Legendary actor L.Q. Jones died yesterday at the age of 94. He appeared in some of the greatest American films ever made, and his extensive filmography (consisting of well over 100 films) features a Who’s Who of American American cinema. Jones made his film debut in the 1955 Raoul Walsh war picture Battle Cry, credited with his birth name Justus E. McQueen. The character he played was a young private named…L.Q. Jones. Soon, at the behest of the studio, the young actor changed his name to that of his character, and the rest, as they say, is history.
L.Q. Jones wasn’t a household name, and that’s a shame, because it deserved to be. Among knowledgeable cineastes he was seen as a god among men, a gifted and accomplished performer. He was one of those character actors people instantly recognize, even if they don’t know his name, as he’d been in films with the likes of Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood and appeared in such noted pictures as The Wild Bunch, Hang ‘Em High, and Casino. Jones even directed a couple of films, the most notable being his 1975 adaptation of the Harlan Ellison novella A Boy and His Dog, which he also wrote and produced. In addition to his 100-plus film credits, Jones also worked extensively in television, having appeared in hundreds of episodes of television on such series as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Perry Mason.
I’ve been writing about film for more than 20 years, and have interviewed somewhere close to 500 notable people, but L.Q. Jones was a bucket list interview for me. I did some research and tracked him down, contacting him in January 2019. I knew a lot of other writers who had been hunting him for an interview, but the trick, I found, was to look him up under his real name, Justus McQueen. It turned out he was right there in the White Pages. I found Jones to be pleasant and enjoyable to talk to, and we wound up doing this interview by telephone. This interview was simultaneously one of the easiest and most difficult I’d ever done. It was easy because Jones was a natural born storyteller with lots of credits to discuss, but difficult because there was absolutely no way to cover all the important films and notable people he’s been involved with. If I had another thousand hours to talk to him, I might have come close to achieving this. As it was, I had to be selective about what I asked and was careful to just sit back and let the man talk. He was forthright, introspective, and funny, which resulted in a terrific interview.
How would you describe the LQ Jones acting technique? Would you consider yourself a method actor?
I’ve never really thought about it. Actors are born; hell, they’re not made. We can teach you technique, but we can’t teach you to act. I’ve been this way ever since I was born. I wish I had some training, but I haven’t. I just do it. I do what seems right to me. I watch other actors. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with a lot of really good people. It would be a lie if I said I didn’t steal from them. You do. You learn, or you get out of the business. It was just a God given gift. I’ve got a modicum of talent, and I’ve been able to use it.
When you first came into the business, did any actors take you aside and give you any advice?
No, I never did. But you know, I came to the business really strangely. No one talked to me about that, but everyone was telling me what to do. I had 150 directors on the first picture! The cameraman would say, “Is that where you’re gonna stand, kid? If you wanna be Stepin Fetchit, that’s the place to stand. If you wanna be seen, you need to get your ass over here! This is your key light. This is the light for this… Pay attention to it.” The sound man said, “You’re mumbling, for Christ’s sake! Speak up!” Every person on that picture was a director. You listen to them, or you get out of the business. It’s fairly easy.
Your birth name is Justus McQueen, but you wound up taking the name LQ Jones from your character in that film, Battle Cry. How did that happen?
I’d never seen a motion picture camera before I showed up, and Raoul Walsh was the director. Had it not been for Raoul, I would never have been in the business. It was one of those things where the studio said, “If you don’t mind, we’ll change your name.” And I said, “Hell, if you write it on checks, I don’t care. Whatever pleases you thrills me plumb to death.” I spoke to Leon Uris, who was the man who wrote Battle Cry. He was having a little bit of trouble after the novel came out. I told him what they said, and he said, “Hell yes, go ahead and do it.” So I said fine. I said, “Let’s do the old gimmick. I’ll use it, and then you sue me and we’ll go to court and we’ll both get a lot of publicity.” So I changed my name, and he went off to write another novel, and I’ve never seen him since.
Everybody said, “Do it, do it, do it!” I’m sorry I did it. Would you change your name from Justus McQueen to LQ Jones?
I suppose if it was gonna make me money, I’d change it to whatever they wanted.
You’re right! [Laughs.] It wasn’t a bright move, but it was the way our business was being done at that time. And you take advantage of every little bit you can. Like I said, the old man smiled on me, and things worked.
Everybody helps. When you finish a picture—and I’ve done somewhere between 500 and 600 shows—you get the feeling you’ll never work again. You feel like everything is passing you by. But people pitched in and they helped and it all worked out. The name change helped. Raoul called other directors and said, “This kid can act.” And again, our business was changing at that point and time. Everybody was getting out of motion pictures, because they couldn’t make any money. They were going to television. I went just the opposite. Hell, for the first year or so I never even saw a television show. I just did movies.
What do you say? You wish there were a reason. You wish that things would make sense. They don’t. I had no right in the world being in the picture. But everything worked at that particular moment. Everybody got involved. I worked, and I guess it was seven or eight months before I had a day off.
You credit Raoul Walsh for your break into Hollywood. What did Walsh do?
