It never occurred to me when I began working on my book Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, that it would take almost 20 years to get published. That may have proven to be a good thing as I was lucky enough to encounter many of the greats who worked with Marvin but, are no longer with us. Case in point, maverick director Budd Boetticher who passed away in 2001.
Sadly overlooked for many years by Hollywood, toward the end of his life cinephiles rediscovered his gritty brilliance. Filmmakers as diverse as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to him (Michael Madsen’s character in Kill Bill is named Budd). Boetticher’s films, especially the Westerns, had a special sparse quality. Not as taut as Sam Fuller, nor as grandiose as John Ford, his style fit comfortably somewhere in between. His personal life would make a fascinating film itself as it included athletics, bullfighting, brushes with the law, and a self-imposed exile to Mexico. What is most amazing is that in spite of undeniable setbacks that would weaken a lesser man, Boetticher’s indefatigable spirit and optimism remained intact to the end of his life.
I interviewed him by phonefor my book on October 30, 1994, and as will be seen, his anecdotes go beyond his work with Lee Marvin and are compelling in their own right. World Cinema Paradise thought so as well and agreed to run the interview here. It is intact, and, it is the first time it has ever seen the light of the day in its entirety.
Dwayne Epstein: Good morning, Mr. Boetticher.
Budd Boetticher: Hello, Dwayne. You’re up bright and early.
DE: Actually, I thought I was calling a little late.
BB: Sounds like you forgot to set your clock back.
DE: (Pause) Geez, I forgot all about it! I guess I’m on time, then [both laugh]
BB: You wanted to talk about Lee Marvin, right?
DE: Absolutely. You made two films with Lee Marvin, right? Seminole (1953) and 7 Men from Now (1956)?
BB: Yes, I did. The films I made with Randy (Scott), four or five are back in theaters, and not just on video. In Europe, they’ve been re-released on the big screen where they belong.
DE: Do you recall which ones?
BB: Sure. Ride Lonesome (1959), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Tall T (1957), and Comanche Station (1960). I haven’t seen them in a while and the Director’s Guild held a retrospective recently. I must say they’re pretty damn good.
DE: That’s terrific! Before we go any further, I just wanted to tell you that the gangster film you made is one of my favorites…
BB: Oh yeah, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). with Ray Danton. That also had a young Warren Oates and Dyan Cannon making their debuts.
DE: Very cool. So, the first picture you used Lee in was Seminole, right?
BB: Right. He played Sgt. Magruder and he was very, very good. [Screenwriter] Burt Kennedy brought him in. He suggested Lee to play the second lead on my next picture with Randy [Scott]. Now Duke Wayne [as producer], and you can quote me on this, Duke was either a son-of-a-bitch or the best friend you ever had, depending on the mood he was in. Burt asked Duke, “Who should we use?” Duke said, “Let’s use Randy. He’s through.”
DE: [laughs] Well, that was nice of him.
BB: Yes, well in every Randolph Scott movie there was always a breakout star because Randy didn’t really care. But Duke…he was another story.
DE: How was Lee Marvin to work with on 7 Men from Now?
BB: He was wonderful. He was an ex-Marine. He was one of the few actors who really knew how to handle a gun. I wanted to try something I had never seen in a Western before. I’ve never seen in a Western, while a gunfighter was urinating or whatever, I’ve never seen him practicing his draw. So, what I did was every chance I could, I had Lee draw and practice. His death was so dramatic when Randy shot him because of that. He just stood there for a minute and stared at his gun in his hand in disbelief. The audience loved it. The reaction, when we previewed it at the Pantages, was something I had never seen before. They stopped the film and reran the scene.
DE: Wow, I’ve never heard of that being done before.
BB: Yeah, the sneak preview — if you can believe it — it was a double bill with Serenade (1956) starring Mario Lanza. Nobody in the audience was under forty. The marquee outside the theater only mentioned Serenade. I turned to John Wayne and said, “Jesus Kee-rist, Duke!” People started to walk out when they saw it was a Western starring Randy. Once it started, and people started watching it, though, they stayed and really enjoyed it. Yeah, but Lee was great.
DE: Did you ever want to work with him after that?
BB: Actually, I wrote Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with him in mind. What happened was I went and saw Lee in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and thought to myself that he was drunk. Be careful how you write this part. Anyway…
DE: Well, I spoke with Woody Strode who told me Lee was drunk.
BB: How’s Woody doing? I worked with him on City Beneath the Sea (1953).
DE: Well, he’s doing fine, considering. He’s a very sweet man and was forthcoming with a lot of information. He still lives in Glendora but he’s alone a lot now.
BB: Well, would you do me a favor and give him my number? I’d love to talk to him again.
DE: I sure will. So you thought Lee was drunk in Liberty Valance?
BB: Well, that was the rumor. I asked around. I checked him out through others and they said he was. I thought he drank too much and couldn’t work with him.
DE: What happened to the script?
