Pick a Peck of Poses

A Beginner’s Field Guide to the Peckinpah Actor

Warren Oates (1928–1982) — When Oates was alive, people valued him yet hinted that he was mighty lucky to manage to stay employed in movies. Oates himself, trying to nail down what set him apart from more traditional Western movie actors like John Wayne, offered the helpful analysis, “I’m just a little shit.” Yet it may have been a clue to the strength and strangeness of Oates’ rapport with audiences that it was if every fan he had in the world just assumed that he was the only person on Earth who could see just how good this guy was. Since Oates died, his admirers have gotten a lot more vocal, and a full-blown, mighty cult has sprouted around him. Elmore Leonard’s Stick, locked up in prison when Oates died and subsequently paroled, expresses mixed feelings about being a free man in a world without Warren.

He made four films with Peckinpah and died spectacularly in every one. Maybe because he didn’t usually have time for last words, his farewell scene in Major Dundee stands out: condemned to death as a deserter, his rebel conscript, O.W. Hadley, tells Dundee that he understands the reason he has to die, “but God damn you for it anyway, and God bless Robert E. Lee!” Oates’ second film — he later said that he wished it had been his first — was Ride the High Country, in which he responded to delicate hints about his personal hygeine on the eve of his brother’s wedding by yelling that he didn’t need no bath. It was a bold claim that he’d made in three consecutive Peckinpah movies without convincing anyone. (The fourth was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where he probably needed a bath more than ever, but by then he was the star of the movie, and turning into a scary ringer for the director besides, so the entire country of Mexicopretty much gave him a pass.)

Oates also provides a handy linkbetween Peckinpah and that other maverick director, Monte Hellman, for whom Oates also made four films. Aside from his work with Peckinpah, his finest performances may be in Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and The Hired Hand, directed by his friend Peter Fonda, and which Oates pretty much single-handedly makes worth seeing sometime. Essential viewing: Tom Thurman’s documentary Warren Oates: Across the Border, included in the Anchor Bay DVD and VHS editions of Hellman’s Cockfighter.

Strother Martin (1919–1980) — In his doubles acts with L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue), Martin did scruffy and semi-human, though the same summer that The Wild Bunch was released, he turned up briefly in True Grit, the one that got John Wayne an Oscar, and managed to be the only person in that film capable of delivering the pixilated, contraction-free dialogue as if he’d been talking like that all his life. Cleaned up, Martin looked and sounded like a Tennessee Williams that had shrunk in the wash. He was busy in movies and TV for decades and always gave value for money.

L.Q. Jones (1927–) — Yogi Berra was a clumsy-looking, simian-shaped fellow to the untrained eye, but Casey Stengel could see the rushing, graceful athlete within. In many movies, from Lone Wolf McQuade to Casino, Jones, with his trim build and bearing and salt-and-pepper hair, has the respectable manner of an aging Texas Ranger, but Peckinpah saw the dirty, sniveling desert rat within. In Cable Hogue, his partner, Strother Martin, proves too lovable to kill at the end, and it probably helps Martin’s cause in this that he has Jones to stand next to him for purposes of comparison. Jones’s glory moment is his shootout with James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which is somehow both comic and touching. “Us old boys oughtn’t be doin’ this to each other,” he complains, just before going out in an attempt at a heroic last charge so half-assed and pitiful-looking that your heart goes out to him.

R.G. Armstrong (1919–) — Mariette Hartley’s father in Ride theHigh Country (my God, what did her mother look like, and what was she drinking that night?), the spectacularly murdered Deputy Ollinger in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Huge and glowering and with a voice that comes in like thunder filtered through the mountains, Armstrong had a likable side that he got to indulge sometimes with other directors (notably when he played the mountain man Clell Miller in Phil Kaufman’s The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid), but for Peckinpah he was the got-to guy for hateful self-righteousness.

Emilio Fernandez (1903–1986) — Some directors, having assembled a crew as scurvy-looking as Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, might wonder how they were going to cast the role of the fellow who, standing next to these characters, was clearly identifiable as the Bad Guy. This was not a problem likely to plague a director who had Emilio Fernandez on speed-dial. A pioneering Mexican director in his own right and something of a legend in “Did anyone get the number of that whatever it was?” circles, “El Indio” was a violent brawler and reputed sadist who’s said to have served a similar function for Peckinpah in real life, inspiring people to look at Sam himself and think, “Well, I guess he’s not that bad after all, at least as long as this guy’s running around loose.” Hatefully effective as Mapache and as the paterfamilias in Alfredo Garcia, though Peckinpah erred in casting him as a likable guy in Pat Garrett. When Billy the Kid interrupts some folks who are horsewhipping Fernandez to death, you sort of wish he’d at least give them the chance to make their case.

