Next Saturday night, January 28th, at 8:00 p.m., GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE: THE MEASURE OF A MAN, will premiere on the Hallmark Movie Channel. It’s the second entry in the Western movie series – the original GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE premiered in 2011, and more are already in the works.
They’re the adventures of John Goodnight, who, as a child, was riding in a stagecoach with his parents, and a judge and his wife, when the stage is attacked by outlaws. His parents, and the judge, are killed. John and the judge’s widow survive, and she raises John as her own. He grows to be lawyer with no love of the law or of lawyers, and little ambition beyond drinking and carousing. His adoptive mother, a woman with political connections, in an unorthodox but effect use of ‘tough love,’ arranges to have him appointed a circuit judge in frontier Wyoming, and his adventures evolve as he travels from town to town, literally holding court.
Luke Perry not only stars as Goodnight, he also created the character, and executive-produces the movies. Perry is best known for starring for a decade – that’s 199 episodes – in
90210, but his heart has long belonged to the west. When I spoke to him on Friday afternoon, I
told him that I’d seen and enjoyed the first two GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE films. BEVERLY HILLS
LUKE: Well, I enjoyed them too. It’s the first time that I sat down, thought something up, and took it all the way.
HENRY: When you were a kid there weren’t very many westerns being made for the big screen or TV. How did you discover westerns?
L: You know, I felt like I was fortunate to come up at that time, when (the world of) ‘TOY STORY’ was happening, when they were going from cowboys to spacemen on TV. The year I was born, STAR TREK went on the air. And so I got to see all the great westerns I loved as a kid: MAVERICK and THE WILD, WILD WEST, RIFLEMAN, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, BIG VALLEY, GUNSMOKE, BONANZA, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, RAWHIDE. I got ‘em all in re-runs, and when you’re a kid you don’t care that they’re re-runs. You just love them. And I did, and I always promised myself that I was going to do ‘em. And it was not a popular choice when I got here, you know? When I was making movies at Fox, I signed a two-picture deal. I wanted to make 8 SECONDS as my first movie there. They said, ‘No, do the vampire movie, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.’ Wasn’t my idea.
H: But then you did play bull-riding champ Lane Frost in 8 SECONDS.
L: Yuh, I ultimately got 8 SECONDS done, and so glad to have done it.
H: Did you have any prior on-bull experience?
L: Nope. You know it’s one bull at a time. The only way you can acquire that experience.
H: John Avildsen directed you in that. With JOE and the ROCKY and KARATE KID films he’d become a famous star-maker.
Luke Perry with Stefanie Von Pfetten
L: Because John is just a master of his craft. He knows every way there is to get the shot he wants to have, and he has a great story-telling sensibility. He knows that a lot of the choices he makes, people say, ‘Oh, that’s corny.’ But when you watch ROCKY, you’re brought to tears by it. When you watch KARATE KID, most people are brought to tears by it. And those moments are important to him, those are integral hero-making moments. You’ve got to see these people when they’re down. You’ve got to see where they come from. I learned so much from him; he’s such a gracious man, and we’re still good friends to this day. And I suppose that’s one of the things that I’m proudest of, that I got a call from him, must have been a month ago.
H: I was surprised to learn how much animation you’ve done.
L: Yeah, love ‘em, love the cartoons.
H: How does acting for a mike differ from acting for a camera?
L: It’s great, because your physical appearance has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on it. There’s no hair and make-up trailer and lighting. You’ve just got to come from that place in your mind where you can hear all those great crazy voices and be able to access them. And I’ve enjoyed pretty-much all my experiences in animation.
H: Do you think if you were coming up in the 1930s and ‘40s you’d have been a busy radio actor?
L: (deeply) Well, I’d like to think so. I certainly would have loved being part of the Mercury Theatre Company, with Orson Welles and those guys doing all those radio plays, including the big (WAR OF THE WORLDS) hoax – I would love to have been in on that!
H: What are your favorite films?
L: Oh boy, I have so many, and I just added one to the list the other night. THE ARTIST, it’s magnificent, such a compelling score, and I take my hat off to that guy for doing it.
H: What are your favorite westerns?
L: Favorite westerns, well, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. THE LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL is one of my faves.
H: GUN HILL’s a great film. Earl Holliman is a good friend of mine.
L: What a great guy – I was fortunate enough to have met Earl on the set of 90210 one time, and how great is he in that movie? You look at what LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL is about – about the rights of women, and rape, and racism, and all kinds of great, heavy themes that are not all just horses and cows. Westerns can be about really interesting, complicated subject matter. As a template, I feel I can tell any story I need to (tell) out of the saddle.
H: I believe your first period western was 2002’s JOHNSON COUNTY WAR miniseries.