BB: Universal eventually made it and they screwed it up. I tell you, you can’t quote me, but Eastwood’s character has to be an idiot not to smell liquor and cigars on her breath. In my version she was a courtesan not a prostitute [Shirley MacLaine’s character is a prostitute disguised as a nun]. Anyway, I found out years later that Martin Scorsese was a big fan of my work and wanted some memorabilia. I found the original screenplay to Sister Sara. It was over twenty years old and falling apart. I had to Xerox it because it was falling apart. I sent the original and a copy to Scorsese and made a copy for myself. I read it again and thought it was just great. I’ll tell you a funny story about that. A few years back they were showing it on late night TV and I got a call about 1 a.m. This gruff voice asked me, “I missed all the credits. Did you direct this piece of shit Sister Sarah I just watched?” I said, “No, I only wrote screenplay…” The voice said, “Good!” and slammed down the phone. It was John Ford. [Both laugh]. Okay, what else do you want to know about Lee Marvin?
DE: You said you didn’t want to work with Marvin?
BB: Well, I heard he drank too much.
DE: [Stuntman] Tony Epper referred to him as a bottle actor. He thought he did his best work when he drank.
BB: I don’t believe that. You can work hard without drinking and then relax after five, like everyone else. Duke had a [screenwriter] friend named James Edward Grant. He wanted to direct but he believed that if he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t direct. That’s a lot of crap. No actor is better unless you catch him on the third drink. But he’s usually on the fifth drink and by then he can’t finish the picture.
DE: Did you ever consider him for anything else?
BB: No, not really. I’ve been working on this book about bullfighting called When, in Disgrace. You should read it sometime. I think it’s available at Samuel French or Larry Edmunds Bookstore. It’s all about bullfighting. See, I started in the business with a job most women would kill for. I had to show Tyrone Power how to move as a bullfighter for Blood and Sand (1941). When I started making westerns with Randy, I gave them what they wanted. If they wanted a movie to run an hour and 26 minutes, I brought it in at an hour and 27 minutes. It usually only took 18 days. The great things about those movies were the scripts. Burt Kennedy worked on most of them and we had Lucien Ballard as a cinematographer. Lucien did great work for us. They held a retrospective of my work in Dallas, recently, and they gave me some kind of pretentious award. I had not seen some of my films in years and was quite surprised they were so good. We didn’t have any dirty words. There was no open mouth kissing. The films they make today…I went to Mexico and stopped making films. I went to Mexico for seven years and worked on the book about [bullfighter Carlos] Arruza. I finally got a screenplay out of it and we’re going to filming it soon.
DE: Well, I’m glad it paid off for you.
BB: See, the great thing about my career is that I never won an Academy Award, or an Emmy, or any of that shit. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave me the Career Achievement Award in 1992. That meant something because you can’t fool around with it. [Laughs] They can’t agree on anything but they voted unanimously on the Career Achievement Award.
DE: That’s quite an honor. Interesting how you weren’t appreciated before but now…
BB: Yeah, if you stick around long enough. It’s funny. I made 37 pictures and only ten were westerns, so they call me a western director. I made a couple of gangster pictures and they call me a gangster director.
DE: What made you stop directing?
BB: I don’t believe a lady should say “fuck” to establish a character. I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of filmmaking. But, I am working again. I just waited until the right project came along. I’m going to be directing A Horse for Mr. Barnum.
DE: What’s it about?
BB: It’s a true story about P.T. Barnum picking up several Andalusian horses and the cowboys he hires to bring them back.
DE: That sounds interesting. Is a cast lined up?
BB: Well, we got Robert Mitchum as Barnum and Jorge Rivero, who’s the biggest star in Mexico, as one of the cowboys. James Coburn is in it, too. We’ll be using Lippizans.
DE: I’ll be looking forward to it.
BB: I’m delighted you’re writing this book on Lee Marvin. He was a great actor. He gave more to a director than you could ask for.
DE: How did he get along with Randolph Scott?
BB: He got along with everybody.
DE: How did Scott get along with him? Did they establish a good rapport?
BB: Scott had very little report with anybody. He wasn’t the guy wearing white all the time type of hero.
DE: With the square jaw.
BB: Right. He just kept to himself. When Burt and I were having dinner one night, after shooting that day, he said, “What’s the kid in the red underwear?” I said, “James Coburn. He said, “He’s pretty good. Write him some more lyrics.” In six of the seven pictures I made with Randy, the second lead stole the show. If the second lead killed Randy, no one would care, not like in a John Wayne picture. The second lead often made it very big after working with Randy. We had Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn; a whole bunch of good actors.
DE: It sure sounds like it.
BB: I’ll tell you a funny story about Richard Boone. He was starring on the TV show Medic and I wanted to use him in the picture I was doing with Randy called The Tall T. Now, if Harry Cohn was still there, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But Sam Briskin was running Columbia, and he said to me, “You don’t want Boone. He’s got no sense of humor and he’s got all kinds of pock marks…” I had to find out for myself. I called Boone and told him I wanted him for a film. I said Briskin didn’t think he had a sense of humor. Boone said, “I guess he doesn’t think heart operations are pretty fucking funny.”
DE: [Laughing] Sounds like he had a sense humor, to me. You know, your career is a lot like Sam Fuller’s in that you both got recognition later in your career.
BB: My agent, who’s Jewish — that’s probably why he’s so good at it — he got me a three-picture deal. He told me, “You know, you’re the Gentile Sam Fuller.” I told him, “I’d rather be the Jewish John Ford.”