This week we lost Steve Carver, one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated filmmakers. The director, known primarily for helming low-budget actioners, passed away on January 8, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. His death was initially thought the result of a heart attack, but the coroner has since concluded the cause of death to be Covid-19.
The highly-educated director attended the High School of Music & Art, the University of Buffalo, Cornell University, and then Washington University in St. Louis where he received his Master’s Degree. He found his first work as a photojournalist and his photography was published in such noted publications as National Geographic and Architectural Digest. He was also a staffer for United Press International. Despite these impressive accomplishments and educational achievements, Carver wasn’t finished learning and growing. He decided he wanted to direct motion pictures, so he moved to Los Angeles and started studying filmmaking at the prestigious American Film Institute. There he studied under the likes of George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, and Gregory Peck. At AFI, Carver directed an acclaimed short film, The Tell-Tale Heart, adapted from the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale. He then became a Directors Guild apprentice and served as assistant director on Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war cult classic Johnny Got His Gun.
Like many up-and-coming directors in the 1970s, Carver went to work for producer Roger Corman at New World Pictures. He served first as a trailer editor before moving into directing. Then, under Corman’s supervision he made his feature debut with the Pam Grier-starring female gladiator picture The Arena. The film was a success, so Corman offered Carver a second project. This was the Angie Dickinson-starring crime film Big Bad Mama, which became a smash hit.
Carver’s third film would also be a Corman production, although this one was at 20th Century Fox. The film, Capone, boasted an all-star cast that included Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, and Sylvester Stallone. After Capone, producer Dino De Laurentiis tapped Carver to replace veteran helmer Burt Kennedy on the Mandingo sequel Drum. Carver then made two fun but forgettable films back to back with Steel and the David Carradine comedy Fast Charlie… the Moonbeam Rider.
In 1981, Carver directed the Chuck Norris vehicle An Eye for An Eye. The film, which also featured Richard Roundtree and Christopher Lee, was a moderate hit and most importantly established a good rapport between Carver and Norris. The two then reteamed for the seminal Norris vehicle Lone Wolf McQuade. Not only is it the best of Norris’ films (as lead), but it’s also the film most cineastes think of when they think of Steve Carver.
Carver continued working, crafting actioners like Bulletproof and River of Death, as well as the 1987 teen comedy Jocks, which he somehow convinced Richard Roundtree, R.G. Armstrong, and Christopher Lee to make with him. However, Carver’s days of large-scale triumphs were behind him. Carver’s last credited film as director was the 1996 Russian production The Wolves. However, as he discloses here, Carver continued making movies (most likely action films) under various pseudonyms.
In 2019, Carver published an impressive photography collection (with accompanying text penned by C. Courtney Joyner) titled Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes & Villains of the Silver Screen. The unique collection features tintype photographs of notable Western actors including Robert Forster, Henry Silva, David Carradine, R.G. Armstrong, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and many others, dressed in authentic Western-era garb.
When I sat down to interview Carver, we spoke for several hours. I found him to be an affable man who seemed genuinely thrilled to reminisce about his movies and the film folks he worked with. The conversation, which spans the entirety of his career, was a real pleasure. Carver was one of the rare interview subjects who don’t require much in the way of questioning; he just sort of went off on his own, freewheeling joyfully about his cinematic experiences (and occasionally meandering a little bit past the original question).
Rest in peace, Mr. Carver, and thank you for the cinematic memories.
How did you make the leap from still photography to filmmaking?
I actually started out as an artist. I went to the High School of Music & Art in New York to be a cartoonist. The transition is more complete when I explain that my background is in fine arts. My undergraduate degree is in fine arts, where I took photography, but I wanted to be a cartoonist. When I took all the fine arts courses, photography was just a hobby. I got a camera when I was eight years old. It was fun. But the art and drawing and painting and all the things I was doing at school, especially at the High School of Music & Art in New York—art was more my love. Being an artist was something that I really wanted to become. The camera was a tool, and although I liked photography and I liked being in the dark room and liked the chemistry and all that stuff, I thought it was too mechanical. I studied medical illustration in undergraduate school and thought that would be really cool. But when the camera came in and had devices that went inside the body and optically recorded what I thought were credible images, I suddenly realized that photography was really advancing. You know, digital was nowhere in sight, but I suddenly thought, well, maybe I should take up the camera. And I did. I became a photojournalist.
When I went to graduate school in St. Louis, I studied with some of the great photographers who were photojournalists for Life magazine and other big magazines that were doing great photography. I studied with Cliff Edom, who was the father of photojournalism at the University of Missouri. I became a photojournalist and worked freelance for some of the magazines and newspapers. That’s where I picked up the camera and did a lot of photography. I did photography for my thesis to earn a Master’s. I basically became a photographer. More so than an artist, I guess, although I did painting and drawing for my Master’s at Washington University in St. Louis.
When I was doing photography and I had these one-man shows and had these exhibits, I was very unsatisfied with people just looking at a photograph hanging on a wall and just walking away, making some comments. But the reaction and what I felt about what people were looking at, especially in newspapers and magazines, it wasn’t satisfying for me. I was going to the movies a lot and I was seeing audience reaction as well as my own. I felt that moving pictures were getting more reaction and more feelings; more emotions were coming from movies. So I suddenly got the bug to do a moving picture. I started to do documentaries when I was in St. Louis, and I actually did a documentary, sort-of, to demonstrate my art and photography incorporated in my thesis actually for my Master’s. Then I said, “Hey, I think I want to become a director or a filmmaker!” I really didn’t know what a director was at the time, although I knew directors. Bergman and Fellini. I loved all those guys. I met Fellini later on.
The thread or the transition that I made from art or drawing, illustration, to photography to motion picture was really the course in which I followed, because each offered me something and each allowed me to make that transition, and also visually they prepared me for that skillset. And sort of trained my eye and my ability to do that. That’s really the best way to explain what I did and how I learned what I did. Those crafts were really great to follow and make sense of.
When I got to Los Angeles I applied to the American Film Institute. I was teaching art and photography in St. Louis for a couple of years after I graduated from graduate school. I applied to the American Film Institute and I was accepted as a fellow. I made a couple of films. One of which, my first, was a film called Pat, and that was a film that was about patenting death. When I made this film, I made it because I met Sam Peckinpah and I loved all his films and he had just made The Wild Bunch.
When I met Sam, I met him through one of my teachers at the American Film Institute. He was working with Sam. When he introduced me to Sam, I fell in love with bullet hits and explosions and cowboys and all that stuff. I asked Sam if I could borrow… I was a fellow at the American Film Institute, and we, at the time, as fellows, could ask anyone in the industry, it was like a bridge, to work with anybody. And we could go into studios and borrow things. We had unlimited budgets, basically. We were looked upon as the new crop of filmmakers in Hollywood. So I asked Sam if I could borrow some of his crew, and I got to meet a lot of the people he worked with. And actors. I made this film with bullet hits and so on. It was about a soldier who eventually got killed in a war-situation that was theoretically done. I worked with Sam’s special effects guy and his gaffer and his lighting guy. But when I screened it at the American Film Institute and invited a whole bunch of people, George Stevens Jr. was behind me and he tapped me on the shoulder after the film and asked me a question. He asked me, who’s going to see this film? Who did I make this film for? Who’s the market? And it kind of stumped me in a way, because I didn’t know. I was making the film for me! [Laughs.] That was kind of an eye-opener and it blew my mind that I made a film that no one really would be interested in except for me.
