The Director's Chair Interviews

Last of the Desperadoes: Dueling with Sam Peckinpah
by E. Jean Carroll
Rocky Mountain Magazine, March 1982

Click here for Sam Peckinpah films, books, and soundtracks


HE OPENS THE DOOR. I SAY HE IS A LOT YOUNGER LOOKING than his photographs. Then he says I am a lot better looking than he expected. Then I say he is a lot better looking himself.

Chic as hell, as a matter of fact. Has on wash-and-wear pants and a blue shirt open at the neck and ripped at one sleeve. Puts you in mind of the magazine ad: "What Becomes a Legend Most?"

In Sam Peckinpah's case what mostly became the legend was the belching, the brawling, the farting, the profanities, the tantrums, the marriages (five in all, three to the same woman, all ending in divorce), the drinking, the debauching, the dealing, the phenomenal--- practically mythical, not to say monumental--- film directing, and the dressing straight out of the trash can. For all that, he goes about five feet ten, weighs about 140. What you might call skinny. But there's one thing about Peckinpah: he may be the last guy in Hollywood who has any guts.

"You mind if I start taping?" I say.

"Not now."

"When?"

"Later."

THERE ARE A LOT OF PICTURES ON THE WALLS OF PECKINPAH'S Montana place. Cowboy pictures, Wild Bunch pictures, Straw Dogs pictures, a picture of a naked actress, pictures of his ex-wives, pictures from The Getaway, pictures from Major Dundee . . .

"Yeah, Dundee was great." says Peckinpah, "It was a great film. I fell in love with my Mexican wife on Dundee."

"You're kidding," I say.

"I'm not," says Peckinpah softly.

"The studio was making it hot for you in Mexico," I say.

"I'm not kidding," says Peckinpah.

"How could you fall in love when you were being fried by the studio?"

"Oh, I find it very easy to fall in love," says Peckinpah fondly.

I stare at him.

"But some female critics think you've been pretty rough on women," I say.

Peckinpah smiles.

"I've heard you've socked a couple of women."

Peckinpah raises his eyebrows.

"Haven't a woman's tears ever helped?"

Peckinpah laughs softly. I am thinking: What are these people talking about? This man can really be enormously attractive.

"Only if she's coming," says Peckinpah with a chuckle.

HIS MOTHER WAS A TEETOTALER. HIS FATHER WAS A JUDGE. Peckinpah's first wife, Marie, was an actress. One day Peckinpah tags along with Marie to her directing class at Fresno State. Gets his mind blown. Across the dark sky of Fresno, California, Peckinpah passes like a meteor. Gets a job at KLAC-TV in Los Angeles in 1953. Is put in charge of sweeping the floor for The Liberace Show. Is fired for not wearing a suit. Is hired by Allied Artists as a fourth assistant casting director. Gets upped to dialogue director. Plays bit roles in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Polishes a scene or two for director Don Siegel. Takes him a week. Is asked to write a Gunsmoke episode. Takes him five months. Suffers the tortures of the damned. Can't sleep. Locks himself away and gets it on. Writes a dozen more and several scripts for Trackdown, Tales of Wells Fargo. Tombstone Territory, Broken Arrow, Man Without a Gun, Zane Grey Theatre, Pony Express. Westerns come natural-he was raised on a ranch on Peckinpah Mountain in the Sierras east of Fresno.

By 1958 he's dying to direct. Gets his first crack on NBC's Broken Arrow. Has two and a half days to shoot the episode. Walks onto the set, lays out the first three or four shots, goes back to the head and throws up.

SEVEN OR SEVEN-THIRTY, WE LEAVE his place and go to a restaurant. Peckinpah is in a high mood. He looks at the wine list: "We'll have Gallo 1992."

He calls for champagne. He calls for a martini. He smacks his lips over the menu. He leans over and tells me he has had the flu lately and that he has been "going through this self-pity thing."

I look at him in amazement.

"I know," he laughs. "It's ridiculous!"