Fess Parker and I were roommates in college for about four years. He kept saying, “You’ve got to come out here and get into this.” In the meantime, I’d moved down and bought a ranch in Nicaragua. I was back for a party for Christmas, and there was Fess again saying, “You’ve got to go.” So I drove out there. He then drew me a map on the back of a shirt stuffing to show me how to get to Warner Brothers to talk to them about doing the picture. Now it starts happening. You say, how do these things happen? How did you do it? I found Warner Brothers, that was no trouble. So I walked up, and when you get there, the first thing you come to is the guard gate. I don’t care who you are, if you haven’t got a meeting then that’s the end of your trip.
When I walked up, a little blonde with the tightest sweater you’ve ever seen in your life was walking out the other side. So guess where his attention was? He pushed the button and I walked in. So already things have started. I walked into Hoyt Ballard’s office, and Kathy, his secretary was down the hall getting coffee, or that would have been the end of it. But I went in and sat on the couch in his office. He came back in and we started talking, and he was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. He listened to my story and said, “Oh yeah, kid. Sure, sure. I’ll tell you what, give me a call this afternoon.” Okay. So I go back to the apartment and Fess says, “What happened?” I told him that was fun, but that was the end of that. He said, “No, you’ve got to call him.” I said, “If you see someone at ten o’clock and he tells you to call him in the afternoon, that’s just a courteous goodbye.” And he said, “If he didn’t want you to call, he wouldn’t have told you to.”
So I called him back. Hoyt said, “I appreciate it, kid, but we’ve already tested 250 actors for the part. They’re all pros and we know what they can do because they’ve done it before. It’s just not gonna work.” That was fun, but that was the end of it. He hung up, and it was all over. So I called him back. He said, “Aw shit. Come back and see me so I can get rid of you.” So I went back and he takes me across the hall to Solly Baiano, who’s the head of casting. He spends the next fifteen minutes telling me why I can’t see the director. The phone rings, and it’s Raoul Walsh. He asks what he’s doing, and Solly says he can’t get rid of me. Raoul says, “Send him up and I’ll throw his ass out!” So here we go again.
I go up and Solly goes into the office. They call me in, and I walk in. Here sits a guy behind the desk and he’s got one eye that’s normal and the other is an open hole and it’s plugged up with a handkerchief. Then he’s got the other end of it in his mouth. Now, what the hell do you say to a person like that? I stood there, and he just sat there. Neither of us said anything for four or five minutes. He says, “How tall are you?” That was an odd question, but I said, “I’m a little over six feet.” He says, “You’re a liar. You’re six feet. Can you learn a lot of words?” I said yeah, and he says to Solly, “Give him a test.” Now what am I gonna do? Solly shows me the test, so I show it to Fess. Fess is a friend of Burt Kennedy. Does that name ring a bell?
He was a screenwriter who wrote a lot of Budd Boetticher films.
That’s right. But at that point he hadn’t sold anything to the picture business yet. So he read it and he didn’t like the test, so he rewrote it for me and we rehearsed it. I went in the next morning, and they told me, “Tell Raoul you’ve got a different script and ask him if it’s okay.” I told Raoul and he said, “I don’t give a shit. Fine.” So I did it, and now that’s the end of it. It’s all been great fun and you hate to see it go, but it’s gone. And about four days later they call me and tell me Raoul has given me the part. It was just one of those things.
Mr. Warner and Steve Trilling, the guy who actually ran the studio—Mr. Warner gave the speeches, but Steve ran the business—explained to Raoul why he couldn’t cast me. They said, “You’re going 5,000 miles to Vieques to shoot the picture. What happens if you get there and the kid can’t do anything? We’ll be screwed up. You’ll have to hold off on shooting for three or four days while we get the part cast and sent out to you. Hire one of the people that we know can do it. Then when you get back to town you can give the kid two days’ worth of work and everybody’s happy.” That makes sense, right? But Raoul says to them, “Either he does the picture or I quit.” Why in the hell would Raoul Walsh tell them that?
Now the fun really starts because I go to Vieques. The very first day, Raoul wouldn’t let me work. He wanted me to sweat, and I did for a whole day. When we got ready to go home, the AD says, “Mr. Walsh wants to see you.” So I go over there and Raoul says, “We’re gonna do this scene tomorrow, but I don’t like it.” I like the script you wrote for me for the test. Rewrite this scene for me.” There are three Academy Award winners in this scene, and I’ve never even seen the camera, and here I am writing the script! The next day I show up and I give him what I’ve written. He types it, and when we get ready to shoot, he says to Van Heflin and Aldo Ray, as only Raoul Walsh can do, “The kid doesn’t like the script the way it was, so he decided to rewrite it. Here’s what he’s written.” And that’s the scene we filmed.
After that it was all downhill. Again, the old man took a hand. Why? I don’t know.
Your next picture was An Anapolis Story. That was the first of several films you made with director Don Siegel. What was he like?
The reason I was working for Don was because Raoul Walsh called him and said, “I know you’re doing this picture. This kid worked for me. I think he’ll work for you. Why don’t you give him a part?” And he did. If you don’t carry your load, there are 25,000 people waiting to take your place. So you’ve got to be ready. I rewrote that scene and did it.