My next film was The Tell-Tale Heart, which was a very commercial film. 35 mm black-and-white and with actors Sam Jaffe, Alex Cord, Ed Binns. Elmer Berstein did the music. And it made a splash in that it opened up as a twenty minute short against Mary, Queen of Scots in the theaters and almost got nominated for an Academy award. It gave me a better idea of how to make a film and why to make a film. When I screened it for the industry, there was a guy behind me, again, who tapped me on the shoulder. It was Roger Corman! He said, “Hey, kid, how would you like to work for me?” That opened up my career of making features. Actually, Roger first offered me a job editing all his trailers and radio spots, and I did a whole bunch of those until he gave me a script to do The Arena with Pam Grier, which eventually I shot in Rome.
He first sent me to Israel, where I met Menahem Golan. I stayed at his house. I couldn’t make the film in Israel because they didn’t have horses and stuntmen appropriate for the gladiator sequences. Then I met Mark Damon in Rome, where eventually I made it at Cinecitta. We built the arena with the girls fighting as gladiators there and made the film with Roger’s money, which was about $1.98, I believe. [Chuckles.] On the next lot was Federico Fellini who was doing Amarcord. I met him and he was so impressed with the large-breasted girls fighting in skimpy wardrobe that he would come and watch the fighting. And he would come and invite me to watch him directing Amarcord. And that was a big thrill for me because I loved what he was doing. He hardly spoke English, but it didn’t matter. I knew exactly what he was saying.
Didn’t Corman end up doing the American distribution for Amarcord?
Yeah. Roger was Roger. He was interesting.
I’ll just tell a quick anecdote on something else. Down the line, many films later, I did a picture called The Wolves in Russia for a German producer named Wolf Brauner. We were shooting in Russia. And the funny thing… Roger was looking to do films in Russia at that time. I was shooting there and Roger came over in Moscow. We all met, we being Menahem Golan, Roger, and this guy, Wolf Brauner. Three of the cheapest producers you can imagine in the world, and they were all at the table with me at this dinner. If you can imagine, we’re all sitting there at this table, and after the dinner the waiter arrives with the check. He puts it on the table and none of the producers wanted to pick up the check! [Laughs.] They were all fighting over who was not going to pay it. That was a very funny moment. Anyway, I thought I’d throw that in.
The Arena was a pretty good money maker for Roger. That led on for me to make Big Bad Mama and Capone and another picture I made for Roger called Fast Charlie… the Moonbeam Rider with David Carradine and Brenda Vaccaro.
Before we move too far past The Arena, I wondered what your experiences with Pam Grier were like. I know you also worked with her on Drum.
Pam was great. At the time, she and Margaret Markov… black, white. It was a formula picture. Girls in jeopardy fighting. Roger had women in cages. Lots of formula pictures with women in jeopardy, I guess. I did a lot of the trailers for those types of pictures, and I got to directing those. A lot of the catch lines had to do with matching up these women against bad men or other bad women. They shot them in the Philippines and other countries that allowed them to do the pictures cheaply. Working with the women, whether it was cutting their pictures or working with them directly, they were great! They held up against their male counterparts.
I was going to mention Angie Dickinson, who was another tough actress you worked with in Big Bad Mama. What do you remember about working with her?
I love Angie! She was great! These women, you know, when they have to stand up to men against their… When a script has brutality or unnecessary violence… Nowadays it’s different. One has to be careful because of #MeToo and all of those movements. In those days, you also had to be careful because of the FDAA ratings and the violence that was unnecessary and necessary, depending upon how you cut the film and how they saw it. How they rated it. Most of the time, PG was a better rating for these films. Especially for drive-ins and certain markets that were more desirable for these films. You didn’t want to get too obvious about that type of action. So a lot of that had to do with how you directed the picture to allow these women not to become too macho and not to have the male characters dump on these women. The dialogue was very carefully constructed to be more humorous with the women, as opposed to the men that could get away with it.
But Angie was great! When she stood up against somebody, she was able to carry it off! She was great. She had support from Tom Skerritt and Bill Shatner. They were very respectful because she held her own. She’s a very strong person.
I wanted to ask you about that Medved Brothers thing, where they nominated her for the most embarrassing nude scene in Hollywood history. What are your thoughts on that?
[Laughs.] Angie had no qualms with doing that because she had a great body. She was not embarrassed. This was something that Roger negotiated with her contractually. It was not something that I asked her to do, it was something that Roger asked her to do from the beginning. I think I shot it tastefully. She did it. It’s like Sharon Stone in her pictures. She did it. They do it. If somebody wants to criticize it, that’s their thing. I don’t think Angie really had anything to regret. She looks great!
Big Bad Mama also had William Shatner in it. What was he like to work with? You hear stories about him being a pain in the ass on set sometimes. I notice you only worked with him once, and you’re a director who tended to work with actors multiple times. Is that any indication?
I don’t want to speak poorly of him, but he did create a little bit of a problem on the set. Just to go back to the nudity situation, he wasn’t too fond of doing nudity on the set. Angie got him to do the nudity in the love scene by doing the nudity herself. He came in wearing gaffers tape on his private parts and asked the crew to get off the set. Only necessary crew members could be on the set. Angie demanded that the crew return. She thought if the crew was okay with her, why wouldn’t they be okay with him? So that was a little bit of tension that was on the set. After a while, Angie changed the atmosphere on the set and made Bill understand that if she didn’t mind it, he shouldn’t either. There was an understanding that she created with Bill. It’s hard for me to talk around this.
There were some problems with Bill. Now, the real problem with Bill was with Tom Skerritt. They didn’t like each other. There was a physical altercation in one scene. Bill had a hairpiece on the top of his head. And Tom teased him about it and actually touched it in one of the scenes. [Laughs.] I cut the camera immediately and they got into an altercation, which we had to break up. From that point on, the animosity that was written into the script was real. They never really got along from that point on. And that’s the way it was.
For me, as the director, with Bill, I never had any problem with him. We had a good relationship. Tom was great and I loved Tom. Bill, I had a professional relationship with him and personally, I got along with him. He just never liked Tom and Tom never liked him.
Let’s talk about Capone, which I like a great deal. You had an exceptional cast for that.
John Cassavetes was at the American Film Institute when I was there and he was doing Husbands and all that stuff with Peter Falk and those guys.