Ben Johnson (1918–1996) — A veteran rodeo cowboy who edged into movies and did a string of John Ford Westerns, thus making him the strongest physical link between that old master and our Peckinpah. Gave the performance of his life as Tector Gorch, brother to Warren Oates’s Lyle, in The Wild Bunch. Nothing he’d done before had the strength and fascination of that affable man-monster; though he’d go on to win an Oscar for The Last Picture Show, nothing he did afterwards felt as loose and freely tossed off. Peckinpah pretender John Milius later reunited Oates and Johnson in the 1973 Dillinger, apparently just to prove that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

Slim Pickens (1919–1983)Dr. Strangelove’s H-bomb rider was never mistaken for a wallflower, but Peckinpah really brought out his uninhibited side anyway. Lovably boisterous and oversized most of the time, though he had the most touching moment of his career in Pat Garrett, sitting by the side of the water, knockin’ on Heaven’s door. Worth seeing for Pickens: Rancho Deluxe (1975), where he sums himself up by presenting a bill for his services as a livestock detective and allows, “You can pay it or you can wipe your ass with it. It don’t make no never-mind to me, I’m in it for the sport.”

Chill Wills (1903–1978) — Slim Pickens with rabies. It’s a commonplace regret that Peckinpah should have had the chance to film Blood Meridian (which was published the same year that Peckinpah died), but to see Wills — sweaty, psychotic, and blustering — in Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions, is to register how close he’d come to having done it already. A slightly mellower Chill appears in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: he’s as mean as ever but too tired now to do anything but park himself in a corner of his store and pass judgment on Garrett, which he does with relish. His eyes, Garrett complains, haven’t seen anything but the bad-news side of things since he came to this territory, and a close-up of those eyes confirms that they’ve been in the territory for a long, long time.

David Warner (1941–) — A wandering preacher in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a simpleton who learned how to walk and dress from Frankenstein’s monster in Straw Dogs, one of those Nazi officers so world-weary and cynical that he talks with an English accent in Cross of Iron. He’s far from the most memorable thing in any of these movies, but it tickles me that whenever Peckinpah had to hire a European, he always seemed to turn to the same guy first, as if he didn’t want to get to know any more of the weird sumbitches than he had to. In his last film, The Osterman Weekend, he (sensibly) seemed to be sizing John Hurt up as a possible replacement.

Dub Taylor (1907–1994) — Some character actors, it’s often said, are like strong spices; you want to use just a pinch of them, to add flavor. Taylor was like cayenne pepper administered to the taste buds with a polo mallet. He was never onscreen for long, but boy, did you notice him. John Beck in Pat Garrett probably holds the world record for enduring his company onscreen, in a scene that ends with him grabbing the cackling, mangy old lunatic by the scruff of the hair and knocking him out, ostensibly as an interrogation technique, though you wouldn’t fault him for doing it on general principles. Peckinpah also cast Taylor as the anti-alcohol minister who leads the temperance rally in The Wild Bunch, thus making it clear once and for all just where Peckinpah stood on the subject of Prohibition. Essential viewing: Bonnie and Clyde, where as C. W. Moss’s daddy he gives you new sympathy for what it must be like to be Michael J. Pollard. It’s also fun to see him, briefly, play a scene with his heir and successor, M. Emmett Walsh, in The Best of Times, an underseen comedy that was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, once upon a time Peckinpah’s invaluable editor.

James Coburn (1928–2002) — Quite a sight as the tracker in Major Dundee, from back when he was a supporting player in testosterone-heavy ensemble pictures (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). The next time he and Peckinpah met, Coburn had passed through his brief fling as a name-above-the-title star and was giving the performance of his life as Pat Garrett. Solid, too, as the lead in Cross of Iron.

Bo Hopkins (1942–) — Peckinpah liked characters (and actors) who’d lived long enough to acquire a past; he had little use for juveniles. The kid in The Deadly Companions is dispatched at the climax with a brutal efficiency that suggests that both the director and his hero wish that they’d done it a couple of reels back; the pretty boys in Ride the High Country both have a lot of learning to do from the older men they’re with, and the best the older men can do for the prettier one is to kill his worthless ass; Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid was played by an actor on the wrong side of 35. But when Crazy Lee, the psycho-in-training with the Wild Bunch, played by a young actor making his movie debut, looked up at the men who’d fatally shot him and bid farewell to this senseless world with the sentiment, “Say, how’d you like to kiss my sister’s black cat’s ass?” you could practically see the director falling in love. Peckinpah brought him back as James Caan’s sidekick in The Killer Elite — not much of a part, but at least he got to dress better than Crazy Lee.

Jason Robards (1922–2000) — They seem more and more like a dream pair the more you think about it. Robards starred in the famous TV production of Noon Wine that resurrected Peckinpah’s career in the late ’60s, then starred in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, which is unthinkable without him. Cameoed as Governor Lew Wallace in Pat Garrett and came across as surprisingly smart for a guy who wrote Ben-Hur.

Robert Preston (1918–1987) — Magnificent in Junior Bonner, one of the greatest of all of Peckinpah’s father figures. Announces that times really are a-changing by declaring his lust to explore the unconquered frontiers of — not Mexico, but Australia.

