The Stacks: How Sam Peckinpah Fused Beauty and Blood
On the set of The Getaway in El Paso, everyone from Steve McQueen to Slim Pickens agreed that Peckinpah was unpredictable, more than a mite scary, and a helluva movie director.
Over the past few weeks, the Film Center at New York’s Lincoln Center screened all 14 movies by maverick film director Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah may be less revered than Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese but he always had a devoted following—he was one of critic Pauline Kael’s favorites. In 1999, she wrote, “Today, I feel the same, almost inordinate love of his films that I felt fifteen years ago, but the turmoil has gone out of the atmosphere surrounding them. When he was making movies, it felt, for some of us, as if we were watching an ongoing street accident.”
The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs are indeed as arresting and disturbing now as they were when they first appeared. One of Peckilnpah’s most celebrated projects was The Getaway, a tense thriller starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Leave it to Grover Lewis—whose features on The Last Picture Show and the Allman brothers have appeared in this space—to revisit Peckpah’s set to reveal just how wild Peckinpah and his bunch truly were. Originally published as “Sam Peckinpah in Mexico: Overlearning with El Jefe” in the October 12, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, it is reprinted here with permission.
Limping delicately as if his boots are a couple of sizes too tight, so rockinghorse loaded on Juarez tequila he’d flunk a knee-walking test, Roy Jenson, one of the neo-Wild Bunch of characters and character actors that Sam Peckinpah has flushed out of the Hollywood woodwork to play the cutthroat band of thieves in his ultraviolent new thriller The Getaway, lurches against a red light into the rushing cabal of noonday traffic at Oregon Street and Missouri Avenue, a stone’s throw away from the Holiday Inn-Downtown (El Paso), where most of the film’s location troupe is quartered. Impervious to the abruptly bleating horns, the squall of brakes, and drivers’ outraged yelps, Jenson, a barrel-gutted factory-second Forrest Tucker-type, stops dead in the center of the swirling traffic, squints up at the broiling late-April sun, blinks rapidly, and with agonizing deliberation puts on a pair of those mirrored wraparound shades that Vietnam chopper pilots wear on the Six O’Clock News every night. Then, hitching up his baggy-seated twill ranch pants and flashing an up-yours salute to the world at large, Jenson resumes his peristaltic cha-cha-cha to the opposite side of the street, where a startled onlooker, out on a stroll from the hotel, has stood riveted to the sidewalk watching the actor’s near-calamitous weave through volleys of cars slipstreaming close enough to Jenson’s body to lift his longish, graying topknot to a whipping boil.
“Hah,” Jenson snorts, dabbing at his damp temples with a crumpled red bandanna as he hobbles up on the curb, jerking a thumb for the onlookers’ benefit at the tire-screeching melee in the street behind him. “Ony fuckin’ safe place in a fuckin’ war is to be dead, anyways.” Pursing his lips narrowly, Jenson looks the second man—a writer from San Francisco, as it happens—up and down, from English-cut black velvet jacket to faded bell-bottoms to well-traveled Tony Lama boots. Expelling a long, warm rush of alcohol fumes, Jenson politely encircles the writer’s upper arm between thumb and forefinger and begins guiding him, firmly but gently, up the block toward a basement place called Miguel’s: “C’mon, doctor, you look real… innersting. I gotta headache and a hard-on both. Less you and me go get us a drank before I lose my fuckin’ high.”
The downstairs bar-restaurant is dim and quiet and pleasantly cool. A blonde waitress in a miniskirt fetches the two men’s drinks, and as she leans over the table to put the coasters in place, Jenson, without preamble, attempts to stick his tongue in her ear. Startled, horrified, the young girl recoils. “Aw, it’s awright darlin’,” he assures her soothingly. “Listen here, lady—you gotta boyfriend?” Keeping her distance, the girl stiffly nods yes. Jenson grins wolfishly: “Tell you what, then, hon—you tell that ugly sombitch to be down here at closin’ time tonight and I’ll blow his fuckin’ head off with a fuckin’ Thompson machine gun. Can you remember that?” Wordlessly, the girl scurries off white-faced, heel-and-toe, heel-and-toe. Jenson looks after her fondly: “Hot damn, she’s a real motor scooter, you know it? I purely love to give these little ol’ country girls somethin’ to remember me by. It’s a real thrill for ’em.”
Belching, Jenson drains off half his martini and helps himself to one of the writer’s cigarettes. Then he slaps his palm down on the tabletop with a crack like a rifle shot. Heads crane around all across the restaurant. “So you came down here to the fuckin’ El Paso del Norte to write a story about ol’ Sam Peckinpah, did you?” he sneers, striking a match with his thumbnail. “Sheeit. Big deal, haw-haw, boy.” Jenson pronounces the word “Baw-uh.” “Sheeit, Sam probly won’t even talk to you—who the fuck are you, anyways? Anyways, he just got shut of some lame-brained cunt from Esquire who spent ten days hangin’ around tellin’ him how great she was. Listen, baw-uh, would you care to arm rassle or knife-fight or somethin’?”
When the writer grinningly declines, Jenson grumbles unintelligibly to himself for a minute, stubs out his freshly lit cigarette, then immediately lights another. “Listen, baw-uh—you wanna know the real honest-to-God goudge about ol’ Sam Peckinpah? I’ll just bet you do. Well, let me tell you—he’s a lowlife sorry sonofabitch, a mean, shifty-eyed backstabbin’ motherfucker—he’s shitty, he’s beautiful, he’s great, he’s a fuckin’ wizard and he’s also a saint. He’s a goddamn man, baw-uh. A goddamn natural man.”
Shaking his head as if there’s something rolling around loose inside it, Jenson takes off his mirrored shades and rubs his mucus-crusted eyes delicately with the tips of his fingers before going on: “You been to college, right, stud? Yeah, well, you must of—you look about smart enough to make change for a dollar. What outfit’d you say you worked for? Naw, I never heard of it. But looky here—you recollect how some of your college professors leaned toward underlearnin’ you and others toward overlearnin’ you? Well, ol’ Sam Pee will overlearn you every time—every single friggin’ time…”
Poking at the dregs of his drink with a swizzle stick, his meaning obscure and his expression undecipherable, Jenson trails off to stony silence. Warily, the blonde waitress returns, but this time she’s careful to keep at arm’s length from him. “Y’all want anything else to drink?” she inquires in a small voice. “Damn right, you sexy motor scooter,” Jenson drawls, straightening up from his slump and putting on a boozy, lopsided grin. “How about you and me eelopin’? Right now, today—go get a clean toothbrush and your fastest walkin’ stick. Hell, I’m a married man with three kids, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of that if you don’t. Why, I’ll sell my $750,000 ranch in the San Fernando Valley and give you the whole bundle, and we can run off to Mexico and be cowboys or somethin’. And I promise not to gun down your boyfriend, neither—I’ll just maim him a little, maybe. Besides, my part’s done in the pitcher, and I’ve already turned in my machine gun to Property, anyways. How about it, hoss? You hot to trot?” “Aw, you don’t have no $750,000 ranch anywheres,” the girl scoffs scornfully. Jenson lumbers heavily to his feet, groping blindly for the check, fumbling in his wallet for a bill. “Naw, I don’t, darlin’,” he concedes in a thick, weary voice. “Naw, lady, ’deed I don’t.”
Left a little sandbagged by his happenstance encounter with Jenson, the writer returns to the Holiday Inn to spend a couple of uneasy hours spot-reading through Walter Hill’s screen treatment of Jim Thompson’s novel The Getaway. From time to time, reflecting on the fact that he’s, in effect, been barred from observing the day’s shooting by Sam Peckinpah’s fiat—relayed discreetly, of course, down the production chain-of-command via the film’s unit publicist, Mack Hamilton—and recalling Jenson’s sardonic jibe—Sam probly won’t even talk to you—who the fuck are YOU, anyways?—the writer paces restlessly around the room, stopping on each heel-turn at the sliding balcony doors to gaze out over a squalling freeway toward the haze-shrouded mountains of New Mexico, the somber Organ ranges, where a bellicose magenta nimbus formation is gathering force. A couple of floors below, the hotel’s pool gleams blinding-bright in the sun, surrounded by ersatz-green Astroturf, and huddled at far end of the deck, a red-haired matron in white go-go boots sits alone in a webbed beach chair, sobbing into her hands over something or other.