And Gena Rowlands…
Yep. Gena, I met. I liked everybody on Capone. There were no problems, except for one. That was with Ben Gazzara. He was having a bit of a family problem with regard to his wife having some surgery and his daughter having some problem. He started drinking and he brought it to the set one day. Only one day. And that day was a very bad day.
Let me backtrack before I get to this day. In the very beginning, when I was working with Ben and we were trying to get his mouthpiece… We had a mouthpiece prosthetic done for him to make him look more like Capone. I had a long association with him prior to the film, and he came to the American Film Institute a lot because John Cassavetes was there a lot. We talked about the script a lot and Capone and history and all that stuff. I started a relationship with him, but I noticed he didn’t… I was very young to him and very inexperienced to him, and because of Roger Corman and because of Fox’s involvement, approving me and the fact that [Alan] Ladd was behind me sort of saying, “This is the director and you do what he says” and all that… I felt that Ben was sort of saying, “Well, what does he know? He’s going to direct me?” I would sit down with Ben and I’d show him my storyboard. I’d show him my shot list. I’d show him everything. He’d be asking me questions to see how much I knew and how much I’m going to direct him and all that. I was under a lot of pressure to prove to him that I could direct him. This was all early on, weeks before principal photography. Even during those days, even when Peter Falk who was a nice guy that was there and with all these actors around me, I felt like I was under the microscope.
After a while, I got Ben to respect me. There were times when I made decisions and Ben loved them. No problems with Ben throughout the picture until one day. One day he came in drunk. This was a day in which we had the special effects guy set up squibs that took him a whole day, whole night to set up. The shot was maybe $3,000. We had maybe twenty stuntmen. We had cars that were going to crash. We had lots involved in this shot. 360 degrees, four cameras… We had Sylvester Stallone. All the main actors. Machine guns. Everything. I told Ben, “Ben, you have third action. First action is with cameras. Second action is with the cars and stuntmen. Third action, Ben, you pull the machine gun. You pull the trigger. Machine gun goes off. All the bullet hits go off.” What happens? I call first action, Ben pulls his machine gun. Because he was drunk! All the stuntmen are in the wrong positions. All the cars are in the wrong positions. Crashes. Stuntmen almost get run over. Everything happens poorly. It could’ve been disastrous. He starts screaming at me. I start screaming at him. I dismiss him and send him home. The shot is almost ruined, but I preserve everything.
Bad news. Just terrible. Roger Corman comes down the set. Laddy is all, “What happened? What happened?” I didn’t want to squeal. I didn’t want to say anything, but news gets out that Ben’s drunk. Terrible situation. Next day, we’re shooting on Barbra Streisand’s estate. We’re doing the pool scene where Ben is fishing in the pool. It’s a great scene at the end of the film where Capone is out of his mind with syphilis. I purposely shoot Sylvester Stallone’s scene first. I was supposed to shoot Ben’s scene first. I tell my assistant, “Keep Ben in his motor home. Forget it. I’m shooting Sly’s scene first.” So I switched the scenes, signaling Ben that I don’t want to work with you this morning. I would rather work with Sly first.
We break for lunch. I’m walking through the parking lot towards lunch and Ben jumps out from the cars! Grabs me! Hugs me! Starts crying. Apologizing. Hugging me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” He tells me about his wife and daughter and all of that. Apologizing to me. I mean, I didn’t know what to do. He has me in a bear hug. Anyway, after that, we shoot his scene at the pool. Usually I use his stand in. But this time Ben stands in. He sits in for the whole scene. The whole lighting and everything. It was like he was a different guy. A whole different guy. And he does a fabulous job. Fabulous. During the entire rest of the picture, he was fantastic. And that’s Ben. Every time, the wrap party, everything, he was just wonderful. That was the only time.
With Harry Guardino, Harry was afraid of bullet hits. He was afraid of any pyrotechnics or any special effects. And what do we have when he gets hit? We have to have a bullet shot on his shoulder. He was so afraid of it! [Laughs.] Sure enough, the bullet hit goes off and wounds his face. We get a face wound on him and he says, “Where is the special effects man? I want to talk to him. Look at what he did to me!” The special effects man is Roger George who, on one of the pictures, he got the whole side of his face burned because an explosion nailed him. Here he comes on the set and Harry looks at him and says, “Oh shit! I don’t want to do any more special effects!” The next day we’ve got Harry in the hospital when he gets retired. All bandaged up and he’s actually got a wound on his face from it. But Harry was great. Harry was fantastic to work with.
And of course Cassavetes. He’s a pro.
I wanted to ask you about Cassavetes. Is it intimidating directing someone who is a director of that stature? Does that make it difficult or does it make it easier?
No. John was great. I’ll tell you one little story about John. When I was directing him in that scene, he did what he did with the master. Picked up his coffee cup, did this, did that. And then when I did close-ups, I went up to John and said, “John, that won’t match the master.” John looked at me and said, “You know, Steve, what does it matter? You can only use one or the other!” I looked at John and said, “Hmm. You know something? You’re right!” [Laughs.] He actually taught me something. They don’t have to match! The matching is only giant action. In the master, I can cut away to whatever I want. It doesn’t have to match. He actually taught me a few things because he was such an improvisational actor. It wasn’t truly method acting, but it was New York improvisation. He was fun to work with. And John snapped out of his character. He wasn’t truly method.
When David [Carradine] walked into the room . . . he sat down in the chair across from me, barefoot, crossed his legs, and started picking his toes. And whatever he was pulling out of his toes, he put in his mouth!
I didn’t mind working with these New York actors. They were great! And when they were together, they were funny as hell. They would make bets. Like Harry would come up to John and say, “A hundred dollars you won’t see me touch my hat on camera.” Then John would bet him a hundred dollars! Sure enough, in the rushes, they would sit and watch each other, and there he was! Harry would touch his hat in front of the camera. John would have to pay him the hundred dollars. They were so funny. They would have their own little gags going. That’s the way they made films.
I wanted to ask you about Drum. You replaced Burt Kennedy as director on that. How difficult was it stepping in to replace another director mid-shoot? Is that awkward with the other actors?
It was awkward because a lot of the actors were very loyal to Burt. I liked Burt a lot. I couldn’t believe that I was replacing such a great director. Burt didn’t like Dino [De Laurentiis] and they had lots of arguments, I guess. Those two guys didn’t get along. When I came in, Dino sort of threw the script at me and said, “Just do it. Just get it done.” I like Dino a lot and I understood why Burt was adamant about it, because Burt has a certain technique and Dino just wouldn’t let him do it. He just did a credit sequence and one other sequence. And then when a lot of actors went with Burt and refused to go on, Dino said, “Just replace them!” So I sat down and got some of the actors that I knew and just gave them the parts.
It was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of time. The idea that I had one of the best cameramen ever, Lucien Ballard, though, was thrilling. I mean, how can I go wrong? I was just blown away. I had one of the biggest budgets. I had a gigantic budget. Millions of dollars. And the sets… I had half of the stages at MGM. The other half was for King Kong, directed by John Guillermin. We had this million dollar mansion set that was built in Westlake that I burnt down. I was just blown away with regard to the assignment. I only had a week or two to prepare and do a storyboard and revamp and recast. I had Ralph Serpe as line producer. Ralph was great. He helped me. Dino just sort of said, “Whatever you want, you’ve got.” I just went along. I had more millions of dollars than I could possibly use.