"So what do you do when you go through a self-pity thing?" I ask.

"I watch a lot of TV."

"Watching TV's relaxing."

"I can watch it a month straight."

"Great for unwinding."

"The Price Is Right can really get me going."

"That works," I say. "That. . and other stuff." Peckinpah laughs soundlessly.  "Been celibate lately," he says. Calls for another martini. Hasn't touched his salad.

"Is that how you stay so slim?" I say.

"No."

"So how do you keep in shape?"

"Muscle control."

"Ah."

"I use muscle concentration.

He puts an elbow on the table. "Like this," he says.

He holds up one hand. His fingers are together. He moves his index finger slowly sideways to the right. Then he moves it sideways to the left. He looks at me. I am waiting. He moves his little finger sideways to the left. Then sideways to the right. "There," he says.

I stare at him. "Are you serious or what?" I say.

"What?"

"Are you serious?"

Peckinpah smiles. He holds his palm up to my face. "It's a mirror," he says.

He leaves it there ten or 15 seconds.


1959 AND PECKINPAH IS WRITING AND DIRECTING HIS OWN television series, The Rifleman. A year later, at the age of 35, he is producing The Westerner, starring Brian Keith, for NBC. It's Keith who gets Peckinpah his first movie-directing deal. Keith and Maureen O'Hara are signed for the western The Deadly Companions, and Keith talks the producer, Charles FitzSimons, who is O'Hara's brother, into taking on Peckinpah. It's not the greatest deal in the world. Peckinpah wants to make a picture but says FitzSimons wants somebody to push around. The script's lousy. Peckinpah wants to rewrite, but no dice. Has 19 days to bring in the film, all on location. Real crap for weather. Peckinpah finally asks FitzSimons to leave the set. A miracle Peckinpah gets anything at all. He finishes and makes the first cut. Fitzsimons recurs. Makes a mess. Returns to Peckinpah's first cut and dumps it on the market.

Amazingly, The Deadly Companions gets fair reviews and the young director is called to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1961 to do Ride the High Country with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Rolls film like he's John Ford. Drops 15 to 20 pounds. Rewrites 80 percent of the dialogue. joseph Vogel, president of MGM, screens it. Proclaims it the worst picture ever made. Peckinpah is fired. The film hits the theaters. Peckinpah's technique is called dazzling. Ride the High Country becomes one of Metro's highest grossing pictures in Europe. It gets Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival. Gets Best Picture from Le Conseil des Dix in Paris. Gets Best Picture from the Mexican film critics. The brothel scene becomes a classic in American cinema. Many years later Pauline Kael says the film was the last good western that had any ritual purity.

The nod comes from Columbia in 1964. The deal: Charlton Heston, a $3 million budget, a three-hour flick, and a script about a Civil War major who runs down a renegade Apache in Mexico. Two days before the shooting starts, Jerry Bresler, the producer, tells Peckinpah one million's been cut from the budget, 15 days from the shooting schedule, and an hour from the running time. Peckinpah's down in Mexico with a cast of hundreds. Drives his crew around the bend. Some fights break out. According to Paul Seydor's book Peckinpah: The Western Films, Heston charges Peckinpah on his horse and tries to run him through with his saber. Fifteen crew members are fired. Nobody's getting any sleep. Peckinpah wears the same pair of jeans through the whole production. Starts to run over schedule. At some point falls in love. Hits $600,000 over revised budget. The guys in the Italian silk suits arrive, threaten to seize the footage. Heston offers to return his salary if Peckinpah is allowed to finish. The studio takes Heston's money, and Peckinpah finishes what he can. Flies to California and makes his first cut. Says it runs "beautifully" at two hours and 41 minutes. Bresler chops off 55 minutes. Leaves out what the story's about. Adds a marching song by Mitch Miller's Sing Along Gang. When Peckinpah sees the release print of Major Dundee he gets sick.