The only trouble I had with Don was, I kept on his case because he liked to play ping pong. I had been taught by a guy, and I was the champion of three states. So I was on his case the whole time. Finally at lunch one day he said, “This is enough of this crap.” So we went to where they had a batting cage set up, where the machine pitches to you, and they also had ping pong tables. Don took me over there and beat the bejeezus out of me playing ping pong, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Most of the great directors you’ve worked with in your career have brought you back repeatedly. What do you attribute that to?
Yes, you are right, and I don’t know why. Almost always I’ll work with a director at least twice. And that’s out of something between 400 and 600 projects total, including TV episodes. I don’t know why, because there are many extraordinarily talented people in our business. I’ve been lucky. There are very few directors I haven’t worked with twice. The old man gave me a modicum of talent, and I’ve been lucky. That’s the best answer I can come up with.
Were there any directors you didn’t really care for?
There was one director I had an issue with and he ended up getting bumped off of the picture we were working on. I bumped into him three times after that. One day I was having lunch with someone in the green room at Warners, I can’t remember who it was, and this guy came up to me and was a pain in the ass. He kept after me, and this was a guy I really loathed, and he didn’t seem to have a clue I didn’t care for him. He’s the only person I’ve ever met in this business—in any capacity, directors, actor, crew—that I didn’t like. He was a complete pain in the ass. There are a lot of people like him—people who don’t want to take the brunt of the problems they cause.
This is a tough business, and you had better carry your end of the load when you get a chance to do this stuff. It’s the same way with directors; if they don’t come in on schedule or they don’t come in with the right stuff, they’re out of luck.
I hate to sound Pollyanna-ish, but that’s the way it is. I’ve been lucky. Every director other than that one jackass has taken their share of the load. If something isn’t working, they don’t hesitate to acknowledge the issues and take their share of the blame so they can correct it. I’ve been lucky in that almost from the start directors would tell me, “This is what we’re gonna do. Work with it. If you see a way to change things regarding your character in a way you like, you can do that.” They gave me that option, and I didn’t let them down, I guess. I’ve worked with almost every director I ever worked with at least twice, and I’ve turned down maybe ninety-five percent of them for more work. Not because I didn’t want to do the work, but because I was busy and couldn’t do it. But you know, a good director will tell you when something’s not working. They’ll say, “What would happen if…? Could we try this?” They want the same thing you want, which is for everyone to do a hell of a job and make something good. That way everyone can keep working and move onto other projects when this one is finished.
And you touched on this at the first… When I first went under contract at Warners, they offered dancing lessons, acting lessons, dueling lessons… But I was so busy I didn’t get a chance to do those things. I’m still sorry about that, because you can learn so much from these people.
The crews have changed. Now eighty or ninety percent of the crew has been in the business for maybe three months. When I started at Warners, almost everyone had already worked for fifteen or twenty years. And some thirty and forty. So you could learn if you just kept your mouth shut and listened. Because they would tell you most of the time. “I don’t think you’re doing this right” or “look at this a little more” or even “is that really how you’re gonna do this?” Everyone in the crew is working to make the picture better. There’s no ego, there’s no backbiting. The truth is, the bigger the star, the more helpful they are. It’s the little bitty guys who want to climb over everyone else you have to watch out for, but the bigger stars just spend as much time as they can with you saying, “Try this” or “I would do it this way…” You learn to trot things out and let them look at it. They’ll tell you very quickly “I don’t like this, maybe you should show the director.” It’s a beautiful business in that regard. But it’s brutal. It’s one of the few businesses in the world where the people on the outside of it would pay money to do what you’re being paid to do.
You worked with Charles Bronson on Target Zero on one of your first films. What was he like?
Charlie was another one of those people the old man smiled down on. Because as a kid, he worked in the mines before he got the body. He worked his ass off. When I worked with him, he was still Charles Buchinsky, which was his real name. He was not a particularly pretty or handsome man, so when he started doing leads it was really a shock. But he was a hell of an actor and a really nice guy. So when you see people like him make it big, you’re tickled to death for them. We had Charlie and we had Chuck Connors on that picture.
You know what? I had lunch with a guy, a general, just yesterday, and he brought me stills from that picture!
We had such a great group of people on that picture. We had Aaron Spelling in that, as an actor. And he became the biggest producer the business has ever known. If you look at Target Zero, almost everybody in that picture became a star or an important person in the business. Look at that cast! And we were all just starting out. But the same thing can be said of my first picture, Battle Cry, almost everyone in that stayed in the business for a long time. It’s really strange.
Another actor you worked with that I was curious about William Holden. You worked with him a couple of times. He was a guy who kind of got typecast playing smartass characters. What was he like to work with?