L: Yes, which was where I found these guys at Hallmark. I walked away from that experience thinking, wow, this was a big show. And there were a lot of things that I would have done different about it, and a lot of things that I thought could have been done better, although I loved the director of that movie, David Cass. Dave Cass is a true, legitimate cowboy, and he’s equally a true legitimate filmmaker; his marriage of the two was fantastic. The producers on that film really didn’t do him any favors. I got to work with Burt, and that was something I always wanted to do. He was everything I wanted him to be. When I grew up, Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star in the world, and for good reason. It was really great, on the day, getting to do these scenes where he’s chasing me on a horse, and I’m shooting him, and he hangs me. We spent a lot of time together. He’s very gracious, and Burt had time for everybody. That was a great experience.
H: How about Tom Berenger, who played your brother?
L: Tom and I had a couple of rough days on that movie but ultimately we got everything going, and Tom and I did another movie two years ago. It doesn’t always start out easy, but you get where you’re going.
H: Now that script was done by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
L: And it’s an honor, of course, to be in one of Larry’s shows. Not just because he wrote LONESOME DOVE, but he is committed to telling stories in this period in a way that has a lot of integrity, and are very true, and that’s why people are drawn to the stories. Not just that they’re great stories, but it’s the way that Larry tells them.
H: Any big differences doing a miniseries rather than an hour series or a movie?
L: No. The great thing about acting, irrespective of how the technology, my job will not change. It’s always the same thing: to find that truth in the scene that you want to talk to people about, and make it about that. And when we’re on stage, and there is no technology at all – it’s just us and the audience – that’s pure. It never really changes, even when you’re doing big green-screen shots. In the third movie we’re chasing down a stagecoach, shooting guys off of it, and even when you’re doing things like that, it’s still the same basic thing for me: make this look as real as it can be. And all the guys in the camera department, they can worry about the scientific changes. Actors, we’re blessed to keep doing the same stuff.
Luke Perry swears in Cameron Bright
H: In ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN, 2009, you switched gears radically, playing the villain to Lou Diamond Phillip’s hero.
L: Old LDP, that’s right. He’s a great guy, been a friend for a long time. I was in
, doing another movie, literally on
my way to the airport when my agent rang up and said, ‘You may want to
stay. They need somebody for a few days
on this picture.’ ‘What is it?’ He told me ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN, I went ,
‘Shit, that’s a John Wayne movie!’ It
was good, because I met the director of that picture, Terry Ingram and I think
we’re going to make another movie together. Vancouver
H: Another Western?
L: Hopefully. Because he likes doing them and I really like doing them.
H: How did you like playing the bad guy for a change?
L: Loved it, loved it, loved it! I said, give me an eye patch, give me a wad of tobacco, I’m going to be a bad guy. And the director wasn’t so sure about it. I said I ain’t budging. If you’re getting me you’re getting the eye patch, the tobacco spit, or get yourself another boy. If you’re an actor and you’re going to make a big character choice like that, you’ve got to commit to it, to make it work. And I stayed committed to the choice, and as you’ve seen, that’s how it went down in the movie.
H: In 2008 you starred in A GUNFIGHTER’S PLEDGE, with C. Thomas Howell and Jaclyn DeSantis. That was written by Jim Byrnes who wrote 35 GUNSMOKE episodes.
L: Again, that was a Hallmark picture. When I was doing
I was thinking that maybe I could
do this, and after GUNFIGHTER’S PLEDGE I knew for sure I could make one of
those. After I came home from GUNFIGHTER’S
PLEDGE I sat down, picked up a pen and said this is what I want the next one to
be like. I started thinking about a
character that was interesting to me. JOHNSON COUNTY
H: I would describe John Goodnight as sort of a dissipated attorney – would you agree with that?
L: Boy, I don’t like to think of him as an attorney at all! (laughs) He’s a guy who was dissatisfied at being an attorney, wanted something different, wanted to actually have an effect on the outcome.
H: And obviously you and Hallmark are pleased with the outcome, because you’ve made a second, and I understand you’re going to make a third film pretty soon.
L: We actually have already: we made number two and number three back to back this summer.
H: So that’s already in the can?
L: Yup; well, we don’t can ‘em anymore, but it’s on the card, as they say – it’s crazy how that’s changed.
H: Is the character of Goodnight inspired by any real person?
