exactly the way he wrote it. And so I said, “OK, I’ll agree with that.” So with that in mind, when I told him, I wasn’t even allowed to change a word, a comma for chrissakes. That’s just the way he is. That’s fine, because I’ve been around the business long enough to know no one ever does anything the way you want them to. But you have to understand with Harlan, he wrote a picture — I won’t even name it. It’s probably one of the worst pictures ever made. I know, because I’ve worked in a number of them. But he was just not happy with what they had done with it. And as it turned out, the producer had the temerity to change one of his lines. Now this is a hideous picture, and they’re spending all of this money, but they changed one of his lines. Harlan tried to throw him through the window. Now, it would be bad enough if you were on the first floor. They were on the seventh floor. Didn’t bother Harlan. That’s just the way he felt about his stuff. So, OK, with that in mind, I wait a month. I have nothing more than 14 pages, so I write the script. Now I call him. “Harlan, I finished this script. Let me send it over, and you take a look at it.” [He said,] “I don’t want to read it.” [I said,] “Well, OK, you sure?” [He said,] “Yep.” [I said,] “OK, I’m gonna start shooting as soon as we can put the pieces together.” [He said,] “I don’t care. I don’t want to read it.” So we worked for another nine, ten months getting everything ready, and we started building the area. We were at it, and we’re getting ready to go start shooting, so I called Harlan and said, “Hey listen, why don’t you come by and visit? Maybe you can take a look at it, and see things you want to change.” [He said,] “No.” [I said,] “OK.” And a couple of weeks later I called and said, “Look, you don’t wanna come out and just look?” [He said,] “No.” I said, “How about if I write a part for you?” [He said,] “No, I won’t do it.” [I said,] “OK.” So we’re getting the dailies in, of course, and so I’m looking at them to see what we need to do, and what I need to change. And so I called and said, “Harlan, I’ll set it up for you. You can take a look at it.” [He said,] “No.” [I said,] “OK.” We get through with it. We’re back here, and I’m putting the thing together, and we come up with what we call a join, or an assembly — the first time it’s been together. So I call Harlan and say, “Hey…” [He said,] “I don’t wanna see it.” [I said,] “OK.” So we went and finished the picture, and I’ve already cut the negative, which means that’s it. It doesn’t make any difference. You can make changes, but it screws everything up. I get a call from Harlan. He said, “I want to see the picture.” Well, OK, so I have a secretary set it up, and I tell my partner, “Listen, we’re gonna do this. We’re showing it in technicolor. Invite no one. You stay away. It’ll just be Harlan and me. That way, when the fight breaks out, nobody’s gonna get hurt.” He said, “OK.” So, we set it up. Harlan sat down front. I sat in the back, so I could work the controls. We go to the end crawl credits, and here’s this hulk rushing up the aisle towards me in the back. And I’m getting ready for the fight, and he reaches out and slaps me on the shoulder and says, “Now, that’s the story that I wrote.” Bear in mind that I have changed the beginning, the middle, the end, the characters and how they’re presented. But I was lucky enough that it took me over a year to write it. Maybe a little more than that. Because I was shooting all day, and I had business to do at night, I normally wouldn’t get started until around midnight. Then, if I got very lucky, I’d crank out about eight pages. Next morning, I’d look at them and throw seven of those away. So it takes a little time to get there, and he was rightly protective, but I somehow or another found what he was trying to say. So, it was just lucky.
Every studio in town looked at it. And all except one said, “It is marvelous. It is fantastic. What in the hell are you gonna do with it?” They were convinced you couldn’t sell it. Anyway, one of the major studios was gonna make it. They put a budget together, and they were going to build three city blocks of houses. Now, that’s a huge set. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that big. Anyway, that’s what they were gonna do. Their price for building the sets — and they were really holding the cost down — was $750,000. Hey, that’s a super-good price. I mean, you can fall off a horse and cost more than that. But that’s what they were gonna build it for: 750 for three square blocks. The final sets for A Boy and his Dog covered 4 1/2 square miles. That’s a little bit of difference. We brought in 52 tons of debris to scatter about the sets. It took us a month just to haul that junk in, and then of course we had to haul it back out. And our budget was $450,000. I’ve been called a liar by people who wanted to buy it — who’d studied it trying to figure out how much it cost, so they’d know how much to offer. But things worked out for us. We built the sets. Hell, we built them over six months of construction.
How did you go about choosing the locations and sets for the film?
We had spent so much time and so much money, we had to find what we considered the right place. How many trees did you see in the picture above ground? Zero. How many blades of grass did you see? None. So this is what I wanted, because I sat down and tried to figure out — there’d been a number of pictures made about that subject, and what do you do? On the Beach was a huge one MGM did. I didn’t have their kind of money for goodness sakes, so I sat for quite literally months trying to figure out how do you shoot it. What do you do to make the picture different? And finally, after months — and I would go over that probably 10 times a day, every day trying to figure out what you do — it occurred to me. So to check, I went to UCLA and SC to the scientific department. I said, “If these things happened, if World War III occurs and we trigger hundreds of devices, X number of them are going to go off at exactly the same time, probably. That being the case, what’s gonna happen?” He said, “We don’t know, of course, but the balance of opinion is that there could be a stutter in the movement of the Earth. It might be one-thousandth, one-millionth of a second. But there could be one if it all occurs at the same time.” That being the case, what’s gonna happen? All of the water on the planet starts to move. It’s lost the arrest. Once it starts, it’s going to go inland just as far as it needs to. And when it retreats, what’s gonna be left? A mess and mud — mud being the operating phrase. So if it is now X number of years later, the mud has dried. Therefore, I have desert. So I went to a place where it had at one time been a huge lake, and we used that.
What was the inspiration for the film’s below-ground Topeka, Kansas society?
That was part of Harlan’s theory. We diverged, but he saw that sort of an operation — bucolic, but people who were tired of the world being run the way it was run, and taking it unto themselves. And most of them that had done that were farmers, so he figured they would come up that way. So all I did was show it in the way they talked, and the way you could hear them reason. My robot was like the one in The Day the Earth Stood Still: totally powerful, nothing you can do, unless you find the way to get him of course. Harlan’s was called the “Green Metal Motherfucker.” Mine was called “Michael”, because I didn’t want to come out with the other in a theater. But we’re working from the same theory. When I travel with the picture over, good heavens, hundreds of thousands of miles I guess, I go around to colleges. Because it’s one of the most-shown, most-taught pictures. They invite me, and I go around and talk while I’m out with the picture. So I ask people, “Where would you rather live? Above ground or below ground?” And I know pretty much what you’re like when you tell me what frightens you the most, or what you find the most repulsive. I myself, I’d rather be dead than live down in Topeka. But that’s my division. You may come at it another way. But I know generally what you feel when you tell me where you would prefer to live. You want to be controlled — cared for, of course, but controlled — or do you want to do it yourself? That’s your division. I don’t know whether Harlan intended it that way, but that’s the way I saw it.
By the end of the film, Blood the dog is the most heroic character — but is he your film’s hero?
The hero in this particular case, which we had to be very touchy with — the hero is a dog. And lest anybody make a mistake, that is the way it is. Blood’s our hero. Now, you’re dealing with an animal. Normally you love an animal, which the boy does. But if you can recall the beginning of the picture, you are introduced to a place with no grass, no trees, no nothing, but the mood is rather jocular for a second. And then a voice sounds a warning. Now at the beginning, the voice is warm, fuzzy — could be your father, could be your teacher, could your brother — and then it shifts, and it becomes a military voice. Not only in what it says, but in the way it’s barked out. Here’s a voice that’s used to being listened to. And not only that, but we proved to you that he is worth listening to, because that which he has laid out as a danger is now in front of you. So you’re seeing that this guy knows what he’s talking about, and knows how to handle it. Incidentally, he’s a dog. Now, that may not sound like much. But if I start off telling you that it’s a dog, you’re gonna say, “Aw, cut the crap. What is this?” But it’s so built that you accept him not only that he’s warm and fuzzy, but that he’s intelligent, he knows what he’s doing, he cares about Vic — and he’s also a dog. So I’ve already put you in my pocket, before you realize that I’m talking about a dog. And if you don’t do it that way, the picture will not work.
The end is as delicate and as structured as the beginning, if not more so. Because if you watch it, you can see that when he escapes from down below, he comes up above, and they find Blood dying. And she is saying, “Don’t worry about it. We can go on. If you love me, you’ll leave him.” Well, Don does it gorgeously. You can see running through his mind, “What happens if I go with what she wants to go with?” And in the very end, I expect you to put it together. He is figuring, “OK, she and I try to make it. We can’t make it. We’re just not gonna make it. Blood is the brains of the outfit. She and Blood can go and live, but both detest the other. Therefore, that’s not gonna work. I have only one option.” And the option is to do what he did. It’s not accidental. That’s the way the ending is reinforcing what we started out to prove: who’s an animal, and who takes care of whom? It’s not a message. It’s just there. If you see it, great. If you don’t see it… I’ve seen the picture 500 times. And I have been in audiences as little as one person. I have been in audiences as big as 7,000 people who are watching the picture at the same time. About 25% of the audience catches what is going to happen when we switch from his first coming up, and we hear fire crackling, and fat is dripping into the fire. But that’s so subliminal, probably 75% of people never hear it. But we have already told you what’s happened right there. About 25% of the people will get it when the boy looks at the girl. You know what’s going to happen. About 25% of the people get it when the dog at the end says, “Well, at least she had good taste.” About 25% of the people never understand what took place. And that’s what I wanted. Harlan wanted to beat them over the head with it. There was only two times in the whole picture that we disagreed. That was the second one. I said, “Harlan, unfortunately for you, I’m the one that put up the money and wrote the script. When you do that, you can change it the way you want it. But now, guess who gets to make that choice?” So that’s it, and for me it worked.