You worked with Warren Oates on that. He seemed like he could be kind of ornery. What was he like?
Beautiful. He was great! Warren was a super smooth, down to earth cowboy-like guy. He was a Midwestern-type guy. I loved Warren. Warren was one of those types of guys that was like R.G. Armstrong and would do anything. Just a straightforward guy. Wonderful to work with.
What stands out in your mind about working on Fast Charlie… the Moonbeam Rider?
That’s another great movie that I had a great time with. I love that movie too. I love all the movies. There’s no movie I would bad mouth. It’s like asking someone about their children. They all have great things about them. I had a great time on that. We shot that movie all over Oklahoma. That’s when I met David Carradine. I heard really bad things about David and I was really not looking forward to meeting him and working with him. I didn’t meet David until I was in Oklahoma. When David walked into the room—it wasn’t my bedroom, but one of the rooms in the hotel—he sat down in the chair across from me, barefoot, crossed his legs, and started picking his toes. And whatever he was pulling out of his toes, he put in his mouth! [Laughs.] I was just looking at him and wondering what he was eating.
You ended up working with him three or four times, right?
I loved him. I would work with him on anything. David was so great. He would work with me on anything because I loved David. David would come to my studio and we would just talk about anything. Whenever he had a fight with his wife, he would come and spend the whole night with me. David was one of my best friends. I loved David.
I’ll jump ahead to tell you one quick thing. When I did Oceans of Fire and the rig with David, CBS told me, under no circumstance was David to jump from the rig, which was 150 feet, into the ocean on this one scene. Use the stunt double. David said, “No way!” He was going to jump and he jumped. [Laughs.]. I couldn’t stop him. And he survived. Into the water that was on fire, by the way. David was David and he was great. I don’t believe the stories about how he died, but we won’t get into that.
I’ll tell you a couple of stories about Fast Charlie… the Moonbeam Rider. One is the first scene that I worked with David where he was supposed to eat a ham sandwich because he was running a scam with these people. David would take a bite of the sandwich. Then when we would break, David would go out into the woods behind the pub. Every time he would go into the woods. I would wonder, was he shooting up? Taking drugs? What was he doing? So I followed him and I saw him put his finger in his throat and throw up. I went up to David and said, “David, what’s wrong? Are you sick?” And he said, “No, I’m a vegetarian! I don’t eat meat!” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll make you a tuna sandwich! I’ll make you a cheese sandwich! It’s not a big deal. You don’t have to eat a ham sandwich.” And that’s the kind of guy David was. He would do anything you needed him to do.
There were scenes in that film where he and R.G. would have a fight. [Laughs.] There were times where I would tell the prop man or I’d tell R.G., “Is it alright if I use real liquor? Don’t tell David.” And we’d put real liquor in and I’d see David’s eyes water up from it. Then after the shot, I’d say to David, “David, did you know that was real liquor?” “Sure, I knew it was real liquor!” “Did you mind?” “No, not at all!” [Laughs.] The guy was impervious. As long as he got the shot, he didn’t mind. And he never bitched about anything. I could do anything to him. He was that type of guy. He’d ride the motorcycle through the woods, crash into the trees. He would do anything!
There was a scene where the bi-plane would come down, and I swore the biplane hit him! I’d run up to David. “David, did that bi-plane hit you?” And he’d say, “No, not at all!” I’d look at his helmet—he was wearing a white helmet—and I’d see tire tracks on the helmet! “The plane hit you!” And he said, “I didn’t even feel it!” [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you another story. There was a time when we were rolling and I’d say “action,” and David wouldn’t move his motorcycle. I’d radio to my assistant, “What’s wrong with David?” “He’s filling up his gas tank. He’s out of gas.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Oh, don’t worry, he’s almost done.” And then I see David moving the motorcycle through this fire these people set, and David is on fire! His whole motorcycle is on fire! He’d lays down the motorcycle and just walks away. Everybody rushes to him. I radio up to them, “Is he okay?” They said, “Yeah, he’s okay!” What happened was, he filled the motorcycle and he got gasoline all over himself, so he caught on fire! [Laughs.] The most amazing guy! We had it on film. He was totally engulfed in flames.
I wanted to ask you about another great actor you worked with, L.Q. Jones. You worked with him on that film and several others. What was he like to work with?
Fantastic! He’s also one of my great friends. He’s like David, he’s impervious to everything. He’s part of my troupe, I guess. I can always count on him. When I did the movie in Africa, I wanted R.G. [Armstrong] for the part. And R.G. had another film to do, so I called L.Q. And vice versa. If one was busy, I’d call the other.
L.Q. was great. He’s versatile. They’re hard to describe. R.G. and L.Q., to me, are interchangeable actors in that they can do the same parts. They’re Western-type folks. They’re…it’s hard to explain. If I were to describe them, I’d probably describe them similarly in the sense that you can dress them up in different wardrobes and get away with just about any role you write, with the exception of some dapper individual. Although, you can probably get them to do that too! L.Q. is still alive and still kicking. He’s in his 90’s. He’s versatile. He’s great. You can tell him to jump and he’ll say, “How high?” I don’t know what else to say about him other than he listens very carefully.
That’s one of the reasons why I use those type of actors, and I wish I had more of them. That’s why Peckinpah used them, and that’s why a lot of directors use them. These types of actors, you don’t need to give them a lot of direction. You don’t need to talk with them a lot. You don’t need to explain the character to them a lot. They sort of have a telepathy—a way of which to communicate with you by eye. By a sense of just looking at you and by motion.
I don’t like to talk too much about a character. I don’t like to oversell the psychology of a character or tell an actor a lot about what’s going on in their head during a scene, or how they should behave with another actor or another character. I don’t like to tell them where their high points or their low points or any of the arcs are. I don’t get into that stuff with an actor. What I do like to do with actors is point out some nuances, some things that visually create interest for an audience. And I like to fool around with light and have them move in certain ways or create certain nuances that visually enhance the frame and make the scene more interesting, or make them do things that they normally don’t think about.
Do you think this focus on visuals comes from your background in art and photography?
Absolutely. Because I draw it out in the storyboard and do shot lists. Because I do that, I photograph the scene in my head. When an actor does something, they either mimic what I’ve envisioned or they create something that enhances what I envision. When they do that, it excites me. These types of actors—guys like David Carradine, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong—you’re talking about actors who do different things during rehearsal. They never do the same thing twice. In fact, if they do the same thing twice, it’s boring. And I make sure they don’t do the same thing twice because I screw things up for them. If something like a chair is in their way, I move it. I purposely do that. They know that. Or I give them a prop. If they have a gun in their hand, I change it. I make sure they don’t have the gun anymore. Or if something’s not there anymore during the actual shooting of the scene [that was there during rehearsal], they realize it! They actually like that! These actors are trained in a certain way because they’ve worked with other directors that do the same. Peckinpah and these other great directors…they don’t do the same thing. All these directors that do lots of takes…they don’t do the same thing over and over again. People think they do, but they don’t. That’s why they get really good takes.
