The Western Film Fair: A cast of characters
Last week’s Western Film Fair, held at the Clarion Sundance Plaza Hotel in Winston-Salem, marked its 33 rd birthday. It may well be one of the last, and yet another bit of nostalgia will vanish from the landscape, galloping off into the sunset.
Where else can you see someone who’s the spitting image (or “spittin’ image,” perhaps) of perennial B-movie Western sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes? Where else can you hear friendly debates over which Western star was the fastest draw, or the best singer, or had the most talented horse? (Roy Rogers’ Trigger would seem to be the odds-on favorite.)
Everywhere you turn are grown men — old men, actually — dressed in full cowboy regalia, replete with cap guns. This is their world, and welcome to it.
“Our kids think we’re crazy,” joked one festival organizer. Maybe so, but here they get to be crazy together, and with each passing year there are fewer old friends with whom to do it. Wayne Short, the festival chairman, has been in ill health, and many believe that this will be his last Western Film Fair round-up. He does attend, albeit in a wheelchair, much to the delight (and concern) of his friends and colleagues.
So many of the organizers, to say nothing of the attendees, are getting up there in years — an observation that does not go unnoticed by many of the younger people in attendance, who most definitely comprise the minority.
Jerry Campbell, co-chair of the Western Film Fair, figures that if they can get to the 35th festival, that might be as good a time as any to hang up the spurs.
“We’re getting tired,” joked fellow co-chair Graham Talbott, and this was only the first day of the event.
There is the unmistakable feeling that the Western Film Fair may indeed be a dying breed. There is less attendance than in years past, and there are fewer dealers on hand. Then again, the Western genre itself has been declared dead more than once, yet always seems to make a comeback. Still, Hollywood’s not making singing-cowboy movies, and hasn’t for the better part of six decades.
Hotel staff members are wearing cowboy hats to commemorate the event. Is this the only time they do?
“The only time,” laughed one. The Western Film Fair began in St. Louis in 1978, then moved eastward to North Carolina — first Charlotte, then Raleigh, then back to Charlotte and now, for the third year, to Winston-Salem. Many of the organizers have been a part of the event since the very beginning, and some will undoubtedly be there at the end.
At each festival, there are ongoing screenings of vintage B-movie Westerns, celebrity guest stars and a dealers’ room stocked with all sorts of memorabilia: Posters, lobby cards, comic books, photographs, obscure and hard-to-find movies (some impossible to find in the legitimate marketplace), and all sorts of Western bric-a-brac.
“The Western shows are not what you’d call your high-end shows,” said Bill McKenzie, the founder of B&B Comics in Hagerstown, Md. and one of the dealers on hand.
Has he been doing much business at this Western Film Fair? “Hell, no,” he laughed, “but I enjoy it … [and] I get to see my buddies from Greensboro.”
The principal draw of the Western Film Fair is undoubtedly the line-up of guest stars who attend each year. Musician Johnny Meeks has been a mainstay at the event for many years and returned again this year, giving a live performance each night, joined this year by actress/singer Hannah Dasher, who is inarguably the youngest guest star at this year’s Film Fair.
There’s TV veteran Randy Boone, a native North Carolinian, happily discussing his appearances on such shows as “The Virginian,“ “Cimarron Strip” and “Gunsmoke.” (Everyone, it seems, did a guest shot on “Gunsmoke” at one time or another.)
Bobby Diamond, a lawyer for almost 40 years, was the child star of the series “Fury,” opposite the late Peter Graves. People are still asking him about it, and he’s still selling autographed photos from the show, which ran from 1955 to 1960. Johnny Washbrook was just a kid himself when he starred on the series “My Friend Flicka,” based on the popular film. Donna Douglas, the erstwhile Elly Mae from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” is still reminiscing about a series that has been in perennial syndication for the last 40 years.
There’s actor Sonny Shroyer, wearing his policeman’s uniform from his role as the dim-witted but lovable deputy Enos on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” offering a hearty grin and handshake to fans. A small tape recorder next to him plays the show’s theme song.
The gregarious Grace Lee Whitney, best known for her turn as Yeoman Janice Rand on the first season of the original “Star Trek,” made a few Westerns in her career but takes special pride in two of her earliest films: Some Like It Hot (1959), opposite Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, and Irma La Douce (1963), a bawdy comedy about a Parisian gendarme (Lemmon again) who falls in love with a saucy streetwalker (Shirley MacLaine). The former is considered by many to be the greatest American comedy ever made, the latter was a box-office smash despite being banned (!) in some places for its storyline, and both were directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, whom Whitney laughingly described as “a maniac — a wonderful, wonderful maniac.”
When asked if she ever thought “Star Trek” would become the phenomenon it is today, she smiles broadly. It’s not the first time she’s been asked, nor the last.
“Who knew way back when?” she said, joking that once she took a look at her wig and Leonard Nimoy’s ears, “I said to myself: ’Nah, this’ll never fly.’” With co-writer Jim Denny, she penned her autobiography, The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, in 1998, and she’ll be attending a “Star Trek” event in Las Vegas with much of the original cast. It’s estimated that it will attract 20,000 fans, but Whitney wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it exceeded that.