He was a huge star for a long time, and as such, people who haven’t worked with him seem to invent stories about what a terrible person he was. Let me tell you about Bill… I worked with him on Toward the Unknown and The Wild Bunch. We had been working on The Wild Bunch for about a month and half. We had nothing to eat except beans and rice, and we were out there working our fannies off. Bill’s agent, a friend of his he’d known for twenty or more years, died, and Bill wanted to go to the funeral. And Sam [Peckinpah] wouldn’t let him. He said, “You’ve gotta stay here and shoot.” So I went to see Sam and I said, “Bullshit! We can get by. We just need to shoot this and shoot that instead of this and that. Bill only needs to be gone for two days.” And finally Sam said, “Well, shit, leave me alone,” and he told Bill he could go. But he had to be back in three days. So he went to the funeral and he came back. That morning I was going to makeup and Bill was already there. He said, “What are you doing tonight, Q?” And I said, “What the hell can you do?” And he said, “Fine. Come on by the house. I’m having a few people over. So we worked that day and went in that night. What he had done, Bill Holden, the supposed stuck up star… Listen, Bill was a guy who had very expensive, very nice clothes. They looked magnificent on him, but he looked like his shower curtain probably cost $10,000. So when he’d gone back for the funeral, he’d left all of his expensive clothes there and filled his suitcases with raw meat. He brought all that back so we could all have our first real meal in six or seven weeks. That’s the kind of guy Bill Holden was. Just a terrible person, wasn’t he?
Bill was one of those people who deserved to be where he was. He was one hell of an actor. He and I became great friends working together on the picture and he told me that he’d had a difficulty when he’d first started. He’d been at Columbia, where he’d been their main new star at the time. And he said he’d started thinking about what might happen if he didn’t do his job right. He wasn’t worried about his own failure as much as he was worried about causing the picture to fail which then might make the studio fail. He was worried about being responsible for all these people going without work. He was feeling all this pressure, and he started drinking. He was considerate of everyone around him. That’s the kind of person he was. He was a guy who was not only giving, but he worked his ass off. So that should tell you what I think of Bill Holden.
You worked with Sam Peckingpah a bunch of times. What was working with him like?
[Laughs.] Like working for a blithering idiot!
Oh yeah. If Sam was around today, he’d be committed. He really would. We did about thirteen projects together. We were working on The Monkey Wrench Gang when he got ill. So yeah, he would be committed now, but he was a talented mother. All really good directors are kind of crazy. They come at things differently, and Sam was certainly that way. I told him he didn’t have enough talent to direct me to the men’s room! That was about the only way you could get along with him. If you let him get on top of you, he’d drive you crazy. He almost drove Strother Martin nuts. Ben Johnson had trouble dealing with him, and Uncle Ben didn’t have trouble dealing with anybody. But he did with Sam.
After John Ford died, Sam was the best western director alive. And when he died, we didn’t have anybody left. Of the only good directors of westerns, Sam was it.
Have you seen most of his films?
It was the touch of genius. We fought all the time on Ride the High Country about the scene when my character rode into town singing hymns. That’s what Sam said he wanted to do, and I told him, “You’re insane! I’m not gonna do that!” But of course I did it, and of course he was right. So people like Sam see things differently than most of us do, and that’s why they’re directors. Most directors are just like you and me—they’re working people. They do their job, and they do it well. But there’s no touch of genius. I told you Sam should have been put away, and he should have, but he was the most talented man I’ve ever worked with. There were four or five really talented directors that I worked with, and he was the best.
You never knew what he was gonna do, but you’d better shut up and listen so you can learn something.
You also worked with another legendary western director, my old pal Budd Boetticher. He was quite a character.
[Laughs.] Budd was another nut, but another talented nut! Budd was absolutely, without any doubt, the best director of low-budget westerns the business has ever known. He was marvelous at that. But he couldn’t direct big pictures, and I don’t know why. It didn’t make any sense, and he stayed that way throughout his career.
[Chuckles.] Here’s a story about Budd… I’m sure you know this, but at one time Budd had been a bullfighter. He loved bullfighters, so he wanted to make a picture about Carlos Arruza. That was his dream. He was on my case because I made three or four small pictures like A Boy and His Dog, so he wanted to know how I did it. Then he would invariably go off on a thing about wanting to do the Arruza picture. After listening to him talk about this several times I finally said, “What will it take you to make the picture you want to make? It’s a tight budget and you can do it, so what’s it gonna cost you?” He thought about it for an hour or so and then he came back to me and he said, “Fifty grand. I can do it for fifty grand.” I said that wasn’t much and he said, “I’ve thought about it, and I can do it.” I said, “Okay, let me see what I can do.”
So I talked to a bunch of people and I finally got a guy that had put up money for one of my pictures, and I said, “This is what he wants to do and I think it’s a good gamble.” He asked me how much he needed and I said, “Budd told me he can make it for fifty grand. He said he can do it and he would make a really good picture.” So the man said okay and told me to set up a meeting. I set the meeting up. I drove him to the airport and then we flew to meet Budd in Colombia. We sat down to meet him and we talked for a few minutes. Finally the man said, “This is enough of this. We’re here and we’d like to make a picture with you. How much do you need?” And Budd said, without batting an eye, “I need $100,000.” The man stood up, shook his hand, tore the check in two, and went home.”
And that was Budd. You never knew what he was gonna do or say. But he was another talented mother.