Hill’s screenplay, dedicated “to Raoul Walsh,” is taut, fast-paced, and chilling. The story concerns a bank robbery in a small Texas town and its blood-spattered aftermath as the thieves begin to double-, triple-, and quadruple-cross each other in a scramble for the loot. The holdup is financed by a corrupt LBJ-type politician and his accountant brother, played respectively by Ben Johnson and John Bryson, and executed by a professional thief, “Doc McCoy”—Steve McQueen—his wife “Carol”—Ali McGraw—and a shrink’s surfeit of sadistic gunmen portrayed by Roy Jenson, Al Lettieri, Bo Hopkins, Bill Hart, and Tom Runyon.
After a couple of grisly shootouts early-on in the action, “Doc” and “Carol” flee across the Texas plains with the money, hotly pursued by the politician’s henchmen and separately by “Rudy”—Al Lettieri—who, because he’s wounded and unable to drive, abducts a terror-stricken veterinarian and his hot-to-get-it-on wife, who obligingly balls the gangster in a succession of motel rooms while her bound-and-gagged husband looks helplessly on. Eventually, all the surviving thieves converge on the seedy Laughlin Hotel in downtown El Paso for an apocalyptic, gut-spattering showdown. When the smoke clears, “Doc” and “Carol” hightail it for Mexico with the loot, in the clear for the present, but their future clearly tense.
On the whole, the characters in The Getaway, including the principals, are depicted as sordid, grubby, essentially conscienceless psychopaths, pretty much lacking in either basic human scruples or redeeming social value. But far and away the most repellent—and fascinating—character in the script is “Fran,” the veterinarian’s distinctly polymorphous-perverse wife. The production credit sheet lists “Fran” as being played by Sally Struthers.
Sally Struthers … can youse believe it? She plays Gloria, Archie Bunker’s 19-year-old clean-machine daughter, the plump WASP dish married to that Styrofoam hippie on the TV show All in the Family.
Late that afternoon, a big Sony stereo cassette machine is brassily booming out behind her when Sally Struthers greets the writer in the foyer of her comfortably cluttered ninth-floor suite. Suppressing a girlish titter and executing a saucy little two-step, she rolls her eyes mock-coquettishly and sings falsetto accompaniment to her own home-recorded rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” as she leads her visitor toward a sling chair near the sundeck.
“Isn’t that great? Don’t you just love it?” Sally squeals, clapping her hands in childlike glee. “That’s what I do to entertain myself when I have to sit here for four or five hours on a ‘Will Notify’ call. Would you like anything to drink or anything?” Snapping off the tape machine, she orders beer and orange juice from room service and plops down in the center of the bed, her legs drawn up under her lotus-fashion, gesticulating extravagantly as she talks and chain-smokes Winstons. A big-busted woman with electric-blue eyes, she’s wearing light blue sailor pants that bell completely over her feet, an orange waist, and a Buster Brown wristwatch that ticks as loud as a dollar alarm clock.
“Everybody thinks I’m stoned all the time, ducks dear,” she whispers confidentially, “but I’m not really—l’m just crazy. I’m a Leo.” Pealing with laughter, she twines and untwines a lock of honey-colored hair around a finger. “Well, everybody and everything’s crazy, you know? Like this part I play in the picture—a really far-out, loose Texas lady. That’s quite a switch, you know, from being Archie Bunker’s cute, sweet daughter—Little Miss Do-Goody Two-Shoes—to playing a … lewd woman. I think it’ll shock my family and it’ll shock America. But sometimes you’ve got to do that to be remembered. In Five Easy Pieces, for instance, I was on screen for—Listen, would you be horribly offended if I took off my shoes?”
With a smile that accentuates her sensual overbite, Sally slips off her peach-colored wedgie espadrilles and drops them to the floor, massaging the soles of her feet with ecstatic “oo’s” and “ah’s.”
“They’re not dirty or anything—my feet, I mean,” she giggles. “Uh … where was !? Oh, yeah. In Five Easy Pieces, I was on screen for less than five minutes. But because I played such a different sort of person from myself, I was noticed more on the street, even though I’d been on TV for a year already—The Smothers Brothers Summer Show, The Tim Conway Show, various talk shows, and so forth. Well, not that I was exactly dying to be noticed, but as soon as Five Easy Pieces came out, everybody recognized me.”
At a knock, Sally bounces up to admit a bellman with the refreshments from room service. After he’s deposited the tray and gone, she takes a long, thirsty swallow of orange juice and tumbles backward onto the bed, bicycling her legs with furious energy. When she sits up, erect again, she grasps her ankles and leans forward intently:
“The Getaway is, let me think … my fourth film, I guess. Three years ago, I did a hot-cha $2 million Warner Brothers’ extravaganza which you may recall from all the hot-air advance hype in the trades. It was called The Phynx, and it had a bunch of over-forty stars in it like Desi Arnaz, Butterfly McQueen, and Johnny Weissmuller in cameo roles. The guy who directed it—I didn’t get along with him too well, so I’ve got a cast-iron block against remembering his name—he’d never done a big musical before, only television. When the film finally opened, it played for one day only in Milwaukee, and it grossed like $17 and they hid it away in a can someplace and there it sits. That’s show biz, huh?”
Draining off what’s left of her orange juice, she pouts prettily for a minute, then snaps her fingers, pop: “Katzin! That’s the guy who directed The Phynx—Lee H. Katzin. I never knew what the ‘H’ stood for. Hopeless? Help? Ho-ho-ho?
“Nah, I’m only kidding. Katzin was probably a fabulous director in his own right, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye, and he was about 180 degrees turned around from someone like Sam Peckinpah. Sam is… well, I don’t even like to call him Sam. Somehow, it doesn’t seem respectful to a man as great as he is, you know? So I always call him Mr. Peckinpah. And if I go up to him with an idea, which I’ve done often in the last few weeks, he listens, he usually likes the idea, and he always at least lets me try it out. He lets the actors invent, and he spurs you on to think of bits of business to add, and he never puts a damper on that which is great. It really helps you build a part when you can feel free to add a word here or a prop there that wasn’t specified in the original script. Like, Mr. Peckinpah’s let me do some really weird things—wearing earphones so I don’t have to listen to my wimpy husband whining. Lots of funny stuff like that.
“Of course, he teases me a lot, too—me and Ali McGraw both. When we were shooting in San Marcos, I had to do a scene with AI Lettieri. He plays a gangster, you know, and he’s sitting there with a gruesome bullet hole in his shoulder, and I’m making eyes at him because I find him more attractive than my husband”—Sally springs to her feet to pantomime the scene—“so the situation turns into a kind of strange, blech triangle. Since the scene takes place in a veterinary hospital, this adorable little black kitten is playing around on Al’s lap. Well, the kitten starts to screech a little and scratches AI a couple of times. So Mr. Peckinpah, acting real mad, yells: ‘Goddamnit, somebody get a pair of pliers and pull that cat’s goddamn claws out.’ So one of the grips dashes off to get some pliers, and I panic and run off the set crying before I snap that it’s all just a rib to spook me.
“Well, that’s pretty typical of the kind of fun-and-games that goes on. Yesterday and the day before that, I had to do a scene sitting in a hallway at the Laughlin Hotel screaming my lungs out and leaping up and running like crazy when I heard gunshots. Oh, my God, I can’t tell you!” Sally rocks back and forth on the balls of her feet, holding her head piteously. “They shot those blankety-blank guns off so close to my ears that I shook for hours afterward. Mr. Peckinpah has the guys in the cast pull little stuff like that on Ali and me just to get our reactions on film, I guess, but it’s sort of hard to take, ’cause neither of us is violence-oriented at all.