The first change was in the “putz scene” — the scene where the dog is lecturing him, trying to figure out what they’re gonna do. And Blood makes a comment about a cow and the girl. Harlan’s thought was, “One animal would not put down another animal.” It was the wrong thing to say, and he was right. I said I agreed. We would take it out, but I’m out of money. So we showed the picture to the group that gets together once a year. And when they were there, I think I was here working on another picture, so Harlan and my partner Alvy went. And they sold at the showing, which started I think at 8 o’clock at night, and ended up at around four in the morning, because the machine kept breaking down. We were in separate sound and picture, and they weren’t fixed to handle it, so it kept breaking down. But they sold enough, which I think was about $2,000 they raised selling the picture in color clips. And we went and shot the thing that he wanted changed, which was about the cow. We took it out and did another line. The other disagreement was my last line. Harlan’s last is, “A boy loves his dog.” My last line wasn’t. I told him, “Harlan, yeah I understand what you’re saying. I’m pushing the same thing visually. But yours will not work, because in your short story he repeats that phrase several times — ‘A boy loves his dog’ is the reason for the ending.” But I said, “That won’t work for the picture.” And it took me over six months to write the new line. It’s a matter of choice. And it works. But a lot of times when I go out with the picture, I go down the street to get a drink, pick up a cup of coffee or something — I can be two or three blocks away, and I know when the picture ends, because the reaction is such that I know what it is. I mean, I’ve seen people who’ve fainted. People have gotten mad and torn up furniture. It just doesn’t leave you much. You realize you’ve been hung out to dry, because you don’t expect it. Who would expect that ending? So it works, and the whole thing works. My line works. If you go back and then redo it, Harlan’s line would work. And those are the two that we just could not agree on. And I still think I’m right. He’s right for his. I’m right for mine.
How did casting Tiger the dog as Blood affect Don Johnson’s performance?
Don did a marvelous job. I mean, folks, don’t work against kids, don’t work against animals, and sure as hell don’t work against a talking dog. But that’s what he did, and he did a marvelous job. But Don was full of Don. That’s fine. We got along fine the first couple of days. And then we were working at the boiler room, and Don decided that he was going to direct the scene. And I said, “Hey, that’s fine. And we’re really gonna miss ya, Don. Because I’m gonna put your ass on the bus, and I’ll finish the picture.” He knew I meant exactly what I said. And after that, he made a bunch of suggestions, which you want people to do. But whatever I said, went. I tell this, and nobody believes it, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. We’re doing the scene where the dog is chasing the boy across the desert. The boy is going down under, and the dog is chasing after him, and he’s limping. Well, limping is no trick. All you do is put a little blood on his foot, and put a rubber band on it. And every time he steps down, the band pinches, so he limps. You don’t have to teach him anything. We did the scene the first time, and I said, “Cut,” and I went over and I said, “Listen, this is just not right. Let’s do it again. Don, pick it up a little bit. A little bit. Don’t give me the actor’s revenge and run in, but pick it up a little bit. Tiger, God damn it, you’re on the wrong side of the boy.” I’m not talking to the dog. The trainer is seated over 50 feet away reading a magazine. My crew is not laughing. This is like the second week. They’re used to this. I’m saying, “Get over on this side. That way, I can see you. Now, let’s try it again.” Watch the picture. He is on the camera side of Don when he is chasing him. When he finally gets the kid to stop, his nose is even with Don’s leg. They stop. I started to stop the camera, but the dog moved ahead towards the drop shaft. He didn’t know where the drop shaft was, but he limped forward about six feet, turned around, sat down, faced the boy, did his dialogue, looked over his correct right shoulder at where he was going, moved back to the boy, and finally at the end put his head in the boy’s lap. Now, that is about seven sequential tricks. You cannot teach an animal to do sequential tricks. Maybe you can teach him two. Seven or eight? Well, as a matter of fact, Jason Robards did his stuff, and asked me what I thought. I said, “Jason, if you can just hit your marks and say your lines like Tiger, I’ll make a star out of you.” He understood exactly what I meant. The dog was brilliant. Joe Hornok was the man who trained him, and I suggested to him that he was reading the script to him at night and telling him what to do. The dog was marvelous. For instance, if you watch him, he doesn’t wag his tail. He does for balance. They have to. But the first day, we had a device, and we didn’t want him wagging his tail. Makes you think of him as a dog, so we put this device on him. The second day, we forgot it, and we didn’t have it. We had to shoot, and we realized he didn’t wag his tail. He realized that’s what we wanted. That’s what he did. The scene at the drop shaft, the damn dog sat there and cried. I mean, you could see tears coming out of his eyes. I can blow stuff in his eyes and make him cry, but we didn’t do it. The dog truly was brilliant. He was so good, that here in town there was a movement afoot to nominate him for an Oscar. Not the Patsy, which he won, but an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a motion picture. The dog was brilliant. I think he was on The Brady Bunch before he did A Boy and his Dog. I tried to buy him when the thing was over. They wouldn’t sell him. And I said, “He won’t be competition. I’ll just use him if I’m gonna make another Boy. Other than that, he’s retired.” They wouldn’t sell him to me. People didn’t realize he’d had distemper, which will 99% of the time kill a dog or kill a horse. It’s a form of pneumonia I believe, and they very seldom get over it. They’d found him. He was in a dog pound. Nursed him back to health, and off he went. So he was not healthy, but he was as healthy as he ever was before he got sick. But he was marvelous. When you work with an animal like a dog that you can train, the dog is always looking for the trainer. It looks like he’s looking at the person who’s talking, but if you’ll notice, he’s looking slightly to one side or the other. He’s looking at his trainer, because his trainer’s giving him hand signals.
[For a fight with another dog,] we waited until the very last day, because I was petrified that something was gonna happen to him. Both of them had muzzles on, and they were good friends. So I’m asking Joe, “What do we do?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Just get ready.” And I said, “I don’t want him hurt.” He said, “No way he’s gonna get hurt. If he gets hurt, you can hurt me. But he’s not gonna get hurt. But be ready.” All he did was take one plate, put food on it, put it in front of Tiger. He starts to eat it, and Joe took it away, and put it in front of the other dog — and the shit hit the fan. They were really out to kill each other, and they were friends. But nothing phony about the fight. I was afraid something was gonna happen. We had trimmed their nails. They couldn’t open their mouth to bite, but you don’t see it. We’ve got it well-hidden. Both of them did a marvelous job, but I thought we were gonna have two dead dogs. So, hell, they did it better than humans do it.
What sort of complaints did feminist groups have about the film?
Well, they just thought it was misogynist. Hell, if you look at just the bare bones, yes it is. And by the same token, no it isn’t, because it’s a story. And I actually got tired of trying to explain it to them. Like at Boston University, it was a big to-do there. And so I said, “Hey, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we all get together, and we can talk? Maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying.” So, I was there for three or four days. And along somewhere, we got together and we must have had, hell, 50 or 60 ladies in the audience and just myself. So I said, “Tell me what is bothering you about it.” And they explained it, and I said, “OK.” You gotta remember now, I’m talking 30-some odd years ago, so it gets out of memory a little bit. But roughly what I’m saying is, “That’s the story that I bought.” Now, I can understand that you would react to what happens to Quilla June. You also could react to the fact that it happened to any female all the way through the piece. All of the stuff that we’re seeing down below, yeah, I could understand why you would pay special attention to it. But that was the story I bought. So I said, “Let me ask you a question. Let me change everything 180 degrees. When the picture is over, Vic is gone. We don’t know where he is. Well, we do know if you think about it. But off into the sunset go Quilla June and Blood. How about that?” They said, “Oh, that’s OK.” Well, I said, “Stick it in your ear. Because this is the story that I bought, and it was the story I was telling.” Now somewhere along the line, and I probably still will do it, I’m going to go in and do it from the female point of view. But you can’t do both points of view in the same story, the way it’s set up. Actually, Harlan and I talked about it, and we came up with a character named “Spike,” who is a female. And the picture, if you’ll recall, ends with the kid walking into the distance, and we freeze. So he’s standing there, and the dog’s by his side. I’m gonna start the next one with the boy still standing there, and we turn the action on, and it starts to move. There’s the crack of a rifle, and Vic is laid out on the tundra, and up comes Spike. She has followed him for months, because she wants Blood. So the only way she knows to get him, is to kill Vic and take Blood. And that’s what she does. She goes sailing off into the sunset, and I stay with her and see how she reacts to everything — how she runs Blood, how he helps her. Aha, we now have the female side of the story. But I can’t go back and change A Boy and his Dog. I will change it when I put the other picture out. Well, that seemed to placate them a little bit. Not much, because they wanted to be professional howlers. That’s OK. Everybody’s entitled to their own point of view. But I finally got across to them that what I was doing was making this picture. Now, I also made it work. And we didn’t release the picture like they do now. I wasn’t bright enough for that. We did it where we’d go to Oklahoma City. We’d go to Kansas City. We went to New York. We went to all the keys, and a lot of the smaller ones. And of course, we went to Canada. And as normally happens when I go out with the picture, I do it because I get a chance to A) see the audience and talk with them, and B) I get to go to colleges and explain A Boy and his Dog. So I get a chance to say, “What questions do you have? What do you see, or don’t see? How can I help you in any way?” That’s what I’m doing. But I’ll also do, as I was doing it in Canada, three or four newspapers, five or six magazines, five or six radio stations, and a couple of TV programs. And I had lunch with the PR man who was working with me for months all around the country, and he was acting kind of strange. I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was, so I asked him. He said, “Oh, nothing.” And I said, “Should we put this [program] off?” He said, “Oh no, you’ve gotta do it, because it’s one of the biggest [TV] shows in town.” I think it was Toronto, and with a lady host. I said, “OK.” And we went up, and she and I sat and talked for 10 or 15 minutes, and then we flipped the cameras on. And the instant they flipped the cameras on, I realized why he didn’t say anything. She lit into me. She was practically screaming after about five minutes, “This is the filthiest show I’ve ever seen! It’s pornographic, misogynist…” And she’d slow down, and I’d ask a question or make a comment, and she’d sail off again. I kept prodding her, and we went through the whole 30 minutes. I was the only person on. We went through the whole 30 minutes, and she’s still screaming at the end of it. When it wrapped up, I said, “Thank you very much. You just made me a fortune.” And she said, “There’s no need to be cute.” And I said, “Honey, I’m not being cute. If you had just said, ‘I don’t agree with this picture. I find it crude, unattractive, and I’m not gonna go, and I recommend nobody else go,’ I would’ve had a tough time. But now, I’m gonna be flooded with customers who want to see the dirtiest picture ever made.” And it’s right. We set records for two or three weeks, because she went off on it. But like I said, if she had put one nail in it and shut up, she would have been fine. I don’t agree with 75% of what takes place. If I were Vic, I’d work another way. But I didn’t buy the story of me. I bought the story of Vic. And he is in a spot, because look at what you’re dealing with. And a couple of reviewers were quick enough to pick something up, which I’m very proud of. It’s probably the only picture you’ll ever see in your life where, when it’s over, the animal turns into the only “human” you’ve got in the whole damn piece, and people turn into animals. Everybody, right in front of your eyes. Not with makeup. Just what they’re doing. So, the picture in that particular vein is brilliant. It truly is. I wish I had nothing to do with making the picture, then I could say something and people wouldn’t say, “Well, you’re trying to make money.”
