Saturday, March 6, 2010
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE 'PECOS'
An Interview With Spaghetti Western Star Robert Woods
A couple of Sundays ago, Spudic’s Movie Empire in Van Nuys played host to an American star of European Westerns, Robert Woods. During the 1960s and 1970s, he starred in fifty movies, at least half of them spaghetti westerns. The event was to celebrate the digitally re-mastered DVD release of THE GATLING GUN (1968), which kept firing behind us during our conversation.
Born in Colorado and raised at a ranch near the Continental Divide, it seems natural that he should want to be a cowboy actor, but that wasn’t his goal at the start. “I felt there was a world out there – I loved Colorado, loved the Rocky Mountains. But I always wanted to see far off lands. I had dreams about Paris, about the places I’d read about in books, in school. And so I joined the Navy during the Korean thing. When I came out I went to San Diego State, and I wasn’t thinking of becoming an actor at that time. I was studying in a little theater because it was quiet. And they were having readings for a play, VICTORIA REGINA, and I laughed, because they were pretty bad. And the director said, and I quote, ‘Are you gonna read?’ And I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Then shut the F up!’ And then I said, ‘Okay, I’m reading.’ So I went down and I read, and he loved me, and I got the lead in the play.”
That led to more plays and musicals. “I did West Side Story in San Diego, (and) they brought me to L.A. to test for the part of Tony in the film. But it turned out they really already had a Tony, and they were gathering people from all over the country as a publicity thing. I was pretty disappointed. But I did a lot of musical stuff. I played valve trumpet, I played jazz, I sang, I recorded for Fontana.”
He went from being a teaching major to a speech major, but the acting seed had been sown. “I had letters of recommendation (for people) in L.A., and thought I was going to set the world on fire. I ended up sleeping on somebody’s floor for a month, starving, and running out of money, and no gas for my car. So I said the hell with it, and went down to Central Casting, and got on line to be an extra. They sent me out to MGM, where I became George Hamilton’s stunt double for WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960). There’s a scene in a (mermaid-themed) nightclub with a (big cement) conch shell, and I dive over it, (into the tank) where Barbara Nichols is swimming in two feet of water. So I did this little stunt, and that day (producer) Joe Levine was there, and he said, “You’re an actor!” And I said, “Well, no, I’m doubling George. I’m just an extra.” He says, “No! You’re an actor! Go stand over there by Chill Wills, I’ll give you a line.” It was easy as that (he snaps his fingers). All this time I’ve been sweating it out, wondering how I’m going to get a (S.A.G.) card without a film, I can’t get a film without a card, and it was over in a micro-second.”
Now he had a S.A.G. card, but the work wasn’t exactly pouring in. He was working as a singer waiter at a Chinese restaurant Flower Drum Song, “When some guy came in and offered me a part in a film, and he gave me a script. I went to read for the producer, and he was gay, and I didn’t understand any of that at the time. The script was called THE NUN AND THE SERGEANT (1962), and it was to be my first big break. And (when I understood the deal), I threw the script in his face. He said, ‘You’ll never work in this town again!’ It was one of those dramatic scenes. ”
He got a crash course in dealing with gay people when famous drag queen Lynne Carter hired him to be the straight-man in her act. “Nineteen weeks in (Greenwich) Village, right across the street from the Bon Soir, where Streisand was doing her act. I’d go across the street and see her; she’d come across and see me. It was a fun time. And Carter offered me to go on the road, offered me great money to go to Australia, but I didn’t want that image, so I said no.”
When he auditioned for Otto Preminger for THE CARDINAL (1963) casting director “Bill Barnes told me, ‘We really like you, but we don’t have the budget to send you over to play this priest. But if somehow you can find yourself in Italy, you’ve got the part.’ And I said, ‘Strangely enough, I’m going to be in Italy.’”