I wanted to ask you about your film, Steel. I have a couple of questions. One, I wanted to ask you about the tragedy with the stuntman, A.J. Bakunas. I realize that’s not a pleasant topic to discuss. That must have been a very difficult time on set for everybody.
First of all, it wasn’t on set. It was after the film. Because Lee Majors paid A.J. to do it because he was trying to break a record that had been set on Hooper with Burt Reynolds. That was a multiple-camera afterwards thing. That was purely for publicity, and that was purely for the record. When I went up with A.J. on top of the building—thirty stories—and I looked down at the two airbags, they looked like crackers. Little tiny crackers! I said to A.J., “How the hell do you hit that?” We dropped a sandbag the approximate weight of A.J., which was 175 pounds. It hit the mark. It hit dead center and probably weakened the bag. It was devastating because A.J.’s father was there.
Oh, my God.
Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. I was on one of the cameras. I said to A.J. over the walkie talkie, “Whenever you’re ready.” I didn’t call action, I just said whenever you’re ready and just rolled cameras. Lee was there. A.J. went right through the bag. He was still alive when they got to him, but he died shortly after.
We didn’t really need it. He jumped from the third story, and we had it on camera. It was fine. It was for George’s fall that we had already filmed. George did a one-story fall into the bag and it was fine. George Kennedy was great! George did a fall! It was great. We didn’t need it. And then when A.J. did the three-story fall, it was great! We didn’t need it. But Lee wanted A.J. to do the fall to break the record.
Was there any friction with Lee after that?
No. Lee felt terrible. Everybody felt terrible. We all went back to Hollywood and it was in all the newspapers, magazines, everything. It was horrible. It put a damper on things. It was hard to cut the film after that. The father wanted it in the film, so we put it in the film. It’s actually the fall you see in the film.
On a happier note, you worked with some legends on that film with George Kennedy and Art Carney. Do you want to talk about working with those guys?
Art was the greatest. Art was so funny. Whenever Art was on the set, everybody was laughing. He’d tell Jackie Gleason stories. He’d tell us all kinds of stories. It was very hard to film when Art was on set. [Laughs.] Even though Art had a straight part, everybody was in tears. He was the funniest guy. We couldn’t even keep a straight face when he walked on the set. I loved Art.
And George… George was a pro! He was there only for a week. George was George. He’s one of those guys that had such a history that you couldn’t help but love him.
The only difficult guy, but someone I liked, was Harris Yulin. Harris is a good guy, but Harris is a straightforward, no nonsense, very serious actor. When you direct him, you’ve gotta direct him. [Laughs.] When he was working with R.G…. [Laughs.] they had a little bit of a go, but it was alright. R.G. and George, they were okay. But Harris… He had a big part and he was the bad guy, basically. Bad brother. You had to tell Harris what you wanted, and you had to make sure he was straightforward about his part. And that was Harris. I had a little bit of a go with him, but Harris was Harris. He came back and posed for me for my photography book, Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen.
Now, Lee Majors. Let me tell you about Lee. Lee had a little problem on the set. Lee was sort of…television. You had a lot of movie actors. There’s a big difference between television actors and movie actors. I did movie actors and I did movie films. I got to understand the difference between movie actors and television actors. There’s a difference. With movie actors, you can do things. In movies, continuity is something that’s hard to work with in general. If you shoot out of continuity, movie actors love it. They understand it and you can tell them anything and they prepare and are wonderful. With TV actors, out of continuity, they understand, but they don’t really work that way. Because they like the camera rolling when you do a take, and if you tell them “cut” they hate it! They want to do another take instantly with the camera running, because that’s how they do it in TV land. I don’t like that, personally. I like to cut the camera, talk to them or regroup or reset. Lee Majors was not like that. He liked to keep the camera rolling. I didn’t because I don’t like to waste film. What I had to do was basically teach Lee my method of cutting the camera and doing separate takes or doing something different. “Lee, you did that. Let’s do something else.” We had to train each other. I’ll do what you want to do if you do what I want to do. There were times when Lee was TV, and there were times when I was movie. And those two things didn’t mesh.
There was a time when I had this gigantic shot. These trucks were rolling with the steel. It was a 360-degrees shot where all the crew would have to follow behind with the camera and the dolly, and you cannot be in front of that camera because we were filming. And Lee’s Winnebago drove in, and Lee came out. I told my assistant, “Tell that Winnebago to get the hell out of the shot because we were about to do the movie.” And my assistant came back and said, “We’ll exchange the shot.” I rehearsed this shot for two hours! And I’m going to change my shot? No way. I went to Lee and said, “Lee, tell your driver to move that Winnebago.” And Lee said, “Change the shot.” I said, “No, Lee, you move the Winnebago.” He said, “No, I want the Winnebago there because I don’t want all these looky-loos bothering me.” I said, “Lee, move that Winnebago!” He said, “No, change the shot.” So I put a truck in front of his Winnebago to solve the problem. And he didn’t like that.
That was Lee. Lee was going to tell me, and I was going to try to tell Lee. That was basically how a TV person is and that’s basically how a movie person is. We had those clashes here and there. Lee had a lot of problems with Farrah Fawcett, who came on the set at times. I don’t know what their problem was, but they had a problem. And Lee had problems with Jennifer O’Neill, and Jennifer had problems with Lee. That was ongoing through the whole film. And I don’t want to go into it because it had to do with a lot of very personal stuff.
Then we had some money problems with the producers. And then we had other problems with Universal. Then Universal offloaded the film. It was a problematic shoot. But, since we had certain actors, which we’ve mentioned, it was still a great shoot. I had a lot of fun and it was a good picture. Leigh Chapman, the writer, was great. I had a good time working in Kentucky, especially with the racehorse owners. Clay’s Ferry was a great, great location. The people were great. Working at the University of Kentucky was great. It was just a great environment.
I’ve seen you listed as an uncredited director on the telefilm Angel City. What happened on Angel City?