We opened in LA in 26 theaters, but it was nine months or a year after we first opened the picture. And I would find out what time Boy lets out over in Beverly Hills and Westwood. And then I’d wait fifteen minutes, and I’d go to Westwood and park the car, and I’d drift from a bar to a hamburger stand to buying clothes. I just wandered through. And it was amazing, as I’m going along I’d hear, “I’m telling you, that dog is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.” Go a little bit further and, “Did you notice what was happening with the makeup?” Go to another store, “Why was ‘down under’ this way?” Well, if you’ve not been in the business, it doesn’t mean much to you. But 99% of the shows you see, and I’ve done a few of them, you’ve forgotten what the story is by the time you’ve hit the popcorn machine on your way out. I mean, they’ve done their job. They’ve entertained you. They’ve taken care of you for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, and got your mind on something else. But then that’s the end of it, and you go back to your normal problems. But with A Boy and his Dog, it was marvelous, they were talking about what the picture showed them. So, it was handy that I could do it. I also did it in other cities, but here it was easier.
Given his animal nature, do you think Vic care more about sex than he does food?
Good heavens, yes. I mean, no doubt about it. He’s always eating, or else getting enough food, because he’s there and he’s alive. Well, it’s because of Blood that he’s finding the food. But female companionship, which to him doesn’t exist — he uses a female strictly for sex. I mean, what we have to understand about Vic, he’s not very smart. You listen to Blood talk with him, and you realize Blood is trying to teach him to grow up a little bit. Now, he’s not having too much success, but that’s what he’s doing. As a matter of fact, a couple of times through the picture, the boy is saying in effect, “Leave me alone, for chrissakes! I can read ‘beets’ on the can.” He couldn’t, but neither could the guy he gave it to. Vic is an animal. Let’s put it down where it really belongs. He is an animal. The only intelligent being in the whole picture that he’s in contact with is Blood. Blood teaches him to think, teaches him to talk, teaches him history, teaches him to spell. The whole thing. Blood’s trying to bring him around. He’s dealing with, in effect, a not-very-intelligent high school student. Why would he be anything else? He knows nothing else. So misogyny to you or me, doesn’t mean a damn thing to him. He wants to get laid. The dog says, “I’m hungry.” So there’s the trade-off. “Find me a broad, and I’ll get some food.” Everybody gets what they want. And again, we’re nearly down to that anyway now. I’m trying to get people to understand a little bit that, “Folks, if you don’t get your head out of your ass, this is exactly what’s going to be happening.” And that’s a fact of life. If all of us continue to be uneducated and greedy, that’s where we’re gonna end up. And you’re not gonna have a Blood, probably, to make things any easier or funnier, surely. So the picture is full of that message. Again, I found a long time ago that you can’t get an audience’s attention by talking to them. You have to first entertain them. And then, if you can slip it by them, you’re OK. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.
I took a chance, and I almost went too far, but I don’t explain anything. A lot of people say, “I have trouble understanding it.” Of course you do. Because I’m giving you something in a context you have never seen before. There’s no sheriff. There are no patrol cars. There are no grocery stores. You can’t pick up a telephone. So everything you see is, in effect, brand new. George Miller was the guy who directed Mad Max. I didn’t like it that much, but I liked the next one better, The Road Warrior. But they asked him, “How did you come up with the idea for The Road Warrior?” And he said, “It’s very simple. I just picked up A Boy and his Dog, and went commercial.” I mean, he didn’t hesitate a second. I haven’t gotten the chance to talk with him, but I will one of these days. But he was right and I’m wrong. That’s what he did. Now, consider this. Can you think of a story that’s better fitted for sex and violence than A Boy and his Dog? The original that Harlan did, that’s all it is: sex and violence. But I said, “I want to go at it another way.” And I figured the best way to get there is humor, so that’s the way I went. Well, Miller didn’t have this constraint with The Road Warrior. I probably cost myself 20 or 30 million dollars by going the way that I went. But I said, “I don’t care. This is what I’m spending five years doing. I’m gonna do it the way I want it.”
Why did you and Alvy Moore decide to form the LQ/JAF production company?
I got tired of doing the crap that we did. No, that’s not true. I enjoyed doing it, but if you want to be creative, you have to do it yourself. And so Alvy Moore and I, we’d been friends for a hundred years it seemed like, so we formed our own company. And whenever things got bad and hideous from doing all those crappy lines you had to do, we’d go out and write some crappy lines of our own and make a picture. So we ended up doing four pictures totally on our own, and that’s why I got very lucky. Because you can work your fanny off, do a marvelous job, and on a scale of 1 to 100 you’ve accomplished about a minus three. Because you have to turn it over to the distributing arm, and it’s completely out of your hands from that point on. But I said, “To hell with that.” And when I was first making my pictures, I started going with them. I was one of the few people in our business that not only made pictures, but sold them. Even people like William Wyler didn’t do that. He made them for someone else. Of course, he had talent and a lot of money. But we’d make ours and then take them out. And we made four pictures, and it’s hard to say this — all four of them ended up on ’10 best films of the year’ lists. It’s amazing. One was The Witchmaker. One was The Devil’s Bedroom, which they booked it into houses where everybody wore raincoats. They thought it was gonna be a sexy to-do. But that was the name of a cave, and the story was about a man who loved the outdoors. And his brother didn’t care for him that much. The father had found oil on his property, and made some money. And when he died, he left it to the two sons. The one that John Lupton played just enjoyed hunting and the land for the land’s sake, and took care of it that way. His brother, played by Dick Jones, wanted the money. And so he and his wife connived and put John in the insane asylum, so that they could control the estate. And John escaped, and the brother and his wife are both killed under suspicious circumstances. John is blamed for it, hunted down and killed, burned alive in the cave. And then they found out a year or so later that he hadn’t killed them at all. He was just loose, and something happened to them. And The Devil’s Bedroom was what they had called the cave for years. It’s a true story. In Texas, there was that very funny thing of the law where if two people in a family swear up a deposition, you can be arrested for insanity. And I think it’s still on the books. They did it to protect something. I forgot what it was. Well, it backfired. And that’s what happened here. Dick Jones has John Lupton committed for lunacy, so he can sell and develop the oil on the land. The place nearby there was “The Devil’s Bedroom,” and that’s where he ends up being killed. And it’s one of the worst pictures God ever made, but I found out people liked it because they thought it was real. Their theory was, “No one can make this bad a picture that wasn’t real.” I mean, there had to be somebody who just went out with a camera and shot it. And so, they thought somebody was making real life. That is pure crap. But it was on a bunch of 10-bests of the year, and it was hideous. And then we made The Witchmaker, Come In, Children, and A Boy and his Dog.
LQ/JAF stands for “L.Q. Jones And Friends.” And we did it a lot to have fun. We just got lucky and things made money. And then it got to where, after doing A Boy and his Dog, I had a whole bunch of offers to direct, and more money than it cost to make the picture for chrissakes. But I couldn’t see working all that time and all that effort to make that. So I just kept saying, “No,” and I finally just said, “To hell with it,” and just stopped and went on with the acting. Because by then, I could pretty well pick and choose what I wanted to do. So, it was fun. It’s always been fun. But it was really fun for me, and the [company] was getting in the way. Although, we’re still distributing A Boy and his Dog 30 some-odd years after the fact. It played in a lot of places a long time. We played in one theater in Seattle for a year, which I thought was pretty good. But we really played in Paris, France in one theater for eight years. So, it’s a fun picture. It’s not made for everybody. I tell people, “I hope you like it when you see it. Because if you don’t, you’re gonna be hag-ridden. Because you can’t forget it. Every time you see a dog, it’ll kind of bring it up.” And so I said, “I really hope that you enjoy it when you see it. Otherwise, you’re gonna hate me.”
How did you acquire the various skills required for getting regular work in Westerns?
I had ridden a lot when I was growing up. I had a horse, “Smoky” by name. So I rode, and that was no problem. The other stuff just kind of comes. Either you can do it, or you don’t. I mean, look at Ben Johnson. Ben’s the best rider the business has ever had. One thing is because Ben worked for his father, who owned a ranch til he was like 17, 18. He was being paid 19 dollars a month, but he was a hell of a horseman. Slim Pickens, we almost got crosswise the first time I worked with him. Thank god we didn’t. He’d have killed me. But Slim was a rodeo clown. As a matter of fact, Slim, he caped Brahma bulls. Well, there are only about, I think, six or seven people that ever tried that. Four of them are dead. You can cape a brave bull, because that’s the way he’s raised. Because wherever you take the cape is where his head’s going, where his eyes go. A Brahma will take that once or twice, then he says, “Wait a fucking minute. This ain’t working.” So you pull the flag left, and he hooks right, and that’s the end of that. But Slim did that. Tough mud. But anyway, you learn. And of course, I learned and got a lot from my stunt people showing me. I didn’t start off in westerns. I started off doing military pictures. First one was Battle Cry with the Marines. Anyway, since I rode, I just constantly was in their ear. “What does this? Why do you want this done? How come we’re doing it this way, instead of that?” Until finally they said, “Go over and sit down, and quit pestering me for chrissakes.” But I got to find out, and I got lucky, and I learned it so quickly that I was one of the few actors that were allowed to actually do my own stunts. Some of the dangerous ones — falling off three story buildings, through machinery, the fights, the drags — all this stuff. My people, whoever doubled me, when we got ready to do the scenes, we would sit down and determine what had to be done and exactly how to do it. And then they would say, “Yeah, you can do this one, you can do this one, you can do this one. No, don’t do this.” And I was working with the other stuntmen, and my stuntman’s sitting over reading a newspaper, getting paid a fortune while I’m out doing the stunts. But that’s where the fun was, so you learn that way. The stuntmen we had are different than they are today. Because most of them today are done on a drawing board, and they’re done mechanically. But to me, a lot of them are antiseptic. The people I was working with normally came from rodeos. There’s no training school and college to do stunts, or to ride, or be a cowboy. But that’s what they did. And if you stuck around, and kept your mouth shut long enough, you’d learn how Ross was able to ride a bull, even when his ankle and leg were broken. You find out what to do, how they do it, and all you’re doing is copying their work. But they saved me, good God, thousands of times. And that’s the way I picked the stuff up.