With his life savings, $450, in his pocket, and with time to kill before the summer and THE CARDINAL, he flew to Paris, where he made some money dubbing films. “And I’m sitting on the Champs Elysee , and a guy walks by me, I thought he was gay, and he says, ‘Are you a model?’ ‘No, I’m an actor.’ ‘Well, you should really try modeling. Here’s my card.’ So I stayed talking a little longer than I should, wound up getting back to the dubbing studio late, and the guy I was working for blew his cool. And I said, ‘What did I know, I didn’t want to be rude.’ I gave him his card. It was Helmut Newton. He said Newton was big: I have to do it. So I became a model – I was the highest paid male model in Paris for a year. You don’t ever talk about that in acting circles (laughs), but it was great money, and I got to go all over the world with Newton -- and he was married, he wasn’t gay. Kinky, but not gay.”
Robert never got to do THE CARDINAL. But he was modeling and doing theatre, “…when a guy came backstage with a contract and wanted me to do a western. I said, ‘no, thank you.’ I was doing theater and modeling, and the money he offered wasn’t that good. The next night he was back with a contract for five pictures. Well that was a whole lot better. So I went down to do my first film (1965’s PISTOLEROS DE ARIZONA – FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ON ONE ACE in the U.S.) for (director) Alphonso Balcazar about two months later.”
He was in Madrid, waiting to begin his second western, sitting in an ice cream shop, “…and a guy says, ‘Man, you’re just right for the pilot in THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE. Go see (director) Ken Annakan.’ And I walked into his office, and he looked up and he said, ‘My God, you’re my pilot!’ I didn’t even have to read, it was just done. I signed a contract and was out the door. Two minutes later I get a call from the William Morris Agency, from David Niven Jr., to be my agent.”
He didn’t know whose pilot he was playing. “I walk on the set and there he is: Henry Fonda. He couldn’t have been more gregarious – what a nice man. We hit off. He once told me I looked more like his son than his son. (laughs) We became life-long friends. My part was one week’s work, but I had a nine month contract. I was in Madrid, and a man walks up to me on the street and asked me if I was an actor. I said I was doing BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and he said, ‘You’ve got to come over and do Geraldine Chaplin’s screen test.’ It was Roy Rizzotti, the right hand of David Lean at the time, and they were making DR. ZHIVAGO. And I said, ‘I can’t do that, because I can’t get out of the contract (with Warner Brothers).’ Hank Fonda was sitting with me, and he said, ‘Just be quiet about it. How long can it take?’ So I did. And I have a great story – I was sitting in the Hilton, with the cast of BATTLE OF THE BULGE, hardly anyone knew who the Hell I was anyway, because I was just the pilot, and there’s a lot of mingling, and (Rod) Steiger had just come in for DR. ZHIVAGO. And at the far end of the lobby the door opened and David Lean walked in. There was a hush over the crowd, and people whispered, ‘That’s David Lean! That’s David Lean!’ He walked straight to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for doing the test. And everyone says, ‘Who the Hell are you?’ And David Lean actually offered me something in (ZHIVAGO), but Warner Brothers wouldn’t let me out of that damned thing I was doing (BATTLE OF THE BULGE) – I mean, I was stuck in. I got paid well. There are a lot of people in the business that I liked, but I didn’t really work with. David Lean and Henry Fonda were, I think, the two most important people I worked with in my career.”
His interest in music was put to good use in at least one of his westerns. “One of them, STARBLACK (1966) I wrote the lyric and sang the theme. It was funny because I had just come in from England, from a recording gig, to do this movie, and they took me right over to this (recording) studio, and in two hours I sat down and wrote this stupid lyric, and sang the song, thinking, ‘They’re never gonna use this,’ and there it is, after forty years it’s still playing.” Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack for GUNS OF THE MACGREGGORS (1966), but it’s a little harder to say who did the music for Woods’ movie with the biggest cult following. “It’s strange, because the music for EL PURO (1969) was a combination of three composers: Morricone; Alessandro Alessandroni, who (officially) wrote the music -- he’s the one who wrote the original ‘whistle’ song for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) -- and a guy whose name I can never remember. The three composers had an agreement between them to use each others’ material, so it’s a combination, a mélange of three composers. So on EL PURO we had (some of) the same soundtrack as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.”