Bullfighting makes me think of another person I worked with. Slim Pickens. Do you know the name?
A lot of people don’t know it, but at one time Slim was the best clown in rodeos. The clown keeps the others from being eaten alive by the bulls, right? Well, that’s how Slim got started. But somewhere along the way Slim started fighting brama bulls in the arena. Only six people in the world ever even tried it professionally! Five of them were killed by the bulls, because the brave bull will follow the cape. And that’s what the bullfighters count on. The brama is a smarter animal than that; he’ll follow that cape for about three or four passes and then he’ll say to himself, enough of this crap, and then you take the cape left and he goes left. Then you’re in the hospital. But Slim did that for a while. And man, he was a good actor! He could do it all—heavy things, funny things…
You worked on so many films. Among those are three Elvis Presley movies. What were those experiences like?
Elvis was great. I loved him. I was on the first picture he ever made, Love Me Tender. Then we did Flaming Star. And after that I was in Stay Away Joe.
When we worked on Love Me Tender, everyone on the picture was pros in our business. And every one of them, to a person, was determined to detest Elvis. They couldn’t believe he could just show up and be a movie star. They were prepared to hate him. By the time the show was over, everyone adored him. He acted like a common person, and he was there to do his work like everybody else. And you had to watch him… We had dressing rooms side by side, and we’d sit on the steps and visit when we weren’t on call. He’d been on the set for about a week and I saw that he had this watch. It was gorgeous, and I complimented him on it. We talked for a bit and then went on to work. And I came in about two hours later to change, and there was a package on my dressing room table. I opened it up and it was the watch. You had to be careful when you were around him not to say things like that. That’s just the way he was. He went out and bought seven Cadillacs. I gave him a hard time about it and I said, “That’s ridiculous.” And he said, “I was really poor when I was growing up, and I made a bargain with myself that if I ever made a lot of money I was gonna buy a Cadillac for every day of the week.” And that’s what he did. And then he kept them for about a week and he gave them away.
I’ll tell you a story about Elvis that probably nobody else knows. We were doing Stay Away Joe. The story is he is coming back from the service, and I’m his old friend back at home. And he shows up with a car that he’s bought, and he has no money left, so we keep selling parts of the car to raise money to go party. That’s the basis of what he and I were doing. So we were working at a junkyard. A literal junkyard. We were working in a little town that had a population of maybe 8,000 people. We were out on the highway, on the edge of town. There must have been 25,000 people lined up, watching us shoot. We had finished the work and we had done the master shot. They’d done my close-up and then they were swinging around to get Elvis’. We were the only two actors working that day. And I just happened to look across the highway, and there was an old battered pickup truck that looked like it was 100 years old. It was patched up and the tires were gone. And there was a rocking chair in the back of it, and there was a lady in the rocking chair who looked like she was 300 years old. Then I noticed that she was tied in the chair! Well, who in the hell can see that and not go over to investigate what that was? It turned out the lady was in her eighties and she was a true Elvis fan. They had no money, and they had driven 300 miles with her tied in the rocking chair because she was crippled up and couldn’t get in the cab. She was tied in the chair so she could come watch Elvis from several hundred feet away. Me being blabbermouth Jones, I went over and told Elvis. He stopped everything. He had them back the truck over and put it right up next to the camera. He got her situated, and he always had his band with him, so they broke out their instruments and they gave her a thirty minute performance. She stayed with us the rest of the day. He took her to lunch, and just took her everywhere he went. That’s Elvis Presley. Terrible person, isn’t he? When people try to tell him he’s a terrible person, I only have to think upon that.
His life was dangerous. It was dangerous to go with him, because people wanted a lock of his hair or a piece of his clothes. So it got where he did not like to go out in the evenings, so he’d come over to my apartment or I’d go over to his, and we’d sit around with the band. We laugh and giggle and have fun. He was never afraid of his fans, but it got to where he had to be careful. But he did anything he could do to keep his fans happy. There was never a Christmas where I didn’t get a card from him. At the end he would call me and invite me to dinner, but I wasn’t able because I was working. Finally he called me and I left him a message I’d be there. I never did hear from him, and two days later I found out he was dead. So we never did get together for that.
I sang with him in the pictures. He would make me sing because he just wanted to play the guitar. So I sang a lot of it instead of him, which is funny because nobody would spend a nickel to hear me sing! But that was the Elvis I knew. We giggled and had fun the whole time.
He loved to pull tricks and play pranks. I almost killed him once. I tried to. We were doing Stay Away Joe, and the director and the producer told me they had a problem. They said they could bring in a studio horse, but it was gonna cost a fortune. So they asked me if they could just get me a local horse to ride. I was the only person in the picture working horseback. It was part of the story. I said, “Hell yeah, just let me see him and make sure he’s okay.” So they did and we were fine. I worked with the horse, and he was a nervous wreck. He wasn’t used to all the people and the noise. It got so bad that, what I would do when we were ready to shoot was, I’d tell the assistant director, “Do me a favor. Get everything ready. Don’t say ‘okay, let’s be quiet.’ The horse now recognizes when you do that and he’s a bundle of nerves, so use your hands to direct everybody and we’ll be fine.” And that’s what we did for a week or two.