When I got started, the business was the toughest it ever was. They were firing everybody. And I started with Raoul Walsh, and Raoul was gonna put me under personal contract. The only other one he’d done was Rock Hudson. But I already had an agent, and I said, “I’ll get rid of him.” And [Walsh] said, “Naw kid, we’ll work together. Don’t worry about it.” And for the next couple of shows, he would say, “Hey listen kid, they’re doing this,” and I’d go over and find out that he’d talked with the director or the producer, and so I got the part. And then after about, I don’t know, six months or a year, then I was lucky. Because they started calling for me and I didn’t have to go read. I went around to talk with them, but I didn’t necessarily have to read, which everybody has to do. Gosh, after about maybe five years, I didn’t read. They’d just call up and say, “Come by and let’s talk about it.” And, I don’t know, one producer talks to another director. And normally in the business during that time, if you could work three or four shows a year, you might be very lucky — very lucky. I was doing three or four movies a year, not television shows. Then I swung over the other way, and I very seldom went for more than three days without working. And then, a lot of times I did two shows simultaneously. A few times, I did three shows simultaneously. And one time, I was doing four shows at the same time. So, you just learn to hustle. Well, they have to be nearby when you’re doing the shows together. Because no matter how clever and quick you are, if you’re doing four shows, it ain’t gonna work. So an agent would call and explain, “We’re doing this, this and this.” And they would say, “Aha, OK we can move this shot from here to here.” And I could go and do maybe all four in the same day. You shoot it out. And I made friends as we went along, and God gave me a modicum of talent, and things just worked. They were shot to formula, and I can’t guess the reasons they dropped Westerns, because they were so inexpensive to begin with. I don’t understand it. But if you look at the stuff that Universal did, it was the same thing Warners did. And both of those were the same thing as MGM. And then Columbia got into the act. And so you end up with, whether you mean to or not, you end up with the same look. Because the people who are working at one studio are working at the other also. And so they call for these sorts of things. And I work cheap I guess, because I worked pretty much all the time. You end up kind of doing the same thing. But one of things that was tough for me when you’re doing, well I was, roughly fifty television shows a year — the trick is how do you do the part, and not do it the same that you’ve done ten times before you got there? And it’s tough to find that, but that’s what you have to do. Find a way to make whatever you’re doing unique enough, so that you’re the only one they want to do it. Because we had people out the kazoo that would be tickled to death without pay to do what I was getting paid to do. And I’m a listener. I listen to my stunt people. I listen to the producer. I also ask. I ask, “What do you want? What can I give you? What are you looking for?” I ask the director the same thing. And the tough thing is, you find actors tend not to listen. They stand there like they’re listening, but they don’t listen. They’re too busy thinking of what they’re gonna do. So I ask when I show up on a set, if not before we start shooting. I’ve already talked to the director. “What can I contribute? What do you want from this character? What do you want me to feed into?” And a lot of them would ask me to write my own stuff, which then I would do and give to them. And they said, “Yeah, let’s use this,” or not use it. But that was it. Then I’d talk to the other actors. “What are you most comfortable doing? Aha, then I can do this, so it doesn’t bother anybody.” But then it’s hard to stand there and listen, to really listen, to a director. And he’ll tell you what he wants a lot of times. Sam [Peckinpah] couldn’t do that. Sam just, he didn’t believe in it. If you couldn’t figure out what he wanted, to hell with you. But most directors at least tell you what they think they want. Now most of time, that isn’t what they want at all. But you listen, and then you change it around, so that when you get through, they think you’ve done what they told you to do. So we have to figure out what it is, and then try to contribute to that. Sometimes you do it. Sometimes you don’t. Motion pictures are not made by one person — even the director. It’s a collective operation. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
How did the “good guys vs. bad guys” concept evolve over the many Westerns you acted in?
Basically, a Western is a morality play. That’s the bare bones of it. That’s what it does. Westerns put across that people can change their own destiny. One person can change his own destiny. Even the ones we did for television, that’s what they were putting forward. But they also were sugarcoating it, because they’re going into homes where, good heavens, children as soon as they could walk and talk could understand it. And people who were on the other end of the line surely could understand it, so they were making it for entertainment. Pictures are made for entertainment too, but television Westerns came out of the mantra that Hollywood had stayed under for years — that nothing is really dirty, and certain people are good and certain people are bad. That’s what pictures have said since before they started with the talkies, and so television and the studios didn’t want to offend anybody. Well, they offended a whole bunch of people, because a lot of times we put out crap. But at least they’re saying, “The family is a unit. Families help each other,” and “Everything’s gonna be good tomorrow. Don’t you worry about it.” Then we came along, oddly enough with The Wild Bunch and changed everything. It’s the fact that, hey folks, blood doesn’t look particularly pretty. And that the people who are doing this stuff, the goodies as well as the baddies, are really not very nice people. And then we heaped it with violence, and we changed the business with that one picture. The problem with it is — I did nine or ten pictures with Sam, and we we were gonna do more — they’re dirty. You ever see a picture called Ride the High Country? To me, that’s Sam’s best picture. If you look at it, and you listen to it, Joel was playing Sam’s father, and in it is his mantra. And he’s being asked by Randy, “Why do you do these things?” “Because,” he says, “I want to go to my house justified.” So, in all of the filth that you’re seeing with The Wild Bunch, the mantra is still there. These people are basically good. They do bad things occasionally, but pushed against the wall, they’re going to make the reasonable choice. Now, we messed it up quite a bit when we went from Ride the High Country to The Wild Bunch. And then the studios started doing the kind of Western we had done in The Wild Bunch. The difference was, The Wild Bunch is driven by characters. It’s also a lot of action, but it’s driven by characters to get where they’re trying to go. People said, “Ah, I can do that.” So a whole bunch of the pictures that followed The Wild Bunch were filthy, dirty, crime-ridden terrible people — but they didn’t know how to put the action after the characterization. Sam could do that. How he could do that, I’ve never figured it out. But he could. And very few pictures that came along after that were able to drive it with characterization of the people, so that the action was called for. You really had to do it the way Sam did it. But it was hell to get somebody to put the money up to make that. They finally did, and then it worked, and then we changed the whole business.
What did casting Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea bring to Ride the High Country?
It may have been the last picture Randy made. But of course that was OK, because Randy had more money than God. He was a very astute businessman, and into oil, gold, real estate. He was a billionaire, so he didn’t have to do any more. And he had done so many, he just said, “To hell with it.” Sam uses him that way. But when you go to Ride the High Country, it was cast the other way. Joel was doing Randy’s part, and Randy was doing Joel’s. And Burt Kennedy was a friend of both of them, and a writer. He wasn’t directing at that point in time. But he was redoing the script for Ride the High Country, and they were well into it. It was already cast, and they were getting the work done, and one of them — let’s say it was Joel — called up and said, “Burt, I just can’t do it. I don’t do these kinds of parts. I mean, I’ve always been the hero. That’s the way I think. And I’m gonna have to back out of the picture.” And Burt said, “Well, God, I don’t know what we’re gonna do. Let me see what I can do.” Hung up, and said it wasn’t ten minutes that the phone rang, and it was Randy. And he said, “I don’t wanna do this fucking thing. I did this for a thousand years. I wanna have some fun with it. What can we do?” And Burt said, “Let me see if I can work this out.” And he talked to Peckinpah, who said, “I don’t give a shit who plays what.” And so he made the switch, and off they went. But if you really look at Randy’s character in Buchanan Rides Alone, the part is a great deal like the part he played in Ride the High Country. You gotta watch him. Is he gonna put his hand in your pocket? You don’t know. He’ll do it with a laugh, and he makes good sense, but how far can you trust him? But even when he was the hero, he realized he made 10 or 15 westerns with Harry Joe Brown, and they figured out this was the way for Randy to work. It also worked, because they could limit the budget. In Buchanan we had $252,000, which was not a big budget. But they said, “If we can make it for the 250, we’re gonna make money. If we can’t, with Randy we’re gonna lose money, or we run the chance of it.” So he had established that through X number of pictures, and was comfortable with it. So what his way of thinking was for getting out of the part in Ride the High Country, I’m not sure. But it really was a thing he had done before. You would have thought that he wanted to go the way that Joel was doing it, but they didn’t. This is what they saw, and they both are so good. If you wanted a great father, I’d pick Joel McCrea. He’s the perfect man, the perfect gentleman. Joel and I were friends because we worked together on a number of things, and I got used to him. He lived in Thousand Oaks — owned about two-thirds of Thousand Oaks — and I lived in Camarillo. Unfortunately, I didn’t own two-thirds of Camarillo. But Joel would call me up once every two or three months, because he banked in Camarillo. I’d go down, and we’d shoot the breeze, and have lunch. Superb human being. Randy was the same way. I just didn’t know Randy that well. I think we’d only worked on three things together. But Burt Kennedy understood them and went back, once it was changed, and tweaked the script, and made it just absolutely perfect for the two of them. So, it was sharp on Burt’s part. And I’ve heard a number of critics and a number people say, “That’s the best Saturday afternoon Western ever made.” I was in it, and can’t sit there without crying when you get to the end of it. I mean, it’s just gorgeous to watch it work, and the two characters that they have built from the beginning of the piece to the end. At the beginning, they were one way. They changed places in the middle of the picture. But when you get back to the end, they’re where they started again, only with refinements.
What filmmaking lessons did you take from Sam Peckinpah?
If I learned anything from Sam, it was his attention to detail. [With his characters,] how they’re dressed, what they look like, what they say, where they’re going, what they’re gonna do. And Sam showed that in every picture he made. Of course, if you look at every picture he made, and I did, they’re all The Wild Bunch. Just look at them. That’s all they are: The Wild Bunch. He finally got it right in The Wild Bunch. It was close in Ride the High Country. It was not too good at all in Major Dundee. But it’s the same story. That’s what he saw, and then he got it down pat. But he would have been hard-pressed to make Ride the High Country with anybody other than Randy and Joel. But then look who he surrounded them with — Mariette Hartley, R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler — beautiful people, superb actors. So, it’s gotta happen once you get over the shock of working with Peckinpah.
