Saturday, December 21, 2013

A trio of tough guys: end of 2013 Deceased Artistes

The end of the year, and its attendant scourge (the holiday season), is such an emotional burden that some of us decide to slip away rather than confront it again. Thus, the death toll of seniors does seem to rise as we head toward Xmas and the New Year. I'm going to try to cover a few of the recently departed performers whose work definitely falls into the “Funhouse favorite” category. Herewith three gents who played “tough guys” in the movies and on TV.

The first was a multifaceted character actor who had quite an interesting career. Mickey Knox was a New Yorker who had small or supporting roles in 16 films in a period of three years – he played thugs, hoods, and your garden variety gang guy in items like Knock on Any Door, City Across the River, and White Heat.

After he was blacklisted in the early Fifties, Knox began acting in Italy. His most prominent credits in that country were as the English dialogue scripter for the classic Sergio Leone Westerns The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. In an online interview he notes about the great filmmaker “he didn't have any ideas that he wanted to convey [in his work].”
He also noted that Leone wasn't a nice man – “he had very little concern for others.” Knox's finest Leone story involves the time he was present when one of the actors in a Leone film committed suicide by leaping from the window of his hotel room. Leone immediately yelled “Get the costume – we need the costume!” (The guy in question was wearing his outfit from the movie when he took his fatal dive.)

Knox's most mind-bogglingly odd performances occur in Norman Mailer's improvised crime pictures Wild 90 and Beyond the Law (both 1968). The second film is moderately competent, an ambitious cops-and-crooks saga that finds a rather decent-sized ensemble going through all kinds of play-acting as policemen and the mob and gang figures they're cracking down on.

Wild 90, on the other hand, is just an amazing mess. A good deal of it is inaudible (since the soundman reportedly had the boom mic facing the wrong way), but the sequences featuring Norman, Knox, and Buzz Farber in an apartment cooking up a crime is startlingly, wonderfully awful. Mailer apparently didn't know the proper way to use improvisation in film (you do it in rehearsal, not on camera), and so the film is loaded with weird bits of proto-street-talk.

One of the odder bits of trivia encountered when researching Knox is that he tried to get his ex-brother-in-law (Mailer and he were married to two sisters) a job as the screenwriter of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. Mailer handed in a 200-page screenplay, but his work wasn't used.

No isolated clips of Knox's work are available online, but you'll find endless references to his name, since the lead character (played by Woody Harrelson) in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was named after him.
Like Knox, Tony Musante was an actor from the “tri-state Metro area” (born in Connecticut) who found a “second life” in Italian films. He also was extremely adept at playing criminal characters, even though his best-remembered role on TV was his one-season stint as the star of Toma.

Musante was an Italian-American actor who “looked ethnic” and thus could play characters from many different backgrounds. His first notable part was as one of two thugs who take over a subway car in the still-disturbing drama The Incident. Musante had played the same role in the drama that was adapted for the film a TV production called “Ride with Terror” (on The DuPont Show of the Week in 1963).

I saw the film again a few months back at a repertory house in which the patrons *love* to laugh at what they consider dated or melodramatic films (no suspension of disbelief for these folk – they're hipper-than-thou). What was interesting is that, while the opening segments leading up to the characters boarding the same subway train were chuckled over, the moment in which a gay character is harassed by Musante and his cohort (played by Martin Sheen in his movie debut) struck a chord in the audience and everyone shut up for the rest of the picture.

The film is still unsettling for big-city dwellers, especially those who have ridden the subway late at night or on weekends when the cars are empty as hell. The film's message may be specifically linked to the time it was made (three years after the Kitty Genovese incident proved that NYCers will not come to each other's aid, even when one could safely do so). But it is so well-acted and its situation so primal that it still packs a punch today.

One of the many cult movies Musante starred in was The Mercenary (1968), a spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci (who has been put in the “Pantheon” of Western directors by a deluded, jumpy filmmaker who shall not be mentioned here). The film’s best moments all feature Jack Palance in a ridiculous curly wig, but Musante is equally memorable as a sleazy Mexican revolutionary who is dressed as a rodeo clown in the final shoot-out.

Another key role for Musante in Italian genre cinema was the lead in Argento’s debut as a director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). As with much of the best Argento, the film has stylish visuals and a memorable soundtrack (this time by the inimitable Ennio Morricone).

In the same, very active period, Musante was part of the gang who kidnap Kim Darby in Robert Aldrich’s wonderfully jarring The Grissom Gang (1971).

Although he worked steadily for over half a century (running the gamut in his TV work from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Oz, most of Musante’s obits centered on a cop show that he did for only one season (1973-’74), Toma. The show was based on real-life Newark, N.J., detective Dave Toma, who was well-known for having a high arrest rate during his years as a police – and for the fact that he was a “master of disguise.”