Ohhhh. You really want to know? Okay, that was my first CBS job. I’ll tell you the truth. This is a very interesting situation. I shot for a couple of weeks, but the lead actor, Ralph Waite was a problem. Okay, Jennifer Jason Leigh, I cast. I knew her dad before he died. I did her a favor on that show casting her. Red West and Paul Winfield, who I like a lot. But Mitch Ryan, who I cast, did not stand up for me. But Ralph Waite…he’s gone and I hate talking about him, but I will. He came on the set drunk and he bitched. He was against me because I was telling him what to do and he, again, TV actor. TV picture. I don’t mean to badmouth, but… This was my first TV movie. And the producers, who are friends, supposedly, were telling me, “Do a TV movie! Do a TV movie!” Okay, I’ll do a TV movie. CBS, alright. I’m in Florida and all day I would tell Ralph the blocking of the scene, and Ralph said, “What’s my motivation?” He would challenge me. Every single thing! When I would direct him with regard to the dialogue… when I would direct him with regard to point A to point B… He would challenge me. Constantly, in front of everybody, instead of pulling me aside and asking me. He would challenge me. Yell. Scream. It was so embarrassing. I went up to the producers and I said, “It’s either him or me.” And they said, “Steve, I’m sorry, but he’s the star. This is CBS. He was the star of all these TV shows. I’m sorry, you’ve gotta go.” And I said, “Fine, I’m going. I quit.” They blackballed me. CBS blackballs me! [Laughs.] Word gets out, “Don’t hire this director anymore.” That’s the story in a nutshell.
Mitch Ryan, I remember, on the set, bad-mouthing me. The other actors…Jennifer Warren, bad-mouthing me. Terrible. I really did not like the situation. I could tell you more, but I won’t because I don’t want to get into the real details, but I could have slugged this guy. That’s how angry I was and how bad it was. But I love Paul Winfield. I love Red West. Super person! Jennifer Jason Leigh, darling girl. Loved her. Loved her father, Vic Morrow.
Now, I did Oceans of Fire for CBS to get back into the good offices and to get back into good auspices. That’s how I got rid of my black ball. The producer went to bat for me with CBS, and I went in and had to kiss their hands–not their asses, but their hands–to get the rig for Oceans of Fire in order to get un-blackballed. That’s what happened.
But Ralph Waite was an asshole. But I worked with the English director that came on, Philip Leacock. I stayed on the show for a week. Leacock was a nice guy who went on to direct the show. I told him I didn’t want to be credited because I only did a week on it and they only used a little bit of my footage on it. Primarily footage without Ralph Waite. [Laughs.]
An Eye for an Eye was the first of two consecutive Chuck Norris films that you made. What was working with Chuck like?
Chuck was great. Chuck was an athlete. He was the type of actor that was very stiff. One of the things I learned about athletes is that they work by number. What I mean by that is that they do everything in their heads. For instance, if you direct them to go from point A to point B, that kind of works. I work with a lot of athletes.
On Oceans of Fire you worked with four athletes– Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Lyle Alzado, Tony Burton, and Ken Norton!
Right. And when you direct them, you don’t direct them like you do with regular actors. You direct them knowing that they work by numbers. For instance, they count how many steps or they count the timing they should deliver a line, in their head. You sort of give them direction in a… I shouldn’t say robotic, but in a more numbered way, where you find the validity to their movements and their speech. You help them with it. And Chuck was that type of actor in the beginning, where in order to smooth out his movements and his dialogue, I would guide him to… [Laughs.] It’s hard to describe the type of direction I would give him, but it would guide him in such a way where I could say “look in this direction,” or “move in this direction,” or “you see that object, you’re moving towards that object,” or “you’re making a movement,” or “you’re saying it in such a way where you want it to carry in a fashion that that person wouldn’t hear you,” or “that person shouldn’t hear you so you say it a little bit lower.” You give it more of a mechanical direction. You don’t try to tell them something psychologically. You tell them more mechanically so that they process it more evenly or in their own fashion where it makes sense to them. Because they move and they react instinctually. They’re trained. They have a certain type of training.
Chuck was a karate guy. His movements were like a ballet dancer. He would move a certain way and I’d see it. In order to counter some of his movements, I’d tell him something to counter it so he wouldn’t move like he was fighting or he was dodging something. I’d try to get him to look different or more natural.
He had a very white bread look [laughs], if I could describe him that way. He was blonde and very clean cut. So we would dress him a certain way to offset that: baseball hat, jacket, ruddy looking. Later on, on Lone Wolf McQuade, I had tremendous… not argument, but a fight, to get him to look less white bread. His hero was John Wayne, but I didn’t want him to look like John Wayne. I wanted him to look ruddy and bearded and drink beer! He didn’t want to offset the look against what kids would respect him for. I said, “Forget all that stuff! You’re a Texas Ranger. We want you rough-and-tough.”
When I was in the seventh grade, I probably watched Lone Wolf McQuade a hundred times. I was pretty sure at that time that it was the greatest movie ever made.
[Laughs.] We had to change Chuck a lot from An Eye for an Eye to Lone Wolf McQuade. In An Eye for an Eye, I was working with a raw character in that he was a cop, but he was more of a raw type of cop. A plain type of cop. I tried to… not change him, because this was my first time working with him. I just didn’t want him the same, but didn’t want to change him too much because I didn’t know him that well. I don’t know. He’s just a good, good wholesome guy! [Chuckles.] The way he spoke, the way he moved… Not too much to work with. That was Chuck Norris. [Laughs.] You just had Chuck Norris to work with.
You worked with a couple of legends, Richard Roundtree and Christopher Lee, on An Eye for an Eye. Then you later worked with them both again on Jocks. What are your memories of working with those guys?
Chris was fun to work with! The script for Jocks wasn’t great. It wasn’t that funny. I didn’t have much control over changing it that much, but I did milk out the most from it I could. Chris was great to work with. Gentleman. English man. Ex-RAF guy. Fighter pilot. I loved him!
That’s interesting. I interviewed a director last year whom I won’t mention who didn’t seem to have enjoyed working with Lee much at all.
Really? He was great to work with. I had no problems. None at all. He loved the idea that he would come on to a teen comedy and do a know-nothing part, actually, that had no substance to it. He tried to make some humor from it. He had a great time in Las Vegas on Jocks and we enjoyed having him.
And Richard Roundtree?
Great guy. He’s in my book, Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes & Villains of the Silver Screen. On An Eye for an Eye, he’s a tough, higher-up cop in that police department, suspected of being bad but not.
Richard’s a handsome guy and we palled around a lot in Las Vegas during Jocks, losing a lot of money while earning money on the show! [Laughs.] We had lots of friends in the casinos. We shot in the Barbary Coast Casino. They were our friends, they let us shoot cart blanche there. Shot the whole picture there and had free reign in all of Las Vegas because that casino allowed us free reign. We shot the picture very cheaply. We had a great time with the full cast. It was great because we had all the tennis greats coming to visit us because it was a tennis picture and not too many of those get made. It was just a fun teen picture that did okay and had a lot of pretty girls! [Laughs.]
R.G. came and did a big part in, too! He had a lot of fun because he got to play with a lot of naked girls.
Jocks seems like a bit of a departure from the work you did before. Was it kind of nice doing something different?
Yes. I had a lot of fun with it. Like I said, it wasn’t a great script, but I had a lot of fun with it. I enjoyed working with everybody on it. I was able to get Chris and Roundtree and R.G. and whomever I could get to do it that fit into a part! I even had Gray Frederickson, the producer, come and do a bit part. Whoever I could get, because it’s Las Vegas! And everything was free!
