Monday, November 18, 2013
A.C. LYLES – “GENTLEMAN OF THE WEST” PART II by C. COURTNEY JOYNER
When A.C. Lyles and I sat down for our first chat, none of the budget westerns he’d made for Paramount in the 1960’s had been made available on cassette (which shows how long ago this was!), despite their continued popularity on television.
The westerns he produced were a strange mixture of old-fashioned white hat v. black hat fodder, mixed with some darker elements, often brought by the casting of veterans with long histories in front of the camera, who didn’t always wear their age well.
But that was part of the magic formula. We were re-visiting old friends, a little greyer or a little fatter, but still the stars who had thrilled us years before, stepping in front of the camera for the producer who valued them in the same way that we did.
In all my talks with A.C., his love of the movies was always present, in his memories, and his enthusiasm for new product. Who would guess that this traditionalist, when he was over 80, would be the consulting producer on DEADWOOD, the HBO series that shattered so many of the genre conventions.
Here, he again speaks lovingly of the greats and near-greats, like Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews, Scott Brady, and Jane Russell that he cast, to remind us all that their talents hadn’t dimmed; that beautiful Virginia Mayo was still a saloon gal to be reckoned with, and that badman Leo Gordon was still mean as a rattlesnake.
I’m sure a lot of these vets were happy for the chance to stay in front of the camera.
Everyone was always very gracious, but again, I felt like they were doing me the favor because I had so little money to work with.
Could you remember a bit on a few of your actors, and their work? John Ireland?
Well, I’d seen John, he’d worked with the biggest stars and directors in the business, Howard Hawks, all of them. And I just thought he was fine. And I had a picture with a couple parts in it that he liked. I did it the same way with Scott Brady, who was a good friend of mine. Scott could play a loving husband, as he did in one picture, or a gunslinger in another - he did it all. One of the best friends I ever had at the studio was Brian Donlevy. I came to the studio in thirty-seven, and for a number of years, Brian was the star of some of the biggest pictures made. I mean, big pictures, starting out with - so many pictures - with Preston Sturges and Bill Wellman. So we always became friends when I started making these pictures. We were having lunch one day, and he said, “I’m going to start making these pictures.” And he said, “Now, I’m going to be in as many of them as you want. And you just call me, tell me where you want me, and I’ll be there.” And that’s the way it was, he did that for me all the time. And Richard Arlen of course, was one of the stars of Wings (1929), the first picture to win an Academy Award, and when I came as an office boy, he was already a big star and befriended me very much, and did so many nice things for me, that when I started producing, Dick was in every picture that I could do. And Leo Gordon –
Leo Gordon was quite an accomplished writer, (TOBRUK, THE TERROR, ADAM-12, etc.) did he ever work on any of the scripts?
No, he didn’t - he never worked on any of the scripts, he worked for me strictly as an actor. He is a good actor however. And he always made a great heavy, and he’d come aboard and do things like that. And Robert Lowery, my gosh he had - before I started making the westerns, he had appeared in some Pine-Thomas pictures that I was associated with, and I got to know him pretty well. And John Agar, I was in his wedding party when he married Shirley. I was an usher for the wedding party, and he’s a good buddy of mine. And Virginia Mayo and Jane Russell, the same way. I knew both of them for a long, long time. I started making these, and I’d call Virginia, or I’d call Jane, and they were so wonderful, came right aboard, and they did a number of pictures for me. As did Dana Andrews, and Bruce Cabot was a good friend. I got to know him through John Wayne. They were good buddies, and I got to know Bruce through him. And Bart MacLane - my gosh, everybody in town knew him. And Bob Steele - I’ve been a big fan of Bob Steele’s when he was making all those westerns, and my gosh, I just loved to watch him ride, he was such a great horseman.
It was such a great group in film after film, could you ever pick a favorite performer? That would be tough!
I tell ya, everybody I worked with did so much for me, and I was so honored to have them aboard. And I’d go on the set each morning just to see all my friends. And it was like a family reunion every day on the set. And I just had the wonderful advantage of being their pals, and they just worked so hard to make everything right for me.
YOUNG FURY – An A.C. Lyles film about “The west’s first teenage gang!” meant that the kids had to slug it out with Lon Chaney and William Bendix.