THERE ARE NINE OF US AT THE TABLE in the restaurant: three local Montana couples--- the Swindlehursts the Huis the Devines--- the Huis' six-year-old son, and Peckinpah and me. Peckinpah kisses Mrs. Swindlehurst across the table. He hugs Mrs. Divine. He compliments Mrs. Hui. After dinner he wipes his mouth with his napkin and says to me, "I have three questions I want to ask you. First, why do you want to interview me?"

I begin to answer.

He holds up a hand to stop me. "One, why do you want to interview me? Two, what do you want to interview me about? And three, what do you want to get out of it?"

I begin to answer again.

"No," he says. "I want you to think about it tonight."

He signals to the waitress and she brings him the second half of the martini he had sent away during dinner. He takes a drink, puts the glass down on the table. and looks at me.

"So why do you want to interview me?" he says.

I smile. I think it is a joke. Then I notice the skin pulling around his hairline. It is pulling and turning white across his cheekbones.

Mrs. Swindlehurst gives me a cautioning look.

"Why should I give you an interview?" he says. "All you journalists are plagiarists."

I have been told three things about dealing with Peckinpah: I am not supposed to forget he is a genius; I am not supposed to be impolite; and I am not supposed to forget he can be a real ass, though he is a great director and has made some fine films and had some grand times.

I must be smiling still because something about my face seems to irritate him.

"Why should I give you my time?" he says.

His lips look thinner. The skin around his ears pulls upward. He has the large black eyes of a calf fetus.

"What can you possibly offer me?" he says.

"Why do you have to know what I have to offer you?" I say. I wonder if this is an affront.

"I don't want to know what you have to offer."

"You just said you did."

"I've changed my mind."

"Why?"

"Because the interview's off."

"Good."

"I'm not going to do it."

"Fine."

No interview.

At this moment a rather handsome pair comes over to the table. The man has written some good novels and a number of screenplays--- Rancho Deluxe, The Missouri Breaks, Tom Horn. He has the reputation of being a hothead. The woman is beautiful and speaks with a southern accent. They sit down. They have met Peckinpah on one previous occasion. This couple is the McGuanes. And what we have now is the making of a situation.


1964, DECEMBER. FOUR DAYS AFTER PECKINPAH STARTS WORK on The Cincinnati Kid, Martin Ransohoff fires him. Says he's vulgarizing the picture. Word's put out. Peckinpah can't get peo pIe on the phone. Can't get a picture. Can't get through a studio gate. One thing Peckinpah learns about producers: they have a tremendous hatred of teal talent. Three years pass. Daniel Melnick finally hires him to adapt and direct Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine for television. Melnick gets calls. People try to warn him. Noon Wine wins accolades from the Screen Writers Guild and the Directors Guild of America, and Peckinpah's back in business.

1969. Thirty people walk out of a 190-minute sneak preview in Kansas City. People are barfing in the alley. The director says if he's so bloody that he's driving people from the theater, he fails. Edits the film to 143 minutes, making some 3500 cuts-more than any color film in history. The Wild Bunch is released, the western is reconceived, and Peckinpah is called a genius. Peckinpah is called brilliant. Peckinpah is called the youngest legendary director in Hollywood. Peckinpah is called the Picasso of Violence. People actually come up and throw punches at him, they are so enraged by the violence - 170 killings. In Nigeria The Wild Bunch is shown to government troops. The troops go crazy. Shoot their guns in the movie. Shoot their guns at the movie. Next day they go off to battle the Biafrans shouting that they want to die like William Holden. The studio recalls the 400 prints. Lops off eight minutes of flashbacks and character motivation sequences; returns the prints to the movie houses. Reason: to get in another showing a day. Peckinpah calls the cuts a disaster. The Wild Bunch is said by many critics to be the best picture of the sixties. Paul Seydor calls it one of the few true pinnacles in the history of cinema and, for that matter, in the art of the twentieth century.