Everything Sam did was The Wild Bunch. That’s not wrong, because most other directors, except maybe Wyler, were good at one particular thing. Sam was very good at Westerns, so everything he did was a Western. That’s OK. 99% of all pictures made are Westerns, because it’s driven by a hero who’s fighting a villain, and he’s doing it single-handedly, and he’s a nice person — well, nice within reason. Like oddly enough, A Boy and his Dog, one of the great fans was, and he’s called me five or six times to come by, was the head of the Hell’s Angels. So he brought part of his group by, I guess twenty or thirty bikes, and we sat around and shot the breeze for, I don’t know, two or three hours. And he calls me every, oh, two or three months. It just catches something in what they think. And I could see why these people who seemed to live by moving things themselves would really like Sam’s work. You know, everything is that way. It makes no difference. Straw Dogs is The Wild Bunch winnowed down to two people. I was supposed to be in Straw Dogs. R.G. Armstrong was supposed to be in it. Warren Oates was supposed to be — when it was known as “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.” That was the name of the novel. So he wanted us, and we’re saying, “Sam, how in the hell can we go over playing Englishmen?” And his theory was, “You don’t have to talk. I’ll just give you things to do, where you don’t have to say anything.” He could do that. Sam wasn’t necessarily a great director, but he was certainly a good one. And I learned from him attention to detail. It was marvelous to watch it work. And if you look at the really big directors — Ford, Wyler, that group — total attention to detail. If the lighting is not right, screw it, stop. If the weather is not right, wait. Do your lines, do them the way I tell you to do them, and do them when I tell you to do them. And by the same token, he then turned his back completely on what he tells you, to do what you think he wants done. Most of the time, he doesn’t know what he wants. He knows when he sees it. But he doesn’t know if you sit there talking about it. Well, Wyler, who I bumped into because of A Boy and his Dog, would shoot — it was common — 20, 30, 40 takes. But he got what he wanted, and he knew it when he saw it. A Boy and his Dog was being shown at the USA Film Festival, and they were honoring William Wyler, probably the greatest director in our business. They were showing 17,18, 20 of his pictures. But he and I were on stage right after they had shown, first Detective Story, and then A Boy and his Dog. Now the audience, when they showed Detective Story, let’s say they had 350 seats. There were maybe 150 people. That’s a good showing. When they showed A Boy and his Dog, there were maybe 700 people. They were sitting in the aisles. They were double-seated. They just knew about it. How, I don’t know. And when we got through showing it, Arthur Knight was the man that had invited Boy, and he was on stage to introduce us. And he introduced Wyler first — of course, as well it should be — and then me. And then, he threw it open for questions. Somebody asked Mr. Wyler a question, and then somebody asked me a question. Then somebody asked me another question, and then another, and another. Then they asked Mr. Wyler one, and they asked me 10 questions. Now, here is the greatest motion picture director our business has ever known, and they’re asking me, “How do you make pictures?” It’s insane. So I stopped, and I’m blushing, and I go over to Wyler and I say, “Mr. Wyler, I’m sorry. This is ridiculous.” And only as Wyler could do it, he said, “Oh no, no, I’m learning something.” William Wyler is learning something from me? Horseshit. That’s just the way he was put together. But Sam picked up on that. I guess I got that from him. How many beans does he have on his plate? Who the hell cares?! Sam cared, because that’s the way he saw it happening. He did all of his pictures that way: good, bad or indifferent. It didn’t make any difference. But any time anybody is that dedicated to doing what they are doing, it’s probably going to be a work of art. Probably. I’ve seen people who do it, and then nothing happens. But Sam was not that. Because he was very smart, was a great feeler — just hell to get along with. I don’t know. You’re around him, you’re not aware of how good he is, until you get through. And then you realize how he did it, and it was attention to detail. Made no difference what the girl wore, where the blouse was cut, how many guns you had, how many bullets you had in it — which no one in the world would have counted, except Peckinpah. But it worked for him. And eventually, if you look at his pictures, whether you like ‘em or not, you realize it’s an entity unto itself. For that two hours, you’re in another world. He’s able to pull it off, and few people can do that. Wyler could do it. But Sam did a lot of shooting, and I did nothing like that. First of all, the budget wouldn’t have stood it. When I shot A Boy, our ratio was 1:1.2. His on The Wild Bunch was probably 1:20. So when you do A Boy and his Dog, you better be right, because you ain’t gonna have much to cut to. With Sam, and with Wyler, and with Ford, that’s the way you get good stuff. You’re not afraid to shoot it, and shoot it, and shoot it, until it’s right.
What did you think of the choice to cast older leads in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid?
I don’t think it’s a good picture. But it’s not because of bad casting. The casting’s perfect. For chrissakes, who cares how old they are? He’s not telling kindergarten folks. He’s telling what he thinks was the story, which it seems history bares him out. Sam and I had a little trouble, because I wanted to do the part that Richard Jaeckel did. I didn’t really want to do it, but that was the one I had in mind, and he gave that to somebody else. Then he wanted me to do something else, and I told him to take a hike. Well, I didn’t hear anything from Sam, and I’d left the office and was in my apartment, and the phone rang, and it was from Peckinpah. And I said, “Yeah, what do you want for chrissakes?” Well, he was telling me why he wanted me to do the part of Black Harris, as opposed to the part that I thought I should be doing. And I said, “I’ll tell you what, hold on just a minute.” And I put the phone down, I went in the kitchen, I made a sandwich, I brewed some tea, I worked about maybe 15 minutes, and came back to the phone, and he was screaming. He just sat there waiting for me, because I told him to hold on, and he was screaming. And he was gonna get Gig Young to do the part. I said, “Great, get Gig Young. I love Gig. Great man. Quit pestering me for chissakes.” I hung up, and he was furious. About three or four days later, I was doing another show, and I got the call from the agent. And he said, “Peckinpah wants you to do Pat Garret & Billy the Kid. This is the part of Black Harris. What do you want to do?” They’d already sent me the script six months before. “How much do you want?” So, I told him how much I wanted. He said, “They’re not gonna pay that. Don’t be insane.” I said, “Tell them that’s what I want, and then they’ll go away.” About five minutes later, he called back and he said, “They agreed to pay it.” And he was absolutely taken aback, because I was telling Sam to shove it. We’d done so many things together, and to give the part I wanted to do to somebody else… He was right. Richard was better for that part than I was, and he couldn’t have done Black Harris. So, we finally got it worked out. But it was just two people that’d been friends for a hundred years snipping at each other. But on Sam’s films, you’re working with people by and large that have a lot of experience in making pictures. Not a whole bunch with Sam, because he didn’t do that many. But Sam started to work like a year-and-a-half before he’s gonna make the picture. He’s working on the script. Most of his stuff, he’s written it. He’s a much better writer than he was a director. But he knows each character intimately before you get to the scene. And what he will do is, you’re standing there in Ride the High Country, Joel or Randy and everybody else in the thing, or you’re making The Wild Bunch with Holden, or you’re Heston in Major Dundee — and he says, “This is what I want.” He doesn’t tell you where to go. He doesn’t tell you where he wants you to be. And without doing any of that, he may shoot the thing. If you’re not standing in the same place Sam envisioned it a thousand times for the year — and he’s not told anybody what it is — but if you’re not there in that particular place, he’s furious because you haven’t done your job right in his estimation. The fact that he hadn’t told you anything doesn’t make a difference. And it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re Bill Holden or an extra. Those of us who’d worked with him — you notice he had a group that worked with him his whole career — a lot of us worked with him time and time again, and you just learned where to be, thinking the way Sam would think.
What was it like working with Slim Pickens on Peckninpah’s films?
Well, Slim and I first worked together in Major Dundee. I didn’t know Slim, and he didn’t know me. And my horse was fractious. And he was riding in, and my horse acted up, so we had to do it again. And then we had to do it again because — there were other things too — but my horse was acting up. And finally, Slim said something about how I could not handle my horse, and I told Slim something like where he could shove the saddle and the horse. And we got nose to nose. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, because Slim would have killed me. He is marvelously athletic. And after that, we became good friends. I realized I had been in the path of death. But that was Slim.
We were now doing Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He was doing that part, and we flew down together, just Slim and I. They’d already started the picture. I had gone down and done some business stuff I had to do, came back and I had two or three weeks back in LA waiting to go back and shoot some more. And then Slim and I went down together. And I told you, they were paying me so much money that I expected to have the plane land, then have a limousine with my clothes and a makeup person in it. And I’d change, we’d drive to location, I’d jump out of the car, we’d do the scene, they’d put me back in the car, I’d change clothes, get back on the plane and I’m gone. I should have been there one day. I was there for about ten days before I even heard from Peckinpah. Then he called up and said, “Listen, L.Q. are you busy?” I said, “No, Sam, I’m not busy. I’m just waiting, for chissakes, for you to get outta the way, so you’ll let me get to work.” He said, “Well, would you mind helping with the wardrobe?” I said, “No, I don’t mind. It’s great fun, if I’m not shooting.” So I worked on the wardrobe for five or six days. Now, we finally get ready to do it, and we do it, and Sam tricked Slim all the way through the shooting. He and Katy Jurado had worked up something, and then Sam and Jim Coburn and I had worked up something. And we were always on Slim’s case for that 10 or 15 days. And when we did it, he was so depressed, and he had just had an operation to remove one cancerous lung. By then he was doing fine, but he was feeling so down. And then Sam sat around, and we had someone play the guitar, and Slim was nearly in tears. Then we shot the scene, and Slim did a gorgeous job. I’ve never seen him do any better. But you look at it, and Sam, like Ford, was so good. He picked the exact right time. He put Slim in a spot where the water is running and making little singing songs as it dances over the rocks. And if you sit there for about two or three minutes, you sort of get depressed. And that’s what he did. And then, without making a big to-do out of it, he started the action and they shot it.
How close did you come to getting Slim Pickens’ role in Dr. Strangelove?
I’m bitter about it, because I was in my agent’s office one day, and the phone rang. And my agent picked it up, and he said to his secretary, “I told you not to… who.. oh yes, put him on.” It was Stanley Kubrick. I think he was calling from London, and he wanted me to do that part. And I said, “Hell, I’ll walk barefooted across England to get to do that part.” And he said to my agent, “I’ll send you the script when we’re ready to go, and we’ll work out the deal.” That was a year, a year-and-a-half before they actually shot it. So I’d given up, and I went on doing other things. And sure enough, they sent the script over, and I was right in the middle of another picture and couldn’t do it. And then of course I saw it, and I called Slim up, and I said, “Thank God you did it. I couldn’t have even come close. It was a marvel.” He did a marvelous job, as only Slim could do. But I was bitter the rest of my career that I didn’t get to do the part.