Which were his best written scripts? “I like MY NAME IS PECOS (1966), (written by Adriano Bolzoni). BLACK JACK (1968) was a well-written film (by Luigi Ambrosini and Giuseppe Andreoli), and was my first touch with what was intended with spaghetti westerns. They had me way overacting is some scenes -- oh God, it was so hard. ‘Go, over the top, you’re laughing! Keep laughing! Keep laughing!’ Laugh forever? I can’t laugh forever. But the script, though, was excellent. Allen Bianquini wrote a script called HYPNOS (MASSACRE MANIA) (1967), a modern film that I really liked, about subliminal suggestion over the television.”
His favorite director was David Lean. As to the others, “I like (Franco) Giraldi a lot, great feel to 7 GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966). Paolo (Bianchini) I liked a lot, actually when I did GATLING GUN (1968). I chose Paolo (for director) because I liked HYPNOS. Alphonso Balcazar directed EL PURO – he was flexible. We sort of wrote the film around him, while he was directing it.”
One of the unusual aspects of doing movies in Europe in the 1960s was the international casts. “In the beginning it was all guide track, and you’d loop it later. In fact the first film I went down to do, I spoke a little bit of French, but not any Spanish, not since school, and I arrived there, and everyone was speaking their own language. Helmut Schmid was doing German, there were French guys, Italian guys, Spanish guys -- everybody spoke their own language. I had to learn the whole script because it was my first film, and I wanted to know exactly what this guy was saying -- I’m trying to react! I learned everything. It was mostly guide-tracks and looping, except in France, where they were allowed to shoot in nothing but French. I did a thing called THE MERCENARY AND CAPTAIN SINGRID (1968), for French Rank, shot it in Africa, and I had to speak classic French. Well, I speak argot, I don’t speak classic French, and it was like sixteen hours a page trying to get the dialogue down so I could perform it.”
Sometimes the number of productions Robert starred in made looping his own dialog impossible. “I did it as much as I could. 7 GUNS FOR THE MACGREGGORS was one where I really wanted to – it’s a Columbia Pictures release, it’s great, they send me a ticket to New York. But I did seven pictures that year, one right after the other, you can’t break away, and you can’t hold these guys up from releasing their product because I can’t dub it. I said, ‘Just find somebody good.’ And they didn’t. I was not pleased at all with the guy’s performance, but it’s a good film.”
He did two films back to back, co-starring John Ireland: “GATLING GUN (1968), where I played the lead, and in the next picture, CHALLENGE OF THE McKENNAS (1970), he played the lead. He almost always played the hero, but in MCKENNAS he played such a villain that at one point he tries to rape his own sister. Did he like to play bad guys? “Well I liked it, but I wasn’t crazy about that film. I didn’t like (Leon) Klimovsky as a director. I own the American rights to that film, I never wanted it released here.”
But one thing he did like about the experience was working with John Ireland.
“John became my life-long friend. He opened a restaurant in Santa Barbara, and when I came back (to the U.S.) he threw this huge party for me. We became really close friends. In fact, two days before he died, I was up in Santa Barbara, and I said, ‘Come on, I’ve got a limousine, let’s go. We’re going to John Beck’s and see a screening.’ And he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well.’ And he died two days later. He didn’t tell me he was dying! I would have stopped everything and just been there! He was great. I loved John, you know, he was nominated for an Academy Award for ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949).”
Which are his personal favorites among his westerns? “7 GUNS FOR THE MACGREGGORS, because it was a light comedy. It was violent, but it was light. The other one was THE GATLING GUN. And MY NAME IS PECOS, I really like that. It was an enormous success in all of these little third-world countries. I’d been doing those awful – and I mean awful – WHITE FANG (1974-1975) films in the Alps. And I just wanted to forget about that and get some sun. I went on a vacation to Senegal, and a customs officer asked me to come over, and I think, ‘I’m not hiding anything,’ and he asks, ‘Are you Pecos?’ Stores were named after Pecos, my guide was named Pecos! The diplomatic corps of Senegal invited me to parties, I mean, it made quite an impression – this whole country was so taken by this little film. It’s a dark film, but where the little guy wins, and I think that’s why it appeals to these third worlders.”
