TOM WOPAT – NOT JUST A GOOD OL’ BOY
TOM WOPAT ON HIS INSP ‘COUNTY LINE’ MOVIES, BEING LUKE DUKE, HIS WESTERNS, AND MUSICALS
By Henry C. Parke
On Monday, November 28th, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, the second of INSP’s County Line movies starring Tom Wopat, County Line: All In, will play on INSP. It’s also streaming on Vudu, and is available to purchase on Amazon.
No disrespect to Waylon Jennings, there’s nothing wrong with being a good ol’ boy, but fans who know Tom Wopat by his portrayal of rural characters in movies like County Line and series like The Dukes of Hazzard may be surprised to learn that he’s also a major Broadway musical star. Tom certainly has his country credentials, growing up in Lodi, Wisconsin, “On a farm. Every other farmer had a little dairy farm.” But his goals would soon draw him beyond his state’s border, and he credits Wisconsin’s education system for preparing him.
TOM WOPAT: Back in the sixties. you remember when Kennedy said we we're going to the moon in nine years? We did, you know. I think that our schools in Wisconsin were exceptional, in that decade especially. And I was fortunate enough to have really fine music teachers, even when I was a little kid. The local music teacher kind of took me under her wing and encouraged me to learn songs and do solos. And then a guy from North Carolina came to the University of Wisconsin, and he, again, took me under his wing and taught me. I sang opera, I sang German Lieder art songs. I had a really wonderful musical education in our little high school.
HENRY PARKE: So you were first attracted to music, rather than acting?
TOM WOPAT: Definitely. I did my first musical when I was 12. I kinda learned acting just in self-defense (laugh). I started getting better and better parts and, when I went to the University, (I did) West Side Story, and Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar -- I played Judas in that. It was amazing. And also there were guys that, again, took me under their wing. I was directed towards the summer stock theater in Michigan, where I could get my [theatre actors’ union] Equity card. After I got my Equity card, I took my ‘68 Chevy and 500 bucks and two guitars and drove to New York.
When I got to New York, it was pretty quick. I got there in the fall of ‘77, and by the spring of 78 I was in an off-Broadway musical. I left that one to go to D.C., where I played the lead character in The Robber Bride Room, the Bob Waldman musical. I left that to go back to Broadway and replace Jim Naughton in I Love My Wife. So within six or seven months of being in New York, I was on Broadway in the leading role.
HENRY PARKE: When you were doing so well on Broadway, why did you go to Hollywood?
TOM WOPAT: To quote Larry Gatlin, they made me an offer I couldn't understand (laugh). It was shortly after I finished an off-Broadway run in Oklahoma. I read for Dukes, and that afternoon they called and said, you want to fly to LA and do a screen test? I said, I guess so. I don't know (laugh), I'm just a farm boy from Wisconsin. So I packed up a few things in a paper bag and got on a plane. And 10 days later, we were shooting in Georgia. I mean, I went from Wisconsin in the fall of '77 to New York, and was on Broadway in the summer of 78. And in the fall of 78 we were making the Dukes of Hazzard.
HENRY PARKE: That's amazingly fast.
TOM WOPAT: Yeah, it was a bit of a whirlwind. When I found out I got the part, I was more frightened than relieved. I had just put my toes into the water in New York City, doing Broadway, and then all of a sudden I gotta go and do a role in an action series. I had no idea how to approach television. It's a different ballgame than being on stage. But I figured I'd make a little money and go back to Broadway, but not so: Dukes was a big hit immediately. So then I moved to LA for a few years.
HENRY PARKE: You mentioned going to Georgia to shoot. I thought the series was shot at Warner Brothers in Burbank.
TOM WOPAT: We shot five shows in Georgia, and it was a little grittier, a little more adult show than what it ended up being. They started preaching to the choir a little bit. And some of the scripts got fairly cartoonish for a while. We even had a visitor from outer space in one episode (laugh), which is really bizarre.
HENRY PARKE: How did you get along with John Schneider?
TOM WOPAT: I’ve got six brothers, but I count John as number seven. I really, really enjoyed my time. I enjoyed our cast. Our cast was very close and still is, really a nice bunch of people.
HENRY PARKE: You worked with two of my favorite actors in that regularly, Denver Pyle as Uncle Jesse, and James Best as Sheriff Rosco Coltrane.
