“I sure never figured on you taking on the badge.”
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
Sam Peckinpah . 1972
Long before Peckinpah got into the act, Monte Hellman prepared the saga for Marlon Brando and JonVoight. Brando blustered and so Robert Redford agreed to wear a badge “if Sam Shephard played The Kid.”
Hellman’s producers said: Sam who?
OK…Hellman then chose the sweet baby James singer, James Taylor, for Billy after making Two-Lane Blacktop together in 1970.
Rudy Wurlitzer, Hellman’s Blacktop writer, took his tale to El Jeffe, or, as dubbed by Playboy, “the Picasso of violence.” It proved to be the final Western of Peckinpah, whose grandfather knew Calamity Jane and whose own earliest memory was being strapped to a saddle at age two and riding the high country with his less than successful cattleman father.
Sam (and maybe Brando) saw the project as
his version of the One-Eyed Jacks script –
he’d written for Brando in 1961
“It was the definitive work on the subject but Marlon screwed it up. He’s a hell of an actor but in those days he had to end up as a hero and that’s not the point of the story. Billy The Kid was no hero. He was a gunfighter, a real killer.”
Having to cast younger than usual in his films, he offered The Kid to the new Easy Rider hero and Kubrick’s future anti-social Clockwork Orange – Peter Fonda and Malcolm McDowell – and even interviewed the milquetoast minstrel John Denver (opposite Jack Nicholson). Not for long… “I would love to have done that film but Sam didn’t think I could kill anybody.” said Denver. “Which is the truth. But that’s what they thought about Billy The Kid, too.”
And his glasses sure got in the way. (Bob Dylan sported specs, on and off, as Alias).
Sam even called up, of all people, townie Al Pacino… “It didn’t work out because I couldn’t ride a horse,” he told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2014. “Also, there was so much drinking going on back then – I was afraid of working with Peckinpah, I might never make it back from Mexico.”
Sam next considered Bo Hopkins before finally agreeing to MGM pressure for Kris Kristofferson despite the fact that he was 15 years older than Billy.
Incapable of carrying a film, Kristofferson
was the most unlikely William Bonney
since Roy Rogers in 1938.
Yet the publicity releases dutifully “quoted”Peckinpah as saying: “Kris looks like Bonney come to life.”
(Ironically, KK had lost the Two Lane Backtop movie to James Taylor – by being ”wasted” at his meeting with caasting guru Fred Roos. “The guy said did I know anything about cars. ‘Can’t even change a tyre’.” Kris backed out of the “contrived, crappy movie” and accepted Cisco Pike, instead, another contrived, crappy movie).
Much as he had tried with The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah aimed at heavweight back-up. For Pat Garrett, he tried to interest Henry Fonda – to gun down Peter!This was taking their tangled father-son relationship too far. As always, the director kept the faith with his Major Dundee star and defender, Charlton Heston (although this fact goes unrecorded in Chuck’s voluminous diaries). Sam next approached Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman – 15 years after being The Kid in Arthur Penn’s Left-Handed Gun.
Despite the executive edition (six editors mangling Peckinpah’s purpose, leading to his $1m law suit against MGM), and despite being 44 to Garrett’s 31, James Coburn filled Pat’s boots. Superbly. “This country is growing old,” he says, “and I intend to grow old with it.”
Alas, no one else was up to his measure.
Certainly not the single casting idea for the quirkily christened character: Alias. Kristofferson persuaded pal Bob Dylan to pen the film’s song (Peckinpah had never heard of Dylan and wanted King of the Road Roger Miller). Then, knowing Dylan was interested in making movies, Kris invited him to join the shooting. “Shit, you can git paid for larnin’.”
Kristofferson said that when Peckinpah finally saw what MGM had done to his film – “he pissed on the screen.”
Hollywood finally learned in 1989, when the original editor Roger Spottiswoode, working from the dead Peckinpah’s notes and sketches, put the film of memory and death back to something closer to the masterwork it had set out to be.
“What they call the Director’s Cut
is actually just the television cut.”
James Coburn revealed this news. “Sam had the only true cut that he made, and that’s up in his archives in Sonoma. When he finished cutting, it was taken away from him. This was Jim Aubrey at MGM and he was more interested in getting his hotel ready than he was in film. I think he really despised anybody who displayed artistry. He really like digging into them. I’d just finished shooting a film with Blake Edwards called The Carey Treatment that Aubrey also took away and re-cut. And I said to Sam: ‘This guy’s crazy! He could do this film all sorts of harm.’ Sam said: ‘Don’t worry about a thing, Jim. I just bought one share of stock in MGM, and if they mess with me, goddammit, I’ll sue their asses!’ [Laugh]. ‘One share of stock, Sam?! What’s that gonna do?!’ ‘You’ll see.’
“Sam Peckinpah was a genius
for four hours a day
The rest of that time he was drunk.
“He called himself a working alcoholic.He was much more than that. I think the alcohol sort of quelled all the influences that were going on around him so he could really focus on what he was doing with the film. He would shoot with three cameras and just… do it.
“We were sitting in his trailer and he said: ‘Goddammit! Why do we have to kill Billy?’ ‘Well, Sam, that’s the way it happened.’ ‘Well, why can’t we make it un-happen?’ ‘Sam, we can’t do it.’ (Beat) ‘Why… not?!’ [Laugh]. I think he saw a lot of himself in the character of Billy… We found out halfway through the shoot that most of the masters we had shot were out of focus. We were using five or six cameras at once and we didn’t have a camera mechanic because MGM would’’t pay for one! So we used different lenses, different set-ups, and still, it’s all out of focus. Finally, the camera mechanic is sent out. It turns out the flange in the camera was off by one one thousandth of an inch, or some damn thing. So we tell Aubrey that we have to re-shoot all these masters. He says: ‘You’’e not gonna re-shoot anything. The audience isn’t gonna know the fuckin’ difference!’ Can you imagine?! It was just mind-blowing! So what we did was, we stole all those shots when the brass didn’t know we were shooting and got it all! So now this really pissed them off, because now we had some real film on our hands! [Laugh]. So, Sam had his cut previewed and at the same time, Aubrey had his guys cutting the film. So all the editors got together and gave Sam a cut of his film, but without a soundtrack. He didn’t get that back until he cut it for television. But there’s only about five minutes missing from that cut he originally made.”