“It has become the largest franchise in the world… isn’t that the most amazing thing?” Of course, the celebrity guests are just as happy to talk about their non-Western credits, and in the case of actor John Saxon, it’s a long and extensive list that encompasses seemingly every genre in cinema. Saxon was a late addition to this year’s event, stepping in when previously announced guest star Jack Ging canceled. Although the veteran of many big- and small-screen Westerns, including The Appaloosa (1966), Joe Kidd (1972) and, of course, some well-remembered episodes of “Gunsmoke,” Saxon has earned a cult following as much for his other films
Horror fans remember him from the original Black Christmas (1974) and the first Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Sci-fi devotees cherish Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and his performance as the lethal android Maskatron on an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” (“They even made an action figure out of me,” Saxon said during his panel discussion, getting laughs when he added: “I didn’t get any money for it.”) The hair has thinned and grayed, but the lean frame and direct gaze do not indicate a man 73 years of age. Some 37 years have passed, but it’s still easy to recognize that this is the man who kicked some major ass alongside Bruce Lee in the 1973 martial-arts masterpiece Enter the Dragon. The first time Saxon heard of the project, he knew it would be a hit but, amazingly, almost passed on it.
Having studied karate for several years and noticing the increase in karate schools around the country, “I knew that it was growing,” he said. “Every shopping center seemed to have a dojo in it…. I had an intuition that this is going to be good. This is going to work.”
When he read the script, however, he felt that his character Roper, the opportunistic hustler-turned-hero “could’ve been played by a stuntman.” He instructed his agent to tell the producers no.
His agent said, “You tell them.” He took a meeting at Warner Bros. and mapped out his concerns. The producers encouraged him to rewrite the character to his liking.
“So I changed my mind,” he said. After filming ended, he recalled his agent saying, “There you go: You’ve got some money to put in the bank. It’ll be some pieceof-crap movie. Nobody’ll ever see it.”
Saxon earns more laughter as he slyly nods his head with a smile. Enter the Dragon was not only a smash hit, but remains one of Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing films of all time. The film cost less than $1 million to make and was among the studio’s biggest hits that year. Add the gross from its international release (which was far higher), re-releases and home-video sales, Enter the Dragon is probably the film Saxon is best known for, and certainly the one Bruce Lee is known for, as it was his last completed film. It’s still making money.
As for Black Christmas, which co-starred Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder, in which Saxon plays a police lieutenant, “I did feel it was going to be good, and it was good.”
The same with A Nightmare on Elm Street.
He was interested in the theme of dreams, he noted, and the project seemed so original and unique that he signed on as small-town police chief Don Thompson, a role he reprised in the third film. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), he played both Don Thompson and the actor playing him, John Saxon.
“That was interesting,” he said with a smile. Saxon would occasionally ask the audience “Am I going on too long?” The murmurs of approval assuaged his concerns. He had a relaxed and comfortable delivery, indicative of a true raconteur.
So much so that he said he’s seriously considering writing his autobiography, and the chief cheerleader in this endeavor is his wife, Gloria, who confirmed that there has been interest. The main hurdle is finding the time to do it. As much as Saxon enjoys talking about his show-biz adventure, he’s still living it. Although flattered and gratified by the cult following — and some fans-turned-filmmakers have tapped him for roles, like Quentin Tarantino for From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) — it’s clear that he still very much enjoys the challenge of the next role.
“I’m still alive,” he chuckled. “I’m in pretty good shape. I’m looking for different new roles, but I suppose that’s true of any actor. It’s always the truth: You have periods where you’re working and all of a sudden you’ve done all you think you can do, then something else comes up. I’ve had four or five periods like that in my career.”
Saxon, born Carmine Orrico in the borough of Brooklyn, was just 17 years old when he landed his first agent in New York. He did some stage work, a little modeling, and went on auditions. His agent urged him to go to California. Within three weeks of his arrival, he was under contract to Universal. In 1958 he won the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer (male) — shared with James Garner and Patrick Wayne.
How did the award make him feel? “Pleased,” he deadpanned during his panel discussion.
Westerns were in full boom at the period. “Universal made 30 pictures a year, and 15 of them were Westerns,” Saxon recalled.
For a kid from Brooklyn, however, he always seemed right at home in the saddle.
“That’s a fact,” he said, adding that as a Universal contract player he was automatically enrolled in riding classes twice a week.
(Also under contract at the same time was a young actor named Clint Eastwood, who made something of a name for himself in Westerns as well.)
Saxon journeyed to Durango, Mexico to make The Unforgiven (1960), directed by John Huston and co-starring Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn and Audie Murphy.
“It was an experience I could talk about for a long, long time,” he said.
Saxon scored another Golden Globe nomi nation, this time for best supporting actor, for his role as Marlon Brando’s antagonist in The Appaloosa, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Saxon conceived the film’s best-known scene, an arm-wrestling match on a wooden table with a scorpion on either side. The loser loses in more ways than one.