“Steve McQueen did a scene with me a few days ago where he hit me right smack in the middle of the face and knocked me cold in that same hallway at the hotel. I didn’t want a stunt girl—you can always tell when there’s a stand-in. Right now, if I lowered my pants or pulled up my blouse, you could see how many bruises I’ve got all over my body from that scene, because Steve went straight for my face. He didn’t do the other actor snaps his head to the side and just pretends to be hit. Steve did a shot that hasn’t been seen in the movies in a long time—straight to my jaw so my head had to snap straight back. And every time my head snapped back, it hit the wall, and I had to drop like a sack of potatoes to the floor. My whole right hip is still bruised black and blue, and I’ve got little knots all over the back of my skull from slammin’ against that darned wall so many times.”
Perching on the edge of the bed, Sally rests her deep-dimpled chin against her drawn-up knees. “Violence,” she sniffs with a cross toss of her hair. “There was some off-camera violence in the production office at the Laughlin today—well, almost. This crazy young guy crashed the set last week and said some outrageous things to Ali—I mean, horrible things, not even repeatable. So, when he wouldn’t leave her alone, the police came and carted him off to jail. But he showed up again today right after lunch and started talking to Roy Jenson about me—about all the creepy-crawly things he wanted to do to me if he got me alone. Have you met Roy Jenson? He’s a very groovy guy, very fatherly and gentle to me.
“Well, Roy didn’t belt the guy or throw him across the room or anything. He just did like a sudden cobra squeeze on his throat, and the warped little dude sank down to his knees, gasping for breath, and then the police came and carted him away again.”
Sally reflects a minute, then expels a pained sigh: “I’m grateful for one thing, though. I’m glad Mr. Peckinpah wasn’t around when that happened, because there’s no telling what he would’ve done to the poor simp. Mr. Peckinpah is like … King Tut, you know? A truly awesome figure. He’s not all that big, really—he’s sort of slight physically. I don’t really know how to explain it, but he gives off such powerful vibes that you have to … well, fear and love him, I guess, just like little kids learn to fear and love God in Sunday school.”
Sally swings her legs off the bed and hugs her arms to her breasts as if she feels a sudden chill. Outside, the sun’s last purpling light is streaking across the slopes of the shadow-washed mountains to the west. “No matter how simple or foolish you are,” Sally snorts wryly, “you learn real fast not to futz around with Mr. Peckinpah. That, ducks dear, is a distinct no-no—no how, no way.”
Since he’s done little more than hang out in the hotel bar watching daytime TV for the better part of two days, ducks dear, who, after all, is on assignment, would like nothing better than a chance to futz around with Mr. Peckinpah for a while. But the following morning when Mack Hamilton, the unit publicist, escorts him out to the Getaway location site—a two-lane farm road fifteen miles north of town that traverses a lush grid of irrigated strawberry fields—there’s no how, no way. Several city blocks short of the camera setup, a bare-chested grip with tattooed biceps and a gravelly voice waves Hamilton’s rented sedan off on the dirt shoulder. Stooping down to the window, the grip motions toward a generator truck up ahead and rasps: “Don’t walk or drive past that point, you read me? You fuck up Sam’s frame, it’ll be the hair outta both our asses.”
Shrugging helplessly to the writer, Hamilton kills the car’s engine and steps out on the blacktop to survey the flotilla of vehicles strung out along the road ahead for perhaps a quarter of a mile. “Lots of local gawkers out today,” he grunts. Overhead, a high cloud cover is drifting in from the mountains, and there’s a metallic edge to the choppy breeze soughing through the geometrically spaced rows of strawberry plants. Squinting narrowly ahead, then jabbing his pipe stem toward three tiny stick-figures in the distance, Hamilton laughs shortly: “There’s Steve and Ali and Sam up there now—can you make ’em out? No, not there—over by that old pickup truck, see? And that young guy with the beard who’s walking up to them? That’s Gordon Dawson, the associate producer.” Standing storklike on one leg, Hamilton tamps out his pipe on the heel of his shoe, then packs the bowl with fresh tobacco. “I once asked an associate producer at Metro what his duties were,” he ruminates with a lopsided grin. “He said he was the only guy on the lot who could stand to associate with the producer.”
Over by the generator truck, one of the film unit’s minor functionaries, a faggy, forked-tongued Lotus Land yenta, stops the writer to cadge a cigarette. “Thanks and thanks, my man,” he clucks, drooping one eyelid shut in what can only be intended as a wink, though the effect is more like a neurological tic. “Oh … hey, wow, you smoke Players, huh? Far out. Fan-fucking-tastic. I’m gonna carve your face on the Mount Rushmore of my heart, my man!”
Darting his eyes around to check who’s within earshot, the man lowers his voice to a conspiratorial hush: “Have you noticed how uptight everybody is today? Take a close glom at Steve McQueen, my friend, and you’ll snap to what I mean. But then, Steve’s always uptight, isn’t he? The poor sonofabitch doesn’t have any friends, you know—not a single one. He’s always neck deep in greed-heads, though—‘bike buddies’ and creeps like that, all of them sucking up to his ass for favors. As of this instant, I’m not … ah, you know … absolutely certain what’s going down between him and Ali McGraw”—again, he flashes that Mondo Twisto parody of a wink—“but I bet I could guess. Did you hear that Bob Evans flew in from L.A. last night?” Bob Evans, in addition to being vice-president in charge of worldwide production for Paramount Pictures, is Ali McGraw’s husband and the father of her year-old son. “Yeah, Evans showed up out of the blue, so to speak, heh-heh. Oh, he was expected, of course, but still and all … Anyway, pick up on the vibe for yourself, my man—it’s heavy. Say, listen, you haven’t by any chance seen AI Lettieri out here anywhere today, have you? Al’s a weird one, too, if you can dig what I mean. I guess it’s no secret that he used to be a mainline armbanger—did you know that? Yeah, but he hung up the gun, or so they claim, anyway—”
The writer couldn’t care less who’s sticking what into who or where, and he’s relieved to hear his name called from behind. Forty-odd yards away down the row of cars banked along the opposite side of the road, his massive head and shoulders bulging out the window of a Hertz station wagon, Slim Pickens is flailing the air with his grime-encrusted Stetson sombrero and whooping like a hermit line-rider ripped to the tits on vanilla extract: “Yee-hah! Gah-dang, son, c’mon over here and climb in this ol’ hoopy with me! I ain’t seen you in a dawggone dawgs age!”
Grinning toothily and swinging the car door wide, Pickens extends a meaty paw to the writer in greeting, then bellies over under the steering wheel to make room on the seat. “Sonofagun, it’s been a few years, you know it?” he wheezes, mopping his brushy mustache on the sleeve of his frayed work shirt. I recollect that time real well, though—I was out per-motin’ Dr. Strangelove, I guess it was, and I took and drunk ever’ awnery one of you citified Fort Worth boys under the table up there at that Press Club. Hah! That’us some toot, one for the durned books.”
Whinnying at the recollection, Pickens hikes up his pants legs to display the cracked, discolored, and run-over-at-the-heel ruins of what once must have been a pair of ordinarily sorry cowboy boots. “Ain’t that a foul spectacle, though?” he muses fondly. “Them’s my workin’ boots. In the pitcher I play ‘Slim Kanfield,’ the old feller which he helps Steve and Ali ex-scape across the border.”
Clasping his hands behind his neck, Pickens lolls back comfortably in the seat, his hat slanted forward at an angle over his eyes. “Aw, shore, you bet,” he bobs his head vigorously at a question, “I purely love workin’ for ol’ Sam Peckinpah. This here’ll be my third feature with him, was you aware of that? Yesser, I done Major Dundee, and then a right smart later on, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. I also played in a coupla his TV shows years and years back. They was episodes of a series called The Westerner, which was real good, I thought, and years and gone ahead of its time. You recollect that show with Brian Keith and that big ol’ gawky dog?