You co-wrote YOUNG FURY with Steve Fisher. Could you talk about the origins of this one? It’s one of your few writing credits.
I did that with Steve - we co-wrote that - and it just came about because I kept hearing about, at that time, how young gangs would get together and take over communities, or go into a store and take it over, or something like that, and I just thought that there was a story there about a group of young hellions, and invading a town when all the able-bodied men were away at war, and they took it over. And it was - the idea for it was as simple as that, and we wrote it and put a bunch of young people in it, and we had Rory Calhoun and Virginia Mayo - bless her heart - in it and people like that, and it turned out pretty well. And the title helped it quite a bit, YOUNG FURY. And it did very big on television when it came into that.
Chris Nyby was another TV veteran; of course, he also directed the original THE THING.
I knew Chris when he was a top-notch film editor (for Howard Hawks), and then by the time we worked together, he had already established himself beautifully as a director. And I was pleased when Chris could get away from his other assignments and do that picture.
You used Rory Calhoun in many pictures…
What a fine guy he was. And that was when he was in (the TV series) THE GUNMAN, and coming into that. If I had the right scripts, with people like Rory and Dana Andrews, and so forth, where the roles are simply - it was pretty much we just would write the script, and sometimes, in my mind, I would say, “You know, Dana can do this, or George Montgomery can do it, or Smokey could do that - Smokey was a nickname we gave Rory Calhoun because of his jet-black hair - and I knew that among all of my pals, we could get someone interesting, and well-known for the lead parts. I say the lead parts, because we had so many well-known names in the cast of our pictures, almost all the people had done lead roles, and were well known. So we just got our little troupe together, and we used to call ourselves a stock company, and we’d say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” “I’ll do that,” “What about this?” “Oh, I’ll do that one, Joe you can do -“ So it was an even thing. It was like a family at a big dinner table dishing out food, saying, “Hey, I’d like some potato - “ or whatever it was. It worked very, very well.
Just how tight were your budgets and schedules?
(laughs) Actually, you never reveal your budget and your schedule. And I guess I say that because we didn’t have a generous amount of shooting days, or a generous budget. And I think it’s whatever you get on the screen. If you make a picture for five hundred thousand, and it looks like a million dollars, you have a million dollar picture. But if you make a picture for a million, and it looks like five hundred thousand, you got a five hundred thousand dollar picture. So we did everything we could to put all our money on the screen, and I think that’s why a lot of those pictures were so popular.
Linda Darnell starred in BLACK SPURS for you in 1965. That was her last film, wasn’t it?
Linda Darnell had been a friend of mine from the days when she was at Twentieth Century-Fox. One of their biggest stars. And we used to go out together, and catch movies together and things, and I just adored Linda. She was a wonderful friend all the way back from nineteen - probably I met her, well, before the World War - probably forty-one or something like that. Yeah, I guess it was forty-one, maybe forty. She was a big star, and she hadn’t done anything, and I talked to her about coming back, and she didn’t have too much interest in coming back. I don’t think she’d made a picture in five, six, seven years. And I just called her one day went out and said, “Hey, are you going to do this picture?” And I must say, she had fun, we had fun, and what a wonderful person she is.
Director R.G. Springsteen was a vet of westerns at Republic; he was one of the few older, more veteran directors you hired.
R.G. Springsteen, better known as “Bud”, was out of Republic, and just did so many fine pictures there, and he was just the kind of director that I needed so much, who could do pictures well, and do it on a reasonable budget and schedule. Bud was a very quiet, interesting man who could do more than just shoot the script, he always added to the script.
TOWN TAMER was written by Frank Gruber from his novel. Did Paramount own this property and assign it to you?
TOWN TAMER was a picture that was a book first. And Frank was a good friend of mine, and we had lunch one day, and in his briefcase he had some books, and I picked up Town Tamer and read it, and I bought it the next day, and (Frank) did the screenplay. One of the best times I ever had was working with Frank Gruber. He was a master at writing, and he could write a book as fast as he could type. He was phenomenal. And he did wonderful scripts, and he developed so many properties for the screen and TV, like TALES OF WELLS FARGO and CIMMARON CITY, and all those that he did.
He was also very involved with the SHERLOCK HOLMES series at Universal.
