Monday, October 21, 2013
A.C. LYLES: GENTLEMAN OF THE WEST BY C. COURTNEY JOYNER
A.C. AND ME – A reunion at CBS studios. It was about a hundred and ten degrees, and
I was falling apart, but A.C. remained cool and collected, as he always was.
I was fortunate in knowing producer A.C. Lyles for more than twenty years. I’d grown up watching his late-night, low-budget westerns that he made for Paramount in the 1960’s, and I knew that he was considered the studio’s “goodwill ambassador.”
We did many interviews over the years, and he helped me countless times, but this was his favorite, a lengthy piece that was eventually a chapter in my book THE WESTERNERS (McFarland and Co.)
Always dapper, always courteous, and always ready to step up, it was a real delight, and honor, for me that A.C. considered me a friend, and his death (at the amazing age of 95), is a loss for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood, because no one knew it like A.C. – because no one else had lived it the way he had.
Upon meeting producer A.C. Lyles, the first word that comes to mind is “gentleman.” Never the clichéd cigar-chomping huckster type of the 30’s (although he worked for them) or the screaming Joel Silver-styled producer of today, Lyles is Paramount Pictures’ ambassador of good will to the world. After sixty-plus years in the business, he seems to have known (and liked) virtually everyone and when one of the giants of the Golden Age passes, Lyles is the first person called for a comment.
Working his way up from office boy to Paramount’s director of publicity, Lyles's tenacity was rewarded and he became the studio’s leading producer of modestly budgeted films. He soon became known for a string of westerns marked by their veteran casts, “King of the B’s” directors and short schedules. At a time when the western was steering toward a darker horizon thanks to the talents of directors like Anthony Mann, Lyles embraced a classic, Saturday matinee-style for his films that seemed old fashioned even when they were made. Populated by stand-up sheriffs, snake-eyed outlaws and heart-of-gold saloon gals, these horse operas were endearing time capsules that are still popular today with western fans.
Using straightforward scripts and filling his casts with familiar Hollywood faces, Lyles created a niche that was uniquely his own. As Hollywood (and the world) changed in the 60’s, Lyles stuck to his traditional formula. While Peckinpah was breaking ground with The Wild Bunch, Lyles was on the backlot pitting good Marshal Barry Sullivan against black hat John Russell in Buckskin. If the westerns of the 50’s and 60’s reflected a harsher social reality, the optimistic Lyles would have none of it in his films. He is the Champion of the B’s; a filmmaker who believes in the kind of movies that assured front-row kids that good guys win out in the end and there is a law for the lawless.
The proceeding was written about ten years ago, when this interview was conducted. In the interim, I’ve gotten to know A.C. better, and have always found him to be gracious, full of wonderful stories, and the true ambassador of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
And, in his 80’s, he became the producer of DEADWOOD.
DEADWOOD – In his 80’s, A.C. lent his expertise as an advising producer on this ground-breaking, and sometimes profane, HBO western.
Created by writer David Milch, HBO’s groundbreaking western series, exploded taboos of language and violence. Milch wanted a “western man” as consulting producer, and went to A.C., who guided the show for two seasons. Ironically, DEADWOOD blasts apart all of the old values that A.C. held so dear in his series of Paramount films. It’s a fascinating contradiction, and one to keep in mind while reading the words of this old-world gentleman, who is still one of the most savvy and forward-thinking producers in town.
Could you talk about your first job at Paramount? Legend has it that you started as a messenger boy.
Legend? (laughs) Okay, Courtney, I went to work for Paramount in 1929 in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Florida Theater, which was Paramount owned. It was a Paramount/Publix theater, and I went there in twenty-nine, handing out handbills and things. And the next year - no, I went there in twenty-eight - and the next year, in twenty-nine, they put me on salary as a pageboy. And I was there from twenty-nine until thirty- seven when I came to the theaters. And how that came about is that I became a pageboy, and then I became an usher when I was fourteen. Adolph Zukor built the Jacksonville, and I met him, and he took a liking to me, and he told me to finish high school, and keep in touch with him. So I wrote him a letter every Sunday for four years, and then when I got out of high school, I came out. I got on a day coach and came here to Hollywood, I was seventeen - maybe I was eighteen by that time - and I got on the day coach and came here with two jars of peanut butter, and two sacks of clothes, and a sack of apples, I came here. I came to the studio, and Mr. Zukor remembered me, and gave me a job as his office boy. So that’s how I got started here at Paramount, coming here - to the studio - in nineteen thirty-seven, which is over sixty years ago.