“Funny thing—I’ve knowed Sam and his family most alla my life. Him and me was raised up in the same country, right up around Fresno and thereabouts in the San Joaquin Valley. I knowed Sam’s granddad—a long time back, he was a congressman and a superior court judge there in Madera County. Later on, Sam’s dad set on the same bench, and now his brother, Denny, he’s a superior court judge over in Fresno County. Shoot, Sam’s dad, in fact, was my lawyer when I was just a kid of a boy.
“When we was growin’ up, my brother used to hunt with Sam out around Peckinpah Mountain, and I’d go huntin’ with Denny, Sam’s bud. Sam and me wasn’t all that close back then. But, heckfire, by now I know him well enough that we get along just like a million. Sam’s a real hard-workin’ feller, and he never has no problems with people who’re workin’ as hard as he is. The only kind of folks that he won’t put up with are the ones that’re goofin’ off. Boy hidy, Iemme tell you, I’m a hunnerd percent behind him on that. There’s too many damn problems in the pitcher business today to have to jack around with people who ain’t innersted in it.
“The movies, God bless ’em, has been real good to me—and japin’ around in front of a camera sure beats rodeoin’ all to hell.” Pickens slaps his leg and guffaws explosively. “Ridin’ the rodeo circuit is hard on the ol’ bones, you savvy me? I rodeoed, all told, oh, about thirty years, I reckon—ridin’ broncs, doin’ a little bulldoggin’, all such stuff as that. I worked as a clown, too, and I done a right smart of bloodless bullfightin’ in them years.”
Pickens takes off his Stetson, an ancient, almost napless beaver, and affectionately dusts off the crown with the heel of his hand.
“Yesser,” he nods, looking reflective as he settles the hat back into place over his bald spot, “the movies has been as good to me as a man could hope to ask for. Last year, I done four features and three or four guest shots on TV, and I’ll be doin’ about the same again this year. Workin’ along at a pace like that keeps me about as busy as I wannabe, tell you the truth. Shoot, you make any more money than that, you got to give it to the dadgum government anyhow. And me, well, I like to hunt and fish a heap better than I like actin’, though I ain’t knockin’ it, you understand. Like this comin’ fall, I got me two hunts planned awready. I’m gonna stalk elk and deer up in Wyomin’, and then later on, I’ll track me some bear over in Utah—“
Leaning forward, Pickens peers through the windshield at the gravel-voiced grip, who’s motioning to him from up the road that he’s needed at the camera setup. Waving in return, Pickens gets out of the car, yawning and stretching. “Looks like it’s my time outta the chute,” he calls out over his shoulder as he saunters away. “Wish me luck, hear? Maybe I’ll win me the day money.”
Back at the Holiday Inn–Downtown just before the noon lunch rush, John Bryson sits slope-shouldered across from the writer in a deserted corner of the first-floor coffee shop, absently trailing a spoon through a cup of coagulating coffee. Although he plays a substantial role in The Getaway—second-in-command to Ben Johnson’s lead heavy—Bryson isn’t an actor by profession, but a top-caliber freelance photographer and former picture editor of Life magazine. A jowly, complex, likable man who retains only faint vestiges of his native Texas accent, he is clearly bewildered, perhaps even a little troubled, about his role in the film, as well as his relationship to Sam Peckinpah. Jutting his head forward, placing his large, well-manicured hands palms down on the table, he speaks in a low, resonant voice, and his urgency to make himself understood comes across at times as an almost physical force:
“Christ, it’s been incredible, man, all of it. I’ve never done anything like this, you know—hell, I’m a journalist. But I’ve known Sam for… oh, for years, I guess, we’ve been drinking companions in Malibu. Sam’s very tight with Jason Robards, who’s one of my closest friends. That helped us get acquainted. Then, too, they did Cable Hogue together, and I hung around with them while that was in the works.
“Anyway, I guess Sam saw something or other in me he figured he could put to use—my big shambling walk or something. One thing I’m certain of, though—he didn’t cast me in the film out of friendship or anything like that.” Bryson dismisses the notion with a knife-slicing gesture of his hand. “No sir, none of that bullshit. Sam’s such a perfectionist, he wouldn’t cast Jesus to play Christ if Jesus didn’t look right for the part.
“No, the way it happened, I was hanging around one night while Sam was auditioning actors to play the young soldier, a bit part, three or four lines in the picture, you know? While I was there, Sam must’ve tried out fifteen or twenty guys. Then he looked over at me and laughed and said, ‘How’d you like to be in the picture?’ I said sure, great, but I thought he was kidding. Next thing I knew, though, the casting people sent me a script and I was being fitted for wardrobe. They bought me four Brooks Brothers suits, all exactly alike, in case I spilled something on myself or got run over by a truck or something.
“Then—whoosh—the company came to Texas. Meanwhile, Sam hadn’t said much of anything to me, and I was a little puzzled by that. The first day of shooting, I was supposed to drive up to the prison at Huntsville in a chauffeured Cadillac and lay a message on McQueen, who was playing a convict getting out. By now, I was damned edgy and nervous—nobody had said do it this way or that way, nothing. Finally, McQueen, who’s a very strange guy I don’t like too much, he stuck his head in the window of the car and said, ‘Just relax, man. Remember, in your role you’re a rich, influential member of the Establishment and I’m just a little pissant convict that you couldn’t care less about. Hang on to that and it’ll go great.’ The only thing Peckinpah had ever said to me, like two weeks earlier, was something like ‘Don’t act. Just react.’
“So I’m sitting there trying to think how to go about reacting when Sam walks over to the car, and the sonofabitch is wearing these mirrored glasses so that nobody can ever tell if he’s really looking at them or not, and he just stands there and looks at me for about a minute and then shakes his head like, ‘Jesus Christ, what have I done,’ and turns and walks away without a word. I’m telling you, I could’ve wet my pants.”
Half-rising, Bryson signals for a waiter to bring some fresh coffee. Spooning a generous portion of sugar into his cup, he grins wryly:
“Well, they shot that scene in one take—the car pulled up, I laid the line on McQueen, and that was it. And that got to be more or less the routine in the next few days. Then Bob Visciglia, the property master, a guy who’s worked with Sam on a bunch of pictures, he came up to me one afternoon and said, ‘Jesus, man, you know what you’re doing?’ I didn’t get what he meant. ‘You’re wrapping your scenes in one take,’ he said, sort of impressed. I told him I figured that since I wasn’t much more than a bit player, Sam obviously wasn’t going to spend as much time on my part as he would on, say, McQueen’s. ‘You dumb cocksucker,’ Visciglia said, ‘if Sam didn’t like what you were doing, you’d be doing it sixty-four times in a row.’
“Around that time, I began to realize for certain that things were OK, because my part in the script was enlarged. I started getting lines from other actors, which made me pretty unpopular with a few of them.” With an iodine grimace, Bryson tilts his chair back on two legs and laughs shortly.
“Then, just a few days ago, I wasn’t moving right in a scene we were shooting. That was the big climactic shootout at the Laughlin Hotel. I was moving fast, but Sam wanted me to move slow, and I just couldn’t seem to do it. My inclination, in the midst of all those shotguns blasting off, was to get the fuck out of the way. Sam said, ‘John, move slow, very slow. You’re in charge, you’re the big honcho in this outfit.’ Well, I understood, but I didn’t understand. So he rode my ass all that day, and I was about ready to cut my throat by nightfall, because I wanted to do it right for him, because I really love the sonofabitch.