Yeah, he was. He could do it all, and do it so well.
Lesley Selander directed; he had a very long history at Paramount, going back to the silent days.
Good old Les Selander, my gosh, (he goes) all the way back to the Buck Jones days, and the HOPALONG CASSIDY pictures. I knew him when he was doing those pictures, and I knew him when he was working with Bill Boyd on the “Hoppies.”
LES SELANDER DIRECTOR – Portrait of veteran Paramount director Lesley Selander, who helmed the first A.C. Lyles productions.
He, like Bud (Springsteen), was just marvelous at making pictures, and improving on the script - and on the short schedule things, it isn’t always easy to do that. But, boy, every script he got, he improved on it. He was one of the easiest men to work with, with that wonderful sense of humor, and that burst of laughter. They all had a lot of input on the scripts. They’d all come in and Bud would say, “When I did such and such a thing,” and “When I did Hopalong Cassidy, we had a situation like that, and Joe Blow did that, or whatever, that might work here.” And we did it. And on the casting, they all would come and say, “A.C., you know so many people in town, you’re all friends with, and I know you’re going to get me good professional people and things.” Or they’d come in and say, “You know who I ran into the other night? I saw Joe Blow, or Mary Smith, and they aren’t doing anything. And they could do such and such a part,” and I’d know them, and they’d say, “Hey, that sounds good, give them a call and say ‘come in Thursday, and we’re gonna start the picture.’”
APACHE UPRISING really benefits from the supporting work of Arthur Hunnicutt and Lon Chaney. They’re both great and grizzled, and you had three great heavies…
Oh, yes. There was very strong supporting work from Arthur Hunnicutt, and Gene Evans, and John Russell, and DeForest Kelley, and they, too, were good buddies of mine. And Deforest Kelley, De and his wife Carolyn, last year celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I knew them before they were married. So that’s how long I’ve known DeForest. I knew De before he became an actor, and he was trying to become an actor. So a lot of the people in our picture, like John Russell, and Arthur Hunnicutt, I knew when he first came out of here, and Gene Evans. They were all buddies of mine over the years. So we would just call them, and say, “Hey, we’re starting a picture, so come in, and we’ll pick out a part.”
Novelist Max Lamb was one of the writers.
Max had a writing partner, and I think the original title was WAY STATION, and it was really, really a good, tight script that had a lot of action.
The sequence in the way station is good; very claustrophobic.
That sequence had very strong tension; where the hostile Indians are outside, and they're inside, waiting for the storm to subside, thinking that there would be an attack any minute. And the scenes in there with De, and Gene Evans, and Lon, and Robert Harris, - well, it just presented itself really well, I liked that (suspense element) very much.
You were making these films on a regular basis, did Paramount expect a certain number of pictures from you per year?
Yeah, I really was expected to deliver a number of films. For about four years, five years, whatever it was, I made more than half the pictures shot on the Paramount lot. All those westerns! (laughs) And I would just make them, finish them, and ship them to New York, and we’d start right in preparing for the next one. I never had a “Make six this year,” I just kept making them, and I’d say, “Do you need some more?” They’d say, “Yeah, we need another one - we need another two - to round out the schedule.” Or I’d start working on the scripts for the next year.
Because you were doing so many westerns, and they were your specialty, was it ever anybody’s intention for you to work with (John Wayne’s company) Batjac, since they were located at Paramount at the time?
Well Batjac came in later, when Duke moved his company on the lot. As a matter of fact, he owned the picture HOSTILE GUNS, he owned the script, he and James Edward Grant. And he was going to make a picture called THE WAR WAGON, which was a little similar, I guess, and I was having lunch with Duke one day, and he told me different scripts he had, we just discussed it, and he came across HOSTILE GUNS and I knew that I could make it for a budget. And so I bought it from Duke Wayne and we did it. It had some sequences in it that were just a little expensive for me. So Steve Fisher came in and together we jumped the story - we didn’t cut any scenes or anything, we just brought it down a little bit. And that’s how we got a James Edward Grant piece, because it belonged to Duke, but he let me make it. And Duke was one of my best friends. He and I won the Spurs Award in nineteen sixty-six. And I admired him so much, and he was absolutely wonderful to me, he was a very, very good friend. Every place that his pictures played, we played.