You began working in publicity for Pine-Thomas Productions in the 30’s?
Well, I got different jobs on the lot. I went into publicity, and then became publicity director for Pine and Thomas - William Pine and William Thomas. And they left the lot, and when they left the lot, I started making the kind of pictures they did. Which was sort of the program pictures.
They were doing a lot of aviation pictures, with people like Richard Arlen and later, adventures like CAPTAIN CHINA with John Payne…
CAPTAIN CHINA – Lyles was a young publicity man for Pine-Thomas productions at
Paramount for more than twenty years, churning out ad copy and posters for second-tier
Oh, yes. Well, they did aviation pictures, they did all kinds of pictures, and when they left, I started making the type of pictures they did, but instead of making aviation pictures, I went a different way (with) action, and got into the making (of) the westerns.
Wasn’t your first film as a full-fledged producer SHORT-CUT TO HELL in 1957, the remake of THIS GUN FOR HIRE?
The studio had rights to THIS GUN FOR HIRE and they wanted to re-do it, and they asked me if I’d be interested, and I said, indeed that I did.
How did James Cagney come to direct it?
My two closest friends in life had been Ronald Reagan and Jim Cagney, and they both attended my wedding forty-one years ago, and sort of stood up for me. And I asked (Cagney) if he’d like to direct it, and he said he certainly would. And he did do it.
It’s a good little picture.
Yes, I always liked that one. It was the one and only picture Jimmy ever directed, and he just did that to get me started producing.
Did that film lead directly to LAW OF THE LAWLESS in ‘64? That was the first of your western productions.
THE LAW OF THE LAWLESS was indeed the first picture, the first western that I made. But before I did that, to learn about westerns - the studio wanted me to learn about westerns - I went on sort of a loan-out, as a deal for CBS on a series they had sometime ago, and it became a big, big hit. And we had several - Eric Fleming was the lead, but in the other cast was a kid named Clint Eastwood that sort of took off, and the show was called RAWHIDE. So I did the first group of those, and then went back to the studio to start making my own westerns. And I did LAW OF THE LAWLESS, it was sort of like a pilot is for a television series. That was just to see if I could do pictures on a strict budget and a strict schedule, see what it would do, and it was very successful, and I just started making many, many more of them as a result of that.
Steve Fisher, who wrote DEAD RECKONING and some other great Film Noirs, was your primary screenwriter on those films.
Steve Fisher, who was an old friend of mine, did a lot of pictures like I WAKE UP SCREAMING - some Bogart pictures. And he had this script, and I bought it from him, and it became LAW OF THE LAWLESS, and as a result of that Steve was with me a number of years, just writing one western script after the other, and he became one of my good friends.
William F. Claxton directed. He was doing a lot of western television shows.
I’d always admired (Claxton) as a director. He had been working here (Paramount) on a series, BONANZA, which was very successful, and I knew Bill through that, so I asked Bill to direct this, and he did it and did it very well.
Around this time, westerns started becoming a bit darker in their attitudes; movies like APACHE, LAST TRAIN TO GUN HILL, the Anthony Mann pictures, and even Ford’s SERGEANT RUTLEDGE put aside a lot of black hat vs. white hat sensibility. But your films really stayed traditional in their approach.
I went back to doing a more traditional western, where the good against the evil, and the evil losing out and the good winning, and in all that confine having all of the action. Because the western, I think, is the most moral story you can tell. Good against evil.
APACHE UPRISING – Rory Calhoun and Arthur Hunnitcutt hold off Injuns in this typical Lyles production, co-starring Lon Chaney and DeForrest Kelly.
Your casting on these films was always fun. Could you talk about your policy of hiring all these veterans for your films? Even the smallest roles were played by familiar faces.
Why did I hire so many great veterans for these pictures? Actually, I didn’t honor them half as much as they honored me. They were very good friends of mine, and some people I never made a picture without them, like Richard Arlen, and Lon Chaney and a lot of people like that. Because they were my buddies, they were so good, they just knew what they were doing, and it was my honor to have them on the set. And as I said, we were buddies, and we just got along well, and it was like a family. And the pictures were quite successful, I don’t want to go into cost and budget and things like that, but every one of them did well for Paramount, and for me. But the main thing is, I enjoyed making these so much, that it just pleased me.
