By Jonathan Marlow
January 18, 2006 - 12:14 PM PST
I discovered recently that Robert Ryan, one of my favorite actors, was originally cast in the Jason Robards role. How did you come to cast him and, because of his health, when did he drop out of the production?
Bob was something else. I got to work with Bob on The Wild Bunch and he and I got to be pretty good friends. While we were there in Mexico, I said, "Hey, I want to make this picture." He said, "Well, let me read it." I always kept a copy of it with me since I was working on it the whole time so I gave it to him. He came in the next morning, handed it back, and said, "You bet. I'd be tickled to death to do it. Just tell me what you want." I said, "I don't have any money!" He said, "I don't care, I want to do the piece." That's the way it was and it sat that way for five or six years because I was so busy working as an actor. I really didn't have the time to take off and go do it.
I adored Bob. On The Wild Bunch, I knew members of the crew and some of the other actors and of course I knew Sam, but at first we just thought Bob was very shy. He was kind of treated that way for the first two or three days. Then all of the sudden we realized that he's not shy at all. He was just keeping his mouth shut until he found out where everybody stood. Once he did, he was just like the rest of us.
I'll tell you something that probably very few people ever know. We were doing this scene where the bridge is blown up. The way Sam set it up, we did all of the action that we're going to do with the bridge except the blow-up (and what followed that, of course). Now, we're ready to go and we start off on one side of the bridge and we're going to run right up to the point where the explosion happens. Then they'll yell, "Cut!" and bring in the stuntmen.
Well, it's one of those things where we weren't going to be able to make the shot, then we were, we weren't, we were, we weren't, if we don't get it now, we'll never get it, we've got to shoot the shot, so here we go. We're over, as you look at the bridge, we're on the left-hand side behind a little hill, so you couldn't see us - it's a clean cut. We got there, we got ready, everybody is panicking, and we finally hear, "Okay, Action!" We're starting to leap out with Bob leading us. I looked up and he's wearing his dark glasses. He's forgotten that his dark glasses are on.
Well, Sam would have killed him out-of-hand. If we don't get that shot we may not ever get it. Bob was lucky enough that I just reached up with my fingers and flipped them off onto the ground. He was really ticked until he realized why. Off we went and, sure enough, the shot worked. We came back and he got the glasses but they were a little bent up. The horses had stepped on them but at least he was still alive. If he had ridden out there with those glasses on, Peckinpah would have killed him!
By the time we finally started working on A Boy & His Dog, Bob was ill with cancer and I didn't want to press him, for goodness sake. So I just passed on it and asked Jason. Jason said, "Let me read it," and read it and said, "You bet." I could have had both of them in it! Bob would have been totally different than Jason, but a lot of plusses he had would be minuses and vice versa for Jason. They both would approach it so differently.
Ryan seems to be best remembered as a "heavy," quite in contrast to his actual personality.
As a matter of fact, he and Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda nearly every year went out and did stage plays. Then they donated all of the money to charity. This was their way for raising money for different charities, schools and whatever. Bob asked me if I'd join the group. That was, to me, unbelievable accolades. I couldn't do it because I couldn't take off the time that they could. I would have sold my seat in hell to work with all three of them! Especially on a day-to-day basis.
I have to think of a film that was released around the same time, The Iceman Cometh, to try and imagine what Ryan would be like in A Boy & His Dog. He would obviously bring some very different things to it, although Jason Robards is terrific in the film.
Jason's just unbelievably good. The beauty of the piece is, and it just happens, I've made, they tell me, 115 movies and anything from 500 to 700 television shows. And out of 600 pictures, maybe four or five of them just work far better than they have any right to be. Wild Bunch happened to be that way; The Young Lions happened to be; Ride the High Country is that way and A Boy & His Dog. It just happens. You can't plan it, you don't see it; it's just there.
Were you close with Warren Oates [Oates and Jones play brothers in Ride the High Country]?
Warren and I were great friends. He was one of the goodies. When you see Warren, you didn't realize what he was like until you were around him. You didn't realize how delicate he was.
Did you take a lot away from working with Peckinpah? Did your experience working with him help with your efforts on A Boy & His Dog?
The thing that you pick up from Sam is his attention to detail. I've been very fortunate in this business. I've worked with some of the best in the industry. Whether you mean to or not, you pick it up. I learned this from Al, that from Eddie; you don't consciously do it, it just kind of sinks into you.
Hell, I did nine pictures with Sam. You look at The Devil's Bedroom. If you realize that something's wrong with it, why isn't it working? Maybe the cast isn't right, but it was a good cast. Maybe the script isn't right, which it probably wasn't, when you really come around to it. I asked that question of myself, "What makes the difference?" I studied it. I asked different actors, different directors, different producers, critics, everybody, even the people who delivered milk. I'm a collective.
Finally, it clicked into place, and that's "detail." If you detail everything out, your script will be good, your actors will be right, your lighting will be right - if you stick with detail. If you don't, maybe they'll be good and maybe they won't. Maybe, if you stick to detail, they're not going to be great but they're going to be a hell of a lot better than they would have been if you wouldn't have put the detail into it.
So, in watching Sam do that, I switched around and I do it with my cast and my crew. It works for me because we've done, altogether, four pictures. All four have been included in "ten best of the year" lists. A Boy & His Dog has been chosen by a number of critics as the best science fiction picture ever made. That's BS. That's a heck of a lot better than saying it's the worst ever made. Is it a classic? You bet. It was a classic the day it was released. I wish I could claim credit for that, but I can't. My crew helped, my cast helped, Harlan helped; everybody did. If you just beat it long enough or hard enough sometimes things work.
I could see that, in the hands of another director, the film could have been played as a joke. There's so much going against it, yet it all comes together. You have to take some credit for that.
When we first released it, Alvy and I were traveling around with the film and I was doing a television show in Kansas City. The guy was a good critic and he said, "Why did you make the picture?" I gave him my standard answer. We went on for another fifteen to twenty minutes in the 30-minute show and he asked the same question again. I said, "I just told you!" And he said, "No, you gave me an answer but that's not the answer."
So I tried it again and we got through it and he said, "Listen, you still didn't tell me." I said, "How do you know?" He said, "I'll know when you tell me." I said, "Well, that's it." He said, "Tell you what, if ever you're back to this neck of the woods and you ever think of why you really made it, give me a call and we'll do another show." And I said, "Oh, sure, sure."
It got me to thinking, "Why did I make the picture?" Because I was a nut! I finally called him up four or five months later because I was in the neighborhood and said, "I know." And he said, "Good." We did the show again and he asked me why I did the picture. The real answer was because everybody told me it couldn't be done. It was universal. Everybody said, "You can't do it. It will not work." I'm just dumb enough and stubborn enough to say, "I think I can make it work." And we did it.
You were right. It works.
But it has no right to work.
As you said, it could be a laugh. It should be a laugh. Well, it is a laugh, because it's a very funny picture.
It's the right kind of laugh.
That's right, it's built into it. We do it on purpose.
"I was sitting in hysterical laughter because he had actually pulled it off."
"That damn dog is phenomenal."
"I would have sold my seat in hell to work with all three of them!""I absolutely adore Vic and Blood."
"It's one of the great moments of my life."
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In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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