“The next day, I ‘died’—got my neck broken in a elevator crash. Again, Sam didn’t tell me how to do it or anything. He just said, ‘You bounce up and you bounce down and you crash and your neck is broken.’ Well, I did it the best way I knew how, and when I got back to my hotel room that night, there was a big bunch of roses and a note that said: ‘Dear John, I loved your death scene. Your Silent Admirer.’ Then, later, after Sam’d seen the rushes, I guess, up came an even larger bunch of roses—gigantic—and this time the note said, ‘Now what? Now what?’ Isn’t that weird?
“Sam is … hell, I don’t really know how to put it in words. He’s a monster and a saint. He’s the meanest, kindest, toughest, softest … I think he runs the whole gamut from Ying to Yang. He’s all that. Good, bad, soft, hard, evil, sweet—the whole range of human emotion is at work in him, and it seems to move back and forth in his case with less complications than it does for most people. You know what I mean? He can shift his range.
“See, Sam’s had some truly hard times. He was standing tall after his first two features, The Deadly Companions and Ride the High Country, but when Major Dundee was taken away from him and reedited in ’64, he went on the skids for a while. He was fired off The Cincinnati Kid. He was physically barred from several studios, broke, boozing hard, shedding wives—I don’t know what all. Maybe he went bankrupt, too, I’m not sure.
“But he snapped back after doing Noon Wine for TV in ’67 and then The Wild Bunch, and now he’s mellowed out a lot. I mean, it’s apparent he’s no longer the dreaded, booze-swilling wildman of yesteryear. Only a couple of people, for instance, have been fired from this production. One of them happened to be his daughter, Sharon, who was the script girl. I asked him about it, and he just grinned and said, ‘She wasn’t doing her job.’ By comparison, he fired so many people off Cable Hogue, the trade unions took out ads in the Hollywood papers attacking him.
“Sam doesn’t socialize with the company in the evenings much nowadays—for one thing, he just got married again a couple of weeks ago to a girl named Joie, one of his former secretaries—but somehow he still manages to keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s uncanny—I don’t know how he does it. He always knows who’s having troubles, who’s sleeping with who, the whole ball of wax. It gets downright eerie. Like, in my case not long back, there was something that had to do with my personal life that nobody in the world could’ve known about, but then Sam said to me one evening, ‘John, don’t do such-and-such.’ I nearly fell over dead. I said, ‘Holy shit, this scares me beyond belief. How could you know anything about that?’ And Sam just smiled that Jesus-like smile of his and said, ‘I always know everything that happens in my company.’”
Braying out Bryson’s name—“Jawhn!” “Hey, Jawhn!”—Roy Jenson and Tom Runyon come loping tipsily across the now-crowded dining room to bid him their good-byes. With their parts in the picture completed, the two bad-guy actors announce in a babble of mutual interruptions, they’re setting off that afternoon for Southern California in Runyon’s private plane. Awkwardly, the three men exchange handshakes and promises to keep in touch. Bryson studies Jenson and Runyon with a look of mock distaste: “God, but you assholes look bed-raggled.” “Well, it’s been a hard day’s night,” Runyon drawls with a sly grin. “You shouldn’t of went to bed so early, Jawhn, and maybe thataway you wouldn’t of had to go alone.” “As far as I’m concerned,” Jenson sneers in a slap-bass growl, “this has been one of the most unpleasant relationships on record. Personally, I’ll be glad to get shut of both you fuckers.” Turning to go, Jenson glances quickly from Bryson to the writer and makes a pistol with his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t forget what I told you, baw-uh,” he grunts, cocking the gun and carefully squeezing off a round. “Don’t forget what I said about ol’ Sam overlearnin’ you.”
Around sundown that afternoon, David Foster, one of the producers of The Getaway, is seated at the cluttered desk in his makeshift office cubicle at the ramshackle old Laughlin Hotel a few paces down the hall from the creaky, mesh-grilled elevator in which John Bryson simulated breaking his neck a few days previously. A paunchy, sleepy-eyed man in his early forties, wearing straight-legged jeans and a Getaway T-shirt, Foster is sipping Chivas Regal from a Styrofoam cup and studiedly ignoring the battery of winking lights on his console telephone.
“Oh, boy, let me tell you, we’ve had a sweet ride on this picture,” he says to the writer, planting a red canvas tennis shoe in a wallow of papers atop the desk. “You don’t have to be terrifically sharp as a producer, you know, if you’ve got, say, just McQueen. Or just McGraw. Or, for that matter, just Peckinpah. Somebody or other will finance a picture if you’ve got any one of those. But when you’ve got all three and—a strong property”—Foster rolls his eyes in a parody of ecstasy and enunciates each succeeding syllable distinctly “the-stam-pede-is-not-to-be-be-lieved. Listen, you wanna little more Chivas?” Lowering his leg, Foster leans across the desk and splashes a good three inches of scotch in the writer’s cup, then plops back down in his swivel chair and hoists his foot back onto the morass of papers.
“So my partner and I, Mitchell Grower, we studied all the various offers—it was like a stampede—and we decided to go with First Artists. There’s one guy at First Artists—Pat Kelly—and he’s literally the whole outfit. Kelly said, ‘You people wanna make a picture, and you don’t want any interference, you got it.’ And that’s the way it’s been. No hassles. In three months, we’ve seen Kelly a total of three times. Sam got every cent of budget he asked for, upwards of $2 million. McQueen took a percentage—that’s the only way he works anymore. Yeah, well, sure, Steve owns a piece of First Artists, that’s right—he and Streisand and Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier are the major stockholders in the company. But there wasn’t any namby-pamby, believe me. We went where the best deal was. You reach a certain point, art has to connect with business. It’s art, but it’s business. Business-art. Art-business. Whatever.”
Swirling the scotch in his cup, Foster grins and traces a finger along the slope of his broad, waxen nose.
“Have you talked to Steve any? He’s all right, a very physical guy. He and I go back a long way together. When he was first breaking into the business, I was his publicist. He was doing a TV series, Wanted—Dead or Alive. I remember one time the first year that was shooting, he punched a horse right in the nose. No shit. It was a Western series, and this horse was getting pretty nervous under the lights and all, so the poor dumb beast balked and stepped on Steve’s foot. So Steve balled up his fist and punched the fucker right in the snoot.” His wispy mustache twitching, Foster rocks back and forth with laughter, stirring up alarming waves in his Styrofoam cup.
“Steve, though, physical dude that he may be, was pretty much the key to putting the Getaway package together. What happened was … well, I bought the book. An agent gave me a copy of it—a yellowing out-of-print twenty-five-cent Signet paperback original by a guy named Jim Thompson, published one time only in 1959. I thought it was dynamite, so I sent it to Steve from Vancouver, where I was producing McCabe and Mrs. Miller at the time. For years, I’d been bugging Steve to play an out-and-out gangster—you know, a ruthless, cold, but ultimately redeeming baddie. So within days, Steve sent word back for me to lock it up.
“We hired a sharp young screenwriter named Walter Hill to do the script, and when he was finished, Steve and Walter and I sat around speculating about who we should try to get to direct it. Steve had just finished doing Junior Bonner with Peckinpah, and was very excited about it, so Sam’s name naturally came up. Well, I went to pitch Sam on the idea with my heart in my throat, prepared to hype him till Kingdom Come, if necessary. Right away, he said, ‘I know the story cold, for Christ’s sake. I’ll do it.’ Turned out, he’d read the book when it first came out, and had even talked to Jim Thompson about the possibility of filming it back when Sam couldn’t get arrested, much less get a job at a major studio.”
Foster finishes off the scotch in his cup and purses his lips thoughtfully before reaching across the desk for the half-empty bottle.
“Sam’s a bloody fuckin’ genius, that’s all that makes sense to say about him. In my mind, he’s one of today’s four or five truly original American filmmakers. Kubrick would have to rank along in there somewhere … hell, I can’t even think who else. Sam’s gut-level, you understand—totally instinctive. He does his homework at night, but he doesn’t sweat it, at least not openly. I’m sure there’s a lot going on inside with him, though, that nobody’s conscious of …”
Leaning forward across the desk again, Foster smiles and poises the bottle over the writer’s cup: “A little more scotch? Or maybe we could go have dinner someplace. With a little nachtmusick, or something. You suppose there’s any nachtmusick in El Paso?”