TOM WOPAT: Terrific actors, terrific. And Sorrell Booke [Boss Hogg] might have been the best of the bunch. Denver and Jimmy probably had more visibility, but Sorrel was kind of ubiquitous for a while. He's in What's Up, Doc? He was on M.A.S.H. And he was a really, really talented guy. All three of them were very talented and very helpful to the younger crew.
HENRY PARKE: Why did you and John Schneider famously walk out?
TOM WOPAT: Well, they [the Dukes producers] sell all the dolls and the cars and all that merchandise stuff, and we were supposed to get a pretty good taste of that. But the way they did it is they had a series of shell companies. So they would buy the company that made the toys, they would buy the company that licensed everything. They were making half a billion dollars a year, and we were getting a check for a couple of grand. So we thought we were being cheated. And unfortunately, that's the word we used in our lawsuit, and they took umbrage to that and then sued us. In retrospect, it might not have been the best bunch of decisions that we made. However, it was the first time that two stars of a show had walked out together, and that meant something to other actors in the business. We didn't really get a raise (laugh). They just dropped all the lawsuits. And we did get a couple of new writers, and I was able to direct a half a dozen episodes. I very much enjoyed that. We had a little more control of the artistic input into the show. I mean, that could be an oxymoron for Dukes of Hazzard, but John and me, we had a lot of skin in the game. We were out there every week doing this stuff, and they kept shortening the shooting schedule. And they wanted to use miniature cars and barns and stuff. They were doing stunts that weren't stunts, filming stuff with toys and presenting it like it was real. And that was kind of an insult. So, for one of my last episodes, I took out all the miniature stunts that they were gonna do, and I put in footage from earlier shows, different angles of jumps and crashes that we did that weren't used. We had this huge backlog of stuff like that, and I put it to good use. And John got to direct; John directed the final one. In retrospect, we may have shortened the life of the show a little bit with our walkout, but you know, hindsight's 20-20. We moved on and had a lot of success. I started making records, and from 1991 until 2013, I was probably in a dozen different shows on Broadway.
HENRY PARKE: Including your first historical Western role, as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun.
TOM WOPAT: We had so much fun! Bernadette Peters is the perfect leading lady, and I worked with her for almost two years. That's really the high point of my Broadway career. Then Glengarry Glenn Ross opened up a whole different territory of parts to me. People were not aware that I had any range. They're used to seeing me as the big dog in a musical. And in Glengarry, I was the patsy, I was the one who got taken advantage of. That was interesting; that was hard. Because I'm so used to playing the hero. Playing somebody that gets skunked, it's not a feeling I wanna walk around with all day (laugh), but I've had other interesting parts. I did a thing with Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful. That's the last time I was on Broadway.
HENRY PARKE: And you played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.
TOM WOPAT: Oh man, what a dream cast. Nathan Lane was Nathan Detroit, Faith Prince was Miss Adelaide, Josie de Guzman was Sister Sarah. One of my favorite parts is playing Billy Flynn in Chicago, because he shows up late and leaves early, and he wears one outfit.
HENRY PARKE: In 2010 you did the film Jonah Hex, which is certainly an edgy Western --somewhere between historical and steampunk.
TOM WOPAT: It's like, metaphysical. I read for it and they decided I could wear a dental prosthesis and (laugh) pull it off. That was kind of a complicated situation. I think they went through three directors getting that thing filmed. We worked in Louisiana. I enjoyed it. It wasn't the most fun I've had; I'll tell you the most fun I’ve had doing a Western was Django Unchained. Oh my gosh. That was great. Basically, my part [as a U.S. Marshall] is kind of a one- trick-pony, but what I did in the movie is exactly what I did in the audition. Tarantino was very, very gracious. People don't know, but Tarantino used to study acting with James Best. [Tarantino] would take a bus up from Torrance, and he would have a class on Thursday night, and then Jim would let him sleep in the classroom. Then he would come over to Warner Brothers the next day, I think he's 18, 19 years old, and hang out on the set being one of Jim's guests. So now he has a habit of using TV stars in his films; like Don Johnson was so super in Django. I enjoyed Longmire, another Western. I'm playing kind of a villain in a sense. It's always implied that I'm taking money from the oil companies to let them do what they want in my county. That was a quality organization. And one of the producers was the daughter of one of the people that worked on Dukes at Warner Brothers.