And when we were doing the thing in the junkyard, it was time to do my close-up. We’d already done Elvis’. We were in tight quarters, but we’d gotten everything ready. And again, everything was hand signals. They went over and got Elvis and his friend Buddy was with him. They started walking towards me, but their hands were behind their backs. It didn’t make any sense, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Everything was quiet. We started the scene. They pulled their hands back around, and they were holding these big firecrackers, and there were like five or six in a string. They lit them and threw them on the ground. My horse went 300 feet in the air! He was insane. He knocked over the camera and lights. He ran over people, and he took off on a dead run. And he was going too fast for me to get off. I pulled his head back in my lap and I realized he was gonna kill both of us. He couldn’t see where he was going. We went across highways, through backyards, the whole works. He went about five miles before they finally got him stopped. The stunt people got him calmed down so they could stop him, and they put me in the car to go back. The minute I got back I started looking for Elvis. And the sonofabitch was hiding in his dressing room, so I went to the carpentry shop and got some two-by-fours, some nails, and a hammer. I went back to his place and I nailed the door shut, so he couldn’t get out of his dressing room. Then I climbed up on top, took off the breathing vent, and took about 500 of those firecrackers, lit them, and dropped them down into his dressing room. He was screaming for help. I was gonna kill that sonofabitch! Finally the fireworks stopped exploding, and he and Buddy came out and they were almost blackface. Their faces were dirty and black, but it was still white around their eyes. That was Elvis, and I came close to killing the sonofabitch! [Laughs.] I tried!
But he thought that way. He was just fun. He loved people, he loved jokes. He was a good guy.
Let’s talk about another icon you worked with, Marlon Brando. What were your experiences with him like?
I didn’t work directly with him. We were both in The Young Lions, but we only worked together from a distance. I was with the American unit, and he was with the German. I was actually talking about this last night. The only thing he did that I didn’t care for was… Eddie Dmytryck was the director. This was his first picture after he came back from prison for being a Communist. He was a huge director, and he’d already won one Oscar.
We started in Paris, and it was one of those things that after forty-six days, we were forty-nine days behind schedule. Everything happened. Everything went wrong; rain, snow, sickness, accidents. There was one scene with Brando that was a very important scene, and Eddie was doing it right. They had spent the previous three days and nights lighting the scene. Then when it came time for that shot, which was at eight o’clock in the morning, Brando didn’t show up. Nine o’clock, no, ten o’clock, no, eleven o’clock… Finally at noon he showed up and he had rewritten the scene. He hadn’t bothered to tell anyone. But he was the star and that’s what he wanted to do. I didn’t think it was kosher, but it was okay with Eddie and the studio didn’t care.
As a peripheral, we had some trouble when they were shooting in Paris on that bridge where people lived. The bridge is okay, but people came along and built apartments along the side of it because the land was free. They were shooting there and Brando told everybody, “Look, we can’t shoot it if you’re in the way. So if you stay in the way, they’ll have to pay you.” And it cost the studio a fortune to pay those people every night.
One of the reasons we got behind so quickly was because poor Dean Martin was in the hotel and couldn’t get out because he had walking pneumonia. Brando was in the hospital because he had a case of scalded balls.
You directed a few things, starting with The Devil’s Bedroom. How did you come to directing?
I’m crazy. Most of us, you do a thing for a while, and then you want to try to do it yourself and control that if you can. So [producer/actor] Alvy Moore and I had become friends, and we put it together. But we didn’t have any money to speak of. I believe our entire cost on on that one was $20,000. I told people it was the worst picture ever made and that there wasn’t anything good about it. And believe it or not, it showed up on a number of ten best pictures for the year. That shows you how screwy the business is.
You directed a really great adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog. Ellison was notorious for being difficult, so I wondered what working with him was like.
From the very start. That’s just the way he was. A Boy and His Dog was his favorite story, but he couldn’t get the film made. Everybody in town wanted to make the picture. When I finally found his name and phone number, I called him. The first thing I said was, “My name is LQ Jones and I want to make A Boy and His Dog into a picture.” And he said, “So does everybody else in town.” And he was right. At least fifty or sixty units had gone to him about doing it, and he sat down and talked to them and didn’t like what they were proposing, and that would be the end of it.
There’s a picture called The Oscar. Do you know what that is?
It’s a film he wrote and hated, right?
That’s right. And in his contract it said the filmmakers were prohibited from changing even a comma in his script. In the picture they changed one scene and he tried to throw the director out a window. The fact that he was on the seventh floor didn’t bother Harlan. He was pissed.