After the first season Musante quit the show and it was turned into Baretta with Robert Blake. Musante went on to work regularly in TV (soaps and crime shows), the movies, and onstage, playing good guys and bad, always with a maximum of intensity.

The most notable tough guy to leave us was definitely Tom Laughlin, who became a cult sensation in the Seventies, and then branched off into several “quixotic” branches of endeavor that were far from filmmaking. After 1973, however, he was best known by another name: Billy Jack!

Laughlin was a very unusual figure in show business, since he started out as a kind of James Dean clone, but wound up (as some of his obits noted) mixing the indie-filmmaker methods of Cassavetes with the savvy exploitation showmanship of Roger Corman. His films were morality plays with violence, self-righteous tracts that were on the “good side” of history and supply us with a fascinating window into the mind and emotions of middle America in the Seventies.

Laughlin began his public life as a high school and college football star. He said his life was changed by seeing a stage production of Streetcar Named Desire, and there never was any doubt that he was totally influenced by both Brando and Dean. He appeared in a few small TV and movie roles in the Fifties, but two events were the most important: his marriage to Delores Taylor in 1954 (the pair remained married right up until Laughlin's death last week) and his being cast in the starring role of the low-budget potboiler The Delinquents.

The 1957 film is just another juvenile delinquent saga, but it has developed a small cult for two reasons: because Laughlin stars in it, doing his best Dean disaffected-teen shtick, and the film was the fiction-feature debut of a Kansas City native named Robert Altman. Altman went on the record as saying that Laughlin was “an unbelievable pain in the ass,” but the film is important because Altman delved into the Dean mythos with his documentary The James Dean Story (also made in '57) and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
You can see the full film below. It's definitely B-movie fun, but don't expect anything on the order of Rebel Without a Cause....

Laughlin continued on as an actor after The Delinquents, even making his bow as a writer-director with the campus drama The Proper Time in 1960. Here's a wonderfully lurid trailer for the film:

Laughlin's official bios and obits point out that he took a six-year hiatus from acting to run a Montessori school with his wife (1959-65). Apparently the school went bust in '65, which found him again making a low-budget potboiler, this time with him playing a high school athlete (at 34 years of age). His official bios also note that the film, The Young Sinner (aka “Like Father, Like Son”), was intended as the first part of a trilogy called “We Are All Christ.” (No comment.)

He reportedly wrote the screenplay for Billy Jack back in 1954, but couldn't find money to produce it until 1971. In the meantime, he made his debut as the character in the action flick The Born Losers (1967).

I haven't seen the film in years, but remember that, upon viewing it after Billy Jack, one is struck by how nasty and exploitative it is, compared to the later BJ films. There's a *lot* of rape in the film – all of which is present so that Billy Jack can dole out revenge to the rapist bikers.

By 1969 Laughlin finally had the money to shoot his Billy Jack screenplay, and in the process created a very memorable cult picture that expresses its peacenik message in a very entertaining way (read: with violence!).

At the time the film was shot Laughlin was already 38 years old, so his martial arts displays were even more impressive, as was the fact that he produced the film independently with additional funding from three different distributors (American International, Fox, and Warner Bros). The film did decently for a low-budget production upon its first release in '71, but exploded in '73 when Laughlin bought it back from Warners and four-walled (read: rented) 1,200 theaters around the country to show it.

The film grossed 80 million dollars in that run and became an instantly recognizable part of the pop culture of the time. Some critics questioned the fact that Laughlin was proposing dealing with racism and close-minded right-wing ideology by “whopping” the villains in the face with his feet (BJ did also use guns in his countercultural campaign). The notion that a peace-oriented half-Native character could kick the shit out of rednecks clearly appealed to the youth demographic, as seen in these “testmonial” ads Laughlin shot for TV:

There are several super-memorable scenes in the picture, most of them involving BJ “whopping” the villains (I'm fascinated by the fact that Laughlin chose the word “whop” to indicate kicking). The two “greatest hits” from the pic are definitely BJ's face-off with the racist sheriff (Bert Freed):

And the scene in the ice cream parlor in which BJ comes to find that the racist fuckers have been mocking the Native American kids in the local “freedom school”:

As I noted in my blog entry on the band Coven, I hadn't realized that Laughlin truly did take over aspect of the film's promotion, to the extent that he became the “manager” of that great band, having them perform outside the movie theaters where the film was playing.

He also produced their second album, which has some great vocals by Jinx Dawson, but is very weak compared to their other two LPs. Something also occurred between the time of the recording and the album release, in that the band member's names are nowhere on the record cover, and their faces were taken out with White Out from the cover photo!

So Laughlin didn't do much for the band's progress in the business, but Jinx Dawson did do a helluva lot for his movie, with her superb vocal on the “One Tin Soldier” theme (that had been written and performed first by the Canadian band The Original Caste). The “Coven” recording (Jinx credited the song to her band, even though she was the only band member to appear on the soundtrack version of the song) charted in 1971 (in the Top 40) and then again in '73 and '74 (since the film was still in circulation, and the song was so damned catchy).