After finishing The Ballad of Cable Hogue with Jason Robards in 1970, Peckinpah is handed Dustin Hoffman, big money, and a book called The Siege of Trencher's Farm. The director says if you'd read the book, you'd die gagging on your own vomit. Turns it into a masterwork on the necessity of killing. One cameraman quits for religious reasons. Another is fired. The money men fly in. December 1971, Straw Dogs is unleashed. Variety says it's an orgy of unparalleled violence and nastiness. Peckinpah says he wants to rub their noses in it. Says he regards all men as violent, including himself. Says violence must be expressed constructively or we're dead, doctor. Says it's bullshit about his films contributing to the violence in society. Says that's what everybody's trying to nail him on. Everybody thinks he invented it. Everybody thinks he gets his rocks off when the people in his pictures get their heads blown off. Says he's pretty goddamned sick of it.

THERE IS GOING TO BE A DEAL. THE DEAL IS THAT McGuane will write and Peckinpah will direct. McGuane calls this deal the World Series. "This is the Big One," says McGuane This is the long ball. We're going to hit this one right out of the park When he says this stuff, repeating it, popping it off mechanically every other sentence in a low, cracking voice, mixing in at times a football phrase or two-and holding Peckinpah under its spell - the effect is like a stripper puncturing her balloon costume with a straight pin; with each pop the possibilities seem more and more attractive. A break comes in the conversation, and I say to Peckinpah the deal looks pretty good.

"Oh. Don't say that."' says Peckinpah, shaking his head.

"Why not?"

"You never talk about deals."

"Ah.

"That's one thing you gotta know if you're going to interview me.

"OK."

"Never talk."

"OK."

"Brings bad luck."

I think it may be better not to heat about the deal then, so I let the thread go, and when I pick it up Peckinpah has changed his seat. He is sitting at one end of the table looking at McGuane, who is at the other, and suddenly Peckinpah slams his fist down on the table so hard the salt shakers jump in the air.

"F--- you!" shoots Peckinpah.

You can hear a pin drop. Nobody moves. McGuane puts one arm on the table, drops his head into the crook of his elbow, and stays like that. Peckinpah stares at McGuane with his mouth open.

A minute passes.

McGuane raises his head. Peckinpah pushes back his chair and stands up. He and McGuane step outside to the parking lot.

"The World Series isn't going so good," remarks somebody.


1972. PECKINPAH'S Junior Bonner COMES OUT. 1973 Peckinpah's The Getaway comes out. 1973, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid comes apart. Happens like this. Peckinpah wants a 5~-day shooting schedule. MGM wants 36. He gets 50. Peckinpah wants to shoot in New Mexico for authenticity. Metro wants Mexico to cut costs. He loses. Peckinpah wants a Panavision repairman in Durango, Mexico, to fix the cameras. The studio says nothing doing. The first footage is sent to L.A. to be processed. The lab calls Peckinpah. Says the film's out of focus. Panic in Durango. Downtime. The camera is fixed and the paranoia sets in. The actors get sick. The crew gets sick. Peckinpah is puking every day. They fall behind schedule. James Aubrey, president of MGM, wants to save time and forbids Peckinpah to shoot a raft scene. Peckinpah shoots it. The scenarist, Rudy Wurlitzer, starts complaining. Says Peckinpah is rewriting the picture with the help of his old TV scripts.jerry Fielding, Peckinpah's music composer (The ~dd Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonnet) can't work with Bob Dylan and quits. Dylan's unhappy. Kris Kristofferson (the Kid) says Rudy's dialogue is corny. Rita Coolidge (Maria, the Kid's lover) says all that remains of her role thanks to MGM is that of "a groupie. "James Coburn (Garrett) says Peckinpah is a creative paranoid who generates tension to give everyone the same experience to feed on during the film. A fight breaks out one Saturday night. Two guys. One is on the phone ordering a couple of gunmen to Durango. Wants the other guy killed for threatening Peckinpah's life. Whitey Hughes, Peckinpah's stunt man, says they always have a good time, but on this film they aren't having a good time. The hit is canceled at Peckinpah's insistence. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is brought in 20 days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget. MGM's building a hotel in Vegas and needs cash. The studio moves the release date up and gives Peckinpah only two and a half months to edit. On the sly MGM duplicates the work print and employs another cutter. Peckinpah's version runs between 122 and 126 minutes. The studio's runs 106. The producer, Gordon Carroll, negotiates day and night. Gets nothing restored. The picture's released. Peckinpah sues for $1.5 million. Orders all the cuts put back or his name taken off. Nada Nada. Nada.