Gig Young (1913–1978) — A fine actor who, by the time he incarnated Peckinpah’s ugliest fantasies about corporate America (in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Killer Elite) had a face that could break your heart — the face of a sensitive, gifted man who’d spent so much time wasting his talents that he’d forgotten what the point was supposed to be. Essential viewing: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Ernest Borgnine (1917–) — As unsightly a jumbo-sized order of popping eyes and poorly assembled teeth as ever lumbered onto a soundstage. That Peckinpah got Willard’s original victim to come across as halfway human in The Wild Bunch is the greatest testament I know to the man’s way with actors. (Borgnine’s performance in Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity may be even better, though I have it on reliable authority that Zinneman employed stun guns and large-animal tranquilizers.) Peckinpah later performed a similar miracle with Burt Young in The Killer Elite, though his decision to use both Borgnine and Young — sometimes in the same scene! — in Convoy only proves that anyone with an already healthy ego and a capacity for hubris just needs to leave that cocaine alone.

Cassie Yates (1951–) — Peckinpah’s movies did too have some memorable women; There’s Mariette Hartley in Ride the High Country for damn sure. And though you could object to their roles, which do tend to be defined in relation to their men (and worse, by their sexual relationships with their men), Stella Stevens (Cable Hogue), Isela Vega (Alfredo Garcia), Katy Jurado (Pat Garrett), and Susan George (Straw Dogs) all make a contribution to the movies they’re in. Let Cassie Yates stand in for all of them, as she can do double duty standing in for all the fine, underappreciated performers who made a little ripple in Peckinpah’s world. Offering herself as a birthday surprise to Kris Kristofferson in Convoy, she’s eager to give herself over for the pleasure of the man she’s with but not such a pushover as to stand for Kristofferson’s slighting reference to her “sorry husband.” “He’s not sorry,” she insists, “he’s just had some bad luck.” Hard to say whether she’s part of his bad luck or all that keeps the poor guy going. She’s soft and enticing and her offer is uncomplicated on the surface, but those sad eyes have a suggestion of mystery to them that makes you think that Peckinpah would have to be crazy to leave the truck stop and drop her from the movie. (Movies based on novelty songs about the CB fad being what they are, he soon leaves the truck stop and drops her from the movie.) In Peckinpah’s last film, The Osterman Weekend, she’s almost unrecognizable as a yuppie who looks as if she wishes to God that somebody would call her husband sorry so that she can spend the rest of the evening expanding on the theme, and her pampered prickliness is vivid and tantalizing. And that, pretty much, was that.

Sam Peckinpah (1925–1984) — Turns up out of nowhere at the climax of Pat Garrett and looks up from the coffin he’s building (“I’m gonna put everything I own in here, bury it, and then get out of this territory”) to advise Garrett, “So, you finally figured it out, huh?” The guy has presence, but I’d hate to think that his direction was ever this cryptic.

Robert Ryan (1909–1973) — It may say something about how much people are inclined to hate traitors that people don’t talk that much about Ryan’s Deke Thornton when The Wild Bunch comes up. A more sympathetic picture of a divided man who fell off on the wrong side you might never see. Essential Viewing: Billy Budd, The Set-Up, and Caught.

William Holden (1918–1981) — As the leader of the Bunch, he has the look of a man who could move mountains but has wasted too much time doing terrible and petty things. He had: you ever see Sabrina? Twenty years earlier, in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, Holden seemed like a new kind of smart, cynical, yet humane star, a college-man Bogart, and in those performances he seemed to be saying to audiences, “I’m smart and I know you are too. I won’t lie to you.” Having hit the big time, he specialized in glossy garbage until Peckinpah offered him a shot at redemption, and Holden came through with the full power of a man who direly needed to scale back some of his self-disgust. Tip your hat.

Brian Keith (1921–1997) — The great lost Peckinpah actor. He starred as Dave Blassingame — illiterate, rootless, not overly bright and capable of violent anger but a good man at heart — in Peckinpah’s short-lived TV series “The Westerner,” then carried that over into the director’s first feature, The Deadly Companions. He and Peckinpah established themselves as a dream team. But they never worked together again.

Joel McCrea (1905–1990) — Just wants to enter his house justified. If that strikes you as a flimsy notion to hang your life on, would you let me know when you plan on telling him, so I can watch?

As Steve Judd in Ride the High Country, McCrea is simple, righteous, unpretentious, honest because he wants to be able to go on living with himself. He’s a totally good man who doesn’t make goodness seem like a drag. He likes the way his feet feel right after he’s washed them in the river after a long ride. Except maybe for the thing about his feet, all this could be said to apply about equally to the character and the actor; McCrea played leads in Hollywood for decades (including a couple of Preston Sturges’ finest comedies), always delivered, was resolutely unflashy, and today is remembered a lot less well than a lot of guys who didn’t do half as much for the movies they were in or the imagination of the world at large. Steve Judd dies magnificently, alone, with no one but the camera’s eye for company. McCrea’s death in 1990 didn’t make much of a ripple itself. But I guess not everybody deserves a National Day of Mourning, the way, say, Richard Nixon did.

I’m writing this on the subway. A lady has leaned over to ask me why I’m crying. I was not aware that I was crying, but it appears that I am.