I think STAGE TO THUNDER ROCK really stands out among this series. That was originally an episode of the TALES OF WELLS FARGO television series, wasn’t it?
STAGE TO THUNDER ROCK – Belgian poster for my favorite Lyle’s western,
Starring Barry Sullivan and Ralph Taeger. I told A.C. that it was “Petrified Forrest as
A western,” and he hooted, “That’s it!”
Yes, it was. STAGE TO THUNDER ROCK was just a good, basic kind of picture that lent itself to the type of schedule and type of budget that I had.
It really was THE PETRIFIED FORREST goes to the way station, but the tone was different from some of your other films. It was darker, and there was more of an atmosphere of violence.
You know, you said that THUNDER ROCK was a darker, more violent story, and I just - looking at that and wondering about it - I guess at the time I didn’t realize that it was darker - I didn’t think of it as a darker or lighter script, I just did stories that I liked the theme for, and I liked the messages. And when I say “messages” I never made a picture for a message, but in the confines of the western you can get a lot of action. That was certainly a picture I enjoyed very much with all the people in it. And the script came in about forty pages too long, and I just went through it, and we never cut a scene, we just cut dialogue and things in it, and made it a little more crisper. And I thought it turned out well, and people in it did very well, and it did very well at the box office, and certainly on television.
Barry Sullivan was great as the wounded lawman.
Barry Sullivan had done a number of important pictures at Paramount years before and so I was lucky to have him. We were good friends, and I used him again in BUCKSKIN. I always tried to have parts (in my pictures) for a lot of my good friends, and things like that, and I enjoyed it very, very much. Doing that with people like Rory Calhoun, and all the others, and Marilyn Maxwell. There were so many good stars who would appear in my films, and they were good friends.
Lon Chaney did excellent work for you over the years.
Lon Chaney was in so many of the pictures, and years before - when he did pictures on the Paramount lot, he did pictures with Bob Hope, and everybody - I got to know Lon very, very well, and I admired him, and we had a good, warm friendship. And when I started these series, I certainly wanted him to be a part of it, and I called him, and I said, “Lon, I’m going to start these westerns, do you want to be in them.” And he said, “Hold on just a minute,” and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m packing my makeup kit, I’ll be right over.” And when he was available, he was in every one that I did.
Patsy Chaney said that her husband loved working in these pictures; that at this time in his life, they really bolstered his spirits, and morale.
Well I tell you, he boosted MY spirits, and certainly boosted my morale, because this man, I never saw him when he wasn’t professional. He arrived on the set every morning, he knew what he was going to do every minute of the day, and I would often times call him, and say, “Lon, I’m starting a picture in two weeks.” And he said, “Just send me whatever you got, and I’ll be there.” And he did it. Somebody (mentioned Patsy Chaney’s comment) to me, and Patsy I adored. Lon was just a remarkable, remarkable man, and he was the most interesting person, and he never caused me a moment’s hesitation of any kind of a part. He was the most professional actor. He was wonderful, and a good friend, and I just absolutely adored Lon. He and I were good buddies. And I’m happy that Patsy said that because that pleases me. The other way around was, when he was doing the pictures, he made me a happy fellow.
That’s great to hear. You worked with a number of actors who had pretty solid reputations as drinkers. Scott Brady, John Ireland, Lon Chaney and lots of others…
That’s true. Really, looking back at all the pictures, and we did have some actors who were known for drinking some, and even talked about it openly - I’m not telling anything out of school - and Dana Andrews later became a spokesperson, sort of, for Alcoholics Anonymous. And we had others, I remember one time on one picture, I went into one of the actor’s dressing rooms, and we were on location, and the five main actors on the picture were having an AA meeting. And I thought, “My god, boy, if these fellows ever decided to go on a toot, I would be in deep trouble.” (laughs)! But I mean this sincerely, I never had any problems with it. They were always so anxious to help me, knowing that I was making pictures on strict schedules and strict budgets and they just leaned over backwards to help me any way they could.
END OF PART ONE
Used By Permission of Joyner/McFarland Press