What are his favorite westerns that he’s not in? “THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Before that I guess my favorite western movie was VERA CRUZ (1954), with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, and then I saw THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and I thought that was the best western I’d ever seen – it’s an authentic display of the west. You know, I grew up in the west, and some of the old guys I knew were there when people were shooting each other in the back. Jack Elam became a friend, and he was telling me about his grandfather, who was a Texas Ranger, and he used to hide behind doors and shoot ‘em in the back: that was his (method). And he said there was not any of this meeting guys face to face in the street, there was no such thing. The quick-draw, I don’t think ever existed, unless it was some kind of a contest.”
Would he want to do another western? “Yeah, probably, (if) we do it as a comedy. Burt Reynolds talked to me about doing a thing called ‘Spaghetti Western’, make it a comedy, make it a behind-the-scenes thing. Wake up in the morning in the bunkhouse, and the guys get up and each has a glass with his teeth in it. That kind of thing.”
And he has another movie in the works. “We’re starting a film called THE HITMAN’S BIBLE, the story of a decrepit old hitman – perfect casting – he’s popping pills all the time, but he won’t kill anybody unless they’ve sinned against God. He has to rationalize it – it’s a very cool script. It’s not done yet, it needs a little work, but the ideas are fantastic.”
GATLING GUN IS available from Dorado Films Inc. Another film, SAVAGE GUNS, is in the 20 Movie Pack from Mill Creek Entertainment entitled MEAN GUNS. And at least a half dozen of his films can be rented, most or all VHS, at Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee.
WESTERN MOVIES ON TV
Note:AMC=American Movie Classics, EXT= Showtime Extreme, FMC=Fox Movie Channel, TCM=Turner Classic Movies. All times given are Pacific Standard Time.
Tuesday March 9th
AMC 8:00 p.m. BLAZING SADDLES (1974)Mel Brooks directed and co-wrote, with Norman Steinberg, this delightfully broad western comedy about a town getting it's first black sheriff, Cleavon Little, helped only by Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid. With Slim Pickens and Madeline Kahn, and featuring a rousing theme sung by Frankie Laine.
AMC 10:00 p.m. GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993) Walter Hill directs from the John Milius script, the Apache chief's life story, starring Wes Studi in the title role, with Jason Partic, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Matt Damon.
Wednesday March 10th
AMC 7:00 a.m. HOMBRE (1967) Elmore Leonard's taught novel about an Apache-raised white man protecting stagecoach passengers gives Paul Newman his best western role (yes, I know BUTCH CASSIDY is good, too), with a fine screenplay by husband-and-wife Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., and crisp direction by Martin Ritt. Co-stars Frederic March and Richard Boone.
AMC 9:30 a.m. GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND See above.
AMC 12:00 p.m. BLAZING SADDLES See above.
EXT 2:05 p.m. GANG OF ROSES(2003) Female rappers Lil' Kim, Macy Gray, Monica Calhoun, LisaRaye play gunslingers in a search for revemge and gold, not necessarily in that order. Written and directed by Jean-Claude LaMarre.
EXT. 10:00 p.m. GANG OF ROSES See above.
Thursday March 11th
EXT 7:15 a.m. SHADOWHEART SHADOWHEART (2009) A bounty hunter is out revenge in 1865 New Mexico. Directed by Dean Alioto from his and Peter Vanderwall's script. Starring Justin Ament, Angus Macfayden, Daniel Baldwin, William Sadler, and two great pros, Rance Howard and Charles Napier.
AMC 5:00 p.m. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) Sydney Pollack directs Robert Redford in the story of a real mountain man, culled from several different writers: Vardis Fisher, Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker. The screenplay is by John Milius and Edward Anholt, and is co-stars Will Geer. Probably Redford's best western role (yes, I know SUNDANCE KID is good, too), and it was a wise move to eliminate his character's nickname: Liver-Eating Johnson.