Mack Hamilton, the film’s publicist, is a lanky, contemplative, white-haired man who gives the impression of aristocratically failed health. Driving east from El Paso to the Getaway location the next morning under a lowering sky, he whiles away the miles fussing with his pipe and reminiscing about the various directors he’s worked around, beginning with C. B. DeMille. “George Stevens was a singular man,” he muses as the car glides through the dreary little farming hamlet of Fabens, Texas. “He despised the whole breed of studio executives—called them ‘money men.’ Once, on the set of A Place in the Sun, he peeked through a viewfinder all morning, waiting for a bunch of visiting moguls to go away. Wouldn’t even call the actors while the brass was around.”
Half-listening, the writer is toying with a vaguely formed notion. Something in the eye-stabbing green of the irrigated fields and orchards stretching ahead reminds him of the landscape in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. He is wondering who the actual villains of the film are supposed to be—the brutish workmen who attack the farmhouse … or maybe the besieged couple themselves? Out the window, a road sign flashes past: PORT OF ENTRY 6 MILES.
At the location site—a newish two-lane bridge across the Rio Grande linking the tail-end of Texas and the village of Caseta, Mexico—the 120-odd members of the film crew are eating lunch at long commissary tables set out under a stand of blowy live-oak trees adjacent to the U.S. Customs station. The wind is near gale-strength, gusting hard enough to lift slices of bread off plates. In the spring, the Rio Grande is normally bone dry in this vicinity—bands of Mexican kids, trailed by yapping dogs, are wandering freely back and forth across the powdery riverbed now—but gauging by the dark cast of the sky, it might not stay dry for long. A husky extra from Fabens shovels a slab of barbecue into his mouth and jabs his fork worriedly toward the dirty yellow clouds massing over the Sierra Madre. “If it rains, you gonna wish to hell it stops,” he mutters to one of the gaffers. “Shit, it come a gully-swamper here two years ago and washed the damn highway out. That baby there hits, it’ll make Noah’s flood look like the mornin’ dew.” Across the river channel, the low, earth-colored huts of Caseta look to be nailed to the leaden horizon.
“Oh, gee, fruta,” Ali McGraw croons at one of the serving tables, ladling fresh-diced fruit onto her plate. A fragile-looking, fine-boned woman dressed in an unbecoming mustard suit—her prescribed outfit for the upcoming scene—she has eyes dark as Darjeeling tea, and she smiles indiscriminately at almost everyone.
Singly and in groups of two and three, the crew members finish their meal and stroll leisurely across the bridge to Caseta. On the main street there, ringed by barefoot kids and swaggering Mexican customs officials in scruffy uniforms, Sam Peckinpah is grinning fixedly as he poses for photographs with the town’s potbellied chief of police in the boot-heel-deep dust in front of the Oficina de Población. When the photographer is finished, Peckinpah’s grin goes off like a shot-out light bulb, and at a murmured word from Mack Hamilton, he turns to give the writer a sharp, raking glance and a handshake that’s both perfunctory and somehow measuring. A short, wiry man with metallic blue eyes and iron-gray hair bound up in a blue bandanna, Peckinpah mutters something that’s lost on the wind, then strides away to set up the scene in which Slim Pickens drives Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw across the border in a rattly old pickup truck. Peckinpah’s physical bearing indicates some clue as to why he’s spent so much of his career working in TV, not working at all, or piss-fighting with producers—he moves like he’s stalking an animal bigger than he is. “El es muy macho,” a skinny-legged little girl titters in the crowd. In the gray distance, cocks crow, and the wind whips up stinging sheets of sand along the street.
Peckinpah confers briefly with the cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, then barks into a walkie-talkie to somebody stationed at the U.S. end of the bridge: “The VW camper should be just at the end of the customs building there, pointing your way. Yeah, that’s right, the hippie van. Turn it around as if it had come back from Mexico to the U.S. And try to make it snappy, hear? Let’s beat the fuckin’ rain if we can.” While the van is being maneuvered into position, Peckinpah passes the time playing liars’ dice with Bob Visciglia, the property master. When Visciglia puts on a woebegone expression, Peckinpah crows in triumph: “Hah! That’s three bucks I’m into you for today, chico. You better throw your bony ass into gear.”
While the routine bridge-crossing scene is being shot—“Get your fuckin’ head out of the picture, goddamn you!” Peckinpah bawls at some unfortunate during the second take—Visciglia and the writer take shelter from the wind in the lee of the paint-flaking Mexican customs shed. An intense, muscular little Italian who carries himself like a boxer, Visciglia laughs fondly and says that Peckinpah rarely wins at liars’ dice or poker, either: “He loves both games, but he almost always loses. I remember when we were making Cable Hogue in Nevada, Sam lost around $500 playing poker, and most of it ended up in a pot won by Max Evans, the writer. Sam got so pissed off, he howled like a hyena and grabbed the money and tore all the bills into little pieces. So Max had to spend the rest of the picture putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“Sam and me play another game where we both can win. Sam made it up—it’s called Airport. What we do, see, is go to an airport and have a few drinks, and get on a plane and fly to the next stop, and go into another bar and have a few drinks, and then get on another plane and fly on to the next bar. And so forth. Sam and I get a Iotta grins like that, you know?
“Oh, sure, he yells at me from time to time, like he does with everybody, but if he didn’t, I’d think he didn’t love me anymore. Sam expects from everybody else what he expects of himself, no more, no less. In other words, know your job—do it well. Sam involves himself 100 percent in a picture, and he expects all the others to do the same.”
Back at the camera setup, Peckinpah wraps the scene on the third take and signals for the crew to trundle the heavy Mitchell camera equipment farther along the street. When Steve McQueen climbs out of the pickup truck, wearing a threadbare old suit coat over a dingy T-shirt, somebody jokingly hands him a pair of welding goggles. Grinning, he puts them on, and looking something like an outtake from The Blob, wanders over to the driveway in front of the customs shed. A purple ’57 Chevy filled with solemn-faced Mexican workmen pulls up for inspection. When none of the customs officials immediately pays notice—they’re all huddled together over by the pickup truck ogling Ali McGraw—McQueen steps forward. “Any fruits or vegetables?” he inquires sternly. Not recognizing him, the men nod their heads no. McQueen grins hugely. “Pase,” he says, waving them through with a sweeping gesture. A few of the crew members whistle and applaud as the car chugs away: “Academy, Steve.” “Way to go, Stevie baby.”
Frowning, Peckinpah summons Visciglia and gestures toward the swelling crowd of spectators, mostly chattering kids kept in semirebellious queues by a couple of gruff Mexican cops: “Get some ice cream. Get all the goddamn ice cream in the world. Tell the niños they can have it if they’ll keep quiet till we finish shooting.” Visciglia makes the announcement to lusty cheers from the kids, and scurries off in search of a well-stocked ice cream cart.
Standing ramrod-stiff on the sagging wooden porch of the Oficina de Población, eyeing the writer’s cassette machine with a dour grimace, Peckinpah responds tersely to a few questions. Taking quick, intense puffs on a Delicado, he talks like somebody hunting-and-pecking very fast on an electric typewriter.
“Hmm, you’re right. That’s very interesting. Straw Dogs is the story of a bad marriage going wrong. The married couple are the heavies. They precipitate everything. They incite and invite every single piece of action in the picture. It’s a good picture, I think. But then I think all my pictures are good pictures. A lot of people don’t agree. I would say that I always expect to fail with certain people and succeed with others….
“Yeah, I’m very pleased with the progress on this one. We’ve had ten good weeks of shooting, some extraordinary performances. If you really want to learn about acting for the screen, watch McQueen’s eyes. John Bryson? He’s been doing his job, hitting his mark, doing very well—
“I’ve got three projects planned for the future. Two of them are Westerns and one is contemporary. One’s for 20th, one’s for MGM, and one’s for United Artists. It’s not certain which’ll go first, so I don’t want to discuss them. I’ve got the rights to Max Evans’ book My Pardner. One of the three screenplays is my own I’m happy to say….