The first real sequel (since Born Losers is almost too unpleasant to be classified as a true Billy Jack picture), The Trial of Billy Jack was release in 1974). The film is quite strange, including trippy Native American content that predated the stuff found in Oliver Stone's The Doors by 17 years. It's an odd film, running an epic 170 minutes and containing much too much plot.

The storyline involves the titular trial, Billy Jack's prison stay, the efforts of the “freedom school” to run their own news service, and the eventual confrontation between the bad guys and Billy.

Laughlin's master stroke with this film was two-fold: he had a nationwide release of the picture on its opening day (unheard of for a smaller production at that time), and he bought out ad time during national news programs (which, of course, were nightly viewing rituals for folks back in the Seventies).

At some point I have to rewatch Trial, but I remember vividly thinking it was half of a great action/message film, made unwieldy by its running time. The “vision quest” sequences are very odd – remember that the scenes that don't fully come off in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ are those depicting Christ's 40 days in the desert. So if a master filmmaker like Scorsese couldn't carry it off there, in Trial we wind up having moments like this:

Laughlin directed one non-Billy Jack film in the Seventies, The Master Gunfighter (1975) with Ron “Superfly” O'Neal (No clips of that online at all!). In the Bicentennial year, he decided that the next vehicle for BJ would be a remake of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The result was a film that never got a regular release in theaters and was first seen by the public in a VHS release many years later. I remember Laughlin discussing it on various TV interviews (including a few stints on Merv Griffin). I confess I haven't yet caught up to Billy Jack Goes to Washington, but it has a good supporting cast of sympathetic figures and villains (E.G. Marshall, Peter Donat, Lucie Arnaz). There are fights in the film, but obviously Laughlin wanted the film to deliver a contemporary message (including an anti-nuclear-power plot thread) using the model of the Capra film:

After the Washington debacle, Laughlin continued to be active but was effectively almost finished in the film industry. His filmography lists two British productions he had uncredited roles in (or was that another Tom Laughlin?), and includes two small roles he had in mainstream American productions: the Mitchum version of The Big Sleep (1978) and The Legend of Long Ranger (1981).

For the next three decades Laughlin would show up in the press and on interview shows every so often, either speaking out on political issues or pitching the notion of another Billy Jack film. The non-cinematic aspect of his life is covered heavily online. You can find videos on YT of him discussing a book he wrote on cancer; there are also several interviews about his runs for president in 1992 (as a Democrat), in 2004 (as a Republican), and in 2008 (as a Democrat again).

In 1986 he started a film called The Return of Billy Jack that found the character cracking down on child pornographers in New York City. It's not clear what scuttled the production – the film was unfinished – but it was reported that he injured himself on the set of the film, and also that the financial backing just wasn't there. Over the last few years he had been discussing online another BJ feature (one possible title, when he was very pissed off at G.W. Bush: Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose).

He finally hit on the title “Billy Jack and Jean” and pitched the film in a few videos on YT:

Some of his recent videos had found him praising people in contemporary Hollywood (as with a video-rant about how great both Spielberg and Ben Affleck are as directors). The notion of the “last film” is a perennial concern for older filmmakers. I remember when I interviewed Budd Boetticher and he discussed how his dying friend John Ford was certain he was going to get well enough to make “one more film”:

One watches the YouTube videos that Laughlin put up and gets this same impression. (There was one online that I can no longer find where he namechecked a whole bunch of contemporary actors, from Sean Penn to George Clooney, in what seemed like a plea for them to become involved in his Billy Jack sequel.) He had a number of medical travails in his final decade, from tongue cancer to several strokes, and so his efforts to continue his work as a writer and filmmaker are quite touching, no matter ill-starred they seemed.

Thus, I would recommend checking out the blog run by his children, called “Billy Jack Rights.” The name is a bit formal (and way too legal) perhaps, but the content is quite nice, with the entries including rare photos from Laughlin and Taylor's lives and much rare info and documentation about the Billy Jack features. The blog can be found here.

In a 2005 New York Times piece, producer Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gilmore Girls) was asked about his possible work with Laughlin: “[Polone] approached Mr. Laughlin years ago about making a sequel to his trademark film. But, he said, Mr. Laughlin was unwilling to work within the Hollywood system, and his new project would probably suffer as a result.”

It did become clear during interviews with Laughlin (several of which can be found on YouTube) that he didn't want to work with the mainstream of Hollywood in any way, shape, or form (except for those actors he'd mention in his video-chats). While this clearly can be seen as self-destructive, it also is of a piece with his self-reliant philosophy of the Seventies, the kind of thinking that made him a cult figure and also compelled him to continue his quixotic quest for self-sufficiency in a world pretty much run by corporations.

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