Well, my contract was the same contract. I sat down and talked to Harlan, and I was due to go out and do a picture and was gonna be gone for three or four months. That’s what I told him and I asked him how long it would take for him to write the script. He said, “Maybe three weeks. Because it’s my favorite and I’ve rewritten it in my head a hundred times, so all I’ve got to do is put it on paper.” So I said great and we gave him the money, which was nothing, and I went to do my picture. When I came back, expecting to have the written script, he only had three pages—in four months! So I had to speak to him, and it finally got down to where he started writing again. This time he gave me seventeen pages, and it was the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life. I told him that and I said, “What are we gonna do?” He was gonna write it again, but I couldn’t get him to actually do it. Finally I gave him the ultimate threat: “If you don’t do it, I’m gonna write the damn thing!” I didn’t have any choice. That scared him and it spurred him forward for about three days, and then it was the same old thing again. So I sat down and started writing. It took me a year, but I wrote it. I was having real problems doing it, because I was working every day, almost six days a week. I had a busy schedule shooting, but I’d still come in and write until two or three in the morning. Then I would get two hours sleep and go to work. I finally got finished and I called Harlan. I said, “I’d be glad to stop writing if you’d pick up and rewrite it.” He said nope, nope, so finally I decided to shoot it since we’d built the sets. The sets covered seven square miles, literally. It was something to behold. I asked him to come look at the sets and he said no. I asked him to play a part and he said no. I asked him if he wanted to read the script and give me feedback and he said no. So that’s the way it was, he wouldn’t come look.
So we shot it, and when we finally got through with it I called him and said, “Harlan, would you like to come look at the rushes?” “No.” “Would you like to come see what we’re doing?” “No.” And that went on and on. Finally I called him and said, “Harlan, we’re about to go to print. This is your last chance.” “Nope, I don’t wanna see it.” Fine. So I stared to finish up and my secretary came in and said, “You’ll never guess who just called? Harlan wants to come in and see the picture.” So we set it up at Technicolor in one of their screening rooms. It would hold maybe sixty or seventy people, but I said, “No one is gonna be in there except Harlan and me. I’ll work in the controls in the back and he can sit where he wants to, so when the fight breaks out nobody else is gonna be bothered.”
So I ran the picture for him. We came to the crawl at the end, and here came Harlan on a dead run, right to me. This was the guy who tried to throw the director through a seventh story window, so I got ready for him. He rushed up, reached over and grabbed me by the shirt front and said, “That’s the story I wrote! Thank you.” And he left. That was it. And after that we got along fine.
Harlan was tough. He was very protective of what he wrote. He was tired of writing what he thought was pretty good stuff, which was, only to have some nit-head make it into a picture that made no sense. That’s what he was. When we got to the end of the picture, Harlan wanted two things changed. The scene where they’re in the gym and the boy and the dog are talking. The dog said something about a cow. Harlan said, “I think that’s wrong. One animal wouldn’t say that about another animal. That should be changed.” And he was right. The other thing was something he thought wasn’t right but that I thought was. He wanted to fight about that, but we didn’t have any money to change it. I told Harlan, “I’d sell my wife to raise another dollar, but we can’t do it. We don’t have any money.” So we were invited to the World Science Fiction Convention, and we won Best Picture. At that point and time we couldn’t finish the picture the way Harlan wanted. There were two systems screening films, but one of the systems broke down. So they finally screened the film for them at two o’clock in the morning. Harlan sold his autographs, we sold pictures, we sold color slides of the pictures. By doing all that, we raised $1,700. We used the money to make the changes in the picture, which, oddly enough, cost $1,704. [Laughs.]
But after we made the changes, he didn’t like the ending, which was different. For the rest of the film I made every effort possible to say what Harlan wanted to say, the way he wanted to say it. I tried not to change anything. So if you read the story and then look at the picture, it’s almost page for page. It’s not, but it’s close. In his story, the last line is “the boy loves his dog.” That’s perfect for the novella, but that wouldn’t work for my picture. So I wrote the last line. It took me almost four months and about fifteen single-spaced notebooks. It took me that long before I finally decided on the line that’s in the picture, which I adore…and Harlan detested. But that was the only place we ended up disagreeing. He loved it and said it’s by far the best thing that has ever been done with his writing, but he still liked to tell people he detested the picture. What he’s really saying is he detests the last line.
You’ve worked on so many great films over the years. One of those was Martin Scorsese’s Casino. What was that experience like?
It was great for me. I had never worked with Scorsese. I didn’t know how he was gonna do things. I really only had three scenes in that picture. The one is where the trial is going on with one of the brothers. I sat there for about six hours. He finished with everybody else and then he put me in position, lighted the scene, and said action. We worked for the full length of what film was in the camera, which was about nine-and-a-half or ten minutes. And all he did was say “show me.” And most all of it ended up in the picture. That’s what we shot, and then I was gonna be off for about two weeks, and then come back. So we did the scene and we did the other little scene where I break into the editor’s office and talk about the Jews and what we should do with them. Real nice dialogue! [Laughs.] So we did that and then the AD comes and said, “Mr. Scorsese would like to see you.”
So I went to talk to him, and Scorsese said, “Q, you’re not gonna work for a couple of weeks, and I don’t like the scene that’s written. Would you please rewrite it for me?” I said, “I don’t really look that dumb, do I? You’re telling me that you’ve put all this together, you’re producing and directing it, and you want me to go in and change what’s written?” He said, “You don’t understand. If the scene was Chicago or New York, I understand that. But I don’t understand the west, and that’s important for the story. Would you write it for me from that point of view?” Well, how could you say no to that? So I said sure, and I wrote three different versions of the scene.