At that time, my agent was Meyer Mishkin, who was one of the strangest agents. He had Jeff Chandler, Chuck Connors, all of the really character actor people. And I was sitting in his office one day, and somebody called up, and he answered the phone. He said, “Yeah… yeah… yeah… Oh, no. Listen, he’s not who you want.” And he mentioned a name, and he hung up. And I said, “What was that?” And somebody had called up and wanted me to do a part. And he listened to what he wanted, and he suggested somebody else. I said, “I’m gonna kill you. There’s no doubt about it, I’m gonna kill you.” But they’d also told him, “Look, we’re sending the script over. Let him look at it, and see if he’d consider doing it.” Which I did it. But he was right. The other guy would have been marvelous for the part. But that’s what Meyer Mishkin was. He was funny. You would be in a room, Jeff was 6′ 1″, Chuck was like 6′ 3″ and I was 6 foot. I was the runt of the bunch. You’d be at a party, and everybody’s standing looking down, because Meyer was maybe 4′ 9″. He’d have to jump to hit me in the kneecap. He was really short. He was so funny, but a super-good agent. He was an independent. I got tired of being with like Famous Artists and MCA, because you’re just with the herd. But Meyer, he started off doing stuff with all of the majors as a casting man, but then went off by himself. Super, super agent. So, I was lucky. The old man saw that I got a good agent.
What was the value for Peckinpah of shooting on location?
He hated towns and cities. He loved Mexico. If we were making a picture about New York City, we’d shoot it in Mexico. Didn’t make any difference. He totally loved either locations or something he had built. Where we did the big shootout in The Wild Bunch, that was about an hour and fifteen minutes from where we were staying. Stop and think about that. That’s roughly two-and-a-half hours per day, shooting six days, that you’ve gotta travel just to get to work. It cost him a fortune. And Phil [Feldman], who was the producer who was fighting for him — if Phil hadn’t done his job, we’d never have gotten through the damn thing. Because Phil stood between Sam and the money people, which were Seven Arts. And Phil said, “Sam, I can build the same fucking thing twenty feet from here. You will not be able to tell the difference.” Sam said, “I don’t care. That’s where I want to shoot it.” And that’s where we shot it. It was just in a hacienda down there that he fell in love with. But that’s the way Sam was, and you’re not gonna change him. We did the same thing with Ballad of Cable Hogue. We did the same thing on every picture he made.
It always helps you when you’re there where something really exists. You can see it’s real. It’s got stability. It is. It isn’t just something you’ve dreamed up. So it just seems to rub off. But if you’re good at what you do, you can shoot in the middle of a shower. If you’re there to do your work, it won’t make any difference. And the people that he had were there to do their work. That didn’t mean we didn’t curse and scream at each other. Because he got on Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates and my case in Dundee. We were using the theory we always did: you had to make up your own stuff. We chased the Indians down the river. It’s a gorgeous shot, which is in the picture. But we started back, and we realized, whoops, it was so quiet. Sam was pissed, and he cursed us. It took us about, oh, I’d say a minute-and-a-half to ride back. They had built him a platform that ran on rails under water, so that he could go back and forth. Because if you recall, that whole thing was on the river. He could go back and forth with the camera following whatever action he wanted. So he ended up on that, and he’s telling Ben, and Warren and I that we have worked our last day in the picture business. And he’s gonna personally see to it that we starve to death. I mean, only Sam could get the way Sam got. And I finally just couldn’t take it anymore, and I rode up to the platform, stood on my horse, and crawled up on the platform trying to get at him. Because I told him, “You don’t have enough talent to direct me to the men’s room.” I was almost on the bus. I don’t know why he didn’t, but he didn’t. But that was Sam, and you learned to live with that. OK, we’re doing The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It’s really his second-best picture. But we were on location, and we couldn’t shoot for about three-and-a-half weeks. The budget soared. It was supposed to be $750,000. We spilled that much the first week. We couldn’t shoot because of the rain, the wind. So, he was not a happy camper. Sheila Clague, she was our production secretary. Had it not been for Sheila, we wouldn’t have finished the picture. She was brilliant. She and I were in the Lizard Lounge, which was the bar at the motel where we were staying out at the lake. We’re just sitting there breezin’, talkin’. She was through work. It’s now like two o’clock in the morning, maybe three. And something I said, she thought was funny, and she started laughing at the same time Sam came through the door. He fired her. She’s on her own time, and she’s in a bar, but he fired her. I don’t know what the reason was. Who cares? And the next morning, I quit. I said, “You’re an ass. She’s the only thing keeping the picture together. You don’t have enough talent to do it. And I’m going home, because you’re picking on her. I’m gonna take her home.” So, he hired her back. Then, of course, I came back to work. So it ended up that from 2 o’clock in the morning, until about noon the next day, he fired me four times, and I quit five. That was just Peckinpah. Neither one of us meant it, but it didn’t make any difference. To really understand, we did a pick-up, a part of a scene with Strother Martin and Bob Ryan and myself that we shouldn’t have done. It wasn’t scheduled. It’s a daytime shot. Really, it’s sundown, but it’s basically day. He decides to shoot that about 9:30 at night when we’re shooting something else. Well, the illusion said, “Fine, just give me two or three hours, I’ll get it lit.” That’s what he did, so we shot it. And we sat around the campfire eating, planning something. And about six or seven weeks later, we get to do the whole thing. This was just close-ups. So we did Bob’s, we did Strother’s, and then we got to mine was the last one, the way he swung the camera around. Then he said [in low tone], “OK, cut.” No louder than that. And I said, “Oh shit.” He said, “What do you think, L.Q.? What do you think about what you just did?” And I said, “Hell, Sam, even now I’m writing my own acceptance speech.” He said, “Fine, fine. Bob?” Bob says, “I’m not even in the scene.” “OK. Lucien [Ballard]?” He went around every department head, and we’re just waiting. And he finally gets to Tony, who is doing the props. And he asked Tony what he thought. Tony told him, and he said, “Fine. How many beans has L.Q. got on his plate?” Tony says, “What the hell are you talking about? Who cares how many beans the nitwit’s got on his plate.” Sam says, “He has seven. When we shot the original, he had thirteen. You’re fired.” Now, you have no idea the insanity of what I just said. When you fire the prop master, he takes all of his props home with him. We’re into about 8 or 10 weeks of the picture. That means we cannot finish the picture, unless we rebuild everything he had. It’s gonna take us six months, and cost an absolute fortune. It’s already a fortune, but it’s insanity. And so finally, everybody begged, pleaded with Tony to stay. The actors, the producers, everybody. I begged him. Finally he said, “OK, I’ll make a deal with you. I will prop the show, but I will not go on the set. And if Peckinpah even so much as stumbles and falls against my wagon, I’m going home.” And that’s the way we shot the last six or seven weeks of the picture. But that’s just Sam.
What to you made Strother Martin a great actor, and what did he bring to your own films?
Simplicity. Strother, he was totally one of a kind. He reduced things down to the simplest form, and then approached them that way. He was a superb actor. Not many people realize just how good he was. But you notice in The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah used Strother to point out everything. At the beginning, before the fighting starts, he uses Strother and myself as the persons that point to what is happening, what is going to happen, and how dangerous it is. Strother’s practically sweating blood. But see, my character’s slightly divergent from his. I’m reacting to the same thing, but I’m tickled to death that I’m gonna get to slaughter somebody. But Strother gives you the other side of it. Then we did all the killing, and now we start arguing about who killed whom. I mean it’s like, “My cake is bigger than yours.” I’m unbelievably proud of the ability to kill people, but so is he. Now also, if you look at it carefully, we slipped in a little bit of fey into it, so that the relationship between the two of us was sexual. Now, it’s very, very slight, because you can’t have much of that in a Western — not if you want the people to stick with you at all. But if you look at it, it’s present between Strother and I. I’m basically the head of the family of the two of us, and I’m pissed because he’s done something, and I’m pouting. And the pouting is because he’s had the audacity to claim to have slaughtered more people than I did. And he then took the results of it, a pair of boots. And I’m absolutely chagrined that he would not have agreed with me that I was the greatest killer of all time, and then to give me the booty that belonged with it — if you’ll pardon the pun. But then we go through the piece, and Strother again is the Greek chorus, in effect, on the dark side. Bill Holden or Ernie, it’s hard to tell, is on the good side. But if you look at them, it is a question of which one is the worst — The Wild Bunch, or those of us that are chasing them?
He was petrified of Peckinpah, as anybody with any brains would be. I was too dumb to be afraid of him. But we were doing The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and we were down at the lake, and there’s only one motel there. I had started before Strother on the picture. Gene Evans showed up, and then Strother showed up. They didn’t have a room for Strother, so they were gonna send him over to another place where the crew was staying, which was about 20 or 30 miles away. I said, “That’s bullshit. Put him in with me. We can do fine.” And we did. He wanted some changes made in what we were gonna do, but he was so petrified of Sam, he wouldn’t say anything. So he was trying to talk me into telling Sam that he didn’t know what he was doing, and we could write it better. Well, you can see how much I took to that. Of course, I told Sam anyway that he didn’t have enough talent to direct me to the men’s room, so we weren’t necessarily in good speaking order at that particular time. But in trying to talk me into talking to Sam about making the changes, I would sit on the bed, and then Strother would walk at the end of the bed pacing back and forth. I swear he wore a little groove in the carpet. He must have done it for hours on end trying to convince me to talk to Sam. And so I finally had to get it across to Strother, if you tell Sam any change, he’ll say, “No.” So what you have to do is say — and what I did all the time, and it worked — you get ready to shoot it, and you tell Sam, “God damn it, you’re right. I was wrong. We need to do it this other way. I don’t want to, but we’ll do it your way.” And then I’d do totally what I had written. But he was so convinced that this is what he had talked about, that he let me alone. So I could get things by him, and I told Strother, “That’s the way you do it.” And Strother tried, but it didn’t work out well. So I just said to the next one the next day, “To hell with it. This is what we’re gonna do, and Sam will love it. But I’ll tell him ‘You were right, Sam.’ We’ll go through this whole bullshit.” And that’s what we did. And so we didn’t have any trouble. Strother got to do what he wanted to do. He was a marvelous actor. He just was totally unsure of himself. At this time, he was by himself, and he really was just a nervous wreck. But he then married Helen, who had money and common sense. She took over and made Strother relax and do what Strother could do. She took care of him, and he didn’t have to worry about the money and about what he was gonna do when he wasn’t working. So for the first time in the business, he really relaxed, and we did two or three things together. The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Wild Bunch and we were having fun with it.