WHETHER HIS IS THE LITERARY LIFE OR THE Hollywood life, I can't say; but after a couple of minutes we all go out to the parking lot, and Peckinpah throws the first punch - I mean this is the sort of idiotic thing people have come to expect Actually he and McGuane move off between the parked trucks and talk about the deal some mote. After that they shake hands, and Peckinpah gets in the back seat of the Swindlehursts' Wagoneer. McGuane leans his head through the open door.

"You're on for the roping," says McGuane. Peckinpah mentions Keller.

"I'll rope against anybody except Keller." This Keller is Allen

Keller the actor and past world-champion steer roper. "Anybody but Keller," says McGuane, Montana-Wyoming's 19R1 nonprofessional cutting horse champion. "Anybody you want. You name him. Anybody but Keller." He slams the door.

"Great evening!" says Peckinpah.

Riding back to town, Peckinpah is in a fine mood. We talk about this and that, and then he says to me, "I'm not going to do the interview."

I say I know he's not going to do the interview.

"I'm not going to do the interview," he says, "unless you tell me what aspect you're going to do."

What does he mean by aspect, I ask.

"Aspect! Aspect!" he shouts. He has his leftover beef rolled up in a napkin in one hand and half a bottle of wine in the other.

"You mean focus?" I say.

"All right. What's the focus going to be?" We hit a pothole.

"What's the focus?" repeats Peckinpah.

"I don't like a focus," I say.

"Well, I like a focus. I'd like a focus before we reach the Swindlehursts' or the interview's off."

"I loathe focuses."

"Well, you have three blocks." He looks out the window. Utter silence.

"This is ridiculous," I say.

He tidies up the napkin around his beef and makes ready to get out of the car.

"Two blocks."

"This is like the question portion of the Miss America contest.

Carolyn Swindlehurst is at the wheel and slows down. Peckinpah has the bottle between his knees and his hand on the door.

"One block."

"OK," I say.

The car stops in front of the house.

"I'd like to know how you maintained your sanity while the studios butchered your films."

"Good.

"The focus will be whether you're a sane man or not.

"Fine."

He opens the door and says to call him in two weeks.


1974, 1975, 1977. PECKINPAH'S Bring Me The Head of Alfredo GarciaThe Killer Elite, and Cross of Iron appear. 1979, he has a heart attack and enters a small-town hospital in Montana. This is after Convoy, when the temperatures on location in the Southwest hit 100, a set went up in flames, trucks broke down, equipment was stolen, the script was scrapped, the production company was on his back, he was three weeks behind schedule, he had not written the end for the picture, and people were talking. The Convoy wardrobe man said: "Either Sam has gone mad or the rest of us have." And the cameraman said: "This is a training ground for idiots." And the star, Ah McGraw: "Perhaps it's a tribute to my monumental lack of training, but I like this way of working." And the male star, Kris Kristofferson: "Sam is like an old dog you some-times have to apologize for." And Burr Young, the co-star: "Sam's a pain in the ass, but we all want to be part of his gang. He's a genius. the bastard."

I CALLED HIM. AND, WELL, THAT'S ALL. WE CHATTED ON FOUR OR five occasions. The last time he was leaving for Spain. Said to send him a list of written questions--- 40 questions and he'd pick 20. Said to cable them to his hotel at the L.A. airport. The questions came to about 1000 words. I mailed them. Never got an answer. But that's OK. He's a hell of a guy. And a great director.

"Look," I said to him the last time. "Do you remember the focus?"

"What focus?"

"The focus of the interview.

"No. Was there a focus?"

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