“Who do I like to work with? That’s a stupid question. This crew I have right here. And I like to work with any talented actor who’s professional. Everybody I’ve worked with more than once obviously is a favorite. I look forward to doing other pictures with Bill Holden. I certainly want to work with Bob Ryan again, and Brian Keith. This is the second picture I’ve had with Steve—Junior Bonner will be out this summer, and then this one around Christmas—and we’re already talking about doing a third. Ben Johnson’s been in most of my pictures. After this, I can’t afford him, though. Thanks to his Oscar, his price has gone too high. I got him this time around, the last dying quiver….
“Major Dundee was my absolute best film until the producer, Jerry Wexler, edited it into a piece of worthless trash. Then I got involved with a character named Martin Ransohoff, another producer, and got fired off The Cincinnati Kid. Why? I wouldn’t let Ransohoff on the set, for one reason. He had no idea of what filming is all about, or the story, or anything else. He was involved in his own ego problems, and I can’t waste time with people like that. I’m not sure what he’s up to now—peddling garments, maybe….
“Yeah, I’ve had my share of headaches with producers. Phil Feldman was another one. I had great difficulties bringing in The Wild Bunch—it took 81 days of shooting—and then Feldman let those rotten sonsofbitches at Warners chop out twenty minutes so they could hustle more popcorn. I’m suing them on three separate counts. Uh-huh, a guy named Walon Green wrote the script for The Wild Bunch about five years before the picture was made, and I rewrote it …. Walon’s OK. He’s a tough motherfucker ….
“I haven’t seen many films for a while. The last year and a half, the only thing I’ve had time for was my own dailies. I did catch Two-Lane Blacktop, and loved it. I thought The Last Picture Show was a piece of shit, except for Ben Johnson. Apparently, I’m in a minority on both opinions ….
“That’s correct. I did fire my daughter off the production. Her attitude was punk. She wasn’t doing her work. So I canned her and she went off to Acapulco with some longhaired guy.”
Hearing his name called, Peckinpah strides off briskly toward the customs shed, where the next setup is ready. Within minutes, the shot is secured, and everybody concerned looks pleased. Then the first quarter-sized patters of rain begin to streak the dust. “Jesus God,” Peckinpah groans and heads off for the cantina across the street, trailed by Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Slim Pickens, the writer, and Kathy Blondell, Ali’s hairdresser.
A typically dingy border-town bar, the Gardea has Formica-topped booths ringing a dance floor, a fading mural showing an Indian maiden paddling a canoe, and a jukebox that features accordion and trumpet music. Peckinpah looks the place over, then bellies up to the long wooden bar and orders tequila neat. The others ask for the same, except for Pickens. “Make mine a cerveza, will ya, hon?” he asks the dark, pretty woman tending bar. “A Dose Ekkis, if you please. Shoot, it’s too durned early in the day for me to be drinkin’ hard liquor.” Down the bar, Kathy Blondell kibbitzes with one of the company’s drivers, and McQueen and Ali touch hands and smile at each other a lot.
Peckinpah barks out a laugh and lifts his glass to the writer in a sardonic toast: ‘Well, cheers, doctor. This is the way to make a Peckinpah movie, right? The genuine article—belting back tequila in some fuckin’ dive in Mexico. Hah!” Laughing, the writer returns the toast and rummages around in his shoulder bag for a newspaper clipping. The AP story, datelined New York, announces that Peckinpah has recently been voted one of the Pussycat League’s annual Sourpuss Awards—the Kinky Machismo Trophy “for making films which instruct men to prove their masculinity by killing instead of kissing.”
Peckinpah squints at the article, then whacks his palm on the bar and guffaws: “Shit, I showed a guy eating pussy in Straw Dogs—what do they think about that? What in hell is the Pussycat League, anyway? Sounds to me like some bunch of dumb cunts. I’ll bet Judith Crist belongs to that outfit. Hah! Well, believe me, I’m not gonna get weepy or despondent or anything. Who could ruin a day like this? I’m stuck in the middle of a dust and rain storm, I’m lost somewhere in Mexico, I’m all fucked up, if I don’t get the next shot, my ass is dead—I ask you, who could fuck up a day like that?”
Grinning ruefully, Peckinpah nudges his glass forward. “Otra, por favor, mi alma,” he says pleasantly to the woman behind the bar. When she refills the glass, he drains it off in one swallow and contemplates Slim Pickens, who grins and raises his bottle of Dos Equis in salute. “Good ol’ boy, Slim is,” Peckinpah muses. “Gentlest soul in the world. You don’t want to ever cross him, though. You get out of line, Slim’ll set you straight right quick. Tough as a boot full of bobwire.”
Standing up, Peckinpah hitches up his baggy corduroy pants and leers at Kathy Blondell. “Hey, c’mere, girl,” he growls, “I want to play with your privates, I want to gobble your box.” A fetching, willowy young woman, Kathy grins crookedly. “Up yours, Peckinpah,” she says.
Peckinpah lights a Delicado and cocks his head at the writer with an appraising look. “I don’t much go for reporters, ordinarily,” he murmurs softly. “They haven’t been too kind to me, and I don’t trust them as a breed. Rex Reed, for example, published a byline piece about the making of The Getaway, but he never even showed up down here—he sent some woman who works for him instead. And there was that dreary dame from Esquire ….”
With a shrug, Peckinpah wheels and strides away, and the writer, feeling maybe a shade overlearned, moves over to one of the booths to scribble some notes.
Outside, the blacktop street is slick with rain, but the downpour has ceased for the moment. Swarms of mosquitoes buzz around the gaffers and grips as they roll the massive camera equipment, shrouded under huge green umbrellas now, along the street to the front of the Cine Estrella, the next setup. An ugly blue wooden structure with rusty signs on the front that read Tome Coca-Cola-Bien Frla, the theater looks near collapse. “Man, that’s the Last Picture Show if there ever was one,” Stacy Newton cackles, popping the joints of his fingers. Peckinpah’s personal driver, Newton is a lean, knobby-faced cowboy wearing boots sharp-toed enough to open a beer can.
Hands jammed in his coat pockets, looking red-eyed, McQueen comes out of the bar and stands a little unsteadily alongside the writer while Peckinpah sets up the next shot. “Sam is straight,” McQueen says with a slight slur. “That’s a rare quality out in my town, you know? People in Hollywood will hem and haw and fuck around playing all kinds of cute little games, and then you’ll finally realize they want something from you. And eventually you’ll have to ask, ‘You want something from me, don’t you?’ But Sam’s not like that. He’s straight as they come.” McQueen grins and shakes his head woozily. “Whew, that fuckin’ tequila, I tell you. I’m bombed, man. I think maybe everybody’s bombed.” From behind the camera, Peckinpah motions for McQueen to get in the pickup truck with Ali and Pickens. “Well,” McQueen mutters, moving away with a funny little wave, “another shitty day in Paradise, I guess.”
A light patter of rain resumes, causing a slight delay. Ali and McQueen both quickly doze off in the truck, but Pickens climbs out of the cab to search for a restroom. “That danged Dose Ekkis runs right through a feller,” he grumbles. Not meaning to, a couple of shirtless boys stray into camera range. “Al otro lado, andale, andale!” one of the cops screeches, flailing his arms and shooing them to the other side of the street. “I never even knew this town was out here before today,” one of the extras from Texas remarks to Peckinpah. “The folks who live here probably didn’t, either,” Peckinpah sniffs. Turning, he gazes off toward the mountains to the south. “When I was a lot of years younger and considerably more foolish,” he muses to no one in particular, “I was married to a Mexican woman. I asked her one time to tell me all about Mexico. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows all about Mexico.’ She was right, of course.”