The first time with Strother Martin was in the third picture I ever made, called Target Zero, which was a true story about the Korean War. Very few people have heard of it. There was a hill just outside the Yalu River, and they had a rollback. If you remember, all of these hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops had poured into North Korea, which they had hoped they wouldn’t do, but there they were. And our group of six or seven men had been running around. Chuck Connors was in it, Charlie Bronson was in it, and Aaron Spelling was in it as a “plumber.” That’s what we call the people who use the bazookas and the other goodies. And we pick up a British tank and their crew — John Alderson, Terence de Marney and Richard Wyler. Now, this is a true story. The rollback started, and we’re right in the way of some 50,000 Chinese troops, and these 11 men dug the tank in. And where we dug in, on the military maps it was called “Sullivan’s Muscle.” We held them off for like three days before they could get the air force up and running, because the weather wouldn’t allow it.
Well in that picture, in the very first scene where we meet the tank, Strother gets badly wounded, and we have to carry him. So we carried Strother for about six weeks on our shoulders, and every chance we got, we pointed his ass at the camera. And by the time we got through, I got the prop people to make us a bitty wooden Oscar, but I retitled it the “Asscar.” We presented it to Strother, because that’s all you ever saw of him in the picture was his ass. And we were friends from then on.
[For Come In, Children] It’s one of those things where I saw something I wanted. It was very simple, that toys killed people. I paid a writer to write the script, and it was terrible. So I said, “To hell with it,” and I took it and wrote it. I had Strother in mind the whole time I was doing it. But you don’t wanna go straight at Strother, because he doesn’t believe he can work very well. So I ask him to come in and read it, and see if he could recommend A) some things that might make it better, or B) someone that could do it. And so he came in, and he told me he didn’t see much that could be changed, and he named two or three people he thought could do it. I killed each one off one at a time, and I finally got to Strother, “Well, I guess no one can do it, which means I can’t do the picture. I hate to do it.” And he said, “No, no, I think you can. Look, I’ll tell you what…” The next thing I know, I’m talking to him about doing it, so that I don’t have to just discard the whole project. He took it and started working with it, and then he started having fun with it. There is one shot in which he stands nude on the altar. He has a suit on, but you cannot see it. So he’s really not nude, but he certainly looks nude. And I had to get it by he and his wife, Helen. But we’d worked together so many times, hell, it didn’t make any difference. Because I knew that he knew exactly what I wanted, and how he could get there. And he did. He did a marvelous job with the piece. Now, I’m very proud of it, because I took the script and totally redid it. And it gets a lot of reviews about the ending, which is totally unexpected. You’ll recall they open the door, looking for the blood and the screaming, which we’ve just seen, and it’s a bunch of kids playing. But that’s what the story was. The toys were infecting the children.
What inspired you to make a film about a group of Satanists?
I wanted to do Rosemary’s Baby, and I tried to buy it, but they got there before I did. And so I spent a couple of years in the library stacks checking up on Satanism. And I’m not talking about the stuff we’re used to today, but back when they really believed it. A guy called Mordecai Pfeiffer was a priest in the 15-1600′s, and his theory was, “Better that we burn at the stake 1000 people that are innocent, to letting one guilty get away.” How do like them odds? And he’s in the church. 1000 people should be burned at the stake to keep one man from getting away? I mean, people think it’s kind of a joke with witchcraft. They burned at the stake one day, 5,000 people. Now, that ain’t funny. These people believed in witchcraft. You believe in witchcraft. You don’t know that you do. What happens when someone sneezes? You say, “God bless you.” You know why? The true physics of the body is that when the body sneezes, there is a split second when it is the most exposed it ever is. And witchcraft had taught that when you sneeze, Satan can enter. And so you say, “God bless you,” which theoretically cures the problem. You don’t think about that. You think you’re a witch for saying God bless you? Do you walk under ladders? Most people don’t, because of black cats. I’ll bring it home to you with a hypothetical. You and I have been friends for years, and we have a dire falling out. And you’re worried that I’m gonna kill you, and I’m the same way. But over time, I realize that it isn’t gonna happen, but I’m still gonna take a little vengeance. So we get to be friendly again, and I invite you over for a meal. We sit down, and we have a little drink of wine and a gorgeous t-bone. And when we’re through, we’re sitting there laughing and giggling, and I say, “Oh, by the way, you’ve just eaten enough poison in that t-bone to kill 20 people.” What’s gonna happen? You’ll be petrified, because you should have known better than to trust me. I’m telling you, “I’ve done this.” And if you accept that fact, if you listen to me, the body will move to protect itself. You will break out in a rash, your temperature will skyrocket, and your stomach will throw up trying to protect itself. It’s all in the mind, and the mind is that pure and it’s that powerful. So, we all whistle by the graveyard. Years and years ago, a guy was in a bar with a bunch of people. They’d been friends or drinking buddies for years, and the guy just bullshitted the whole time. But he was saying he wasn’t afraid of this, and there was a graveyard a couple of blocks down the street. And so somebody said, “Listen, I’ll tell you what. I’ll pay you five dollars.” And the owner had a sword over the bar as a display. He says, “I’ll pay you five dollars if you’ll take that sword, and let us go with you, and we’ll send you into the graveyard. And we all know this mausoleum. You stick it in the ground, and the next day I’ll go looking. If it’s in there, I’ll pay you five dollars.” Guy says, “Oh shit, fine.” So six or seven of them, gassed, take him to the graveyard with the thing, help him over the fence. He disappears into the night. Well, he’s supposed to come back. And when he didn’t come back, they said, “That son of a bitch. He did it, and went out the other way just to leave us here.” So they go home, then go out the next day. They go to the place. There is the sword — also, the dead body of their friend. When he poked it in the ground, without knowing it, he ran it through the hem of his coat. Then he turned and tried to walk away, couldn’t walk away, and they said he died of heart failure. I mean, it was in the paper. I’m from Beaumont, Texas which has Magnolia Cemetery. And my grandfather was telling me about a story in the papers. Grave robbing was not that unknown, because gentlemen were buried with their good clothes, with their watch and other mementos. Reconstructing it after the fact, a guy was buried in the afternoon. Normally the grave robbers would come in that night, because the soil is loose and they can dig it out fairly easy. And it said what they evidently did was, they dug him up, opened up the casket, took the guy out. And he had like many of them been buried with his arms folded on his chest, and they couldn’t get at his watch. So they took him out of the casket, and leaned him against a tree, and they still couldn’t get at it. So there were two of them, and one got behind the tree that he was leaning against, the other opened his arms, and then he had access to the watch. Except, evidently, the guy holding the arms must have heard something, turned, and he turned loose the arms. And the arms swung back, as you know they will do, and they encircled the guy that was picking up the watch. He died of heart failure. The other guy turned and ran, tripped, and killed himself by going head-on into a tombstone. So, what you believe is gonna drive you where you may not wanna go.
What was it like working on the set of Gunsmoke with its star, James Arness?
Jimmy was just a dream. He’s a very talented man. But I was having trouble, because I didn’t think he should be doing the part [of Marshal Matt Dillon]. Because William Conrad did that part on Gunsmoke on the radio. He was marvelous at it. But if you remember, Bill was short, dumpy. He didn’t look like a leading man. But I knew him and had worked with him, and that’s who I thought ought to be doing it. And so when Jimmy got it, I didn’t even work on the show for the first four, five years. But then I did, and the first time I met him, I thought he was a bit stuck up. Then I realized, stop thinking this crap, and ask questions and listen. Jim was just a little bit shy. And after that, we were great friends. But he didn’t relax around people he didn’t know that much. But he was warm, he was friendly and he was perfect for the part. I don’t know, I guess I did six, seven of them. Not as many as Morgan Woodward, who did like 13. Jim was just a joy. But for a long time, Gunsmoke never went on location. The town was built for them at the studio. And they might go for one day, and that was it. But the town, everybody who did the show was used to it. It was like coming home when you did the show, and you’d end up working for the same director, oh, three or four times. Like I worked with Bernie McEveety six or seven times, maybe eight. If I did eight, he did seven. Then he would do other things. And as a matter of fact, I hired him to direct one of the pictures [The Brotherhood of Satan a.k.a. Come In, Children] for my company. So, you get used to working with them. But the show as it went on, it truly was like a family. I don’t think these people could go to work without the others being there. That’s just the way they were. And the crew was the same. The producers were the same. They were very prideful of the scripts. The scripts were very well done. It was a joy working on the show, and part of it was Jimmy. I did a bunch. As a matter of fact, I ended up doing the first Black Western, the only one I think, that Gunsmoke ever did. We had a superb cast. All Blacks, except the heavy, myself, my gang and Jimmy. Rex Ingram was one of the cast. The Blacks were moving west. They had had bad treatment, and this was their stroke to gain their independence. And I was really a shit. I mean, of course I raped women, I cheated at cards, and the real kick was I kicked a dog. Well, when they finally showed the picture, that morning I was going to work, and the traffic was all backed up. I lived out in Camarillo — and Camarillo’s fifty some-odd miles from here. So on the freeway, you can move only, what, six inches every minute or so. I had the top down on my car. I was booed, hissed at and people tried to run into me, because it aired the night before. It was so popular, and the people were so committed to it. But I was really a terrible person in that [episode]. I mean, I’ve done a lot of bad parts, but hardly anything like that. And the kicking the dog was the end of it. They don’t care really if you rape women, cheat, steal, lie — just don’t kick a dog. That’s the way they were. I did a number of pictures with Jimmy on other things. We redid the old Howard Hawks picture, Red River. It was terrible, but we did it for another director. I just was barely in it, but it was fun to work with Jim. He had a real tough time, because he was a huge man — the frame. He was very athletic, especially when he was younger. And very early in his life the back started acting up, and the legs. They just couldn’t carry all that weight. Clint Eastwood, same thing. You come down with bad back problems, and Jimmy certainly did. But you’d never know it when you’re around him. Again, he liked to be by himself. He liked to know the people that were around him. With them, he was very friendly. With the others, it appeared he was standoffish. He wasn’t. He was just shy. And it was hard for him to filter into another group. You wouldn’t think so with that size. But he was in constant pain, and I never heard him complain. He was even-tempered. I only saw him actually mad one time. It was on the Black Western. We’d worked for like three days, and we came to a scene that was the first time he was on it, and he stopped us. I come out around the wagon, and I did something you’re not supposed to do, and it’s amazing we got through with it. I was with Rex Ingram, and I had the rifle actually in his ear. That’s how tight I was to him. And so I come around, and Jim and I are standoffing like twenty feet apart. And before he’d even gotten there, we’d been working getting the wagons ready. There were children on the show. So I went to the director, who was Bernard McEveety. I said, “Please, before we do this, get everybody in the cast together.” Jim is still not there. And I said, “Now what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna say a word that is terrible. I’m gonna say it several times, but I have to in the show, and I want you to understand that this is just a play. Nobody means any of this. So I’m sorry to have to say it, because it’s a terrible word.” And with all that explanation, we asked, “If you don’t wanna hear it in action, won’t you drop out of this scene, and come in for the others.” But everybody said, “No,” and the kids mothers said, “That’s fine.” And I come around, and I’ve got the rifle in his ear, and I say to Jim, “You make one false move, and I blow this nigger’s head clean off.” Well, as soon as I said ‘nigger,’ Jim jumped in the air thirty inches, and that was the end of the shooting. He stopped, and he called the producers in. They called New York. They sent a representative over, and they told us that he will not do it using the word ‘nigger.’ Well, I said, “Something’s gone on you haven’t understood. Because when we did the show, the first day we got all of the Black grown ups together, and we explained this is what we’re gonna do.” I had said, “I don’t wanna say this word. Let’s get something else.” And as a matter of fact, [Ingram] said, “No, no, you’ve got to say it, because we’re trying to get rid of it.” So instead of maybe the 35 times that I was supposed to say it, I cut it down to like five or six. But the Blacks said, “You must do that. You have to use that word.” So I said, “OK.” Everybody knew it. That’s why we explained it to the kids. Jim had not been privy to all of these meetings and discussion. I mean, this went on for, I don’t know, four or five hours. We just didn’t decide in a heartbeat. And the producers went on it, the sponsors, everybody. So, we’ve got to do it. And as soon as I said it, it tricked him, and off he went. So everything stopped, and we didn’t start shooting again for another, good heavens, five or six hours. We just blew an entire day. But Jim said, “No, I’m not gonna allow that word to be used on the show.” So, that’s how dedicated he was to it. He was a nice man.