HENRY PARKE: You shot Django at Melody Ranch.
TOM WOPAT: Right, the Gene Autry place.
HENRY PARKE: As a singer, did you feel any Gene Autry vibes there?
TOM WOPAT: No. But you feel the vibes of his horse that's buried there standing up -- you know that? He buried Champion standing up. We had a good time. One notable thing that Tarantino does is, when you go to the set, you check your phone. There's no cell phones on the set. Which I thought was genius, and it's not brain surgery to do that. You want everybody focused on what they're supposed to be doing, not checking their email.
HENRY PARKE: Right. And there's way too much of that on sets these days.
TOM WOPAT: When I was doing A Catered Affair one time, there was a kid down in the front row and he was looking at a cell phone and I was like six feet away. I'm sitting at a table right at the edge of the stage and I just looked down there and I just shook my head back and forth and he put the phone away.
HENRY PARKE: I was surprised to realize that the first County Line movie you made for INSP was four years ago.
TOM WOPAT: Yeah, it was a while back, and it was actually their first action movie. Their previous movies had largely been romcoms, maybe with a little bit of drama to them. Ours was the first action one. I had so much fun. I had such a great time. And then, they asked if I wanted to do two more, two sequels back-to-back. I said, yeah, you bet. So we filmed them down in Charlotte and around there. And again, a lot of fun, the most fun, really, I've had since Django or Dukes. Because in these shows I'm kind of the big dog, the leader of the pack and I enjoy being able to set the tone on the set, and making sure everybody has a good time. So I take the cast and crew out bowling, or I'll bring in a big pot of chili that everybody has to have a taste of, or make ribs for everybody. I enjoy that kind of hosting situation, and being the alpha male. It's not probably the most attractive thing to be the alpha male, but (laugh) I enjoy it.
HENRY PARKE: And you need one.
TOM WOPAT: Usually there's a leader on the set. When we were doing Dukes, the leader on our set was a director of photography, Jack Whitman, may he rest in peace. He set the tone. He had come from shooting Hawaii 5-0, so him and his crew had all come from Hawaii. And there was a certain vibe on the set that was focused but gentle. And erudite. He was a real leader in a very soft-spoken way. He was a good guy to learn from.
HENRY PARKE: For folks who haven’t seen the first County Line movie, and don’t know your character, Sheriff Alden Rockwell, what does the title refer to?
TOM WOPAT: There’s a café, basically a diner, that sits on the county line, on the road. There's a line that runs down the middle of the café, a line drawn across the table exactly where the county line is, so if I have a beer, I have to put it in the other county, because we don't drink in my county. There was cooperation between me and the sheriff in the next county [Clint Thorne, played by Jeff Fahey], and we had actually served together in Vietnam as Marines, so we’re heavily bonded.
HENRY PARKE: I don’t want to give away too much, because it’s a good mystery as well as a rural crime story.
TOM WOPAT: It's a little bit like Walking Tall.
HENRY PARKE: Yes. Alden Rockwell became a widower in the first film. And the diner’s proprietress, Maddie Hall, is played by Patricia Richardson.
TOM WOPAT: And Pat Richardson has a really nice quality. It gives you a sense of comfort to see somebody that you know and recognize. I mean, being kind of my girlfriend and also running a diner and looking after my health, there's a comforting part of that. I think one of the real attractions of Dukes to families is that it's about family, and it's about taking care of your family, and making sure that nobody comes to harm. And when we're talking family, we talk extended family. So if Boss or Rosco got their tail in a crack somewhere, Jesse would make sure that we helped them out of it. I liken it to The Andy Griffith Show.
HENRY PARKE: Oh, I can see that immediately. In the County Line films Abby Butler plays your daughter, and it’s a very interesting and very unusual relationship between you two, with her as a recently returned Iraq War vet.
TOM WOPAT: Well, she's a pistol, man! She didn't take any guff off me. I'm proud of her for joining the service, but I'm frightened for her at the same time.
HENRY PARKE: Right.