Our pictures were very big in Italy, they were big in England, they were very big in Germany, and France. They played all over the world, and we had a lot of play dates, a lot of play dates. And I remember one time being in Palm Springs, and driving back, and there were three different theaters, just driving back from Palm Springs - which is a hundred and twelve miles - I had three pictures showing, and all of them were different pictures. It wasn’t three prints showing of the same picture, they were three different productions, I could see on the screen and the marquis coming back. One time we had a flood of pictures out there.
JOHNNNY RENO was another Steve Fisher script. Would he come in and pitch ideas to you or would you hand him an outline or spitball ideas?
JOHNNY RENO – One sheet for A.C.’s second film with Dana Andrews, and Jane Russell as the shady lady in question.
I worked on all the scripts with Steve, and often times would come in with the idea, and Steve would nail it down, and say, “You know, you should take credit on this picture,” or something. And he would suggest it, and we would do (the picture).
WACO was another Max Lamb piece. Max was primarily a western novelist, was this also done as a book?
No, it seems to me that this was an original script. Max Lamb wrote with a fellow that was very good named Harry Sanford. And Harry worked next door to Paramount, at Desilu, and I got to know him, and through him, I got to know Max Lamb.
Wendell Corey was quite good as The Preacher. I always thought he was under rated as an actor, even after THE RAINMAKER.
I knew Wendell quite well because Hal Wallis had brought him to Hollywood, and Hal was on our lot, and through Hal I got to know Wendell. And we were having lunch and talking one day, and I said, “What are you doing right now?” And he said, “Oh, I got some free time before I start doing -“ whatever picture it was. And I said, “Hey, you want to come over and do a part?” And he said, “Sure.” So he came in and did it. And what a fine actor, what a fine actor, Wendell Corey.
Your next production in 1967 was RED TOMAHAWK. Wasn’t Betty Hutton supposed to star?
Well, she was indeed going to do it, and when Betty Hutton was on the lot, she was one of our biggest stars, and one of my closest friends. And I admire her, and have tremendous respect for her abilities, and she was going to do it. She hadn’t done a picture in about five years, and she came in and saw me, and she was going to do RED TOMAHAWK, but unfortunately, she took ill on the first day of the picture she wasn’t feeling well, and I re-cast her with Joan Caulfield who had been in pictures for me before, and again was a good friend. When Betty was ill, Joan happened to call me about something else, and I said, “I got a problem,” and she said, “God, I’m sorry to hear that.” And I said, “Could you do the picture?” She said, “Of course!” And I sent her the script and she came in the very next morning and we did it. I just talked to Betty - I talk to her every two or three months back east, and I’m very fond of her.
How did James Cagney come to narrate ARIZONA BUSHWACKERS?
ARIZONA – Poster for ARIZONA BUSHWACKERS, which was narrated by A.C.’s old pal, James Cagney.
Jimmy was up at the house one night having dinner, and near the end of dinner I had a telephone call from the editor who reminded me that we needed narration on the film. And I think it was Sunday night, and he said we have to do it Tuesday afternoon. And I said, “Okay, I’ll put a note down that we have to do the narration Tuesday for the picture.” And he said, “Well, who’s going to do it?” And I said, “I don’t know whose going to do it yet, but I’ll get someone tomorrow (meaning Monday) and I’ll let you know, and we’ll set up a date. How about two o’clock Tuesday?” And he said, “That sounds good.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll let you know tomorrow who it’s going to be.” I went back to the table, and Jimmy said, “You got a problem?” And I said, “No, not particularly, Jimmy. We finished the show, and we need narration, and I’ll have to get someone tomorrow.” And he looked at me and laughed, and said, “I’m not good enough, huh?” And he looked at me, and said, “Well, you didn’t ask me.” And I said, “Do you want to?” And he said, “Sure.” So he came and did it. But I purposefully didn’t put his name on the screen, or announce that he was going to do it, because I thought that would have been taking advantage of a good friendship, and I was just grateful he wanted to do it. Of course, all the reviewers noted that he did that. Because it was well known that Jim and I were the closest of friends. So they put it in.
When the movie plays on television, TV Guide mentions it.