What were some of the issues that led to The Yellow Rose only lasting one season on TV?
Our problem was we had too many stars in it. There were about 7 or 8. So you can only tell, let’s say, one or two a night. Chuck Connors was a constant, and I was a constant as the sheriff. So we could be in every one of them, but the main story for each episode would take one of the stars and do their story. Well, that means that 4 or 6 others aren’t gonna get mentioned. And that makes it hard, because as I’ve seen on most soap operas, you’ve gotta keep them constant. You have to keep them in each story, and we couldn’t do that. At least, the writers who were doing it couldn’t do that.
We went I think 8 or 10 weeks. It was a very expensive show to do, so they said, “To hell with this. Let’s spend our money someplace else.” I liked the Western theme, but I don’t like soap operas. I think they’re fine for a lot of people who like them, but I don’t care for them, so I didn’t watch it. Of course, I never watch anything I do anyway. But I think it was a good idea, especially for the time. And I think it would have worked a little better if the guy who was the producer wasn’t writing most of the scripts. One person can’t do all of that. If you’re gonna produce the show, work your ass off producing. Don’t work your ass off trying to produce, at the same time trying to write, at the same time trying to re-write, at the same time trying to please the stars, at the same time trying to please the studio, at the same time trying to please the sponsors. You can’t handle all of that crap.
It was sort of destined for failure. I think if it had caught on a little bit more, they would have taken some of the control from the producer. But they also might have killed the project, because networks are totally without any idea of what style or class is. They have no concept. I call them “dead eyes.” I’ve sat in with them, talked with them for hours, looked at their eyes and realized nobody’s home. They’re someplace else. I don’t mean that they’re not smart people. They are, but they’re not smart when making pictures. They’re good at making money. They’re good at things like that. But actually making pictures? No. But look at pictures. We’re basically cannibalistic. Along comes a good Western, and for the next two or three years we make nothing but Westerns — none of them worth a fig compared to the original. And then they make a cop show and, oh great, you stop Westerns, you stop comedies, you stop musicals, and you make a cop show. We’ve had all cop shows now for what, 8 or 9 years? Same thing with Westerns. I’m guessing, but if we had 40 shows on prime time — 37 of them were Westerns. They had three channels: CBS, NBC and ABC. That was it. So when you’re doing 40 prime time shows, that means I spent more time in most people’s living rooms during the week than they did, because of the shows. [TV viewers] had everything except the horseshit on the floor. But if they looked closely, they’d have probably found some of that.
How did you come to be in Robert Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion?
I had wanted to work with Bob, and he said so for him. It just didn’t work out that way, until we came to that one. To that point, I’d never met Bob. And I kind of came at it strange, because I was doing a show in Europe in the Czech Republic, and I had another thing to do in Texas. So, they changed things around so I could do a couple of days of shooting. When I first met Bob, I’m saying, “Hmm, I don’t know here sports fans.” But then I realized as we went along, I told Garrison Keillor I didn’t like the show. I was trying to explain it to him, because they called and I said to my agent, “What the hell is this? I don’t know anything about it.” So I said, “Send me some stuff, so I can look at what you do.” And I happened to mention that to my kids, and both of them said, “What sort of a nut are you? We’ve listened to the show for years.” And I understood, and the stuff I watched was exactly that. And so I told Garrison, “You know, I’m not sure I like the piece at all, because there’s nothing funny really about it. The music is just so-so. But it’s warm.” Then I realized, that’s all it was supposed to be. Listen, you’ve been on 32 years, you’re doing something right. But like my kid said, “Hey, you can sit there and listen to it, and you enjoy it. Or you can be painting a chair, and listen to it while you’re painting, and you don’t pay any attention, but you hear it.” So it’s always there, and it’s a comfort. It’s not really funny, but it’s warm, and that’s what Bob was able to do with it. I didn’t think he could, because the script wandered so badly. But when he finally did it, we had a hell of a cast. Christ, if you had been doing that under normal circumstances, the cast would have cost 50 million dollars. So here we are doing it, and everybody’s working for the same amount of money, because they want to work with Bob. But that doesn’t mean you’re gonna come out with a good piece. And we were shooting with five cameras I think. Booms, trollies, dollies, the whole works. And I’m saying, “Judas, how are they ever gonna put this together?” But when I saw it, I had to go shake his hand, because I said, “By God, you really caught what the whole thing is about.” And it’s because of Bob and nobody else. Everybody else did their job, but Bob just understood it. It’s a form of life. It’s a manner of thinking. It doesn’t fit any other group. I love Garrison. The first weekend we were there, he invited us over for dinner. We spent five or six hours with his wife and his kids, and just had a ball. He’s a really nice man. He’s very funny, and it’s his humor that makes everything work. But he’s very talented, and Bob caught it, and everybody contributed. And it was great fun to be there and watch it go together, because it’s such a strange piece. You know, it’s a mystery, it’s ethereal, it’s cosmic, and yet it’s about just real people. But I’m telling you, we were shooting it in their theater, the Fitzgerald. I hadn’t even heard about it before I got there. The fans would show up in droves, and stand out, and they were the audience. The audience you saw were the fans that showed up. And they would stand outside, and the weather was cold and rainy. It didn’t make any difference. There they were, and they would stand around for an hour after we got through shooting to get an autograph. Just really nice people. That’s what the show is to me — just really nice people who happen to have some talent. But Bob was marvelous. [Paul Thomas Anderson] was the backup director, poor devil. You know, what a thankless task. Because he’d worked with Bob before, I think, and Bob was thoroughly convinced that he would do the picture if something happened to him. And Bob, as I recall, was 79 and was not in good health. So it was for the people who put the money up. But I think Bob was the one who insisted, “Look, I need somebody in case something happens to me, so you can go ahead and finish the picture.” And [Anderson] had to sit there, poor devil, every day, every minute he was there. We sat around and shot the breeze, and I kept telling him, “Look, go jump out a widow or something. I’ll tell you what happens.” But he said, “No,” he had to stay here just in case. Very nice man. But you know, he was really backing up the way he should have.
What was your opinion of Altman’s films, including his “anti-Western” McCabe & Mrs. Miller?
I was familiar with his work, and I didn’t like it, which I told him. It wasn’t a question of disliking it, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’d seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which I thought was hideous. And I told him. I’m not very soft-spoken. I told Bob I thought it was a piece of shit, pardon me, but he did a hell of a job with it. Once you meet Bob, you understand why McCabe & Mrs. Miller, why Nashville, why MASH. That’s just Bob Altman put out in other characters. But MASH is a marvelous piece of work. And I saw it because I said, “Hmm, everybody’s talking about how funny it is.” So what I did, I went to it, and I took a counter and counted all of the laughs through MASH. Later, with A Boy and his Dog, I counted all of the laughs. And we got more laughs in A Boy and his Dog than he did in MASH. He made 500 million dollars, and I’m broke. No, he did a marvelous job at it, just marvelous. And that was Bob. But the thing about the humor in Boy is, people aren’t sure they’re supposed to laugh. They think it’s very serious, and that’s what I was trying to do. I wanted to tell something that I thought was very serious. Because I said, “If we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, we’re all gonna be living like A Boy and his Dog, for chrissakes — and it’s not gonna be near as much fun.” So it was a very serious piece, but you can’t teach people many things when they have to cry. So I said, “The only way I can get it done, I think, is to go to the humor.” And you have to strike a balance. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it didn’t. In that particular case, God smiled on us. It worked. But anyway, Bob is what you see when you see A Prairie Home Companion or Nashville. That’s just Bob. But he had the bad taste to die on us, because I wanted to curse him out some more. It didn’t work, but a talented mother.