We talked a little bit about Oceans of Fire a bit, but I do have one other question. What was it like working with Billy Dee Williams?
We went to the same high school, the High School of Music and Art, so we had that in common. We’re both from New York. Billy was fun. I wish I could’ve gotten him to sit for my book, but I couldn’t reach him. But Billy was fun.
There were a lot of things on Oceans of Fire that were fun because we shot all over Mexico. We did shootings in different locations in Mexico. Cancun. I’m trying to think… We shot on a rig out on the Gulf for a couple of weeks. That was dangerous and wild. As I told you, David Carradine jumped from the rig and we had the rig on fire. We did a lot of dangerous things that I still can’t believe we did, even today. We blew up things and we had explosions and stuff that are hard to believe they let us do, but that was Mexico. At least in those days. I’m sure you can’t do that stuff today. CBS allowed us to do it, which is another thing I can’t believe.
Alzado and Ken Norton were not swimmers. They did not know how to swim so we had lots of divers around them. One of the things that was funny was when they were in the water, they were terrified! So the underwater shooting was real when their eyes were bigger than saucers. And it’s hard to believe Alzado and Ken Norton couldn’t swim and we had an underwater sequence with them.
One morning we were shooting at something like six or so, and I sent my assistant to Alzado’s Winnebago to wake him up, and he angrily tore the door off the Winnebago and chased my assistant away! [Laughs.] He was great to work with. Kenny, of course, was great, too.
In fact, “Boom Boom” Mancini, who was the other athlete, was great to work with, too. I’ll tell you a story about him. The Mexican stunt people were just crazy in love with all these athletes. They couldn’t get enough of working with them. “Boom Boom” Mancini had this fight scene, and one of the Mexican stunt people was working in it with him. [Laughs.] This is a funny story. The Mexican stuntman told “Boom Boom” Mancini, “Hit me! Hit me! Don’t worry!” Alzado and Kenny Norton, who are in the fight scene, would pull their punches or they wouldn’t even touch the stuntmen. But Mancini’s stuntman said, “No, hit me! I can take it!” And “Boom Boom” said, “No, I can’t hit you, it’s going to hurt!” And the stuntman would say, “No, no, hit me, it’s okay!” So “Boom Boom” hits him and knocks him out! [Laughs.] The stuntman comes up and “Boom Boom” says, “I’m sorry! You said to hit you!” And the stuntman says, “It was an honor to be knocked out by you!” [Laughs.] That was the funniest thing.
What stands out in your mind about working on Bulletproof?
Bulletproof! Another picture. Crazy Gary Busey. [Laughs.]
Was he crazy then?
Yes, he was crazy then. [Laughs.] He’s crazy now. He was crazy before. Gary’s something else. Good guy. I love Gary, but working with Gary…you just never know. He’s very unpredictable. Good guy, though.
Any standout memories of Gary?
[Laughs.] Which one? Let me think… [Laughs again.] Which one should I tell you?
We had a lot of problems with the producers because they ran out of money and we had to stop production. Then we had to start production and so on. It was a rough go on that picture. We had L.Q. We had R.G….
You had William Smith.
Billy! Billy was fluent in Russian. Whenever he spoke Russian, that was real stuff.
What was working with him like?
He’s great. He’s one of those actors that, like R.G., L.Q., you name ‘em, just straight, good, tremendous actor. He’s tough, but he’s very, very good to direct. All those actors, René Enríquez, everybody who’s in that. Darlanne Fluegel. They’re all great to work with. Henry Silva. Henry… I mean, great, great guy to work with. I love working with Henry.
Bulletproof was a difficult picture to make, only because the producers were difficult people to work with in providing for the picture. A lot of the substance of the picture…the helicopters, the tank… Everything that was necessary for the picture was a problem, physically, and just getting the picture done and edited. The music. Everything was not to my liking. It was just a tough picture to make. I’m not saying I’m not proud of it. It’s just one of those pictures…
I like the opening of the picture and, basically, I had fun doing it. I have fun doing all of the pictures. Preparing the picture, directing the picture, working with the actors, that’s always fun. It’s the logistics sometimes and what happens in dealing with the post and producers… Some of the details can be difficult. That’s a tough one to talk about.
Let’s talk about River of Death. You got to work with Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence on that one.
First, let me tell you about English actors. English actors are different from American actors in one specific way. English actors, because they’re trained in theater mostly, they work a certain way in that they will do any part. Small, big, medium, anything. And they rehearse differently than American actors. They do everything differently, in my opinion, and they do not complain. They also carry equipment. I was in a jungle and unlike American actors, they will carry equipment! They do everything differently. That’s the difference. The other thing is, they’re funny. They have a sense of humor, even when it’s 110 degrees out and in the jungle, whereas American actors complain.
I loved working with Herbert Lom and Donald Pleasence. Loved them. I loved working with all the actors. Let me sort of separate all these comments so no one gets left out.
Robert Vaughn, first. He is a scholar in English. He has a Ph. D. in English lit. He was always reading. He’ll go off in a corner, and he separated himself from the crew a lot, the other actors, and was always reading a book. I would have to come up to him to have a conversation about the character or the film or the part or whatever. But he was very likeable. I enjoyed him. He worked very well with everybody on the set, but he was always reading. He was extremely intelligent and extremely good in the film. Uncomfortable with the Nazi aspects. Everybody was, really, and we had to joke around a lot to soften the blow because there were mostly Israelis on the crew. So the Nazi situation wasn’t good.
Let me also tell you why the Nazi situation wasn’t good. We were shooting in Port St. Johns, and there was only one other film that shot there, which was also about Nazis. The Afrikaans, who were in Port St. Johns… This is kind of weird to tell you this, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Port St. Johns is on the Indian Ocean. It’s about 400 miles away from Johannesburg. It’s isolated. There are two tribes, the Pondos and the Zulus. They are the main African tribes and are not friendly with each other. Lots of fighting goes on. The Afrikaans are the white people that are there, and they are different. Mostly from Johannesburg. When I ran out of uniforms for the Nazis, because we only had so many Nazi uniforms, I had asked the Afrikaan people if I could find a wardrobe person that could make some uniforms for me, because we need some Nazi uniforms. They said, “Oh, no problem. We have plenty of them at the hotel.” And I said, “Really? That’s interesting.” And I went down to the basement at their hotel, I was shocked to see a flag about twenty feet by thirty feet. A Nazi flag. In their basement. And they had plenty of uniforms, which I used in the film. So you get the idea of what they had there.
A third of our crew was from Israel, a third of our crew was local, and a third of our crew was from Italy. It was a rough situation, to say the least, with regard to what the atmosphere was like. With regard to the connotation we were shooting a Nazi picture about Mengele that was inferred to the story that we were shooting about Nazis.
The actors would make fun in order to keep the atmosphere light. Herbert Lom, who was Jewish. The whole situation was kept light in order to avoid any problems because I’m Jewish. This whole situation would’ve gotten out of hand had they known that and had this become a religious argument as to what really was going on.