L: A combination of different things that I’ve wanted to see in a character, things that I’ve read about. I’ve read a lot about Andrew Jackson in his time before he was the president of our country. He was a circuit judge, in the hill country between
and . And it started me thinking about what the
reality of the job would be, having to go from place to place, to be judge,
jury, sometimes executioner. Seemed to
be a heavy load; a lot going on for a character, and that’s what I like. Because many times in scripts, when people
conceive a western, they look down on them, and they think they’re just simple
stories. But my favorite movies are
simple stories told well. Larry McMurtry’s
great at it. Larry and Diana Ossana, they
know that these stories have got to be layered and textured, and about
different things. Tennessee
Cameron Bright and Stefanie von Pfetten
H: John Goodnight’s backstory is really interesting. And what struck me is that normally, most stories would have ended when you graduated from law school, that would be the happy ending, proving that you had triumphed over adversity, but that’s where you begin.
L: That wasn’t interesting to me, no. As I was telling them the story of the first one – because the way it works is I come up with these stories, and I write it down as a story, three, four, sometimes eight pages. One was sixteen pages. And I take it to these writers, Neal and Tippi Dobrofsky, that I work with, and they hammer that into a screenplay. They give that screenplay back to me, and then I can start altering and changing things, but they’re the ones that put it into screenplay form.
H: So you tend to create it at the story point.
L: Right. I come up with the stories, and they come up with the screenplay. And I write on that screenplay. It’s been a really good system for us, you know, we all feel like we’re getting to do what are our strong suits. And I feel like I can protect my character that way.
H: Did you have any misgivings about playing a hero with such a dark past?
L: No, because I’ve always been drawn to the darker characters. I like to look inside that darkness, and see what it is that makes him dark, and when’s the change gonna come. Because nobody’s dark forever. And what’s interesting to watch is the process of that change. Somebody coming from the darkness to the light. And it’ll be interesting to see, as these movies unfold, what kind of direction Goodnight goes in. If he goes towards the light, and that dark’s always going to be pulling him.
H: Do you have an idea in your mind about how many times you’d like to play this character?
L: No, I don’t have it, I never think of the end, I just keep thinking of the next story.
H: How did your old
90210 costar Jason Priestly come to direct the
first one? BEVERLY
L: I said, “Hey bud, you want to direct this thing? We’re shooting it in
and the law says we’ve got to have a Canadian direct it.” And it was the closest way for me to be the
director of the movie without actually being the director. Because Jason and I work so closely
together. That’s always been the nature
of our collaboration; it’s difficult to tell who is actually doing what job at
any given time, but I know at the end of the day that he’s the director of the
H: And of course he played Billy Breckinridge in
. He’s got a good background for westerns. TOMBSTONE
L: Yes he did. He’s been on the set with George Cosmatos, who is an intense filmmaker – let’s put it that way. And he had a pretty clear vision on
H: Do you go through a lot of drafts on the GOODNIGHT films?
L: We don’t actually. In the first one we did; there were a number of drafts back and forth. But now we’ve got a better machine in place. We all have a much better understanding of each other, and what we’re trying to do. And I’ve got to say, they allow me to be very specific in my story-telling with them, when I explain why it is I need this, and what it is I would like to have happen for the character; they’re really good listeners.
H: Have you thought of adding continuing characters, or a sidekick? Or do you think you’re going to stay a loner?
L: Ahh…I don’t need no sidekick. No, I think everyone can relate to a solitary character, because we all have our moments where it’s just us, and I think those are the moments of contemplation and speculation, and that’s a lot of what this character is about. I always picture, as he’s riding across those big open shots, that he’s thinking about things like, ‘Did I hang the wrong guy?’ ‘Did he really do that?’ If you’re a guy who does that job for a living, I’ve got to believe there’s going to be some serious times of second-guessing yourself,. And I want him to be alone for those moments, because I want the character to go through that.
H: While GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE is about a judge, and there are a lot of trials involved, it’s not a law show in the strict sense.
L: Nah, they've got enough of those on TV. In these next two movies, I don’t know if there’s even going to be a trial, if there’s even a legal component to them. I’ve established who the guy is and what he’s about; we don’t have to see him in the courthouse every time. Because he’s just a man out there who happens to be good at the law. I like to have scenes where we see him just being a regular guy. He’s playing cards, he’s drinking whiskey, hanging out with other guys; he’s just living his life.
H: I heard the first one was shot at Bordertown Movie Ranch in
. British Columbia
L: Bordertown, what’s left of it.
H: What is left of it?
L: Not much. (German director) Uwe Boll burned the train station down. And we almost burned one of the barns down this time. But they’re all still standing, and Bordertown is in better shape than it’s ever been, thanks to a really great construction crew that we had this year.
H: A Western, or any period story, tends to be more complicated to shoot than a contemporary story.
L: Yes and no. I mean, sometimes the horses and livestock offer their own specific challenge, but when you get they guys who know how to do it, it’s just as easy as anything.
H: How long is your shooting schedule?
L: We got this picture shot in fifteen days.