When the rain dies away, Peckinpah wraps the shot, the last of the day, in one quick take. Then Bob Visciglia wheels out a homemade pushcart with bicycle tires. “Helado! Ice cream for everybody!” he bawls, and he’s virtually trampled in the human assault wave of kids who race to surround him, laughing and snatching Popsicles and howling with glee. One of the swiftest kids, a scabby-kneed boy with enormous eyes, clambers with his chocolate bar to the top of a stunted tree. Standing close by, about eye-to-eye with him, Peckinpah laughs and tells the kid he looks just like Emiliano Zapata, the national folk hero every kid in Mexico wants to look just like. The boy in the tree ducks his head. “Who are you?” he asks shyly. Squaring his shoulders, Peckinpah strikes a haughty stance like a matador. “Who am I?” he asks sternly. “You inquire of my identity, viejo?” Slowly, Peckinpah plays out an imaginary cape in a flawless veronica. “I am el jefe!” he thunders. “I am the chief!”
The weather clears that evening, and the next days shooting site—a barren, sunstruck stretch of highway in the desert near Anapra, Texas—looks as if it hasn’t seen rain this century and maybe the last. By mid-morning, Peckinpah is wearing his shirt tied around his waist, and there’s sweat glistening in the thatch of wiry gray hair on his chest. The dizzying heat mounts as the hours pass, but the cast and crew stay in high spirits. With luck, they might be able to wrap the picture by nightfall, and it looks to be a good film. Between takes, Ali playfully dabs patchouli oil on anybody in reach, and McQueen follows Peckinpah around with an umbrella, claiming that it’s part of his job. “Yeah, it’s in my contract,” he complains with a droll grimace. “I got to hold this fuckin’ umbrella over Sam all day long. Ain’t that the shits? Ain’t it terrible what you gotta do to put together a few nickels and dimes these days?” Peckinpah grins thinly at McQueen’s clowning, but he’s busy talking to the first assistant director. “That’s right, Newt,” he agrees, nodding his head rapidly, “blood on the handkerchief, blood on the shirt, goddamn right, lots of blood.”
Noticing the writer wandering around in search of a patch of shade, Lucien Ballard, the cinematographer, invites him to sit under one of the green equipment umbrellas. An urbane, dapper little man who looks substantially younger than his sixty-four years, Ballard began his film career as an assistant to the Austrian director Josef von Sternberg, which perhaps accounts for Ballard’s vaguely Germanic burr.
“Sam is the most talented director in Hollywood,” he says with a delicate cough. “Excuse me. I’ve worked with Sam, you see, on all of his pictures except Major Dundee and Straw Dogs. I’d like to have done Straw Dogs, too—I thought it was a beautiful film. Sam’s tough to work with, obviously, and we have our beefs, but no one directs a scene the way he does. He’s so intense, and he misses nothing. I’ve worked with most of the directors of the last forty years who’re considered to be great, and I put Sam at the top of the list, no question about it.
“No, no, Sam and I don’t collaborate in any strict sense. We worked most closely together, I suppose, on Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. We spent months of preparation on each of those. For The Wild Bunch, we had an idea about shooting it a certain way in a certain color, so we ran a lot of old films of Mexico. We ran them over and over, and tried to get that vintage look. We wanted to get a washed-out backlight-brown effect, and it took some effort, but we got it.
“As I say, Sam and I have our differences, but deep down he’s one of the nicest men in the world. I respect him, and I enjoy working with him. I really do—I wouldn’t just say it.”
By noon, the crew has dressed a scene in which McQueen, Ali, and Pickens are to exchange almost three pages of dialogue in a bar ditch beside the parked pickup truck. “All right, let’s stand by, please,” one of the assistant directors calls out over a bullhorn. Toeing her mark, Ali leans over to flick a smudge of dust off one of her boxy, plain-Jane shoes. “I don’t know what’s come over me,” she murmurs, straightening up and smoothing her skirt with little pats, “but I’m beginning to like these tacky damn shoes.” Pickens peers down at her feet and blinks: “It’s the cut of ’em, probly. They look real sturdy.” Ali titters: “Oh, Slim, you’re such a dear. Where in the world did you get that god-awful hat?” Shrugging bashfully, Pickens touches his grimy hat brim and grins: “Aw, I stoled it off a ol’ boy ’bout thirty years ago. Used to be a hunnerd dollars worth of Stutson, but it’s kiley a sorry sight now, ain’t it?” “OK, people,” Peckinpah booms out tersely, “let’s get it over with.” “Rolling,” the camera operator intones. “Take one, master shot 581,” a grip with a slapstick recites. Halfway through the take, the shot is ruined by a car full of rubbernecking locals. “Oh shit—cut, cut. Tell those goddamn sonsofbitches to go home,” Peckinpah snarls. The action starts again from the top.
The scene, which is tight and funny and well-written, plays well enough to stir heated applause from the crew at the conclusion. Peckinpah’s voice carries over the clamor: “Very good, everybody, excellent. Print it. Well get to the angles and close-ups after lunch.”
Pickens eases a leg up on the pickup’s fender, looking pleased with himself. “Gahdamn,” he beams, “it ain’t ever day you get a good scene. Looks like they’ll be tyin’ the ol’ can to my tail right quick, though. I’ve went and worked my way out of another good job, I reckon.” Over the bullhorn, the assistant director announces the location of the commissary setup. With their arms twined around each other’s waists, Ali and McQueen stroll off along the apron of the highway in that direction, McQueen trilling a James Taylor lick: “Highway, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Eyes to the ground, cradling his script in the crook of an elbow, Peckinpah strides away alone, but in a few minutes he relays an unexpected invitation to the writer to have a drink with him. Crouched over the overflowing sink in his air-conditioned live-in trailer, stirring together an unholy mixture of gin and wine favored in the vilest Mexican whorehouses, Peckinpah motions his visitor to a seat on the carpeted floor and sinks down on the sheet-tangled bunk with an expiring sigh. “I remembered another movie I liked,” he mumbles. “The French Connection, a good movie-movie.”
Raising up on one elbow, Peckinpah fixes the writer with a chilly, probing stare: “What do you want to know, anyway? You must have all the poop on my pictures or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.” Scowling darkly, he takes a long swallow of his drink and lies back on the bunk, his arms crossed behind his head.
“Well, my grandfolks pioneered up around Fresno, to begin with,” he mutters in a faint, ruminative voice. “I grew up hunting and fishing on Peckinpah Mountain with guys like Slim Pickens. Most of the men on my father’s side of the family were lawyers, and I was supposed to be one, too, but I had no stomach for it, so I joined the Marines when I was still a kid. I served for twenty-eight months around the end of World War II. No, I never saw any combat, but I was ready to. I was pretty gung-ho.
“After the shooting was over, I served some time in China, and eventually I tried to get mustered out there. Why? Are you kidding? That’s a dumb question. the Marine Corps shipped me back to the States for discharge, and I began to spend a lot of time in Mexico.
“Went to Fresno State College, started directing plays. Got a master’s in drama at USC. Worked for the Huntington Park Theater, did a season of summer stock in Albuquerque, then joined the crew at KLAC-TV in Los Angeles as an actor-director.
“It was around then that I started writing. One of my first film jobs was a rewrite of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Then, a lot of TV—Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Klondike, Zane Grey Theater, I don’t remember what all—and the rest is common history.
“What do I like to do besides making films? What do you mean by that? You mean like smoking dope and fucking upside down? Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t? That was a dumb question.”
Hearing a commotion outside, Peckinpah draws back the curtains and peers out at Steve McQueen, who’s whizzing hell-for-leather through the sagebrush on a sleek Japanese motorbike. Grinning, Peckinpah stands up, scratching the hair on his belly. Something in the set of his shoulders reminds the writer of the character “Pike” in The Wild Bunch. “Let’s go,” Peckinpah growls. “I’ve got a fuckin’ movie to make.”