By Kevin S. Giles
It was a big deal, interviewing those movie actors in person for the newspaper. Natalie Wood’s sister Lana? Wow. And Ben Johnson, winner of an Academy Award? Yes.
I was a young writer at the Helena Independent Record when American International filmed “Gray Eagle” east of the city. Sensing an opportunity, I volunteered to write profiles of the top actors. Then the fun began.
I interviewed Wood, Alex Cord, Paul Fix and Iron Eyes Cody poolside at the Colonial Inn, where they were staying. Johnson agreed to join me for dinner at the historic Placer Hotel, where we dined on steaks and baked potatoes while he told stories of the cowboy life on film and of his Oscar performance in “The Last Picture Show.”
Jack Elam invited me to the hotel room he shared with his wife and young son. Jack was a trip alright, hardly different from my dad in personality and a fair bit gentler than the scowling gunman he played in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
That was 1977 and now the years have passed. “Gray Eagle,” despite its flaws, endured as a cult movie. The actors faded with time. Fix, the cast’s elder statesman who played Marshal Micah Torrance in TV’s “The Rifleman,” died in 1983. I recall a memorable quote from our interview. Standing at the urinal when a man slapped a sheet of paper on the wall and demanded an autograph, Fix replied: “Wait until I have a hand free, will ya?”Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
Cody came to our interview wearing buckskin and a feather in his hair. Years later he would deny allegations that he lacked even an ounce of Native American blood, born to Italian immigrant parents. He was a close friend of Walt Disney. Despite appearing in more than 200 movies, Cody will be most remembered as the crying Indian who paddled a canoe through floating garbage in “Keep America Beautiful” advertisements. He died of congestive heart failure in 1999.
A heart attack took Johnson in 1993. For Elam, it was congestive heart failure in 2003.
As a girl, Wood played bit parts in her famous sister Natalie’s movies. Lana also was James Bond eye candy in “Diamonds are Forever.” Over time she went broke caring for her daughter’s medical condition. A recent youtube.com video shows them living in a motel. Lana was asked in the video interview what would Natalie would do if she was around to witness her sister’s slide into poverty. “She would fix it,” Lana said. (Natalie’s suspicious 1981 drowning is now back in the news.)
Cord, the other survivor, is now an 80-something. He’s been around both the TV and movie worlds, but older filmgoers might remember him as “The Ringo Kid” in a remake of John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” Cord, too, can be seen on youtube.com as he looks today, his chiseled face framed between a Stetson and a drooping white moustache.
Cord was the first actor I interviewed. He was playing the part of Gray Eagle, a Cheyenne warrior who kidnaps Wood. He blinked a lot in the bright sunshine, trying to adjust to contact lenses that would disguise his blue eyes for the camera. It didn’t take long, maybe seconds, to determine Cord wanted to impress on me that he was an alpha male who worked hard to temper his confrontational instincts. He spoke first of joining the rodeo circuit as a teenager, lasting through 12 bone fractures. And then, I recorded this quote:
“I used to have a violent temper. That’s another thing that meditation did for me. I only want to be harmonious. I tend to pull away from hostility. I don’t like physical violence. I don’t even like verbal violence. I tend to walk away when I hear somebody arguing. I figure it’s tough enough to survive without subjecting ourselves to self-destructive influences.”
Wood told me toward the end of our interview that her daughter, upstairs in the care of her mother during filming, was climbing the walls of the hotel room with boredom. We later took our young daughter to play with Lana’s girl for a few hours. What I recall from that awkward experience is watching the kids while Lana’s mother barely spoke a word.
I watched filming a few times. It was my introduction to movie making. I saw how the director positioned cameras to hide faraway telephone poles and water towers behind trees, how scenes were timed to avoid airplane noise overhead, and how actors worked in a tight physical area as crews surround them with cameras and cables and sound equipment.
I admit to disappointment when the movie came out. Editing was shoddy. It’s possible that I saw a pre-release version, but I recall that the movie opened with Alex Cord (as Gray Eagle) astride a horse against a sunset. Then the camera flipped to Wood (as Beth Colter), who shielded her eyes against a glaring midday sun as she watched him. In another scene, a presumed three-legged dog scampered about with the camera showing the fourth leg tied up. Jarring betrayals of movie period scenes are known as “anachronisms,” and even if minor, they wreck the mood as surely as if a jetliner had streaked through the sky above an Indian encampment.
Back at my newsroom, the managing editor grew weary of my march of actor stories into our daily paper. They began to creep from the top of the front page toward the bottom. “Are we ever going to see the end of this?” he asked me.
“Just one more,” I assured him as I wrote a story about my adventure with Elam, wisely electing not to disclose that the best part of the interview came when Jack and I gabbed like old friends under the powerful influence of strong whiskey. (Be assured, worried editors everywhere, it was a mistake I never repeated in my long newspaper career.)
That was the end of my movie-writing endeavors. I never even got to interview the three-legged dog.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)