H: My goodness, that’s fast.
L: Yes, that’s pretty fast, but what we’re finding is in being able to keep the same crew together on these movies, everybody gets that cohesive spirit, and they know what we’re looking for, we can do it. We hired some really great people – fantastic production designer Paul Joyal; our make-up department, Candace Stafford – she’s making up all the Indians, making people look old, dirt and different things, and they’re all really enthusiastic about doing it, because they like the movies: we all have a lot of fun doing them.
H: Are you very involved with the casting?
L: I read with every actor who comes through the door. And it takes a lot of time, but it’s what works for me, because then I can see who it is who I’m going to be doing the scene with on the day. I like that. I was very impressed with the efforts of Cameron Bright, the young actor who plays my potential son. I was a little skeptical, because I knew Cameron had been in the TWILIGHT movies, and sometimes those kids get an attitude. And that was never the case with this kid; he showed up, he knew I was gonna put his ass on a horse and make him actually do it. And he injured his back at the beginning of the thing, and that still didn’t stop him. He sucked it up, went out there and got on that thing, and I was very impressed. He made quite an effort. And Stefanie Von Pfetten was quite beautiful also. She’s a stunner. We were casting, and that’s one of those things where I’m happy that I get to pick. I’m like, look at her: that’s the one. She was wonderful. I was very, very impressed and thankful for her contribution.
H: I’m not going to give it away, but I liked that the ending of the first movie is a bit darker than you’d expect in a Hallmark movie.
L: Thank you. That was the one place where me and the network, we kind of bumped heads. It’s not your typical Hallmark ending, everybody kissing in the sunset, but not all stories end that way. And Barbara Fisher, the executive at the Hallmark Channel, I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘At some point, Barbara, you’ve just got to trust that if I set this guy up right, even if the ending’s that heavy, they’ll want to see him in another movie. And that lady took a shot and she believed in me and let me do that, editorially. I just wanted to find a way to end that story that a guy like Earl Holliman would watch and go, ‘Okay, he was thinking about it.’ He didn’t just say, okay we’ve got three minutes left, let’s wrap this movie up. I really wanted that story to culminate in something meaningful, that would make people think.
H: It seems in the last few years there’s been a growing interest in making Westerns again, starting with the success of the 3:10 TO YUMA remake and the TRUE GRIT remake.
L: Yuh, the TRUE GRIT remake was fantastic! Those guys had a real serious challenge, obviously. They were going after not just ‘a’ John Wayne movie, but pretty much ‘the’ John Wayne movie, and they said, ‘no, we’re going to tell the story from the book,’ and I thought that was great movie.
H: What do you think of recent hybrid sci-fi westerns like JONAH HEX and COWBOYS & ALIENS?
L: I didn’t think either one of them were particularly any good. Although I couldn’t see enough of COWBOYS & ALIENS – the photography was too dark!
WHEELS just finished their first
season. NBC has three Western pilots
ordered, most of the other networks and cable outfits have at least one Western
in development. Do you think this is
good, or do you think it’s too much? HELL ON
L: I think it doesn’t matter what I think. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. I’ve got stories that I want to tell in this vein, and I’m going to concentrate on that and do the best I can. I wish them the best in all their endeavors, and we’ll see who gets where at the end.
H: Having done several westerns, how do you relate your persona to Western actors of the past? Do you see yourself in Glenn Ford roles or Joel McCrea roles, for instance?
L: Ahhh…clearly I see myself as a young Walter Brennan. A young Wilford Brimley.
(He says it so straight-faced that I am stupidly taken in until he laughs.)
H: I would not have guessed.
L: (laughs) No, I try not to think about it, but I’ll tell you, I watch those guys a lot, and I’m sure, that just by osmosis, there’s a little bit of all of them in all the movies I make. Because when I grew up, those were the guys I wanted to be like. Joel McCrea – what a great actor; people don’t talk about him much anymore. And Richard Widmark, he’s just great. Ben Johnson was a great actor who made a ton of those movies. You look at the cast of LIBERTY VALANCE, and it’s got Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef when they’re both really young. The other thing I like about making these things is I get to employ a lot of actors. When you look at those movies, the great westerns, it’s not enough just to have a hero that you think is effective. That movie’s got to be deep, man – the bartenders are great parts, all the sheriffs – you know what I mean? That’s where you get those great character actors, and that’s one of the reasons I also love those old movies, and try to do the same thing.
H: Do you think the audience for Westerns is growing?
L: I think this stuff ebbs and flows. There are waves of nostalgia that wash over our country sometimes. Like right now as we’re looking at the Second Depression, everybody’s remembering the way things were, and when Americans remembers back, they don’t have to go too far back to when the cowboy was the hero. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now.