When I came back I gave him all three of them. He read the first version and threw the other two away, and we shot it. He didn’t change a word of what I had written. And he’s great fun to work with. I don’t know what he did with anyone else, but for me, he never said “no, don’t do it.” He never said, “I didn’t like that.” He’ll let you do it and he’ll think about it and then he’ll say, “Q, what would happen if…?” or “suppose we tried this…?” or “do you think this would work?” You’re listening to him and you’re realizing what he’s giving you, so you argue back and forth, and then when you get through you’ve got everything in essence that scene can give you. For me it was great fun because I had never done that with him. We got ready to do the scene, and if you remember the first scene is Bob in his office with no clothes on… So I watched him do that, and I looked at his shoes, and he was wearing a gorgeous pair of blue loafers. And I had the ugliest pair of cowboy boots ever made. I said, “Look at this.” So if you look in the picture, I go in and we shake hands and we’re talking, and then they go down to a shot of his feet and my feet. He took that and used it because mine were so ugly that it just said everything about the differences between the two of us. And that’s the way Scorsese works. I don’t know how it would be if he didn’t like what you gave him, but he seemed to like mine. I did all three scenes and we shook hands and then I went home.
Then he was going to do a picture that I had wanted to do for ten or fifteen years that Max Evans wrote, and he wanted me to do that picture with him. But I ended up getting an offer for a huge part in another picture that I eventually took. He was mad because he had sent me a letter asking me to do that part. And it was one of the few times I had to go against what he said. But he’s a hell of a director and very creative. It’s fun to work with someone like that because everybody is trying to make the best picture you can possibly make, and nothing is out of the table. You can try anything that will work for the picture. When Bob and I were doing the scenes, we would go in with Scorsese, the cameraman, the sound, the gaffer, and the script girl, and he would just say “show me.” And we would do the scene that was written. He didn’t tell you what he wanted or what he thought you should do. Then when you got through, he’d say, “fine, light it and we’ll shoot it.” He’s someone that you know if he doesn’t like it he’ll say so right on the spot, but I never heard him say “no” or “don’t.” He was always very positive. “Let’s try this…” And it’s fun working with someone like that. But it’s very expensive because you end up doing so many takes. Oddly enough, we didn’t. We did three of them, and that was it. We did the master shot, we did my close up, and we did Bob’s. That was it. He had scheduled three days for the scene, and we shot it in maybe three hours. So we picked up two and three quarter days there. It was fun for us, and it was fun for him because he saved money and he kept Bob happy.
Obviously, Robert De Niro is one of the all-time great actors. What was working with him like?
Excellent. He’s a hard worker. He doesn’t like a bunch of bullshit. I enjoy the crowd, and I enjoy the cast and crew. It can be boisterous, but I have a good time with that. He’s a little more dedicated to straight work. And yet when we did the picture, my big scenes were with him. We did it once and that was it. He’s a stickler for what he wants, and Scorsese of course knows what he himself wants, but he also knows what Bob wants, so he’s trying to get you to please both of them. So that can be very difficult in that he just keeps working at it. A lot of people, if they do a scene more than once, they begin to think it’s terrible and they have a hard time giving the director what he wants. But with Bob, it was fun to watch him. But it was also fun to watch Scorsese.
We were rehearsing and Bob says, “Watch Scorsese.” And if you watch him, he doesn’t stand behind the camera like most directors do. He went to the monitor and he’s watching it. And as he does, he’s clapping his hands silently and jumping up and down when you’re doing what he likes. And that’s what your job is—pleasing him. So both Bob and I would watch him out of the corner of our eyes, and when he would really get hysterical about what we were doing, then you add something to it. You keep trying to give him something that he doesn’t know about, and you hope it pleases him. In our case it did. The man who was there to advise us was a man named Oscar Goodman, who had been the mayor of Las Vegas and had once been a mouthpiece for the mob when all this was taking place. We got worried what we were doing was getting too brutal, but he would tell us what had actually taken place. But he was no dummy; he would only go so far and then he would shut up. But he said, “You can’t imagine the brutality these people indulged in, so you don’t have to worry about that.” It was fun to know that we came close to the reality of what actually took place, unless he was just lying to us, and he could have been doing that.
You retired in 2006…
Wasn’t Prairie Home Companion the last film you made?
I haven’t retired, but I don’t like the crap they offer me. I’m lucky that I can pick and choose. I’m independently poor. I can do what I wanna do, for crissake. My poor agent… In the last eight years I’ve turned down thirty-four pictures, just because I don’t like what they’re doing. I tell them thank you, and they keep raising the price. I’m sorry about that, because I love to work. If you left me alone, I’d work fifty-two weeks of the year, but I don’t like the stuff we’re doing. I think it’s wrong. The kids are doing it. They’ve gotta have their shot. We had ours, they’ve gotta have theirs. But for me, I don’t have any interest. I can stay home and not do it. I’m not saying these people aren’t talented, because they are. I just don’t like the pictures they’re making.