AMC 7:30 p.m. SILVERADO (1985) Larry Kasdan directs from a script he wrote with his brother Mark. Lots of good stuff in it, but at 133 minutes, it's at least a half hour too long. Starring Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner.
AMC 10:30 p.m. 100 RIFLES (1969) Director Tom Gries took his crew to Spain to film the story of Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds and Jim Brown joining forces to fight a general. Clair Huffaker and Gries adapted Robert McLeod's novel.
Friday March 12th
EXT. 2:30 a.m. SHADOWHEART(2009) A bounty hunter is out revenge in 1865 New Mexico. Directed by Dean Alioto from his and Peter Vanderwall's script. Starring Justin Ament, Angus Macfayden, Daniel Baldwin, William Sadler, and two great pros, Rance Howard and Charles Napier.
AMC 11:30 a.m. SILVERADO See above.
AMC 2:30 p.m. JEREMIAH JOHNSON See above.
AMC 5:00 p.m. PALE RIDER (1985) Clint Eastwood directs and stars as a mysterious stranger (can you believe it?) protecting a town from bad guys. Moody and effective, script by Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack, and featuring Carrie Snodgrass and Michael Moriarty.
Saturday March 13th
AMC 6:30 a.m. THE RARE BREED (1966) Lovely Maureen O'Hara shines as the widow trying to introduce the Hereford breed to Texas, with the help of James Stewart and the hindrance of Brian Keith. Andrew V. McLaglen directs from Ric Hardman's script. Featuring Jack Elam, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., and a great early score by John -- then it was Johnny -- Williams.
AMC 8:45 a.m. WINCHESTER '73 (1950) One of the finest, darkest collaborations between director Anthony Mann and James Stewart. It's all about the quest for "one out of one thousand," the special Winchester rifle that men will do anything to possess. The chilling script is by Robert Richards and Borden Chase, from a story by Stuart Lake. Stars Shelly Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, and, among a lot of great faces, a very young Roch Hudson and Tony Curtis.
TCM 9:00a.m. ALVAREZ KELLY (1966) Fine western pro Edward Dmytryk directs from Fanklin Coen's scriptabout a Mexican cattleman who gets involved with the Civil War. Stars William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Don 'Red' Barry and Harry Carey Jr.
TCM 11:0 a.m. WILL PENNY (1968) One of Charlton Heston's best westerns, as an on-the-run outlaw taking up with frontierwoman Joan Hacket. Written and directed with guts and sensitivity by Tom Gries, and featuring Donald Pleasence, Lee Majors, Bruce Dern and Ben Johnson.
TCM 1:00 p.m. TRUE GRIT (1969) John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, D:Henry Hathaway, W:Margeurite Roberts. John Wayne his Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, helping a feisty young girl track her father's killers!
EXT. 2:35 p.m. THE CLAIM (2000) Michael Winterbottom directs from Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay, based on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, moved to the American west. Stars Peter Mullan, Wes Bentley, Nastassja Kinsky, Sarah Polley and Milla Jovovich.
TCM 3:15 p.m. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962) One of the first, and one of the greatest Peckinpah's! Two over-the-hill lawmen, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are hired to transport gold. It's Scott's last, McCrea 2nd to last, and lovely Mariette Hartley's first (despite claims by Hitchcock). Written poetically by N.B. Stone.
Sunday March 14th
EXT 12:00 a.m. THE CLAIM (2000) Michael Winterbottom directs from Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay, based on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, moved to the American west. Stars Peter Mullan, Wes Bentley, Nastassja Kinsky, Sarah Polley and Milla Jovovich.
TCM 5:00 p.m. GOD'S LITTLE ACRE (1958) Erskine Caldwell's novel about dirt-poor folks hunting for treasure was so racy for it's time that many considered it pornography. Anthony Mann directs the screenplay by Ben Maddow, but credited to Philip Yordan, his 'front' during the witch hunts. Starring Robert Ryan, Aldo Raye and Tina Louise.
I'll have the events for the week either late Sunday or on Monday -- I'm stopping to watch the Oscars!