The real problem was that these African entities were going at each other and there were a lot of deaths in the jungles and a lot of problems with the tribes that we had to quell without problems and without us getting involved. And to keep this Nazi thing under control and not making it become a reality in the picture so that the story would become more real than it was. Keep it a fantasy. Keep it a story. Keep it a movie. That’s what was going on. I tried to have fun. Having L.Q. there, which was a lot of fun. Herbert Lom. Donald Pleasence, which was great! Donald was super. He was really a great guy, and he was fantastic to work with.
These English actors, I tell you… If I were to work with English actors for the rest of my life, I would love it. Not that American actors aren’t fun. American actors are great, but English actors are just… I’ve worked with some English actors, and they’re really… Their training, maybe it’s Shakespearean theater that makes them that way, but there’s something about them. Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasence. Boom, boom, boom! They come prepared. They do things. It’s like take one, take two, that’s it! No more. Don’t need anymore.
Working with Michael Dudikoff, who is fun to work with and good. He’s a good actor. But there is a certain point when Michael… You know, he’s trained a certain way that’s different than these actors that I mentioned. And when you try to do something different than is written on the page and you want to change something…these actors adapt instantly. No problem. But Michael, you’ve gotta work with, and it takes time.
Dead Center was written by Menahem Golan, who also produced the film. What was collaborating with Golan like?
I liked Menahem a lot! Menahem got a lot of bad press from a lot of people. When he was at 20th Century, that was a different situation where he and Yoram Globus were just squeaking by, with regard to the financing. A lot of people were unhappy when they broke away from Cannon… I didn’t really know what had happened, but there were some people that didn’t like what went down financially and with regard to what they took with them and how they left. I don’t want to go into that because I don’t know what really went down.
I liked Menahem and I liked Yoram. They never did wrong with me and I never had a bad situation with them. Like I said before, when I first started with Roger Corman, I met Menahem and lived at his house in Israel in Tel Aviv. I had a great relationship with him ever since. I would’ve made more pictures with him if I didn’t go off and work with Dino De Laurentiis and other producers. I would’ve went back to Cannon. I had other picture deals with Cannon that just didn’t work out. I was going to do Spiderman and others.
That would have been with Michael Dudikoff also, wouldn’t it?
It would’ve been with Michael, but the deal went sour because of Stan Lee. I was on the periphery of the deal. It would’ve been great! I would’ve loved to have done it, but it just didn’t happen.
There was also a deal with Menahem and Charlie Bronson. We had met to do a picture. The fifth installment of Death Wish. I met with Charlie and we were going to do that, but for a director to work in Canada was impossible… I forget how it worked with their subsidy, but it would’ve had to have been a Canadian director. I was pushed out and I couldn’t work there, even though I had a great relationship with Bronson. And all the posters had been drawn up with my name on them.
That was the neat thing with Cannon. There are all these variations of posters for films with people on them that never ended up being in them, or for films that never ended up getting made, because they would make the posters to find financing.
I have all of them. A lot of the karate pictures that I had with a lot of the karate stars. I’ve done a lot of big karate pictures under different names, too. I’ve done a lot of pictures in Europe under different names because I had to shirk the Directors Guild. I got fined so many times. I got tired of paying the fines, so I just worked under different names.
Your filmography lists The Wolves as the last film you officially made. I’m guessing you’ve actually worked since then.
I’ve made films since The Wolves. I’ve taken over films for directors under different names. I really shouldn’t say because in the contracts I signed disclosures where I said I wouldn’t reveal that I came in. I realized that I became what’s known as a doctor of films—a director that took over and saved films. That got a little precarious because a few times I was threatened with lawsuits for being on a film and where the director who was displaced named me as someone who undermined their being replaced.
You’ve talked about not disliking any of your films because they’re like children. I won’t ask you to choose a favorite of your films, but if you had to pick one film to represent you as a director, which one would you pick? What film would you like to be your legacy?
Lone Wolf would be, because I produced it with Yoram Ben-Ami. Yoram did most of the real producing. I did a lot of the casting. Most of the casting. And the designing of it, and obviously the directing and the cutting of it. And the music. One of the things I love about Lone Wolf is that it is designed by me and it has my trademark, in that everything, as a picture, is my doing. I drew it out and I had time in which to work it out. I worked with a lot of people that I love on this picture. I had the free will to make the picture as I thought it should be made.
John Milius helped me with the beginning of the picture because when Orion read the script, they wanted the opening a certain way to announce it as being more of a Western. First fool the audience into thinking it’s a Western and then make it modern. And this Texas Ranger aspect and working with Tippi Hendren’s wolf. I had Tippi give me a wolf and we shot it for the opening sequence. That was fun because that wolf was a real wolf. The title sequence I modeled after the Spaghetti Western sequence. And the music, working with the Ennio Morricone type of music with Francesco De Masi in Rome. That was sooo much fun, because I had met Ennio when I did The Arena.
I’ll tell you a quick story about De Masi and Ennio. When we were doing the music for The Arena, there was this fat woman who was first violinist when we were working in Ennio’s church in Rome. This fat lady was playing first violinist and De Masi’s wife was singing the love theme. We were in the basement where they mix the music and had the orchestra. I’m looking out the window of the mixing room and De Masi and Morricone are listening to the music being played and the orchestra, which is like 70 people, is playing the love theme with the woman singing. The first violinist is just playing this gorgeous piece of the love theme, and Ennio and De Masi are just talking. Suddenly, boom! Slaps his hand down on the council, stops the music, stops the playing, screams something in Italian, and they go out and talk to this person, this fat lady. And she leaves! [Laughs.] They stopped the whole orchestration. The recording. Everything. And I asked, “What’s going on? Why? It was beautiful! Fantastic!” They come back and tell me it’s terrible and they don’t like it. “Okay, why?” They tell me she’s not in love. I’m saying, “What?” “She’s not in love!” I say, “Okay? What are you going to do?” “We’re going to get someone else.”
The next day, this skinny guy with this big nose is playing first violin and they play the same thing. He’s playing the same piece. This love theme. Same piece. I listen to it and it sounds the same. They put up both pieces together and show me the pieces together and his piece is totally different. Beautiful. Why? He just got married and he’s in love! And that’s the difference. And that’s the piece that’s in the movie. [Laughs.] They had the ear for it. It was an amazing thing. I’ll never forget that. That’s what’s in the movie. That’s the difference.
Anyway, going back to Lone Wolf McQuade, the music is just incredible. What was written and what was played and the harmonica and the voice and all that Morricone brought into all his films… De Masi took it over as his protege. Fantastic music. I loved working in Italy and doing this type of film. The film came together nicely, and the people that we had had in the picture and shooting this picture, mostly in sequence, was a pleasure! The casting was really well done, if I could say so. I had a lot of fun doing this picture and there were no problems. None at all with the actors. Everybody that’s in the film is fantastic.
So Lone Wolf McQuade would be the film that I say.