Isn’t that wonderful? ‘Cause he’s so well known, and you can’t help but know who it is when you hear it. But I didn’t announce it, nor did I put it on the screen. But by association, our friendship, people knew about that.
Did you two ever talk about his directing one of the westerns?
No, we never did. He directed that one picture for me and I think that cured his directing bug. I thought he did a very good job, of course, but his directing never came up again.
NIGHT OF THE LEPUS is one of your more notorious credits; a sort of hybrid of western, science fiction and horror…
BUCKSKIN – The last round-up. A.C.’s final western for Paramount, although he’d soon make the notorious NIGHT OF THE LEPUS at MGM. Badmen Leo Gordon and John Russell can be seen giving Barry Sullivan a hard time.
Metro borrowed me from Paramount to do that picture, and we never made the special effects for it, there were supposed to be a lot of special effects in it, because of a change of regime and things, we never put all that in and I think the picture suffered for it. And I went to MGM, that was somewhat of a loan-out deal, because I was with Paramount - I’ve been always with Paramount - I just went over there, and I came right back.
You still used your stock company of DeForest Kelly and Paul Fix and Rory Calhoun.
Again, it was a case of working with friends and I always tried to do that if I could.
You’ve had such close relationships with your casts, yet you also used the same technical people over and over. Phil Lathrop shot many of these pictures. You were almost running a studio within the studio.
That’s very nice, I love that phrase, you call it a studio within a studio.
Well, we had a good working team, and when someone joined the “family,” I would just fall in love with them, and knew that they knew they were professional, they knew what they were doing, and they knew my particular needs, and my particular routine of making movies. So we just worked them together. We used cameramen, we used editors, we used assistant directors, we used grips, prop men, electricians, wardrobe people, and we had the whole little stock company of people, above the line, below the line, meaning in front of the camera, and in back of the camera. And it was indeed like a family, and everyone had only one purpose in mind, that was to make the picture, and make it as good as we could with the proponents we had. And I thought they turned out well, and they were a very, very successful series of pictures.
Every experience you’ve related has been a happy one, so can you pick a favorite of the westerns you made?
You know, it’s tough to answer in a way, because they’re all like your children. They’re all a little different, they’re all presented different accolades. They all presented different prides, they all presented different problems, and I had very few problems, very little to speak of. There was something in each one I liked, there was something in each one where I would say, “Gee, I wish we could do that over.” Of course LAW OF THE LAWLESS was wonderful, because that was the first one I did. But so many of them, I look back over them, and going over the list of questions you sent me reminded me of a lot of the incidents, and places and things that we did, and it brings back memories.
DEADWOOD – Swearengen swears! Ian McShane was brilliant as the baddest of the bad in Lyles’ shattering western series for hbo.
As a producer, you could have chosen any genre to concentrate on – gangster films, horror; what attracted you to the westerns?
I think it was a wonderful moral story to tell, with the good against the evil, and the good always winning out. And in that confine, in that framework, you could always put in a lot of action, with the good always winning out. And it’s a universal story. The first movie ever made was THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, a western. And you look back over the top pictures all through the years, and you’ll find the western was always up there. I think people identify easily with the western also. The story transfers to all languages in the world, they all can follow the western very, very easily. Oh, sure, I’d love to do some more westerns for TNT, The Family Channel and things like that, and most of those cable shows have used the movies I’ve produced, the westerns. Turner has played them over and over again, and they’re all over television now, and I would love to do some more. I have some very, very good scripts, and some books, I guess all told, seven, eight, ten projects - most of them in script form. And I would love to do, and maybe sometime I’ll talk to somebody, and we’ll do them. In the meantime, I’m at Paramount, I come in every day, I have a lot of different duties. I go out and speak a lot for the studio, I just got back from Jordan, I was at Florida State University, I was at Texas A&M. Last year I think I did fifty-seven appearances, either in front of a camera - talking about Hollywood and various people - or at dinners and luncheons and things like that. So I keep very active, and every place I go the people want to know about the westerns, and I’m always delighted to talk about them, because I’m very proud of them.
A.C.LYLES 2 – A.C. relaxing in the Paramount office he had for decades. The studio was his second home, and he was its goodwill ambassador.
PART ONE OF THIS INTERVIEW IS ARCHIVED FOR MORE GREAT READING!