TOM WOPAT: There's that one scene in the original County Line where we're out on the porch and breaking down pistols that we've just taken from a bunch of nefarious dudes. And I asked the director, I said keep this in a two-shot. Because it really works, and any cuts back and forth would be more of a distraction than a help. If you look at old movies, a lot of the really good scenes are shot in a two shot. They let you decide who you want to watch for the reactions and who you want to listen to. It's not like [single close-up] ‘talking heads’, which television in the eighties got into a lot. We had a lot of fun making County Line and we had just as much fun making these two new movies.
HENRY PARKE: Someone who’s new to the mix is Kelsey Crane, who plays Jo Porter, who is now the sheriff across the county line.
TOM WOPAT: She's terrific. She's got a lot of talent and she also has the moxie to know how to work a set and how to let people do their jobs without getting in their stuff. Cause a lot of actors will kind of try to be the center of attention all the time. And that gets pretty old.
HENRY PARKE: If there are going to be more County Line movies, or possibly a series, the determining factor will probably be how audiences relate to your character. Why do you think viewers will keep coming back?
TOM WOPAT: Because Alden is the kind of a guy who, if he sees an injustice, he's gonna try and do something to make it right. Whether he really has the power to do that, the agency to do that, that doesn't matter. He's going to do what he can, legally, mostly.
THE PERFECT GIFT FOR THE MOVIE-HISTORY LOVER:
VITAGRAPH – AMERICA’S FIRST GREAT MOTION PICTURE STUDIO
BY ANDREW A. ERISH
ARTICLE BY HENRY C. PARKE
NOTE: The videos you’ll see embedded throughout the article are not merely clips, they are complete films, some running just three minutes, others nearly half an hour.
While most film biographers and historians set out to teach you more about the films and personalities you’ve already grown to love, educator, historian and author Andrew Erish has set himself a more ambitious task: he seeks out the film pioneers who have been undeservedly written out of the histories. The depth and detail of his research is astonishing, and his prose is accessible and entertaining. With his previous tome, the fascinating Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, he told of the life and work of a film pioneer whose name belongs alongside D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, and Cecil B. DeMille. He wants to save Vitagraph from the same sort of obscurity.
The output of this initially Brooklyn-based movie studio was remarkable. “They were leading the way,” Erish explains. “From 1905 on, they were producing more movies than anyone else in America. They were the first to consistently release a film a week; then it became two films a week until, by 1911 or 1912, they were releasing six shorts and one feature every week. It's just an astounding output, and covering every kind of movie imaginable.”
The men who formed Vitagraph were unlike any of the other movie moguls. Sam Goldwyn was a glove salesman. Louis Mayer was a nickelodeon theatre operator. They all came to movies from business. But not Vitagraph’s J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. “They started out as vaudeville entertainers.” Both English immigrants, who arrived in America at the age of ten, Smith was a magician, ventriloquist, and impressionist. Blackton was a cartoonist and quick-sketch artist. “They understood the aesthetic that ruled vaudeville, which was a variety of entertainment that would appeal to the widest possible audience, with something for every segment of the audience. And understanding firsthand what audiences reacted to, as stage performers, they had insight that really no mogul coming after them had; they had experience.”
Erish makes a convincing case that Blackton created the first animated films. “There's absolutely no doubt about it,” he asserts. “A lot of history books mistakenly credit, a Frenchman named Emile Cohl, but Cohl's first animated film was made after Blackton had already made four or five. And Cohl's very first film is actually aping a film which Blackton had made a year earlier.”
Below is Blackton’s wonderful 1907 film, The Haunted Hotel.
The Haunted Hotel – 1907 dir. Blackton
While Blackton was pioneering animation, “Smith, on the other hand, was very interested in making action-oriented films, and great with moving camera ideas and staging dramatic moments and action to their greatest effect, in real locations, so that these stories would appear more real. And if he was staging something at a steel mill, he would photograph at real steel plants, and put real steel workers mixed in with his lead actors, and it all looked real.”
They excelled in Westerns, eventually. “The very first Westerns Vitagraph made were in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And they're really bad, there’s just no getting around it. But they had a great story guy named Rollin Sturgeon, who they promoted to director. The guy had such a strong story sense and such a strong visual sense, and they sent him out to Los Angeles to open up a second studio, primarily to make Westerns. He made a film about the Oklahoma land rush called How States are Made. When the starting cannon is fired, he covers everything in an amazing, extraordinary wide-angle shot that starts with an empty hill. And you start to see the crest of the hill is covered in these little dots. Then they start to move down the hill and you realize these are people on horseback, covered wagons, the horse-buggies -- they're all coming towards the camera. That shot lasts over three minutes and it's absolutely stunning to let it play out in real time in a single shot.”