The film, said Saxon, “was not entirely satisfying, because Brando was in a depression at the time and it affected the work, but it opened up all kinds of things for me.” Therefore it remains a favorite of the actor’s and, indeed, segued directly into another period of great activity for him, although hardly the last.
Actress Rosemary Forsyth made her bigscreen bow in the 1965 Western Shenandoah, opposite James Stewart and Katharine Ross (also her screen debut), and it remains one of her favorites.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had,” Forsyth said.
She also rode tall with Dean Martin and Alain Delon in Texas Across the River (1966) and, although not a Western, saw action in The War Lord (1965), directed by future Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton) and costarring Charlton Heston and Richard Boone.
Not all of the action was on the screen. A memorable experience occurred when Boone, a drinking man, “said something so horrible that I punched him in the nose,” recalled Forsyth with a laugh. “What can I say? I was young and foolish.”
Punching Richard Boone in the nose might seem the equivalent of assisted suicide, and it took four crewmembers to hold him down. Despite that dust-up, Forsyth said, she admired his work, particularly “Have Gun Will Travel” and Boone’s self-titled anthology series. “He could be very charming, and he was an extremely intelligent man.”
Another Forsyth favorite was Disclosure, the 1994 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller about sexual harassment, directed by Barry Levinson. “I adored going to work every day and I adored the people I was working with.”
That included Michael Douglas, Demi Moore and Donald Sutherland. “I was madly in love with Donald Sutherland,” she laughed. “I’ve been happily married a long time so my husband won’t mind, but I’ve always been mad for Donald Sutherland — such a charming man, so devilish and chic.”
The 1969 black comedy What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? saw Forsyth going toe-to-toe with such formidable co-stars as Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon. Working with Page “was a trip,” Forsyth laughed, and working with both Page and Gordon “was an adventure!”
Perhaps Forsyth’s most challenging role was her three-year stint (2003-2006) as an elected member of the Screen Actors Guild. Debates and disagreements were frequent and often heated; Forsyth joked that she may be entitled to “combat pay” from the experience. But despite the exhaustion and exasperation, “I am glad I did it,” she said. “It was fascinating — the personalities, the temperaments…. We tried to do so much, and there was so much we couldn’t get past.”
She admitted that she wasn’t unhappy when her term expired, and needed a little down-time to gain perspective, yet emphasized that, agree or disagree, she very much supports and respects SAG. “They really do work hard,” she said. “They put a lot of time and a lot of passion into it. They care, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Another popular event at the Western Film Fair is the climactic awards banquet on Saturday night, when the Ernest Tubb Award is presented. Since 1994, the film fair has awarded the award to a countrywestern music luminary. Previous winners include Tubb’s late son, Justin; George Hamilton IV, Sheb Wooley, the Statler Brothers and last year’s selection, Donna Fargo. This year’s recipient was to have been Ed Bruce, but he canceled shortly before the event, and it wasn’t until mere hours before the actual banquet that longtime fiddler Dwight Moody was announced as the winner.
“It is a surprise because he doesn’t know it,” said Campbell with a laugh, “but he certainly deserves it.”
Having inked a two-year deal at the Sundance Clarion Plaza, the Western Film Fair will be back again next year, undoubtedly less a few friends, and whether or not the nostalgia quotient will keep some variation of the event alive in years to come is anybody’s guess.
Cowboy stars like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy churned out countless programmers in their heyday, most of them clocking in at around 60 minutes (perfect for second features) and many indistinguishable from each other. Yet during the ’30s and ’40s these were perennial moneymakers. In the early years of television, stations seeking product to pad their daily schedules ran these Westerns incessantly, earning them a new generation of fans.
For those stars who owned their movies, or a piece of them, TV proved a gold mine. Cassidy (nee William Boyd) became very wealthy when he licensed his films for TV broadcast. Likewise, Autry segued directly from films to television with “The Gene Autry Show” in the 1950s, and retired from acting, also very wealthy, in the 1960s. To many younger folk, he may be best remembered as the owner of the California Angels baseball team, much as Roy Rogers is best remembered by some for the chain of fast-food restaurants bearing his name. Their old films aren’t as readily available as they once were, and subsequent generations have found other pop-culture icons to revere: James Bond, Star Wars, the aforementioned “Star Trek.”
But for the devotees of the Western Film Fair, these are their heroes of their youth. They’ve watched their films countless times, and continue to do so.
During the festival, there are three rooms set aside for screenings of those vintage Westerns, more than 80 in all, from 10 a.m. to midnight each day.
The 16-millimeter projector rattles. The prints are scratched and jumpy. On occasion, the sound drops out. None of that seems to matter to those in attendance. They watch with rapt attention, appreciatively chuckling at the puns and, if it’s a singing-cowboy movie, perhaps humming along with the songs. They’re trying to recapture a bit of youthful innocence, to go back in time, if only for a little while.
And isn’t that what movies are all about?