How States are Made -- 1912
While Thomas H. Ince is credited with “inventing” the Western, and the studio system (and for dying on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht while sailing with Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin), his younger brother Ralph Ince was one of Vitagraph’s finest Western directors. “I think Ralph Ince is second only to [D.W.] Griffith (for) his contributions to the language of cinema. In The Strength of Men, with the two guys shooting the rapids with no protection, and then fighting in the midst of a real forest fire! It's in front of your eyes, the way it would be if that dramatic story were really happening for real.”
The Strength of Men – Ralph Ince -- 1913
Vitagraph also excelled in comedies, creating the first great movie comedian with John Bunny, here seen assisted by fourteen-year-old Moe Howard!
Mr. Bolter’s Infatuation – John Bunny -- 1912
Another huge comedy star was cartoonist-turned-actor Larry Semon. Although his hilarious sight-gag comedies are forgotten in America today, “Around the world, Larry Semon's movies have been shown, non-stop to this day on TV in Spain, Germany, throughout South America, and Italy.”
You can watch Semon perform with a yet-to-team Stan Laurel…
Frauds and Frenzies – Larry Semon, Stan Laurel --1918
… and Oliver Hardy. If you’re offended by black-face jokes, you can skip Hardy.
The Show – Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy – 1922 Norman Taurog
While the story of the demise of the Vitagraph company is by turns infuriating and heartbreaking – they barely survived into the sound era -- their influence on film is inestimable. Many of their discoveries went on to notable careers both in front of and behind the camera. “Edward Everett Horton made his first movies at Vitagraph, and became a big silent star. Adolph Menjou started at Vitagraph, playing suave, debonair characters. Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard of Oz, got his start in Vitagraph movies, as a much younger man, back in the teens. And Larry Semon hired a young guy who had directed one or two films, a kid named Norman Taurog, to be his co-director and co-writer. And Northern Taurog went on to have an illustrious career. He directed Bing Cosby and Bob Hope, he directed six Martin and Lewis movies, he directed nine Elvis movies – he was Elvis' favorite director.”
Vitagraph is the winner of the 2022 Peter C. Rollins Book Award and received an award from the Popular Culture Association as one of the best books of 2022. It’s available directly from The University Press of Kentucky, in hardcover and paperback, here: https://www.kentuckypress.com/9780813195346/vitagraph/
It can also be ordered from independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.
I’VE GOT A BOOK DEAL!!!!!!!!!
I am thrilled to announce that I am writing a book for TwoDot Publishing! Tentatively entitled The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, it will feature many of my articles from True West magazine. It’s the perfect Christmas gift – but not this Christmas. It will be in book stores in the spring of 2024.
THE INSP ARTICLES
Just about a year ago, the very fine folks at The INSP Channel, whom I’ve known for a decade, and written for a little bit, hired me to write a couple of articles about Westerns for them every month. I’ve been having a great time doing it, although between writing for them, and being the Film and Television Editor for True West magazine, I am sure you can understand why The Round-up has been appearing less frequently than it used to.
One really exciting thing that has come from this was to chance to interview John Wayne’s son, Ethan, on camera. I’m including below a link to that interview, and links to several of my INSP articles enjoy!w
LANA WOOD INTERVIEW
KATHARINE ROSS AND SAM ELLIOT
REDFORD, NEWMAN, AND GEORGE
JOHN WAYNE AND JAMES ARNESS - WHEN THE STARS ALIGN
…AND THAT’S A WRAP!
What better possible way to follow up my interview with Tom Wopat? I’ll be talking with John Schneider about Dukes of Hazzard, his Westerns, and his new movie, To Die For. Please check out the December 2022 issue of True West, with my article on the best mountain man movie ever made, Jeremiah Johnson! And if I don’t get to post before the holidays, have a very merry Christmas, a happy Chanukah, a happy New Year, and a joyous anything and everything else that you celebrate!
All Original Content Copyright November, 2022 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved