November 2009 Web Edition Issue #3
Portrait of C. Courtney Joyner by L.J. Dopp
A Conversation with
C. Courtney Joyner
Interviewed by L.J. Dopp
C. Courtney Joyner is foremost a writer—of screenplays, teleplays, short stories, and lots of non-fiction. He’s had over 25 scripts produced, and has directed three of them. He’s an avid collector of all things Universal—as in horror—as well as nearly all things filmic, and has been my friend for 27 years. Court is also a well-known western writer and a film historian to the point that AFI calls him to host their screenings and DVD distributors seek out his commentaries for classic films. This interview was taped at my Sherman Oaks apartment on two Wednesdays, February 8 and 22, 2012.
LJD: You made a film when you were a student at USC—how did you get Sam Peckinpah to go along with the documentary?
CCJ: It was difficult; I just sat down and started writing letters… to everybody I could think of who’d worked with Sam. I had no contact info for anyone, so if I got any answer at all it was from some agency telling me they weren’t interested—that type of thing. Finally, the two people who responded were L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates. And—Warren Oates wrote me a very, very sweet letter from his filming location. He gave me his phone number, so I called him and he said, “Come on over, let’s do this thing—you’re young guys, you’re film students and I like that.” So, we went and shot the interview with him, which as it turned out, was the longest interview he gave in his entire career… and he gave it to me. We sat and filmed in his back yard—spent a whole afternoon there—and he was just terrific!
Then, I called L.Q. Jones, and we went and we shot L.Q.—and that started a very long friendship that lasts to this day. But, Warren asked me if I’d been in touch with Sam, and I told him I’d been writing letters… He said, “Well, I’m gonna call him.” And one night, out-of-the-blue, I got a collect call from Sam Peckinpah (we laugh) …I’ll never forget it—I said something like, “Oh, my God!” He invited me up to Oakland, where he had a condo—he was mostly living in Montana at the time—to talk about what we were doing. He said, “Warren Oates says you’re a good guy.” (Courtney’s first trip to Oakland with a film crew of two proved uneventful, except for sighting Sam in a restaurant.)
…Weeks went by, he invited us to come back, and when we did, he kind of sparred around, trying to find out who we’d talked to. I remember the first thing he said to me—because he knew I was from USC: Arthur Knight, a huge film critic—he’s passed away now—was a professor at USC while I was there, and apparently he didn’t like The Wild Bunch (1969). He had seen The Professionals (1966) and loved that and had written a glowing review, but he didn’t care for The Wild Bunch so much. So, I walk into Sam Peckinpah’s condominium, and the first thing he says to me is, “USC, huh? Is Arthur Knight still sucking Dick Brooks’ cock?” I said I would have to check on that, I wasn’t sure (laughs). That’s how things got going.
LJD: But, you knew him here in L.A.? I remember years ago, you telling me about Sam wanting to go bust somebody out of a Mexican jail…
CCJ: Emilio Fernandez.
LJD: The man who said the line, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974), and played Mapache in The Wild Bunch…
LJD: He was a big movie star in Mexico.
CCJ: And, a big producer—he worked with John Ford. He produced The Fugitive (1947; directed by Ford; starring Henry Fonda and Dolores Del Rio).
C.J and Warren Oates at a 1980 screening.
LJD: That’s a great movie, and not shown very often. This gives us some background as to how you got a foothold in western writing and film lore—but, your first commercial movie was horror—The Offspring (1987; AKA From a Whisper to a Scream)—starring Vincent Price and Susan Tyrrell in the host segments. Wasn’t that a Warner Bros. release? How did you get that assignment?
CCJ: The Offspring was made independently; actually, The Movie Store distributed it theatrically. And their library went to Carolco, I think. It kicked around forever before the DVD release through MGM/Turner. Anyway, Jeff Burr, Darin Scott and Jeff’s brother, Bill made the movie (sadly, Bill Burr passed in early 2012). We had all known each other in college and were trying to get our first features done; we were sharing a house in Tujunga at the time and I was starting to work with Virgil Vogel. The idea was to do an anthology and we’d all write different segments. It was a sound business choice, because we felt if we couldn’t get the film completed, at least we’d have some segments done. They raised the money, and I wrote the wraparound host segments, the Clu Gulager segment, and the carnival segment.
That began a lifelong friendship with Clu Gulager—as well as Jeff Burr. I met Clu when I was in college; he was running ads for his acting class. The Peckinpah film had come together, so I’d decided to do one on Don Siegel, and interviewed Andy Robinson (Dirty Harry, Hellraiser). That’s how I came to know Andy, and his wife later became my agent. So, we went down there, and Clu greeted us with open arms—he was always so great. We had a big night for Don at USC before I graduated, and… my God—Eastwood was there, Walter Matthau—everybody showed up. Clu was a participant in that ’cause we’d shown The Killers (1964) and we’ve been friends ever since.
LJD: It all ties together... In her Psychotronic interview, Susan Tyrrell claims to have terrorized Vincent Price on The Offspring set (Courtney laughs) with salty language, yelling things across the set, like “Whatsamatter Vinnie? I don’t swear as bad as your wife (the late Coral Browne)!” You told me before about Susu’s art. She asked Vincent—a well-known art expert—for an evaluation of her sculptures, right?
CCJ: She’s a real pistol, Larry—you know her. She had done a series of sculptures, which were all… vaginas.
CCJ: Exploding vaginas. Some were in wax, some in clay—different mediums. She had covered them up with a sheet; they were on a table on the soundstage. And, I happened to be talking with Vincent about something, and she said, “Come on over…” and whips off this sheet. And here I am standing next to Vincent Price, looking at all these exploding vaginas, and he looks at me and says (dead-on Vincent Price impression), “Oh, my, this woman’s terribly disturbed.” (We laugh loudly.) But, she was very proud of them, and they were very well executed.
THE OFFSPRING (L-R) Writer-producer Darin Scott; producer William Burr; Vincent Price: A.D. Mark Hannah (kneeling); writer-director Jeff Burr; C.J.
LJD: That’s great… Your second commercial movie—you were writing it when I met you—was Prison (1988), for Charlie Band. It was the first of three “executed-killers-who-come-back” movies that year—and Renny Harlin’s first American directing gig?
CCJ: Yes. Viggo Mortenson starred.
LJD: Although Prison wasn’t much lauded when first released, it’s since gained cult status, and in 2011 was honored with a retrospective screening at the New Beverly Theater in Hollywood. Was Renny there?
CCJ: Oh, yes—we’re friends… You know, my being hired to write Prison came about in an interesting way through a guy I knew at SC named Mike Farkas. His Dad—who was simply a member of the private sector—had been investing in movies produced by Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis. He had been an investor in Hell Night (1988) with Linda Blair. So Mike was working for Irwin and Bruce, and Irwin had the first script for Prison—it was called, Horror in the Big House, as I recall. He’d had it developed when he was at Lorimar and Mike recommended me for the rewrite. I had a script I’d written for Jeff Burr called Night Crawlers, and Irwin and Bruce read it and hired me to write Prison. The first thing we did was throw away Horror in the Big House because Irwin had in his mind to make it Halloween set in a penitentiary, and the first writer—I forget his name—took that so literally, it was actually an inmate with a knife.
LJD: Oh… really?
CCJ: Well, in jail everybody’s got a knife, so that’s no threat…
LJD: Yeah, and how does he come-and-go through the bars?
CCJ: Exactly. So I said, “This needs to be ‘Poltergeist goes to prison,’” and Renny Harlin had a deal with Irwin and Bruce—and that’s how he and I met. When we were working on the film, Renny and I moved in together—we shared a house in Hollywood for about two years. We made Prison, and he went on to do Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master (1988). Eventually, Irwin took Prison to Charlie Band; Irwin had distributed Parasite (1982) for him…
LJD: …Featuring a young Demi Moore. Those were the Empire years, when Charlie was still riding on the box office success of Reanimator (1985), et al.
CCJ: These were all theatrical releases then, and Prison became an Empire picture. (NOTE: Empire became Full Moon Features in 1989.)
LJD: And you kept writing Charles Band movies for a while, including Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991), Dr. Mordrid (1992) and Trancers III (1992). Let’s discuss Dr. Mordrid—a movie that Mondo Cult publisher Brad Linaweaver called the real Dr. Strange movie. Where did you come up with that? It has the first stop-motion animated dinosaur skeleton fight.
CCJ: Yes it does. That project originated with Jack Kirby, and Kirby was developing projects for Charlie Band—who’s a huge comic book fanatic.
LJD: And Band was really big back then—had the distribution deal with Paramount…
CCJ: Absolutely. So he had Jack develop some projects, and I don’t know if Charlie ever tried to buy Dr. Strange, but he wanted to do something like that. So Jack came up with something called, Dr. Mortalis. He did concept sketches and everything, and I was presented with this stuff. They decided to change the title from Mortalis—I think Charlie thought that sounded too deathlike, and he didn’t want that tone. David Allen was doing the effects, and I came up with the idea of the dinosaur fight.
This was kind of the cool thing with Charlie—at least at that time—they had a little bit of money. I could say, “Look, I have this idea to do a Ray Harryhausen-style sequence in a museum with fighting dinosaur skeletons…
LJD: This was before Jurassic Park (1993), and years before Night in the Museum (2006).
CCJ: Oh yeah. As a writer, you want to know if the budget will allow for something like this—and Charlie in those days would always say, “Go for it, and we’ll see what we can do.”
LJD: He never limited the writers to budgetary constraints?
CCJ: Never. I made a huge mistake in that sequence and David Allen corrected it. I originally had a pterodactyl in the scene and David said, “How is a pterodactyl skeleton going to fly without skin on its wings? We eliminated that (laughs). But, the shot of the prison planet looks like a Jack Kirby drawing inked by Vince Colletta—like a panel from Thor or something. David Allen and his team really captured that look.
LJD: And, that movie began your friendship with Jeffery Combs… You also have a long-standing friendship with Tim Thomerson—did you meet him on Trancers III?
CCJ: I had met Tim for the first time on the set of The Osterman Weekend (1983), and we had also made Viet Nam Texas (1990) together for Robert Ginty.
LJD: You directed Trancers III; how was Helen Hunt to work with?
CCJ: Helen ended up being great. I was a little intimidated by her at first—Mad About You was already on TV, and she was big stuff. Her dad, Gordon (Hunt) and Albert Band were very good friends.
LJD: …Mr. Theatre. Helen was also in Trancers 1 and 2…
CCJ: Yes she was. It ended-up being a long day—we had to pull out a wall on the set and there was some repainting. She was right there the whole time, and was just lovely… very nice.
LJD: Back to Jeffrey Combs: you went on to make The Lurking Fear with Jeffrey—again for Charlie Band. You shot that in Romania and directed it, and also cast British actor Jon Finch, from Hitchcock’s 1972 thriller, Frenzy, as a gangster. The Lurking Fear is a very hard H.P. Lovecraft story to dramatize; it’s one person talking, telling the story. But, you brought in a Key Largo element, with a band of criminals lead by Finch mixed in with the story’s freakishly deformed Martense family.
CCJ: Charlie was very happy with Trancers III and he used to do these little intros for the Full Moon movies, sitting behind his desk. So, unbeknownst to me, when it was released though Paramount on video, Charlie did a really nice endorsement of me—they had a picture of me directing Trancers… It was really very kind of him to do that. So, he asked me about doing Lurking Fear. Stuart Gordon, at one point, had been assigned to that and as I remember, he wanted to do it like an old Warner Bros. movie with Barbara Crampton as a Glenda Farrell-type reporter. I never read his script, but always assumed that Jeff Combs would be involved. My initial thought was to do Lurking Fear like Of Unknown Origin (1983), and have it be a one-man show, with things going through the walls. When Jeffrey and I were discussing it, I realized it would be quite a burden on a single actor. Sometimes those things work, and sometimes they don’t… So, I started to rethink my concept, and it was a mistake. I should have stuck with the original idea…
LJD: You were originally going to have one person narrating the story as written?
CCJ: Right—and kind of be falling into madness, but I fell back into familiar patterns, which was kind of a disservice to H.P. Lovecraft. I was worried—it was only my second directing job, and in a foreign country. We were in a studio for about half the film, but we had a terrific cast and a lot of that was because of Albert Band. He pressed Charlie to hire names, and got Ashley Lawrence, Vincent Schiavelli , Jeff Combs—Joe Leavengood was wonderful in it—Paul Mantee and Jon Finch.
LJD: You once said Finch was a bit of a handful…
CCJ: The Jon Finch thing… I was obsessed with The Long Good Friday (1980) and was thinking of Oliver Reed, but Charlie had worked with him on Pit and the Pendulum (1991) and didn’t want to use him again. So, casting directors Bob McDonald and the late Perry Bullington sent the script to a British agent, who came back with three actors who would do it. We had a choice of Barry Foster (also in Frenzy), Jon and David Hemmings. Foster got sick as I recall, and I love Barry Foster, but I was sitting on the trunk of my car at the Glendale studio, talking with Jeff Burr. And, my fear was—out of total insecurity—that because David Hemmings was such an experienced director, if hired he might steamroll over me. So, I went with Jon. Of course, in retrospect…
LJD: Hemmings might have helped you…
CCJ: Hemmings would have helped me. People who knew him well said he was just the nicest guy, who would have understood what was going on.
LJD: Finch is a more menacing presence on screen, though.
CCJ: Yes. And, David was quite overweight at the time. Jon was rough—he was a bit of a bully. For all the problems I had with Jon Finch, I have to reflect it back on myself, though, because if I had shown the proper kind of strength, I don’t think I would have had the problems. (Jon Finch passed in December, 2012.)
LJD: It’s good of you to be so honest. The difficult choices made during filmmaking are rarely known to the public and are fairly useless, except for learning from your mistakes. Unless you want to go back and take the guns out of their hands and put in flashlights…
CCJ: (laughs) …Exactly. One thing I’ll say about Lurking Fear—there’s a scene between Ashley Lawrence and Jeffrey Combs where she’s rigging dynamite in the cemetery. I told him, “This is you, asking out the most beautiful girl in class,” and he said, “I got it.” And I think he’s very good in the movie—he even has a different look—but, he’s really terrific in that particular moment.
LJD: After Lurking Fear you went on the road with The Rolling Stones in 1995 to write notes for their Voodoo Lounge album—what was that like?
CCJ: What happened was… they wanted to do a CD-Rom to accompany the album. They were on tour with a dog-leg in Minneapolis, and they wanted to shoot material for the CD-Rom that was tied into the actual Voodoo Lounge in New Orleans, with Baron Samedi and that type of stuff. My friend Rick Marotta, who played drums on "Werewolves of London" among other things, recommended me to one of the producers. They had me go to Minneapolis and we shot a lot of material with the band in a TV studio. We were given very specific directives on how to behave with the group: “don’t ask for autographs, don’t make eye contact with Keith Richards at all”—this type of stuff (I laugh). All this proved to be hogwash. Mick Jagger had to approve me and he pre-read some of my material—he was fine, very businesslike. And it was quite something to be exposed to rock ‘n’ roll at that level; the tour actually had stopped while we did the CD-Rom. The New Orleans shoot was 2nd unit.
"...if you get that history of The Rolling Stones
...my name is in the index, my little footnote
to rock ‘n’ roll history."
LJD: They got over the ego-tantrums years ago…
CCJ: Oh, yes. And backstage—you’d think there’d be this big warm-up period, but no. The show was fantastic, but, boy—they can just absolutely turn it on and go into drive. The wonderful thing for me was that now, if you get that history of The Rolling Stones—the big white volume—my name is in the index, my little footnote to rock ‘n’ roll history.
LJD: You’re a very versatile writer. Jumping ahead a bit, you wrote the host segments for William Shatner’s Full Moon Fright Night series on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2002—when they still spelled their name correctly. It was a brilliant move for Charlie Band, because everyone tuned-in to watch William Shatner and didn’t really care that much about the movies.
CCJ: (laughs) …Like with his head in a salad bowl, or whatever…
LJD: I loved the interviews at the end; he had Stuart Gordon, Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs…
CCJ: …Stan Lee.
LJD: Oh yes! When Shatner interviewed Charlie, he asked him why he didn’t use name actors anymore—and I was on the floor, ’cause the story going ‘round was that Charlie had gotten kicked out of SAG for a while. Did you write that question?
CCJ: Actually, Bill came up with that one himself. When Charlie first asked me to write that show, I had never done anything like it before. First, we met with William Shatner…
LJD: …Who was a good sport?
CCJ: He ended-up being fantastic. Everybody was walking on eggshells around him a bit…
LJD: On one of the episodes, he was making a list of all the people he might have crossed who hated him—he had this long list like a scroll—it was hilarious and he was such a good sport about it…
CCJ: I wrote that. Let me tell you something that happened while we were filming. He was asked to do a public service spot—of all things, about binge drinking—I think it was for the Sci-Fi Channel. His wife had died not that long ago, drowned in the swimming pool. And he read the spot, and it was supposed to be funny! And he comes to me, really upset, and asks, “Do you think this is funny?” I thought it was in horrible taste that they would ask him to do it, and said so. He said, “Well, what would you do?” I told him my idea, and right then he called them up and said, “I will do this, but only if Courtney writes it.” And I did, and they probably ran it a ton of times over the next few years. He was great with me; I never mentioned Star Trek to him, although he brought it up. He is absolutely in the moment with the people he is working with at that time. If I saw him on the street, he might not recognize me, but if I re-introduced myself, I’m sure we’d have a lovely chat. He was just great!
LJD: You’ve also written some movies directed by Mark L. Lester—The Class of ’99 (1990) begat a series of sequels—later on, you did a film together called Public Enemy #1 (1996), also called Public Enemies, but not the one with Johhny Depp…
CCJ: From the same book…
LJD: But, you concentrated on the Ma Barker character, and Teresa Russell was cast; she did a good job, despite being pretty hot for Ma Barker. You told me you originally tried to get Kathy Bates. Eric Roberts did a nice job—for once, playing an innocent who’s merely dating her; and the actor who played Alvin Karpis was really great, nearly stole the movie…
CCJ: Frank Stallone.
LJD: Thank you. Once before, you said the casting of a younger Melvin Purvis (Dan Cortese) was accurate—he was not an old man like Ben Johnson or Dale Robertson had played him—he was a young hot-rod gunslinger like the criminals he was assigned to stop. You said you staged the shootouts from actual police crime photos?
CCJ: When Barker’s son Herman (Joseph Lindsay) shoots himself during the FBI ambush, we had that image. I remember reading when Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde (1967) they were able to find the photos of Buck Barrow dying there in the field, crawling around with everybody watching. There was a photograph of that and they decided to recreate it. I said, let’s do that, too. We found that shot with the guys coming in—and Mark got it dead-on—with the feds moving in from the sides, as Herman lay there against the car in his brains, having shot himself in the mouth, rather than be taken alive.
Lawrence Tierney in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
LJD: You had a long-standing friendship with Dillinger, too—and I’m talking about the actor who played him in the 1945 bio-pic, Lawrence Tierney.
CCJ: (Dead-on “East Coast tough guy” Tierney impression) I don’t appreciate your sense of humor (Courtney laughs. He is working on a book about Lawrence Tierney with Tierney’s nephew, Michael, and agreed to share some personal anecdotes with us).
LJD: I met Tierney when he was hanging out in Boardners bar, off Hollywood Boulevard, briefly in the late ‘80s, where I’d met Aldo Ray in the ‘70s. Please tell us about taping the Seinfeld episode “The Jacket,” in which Tierney played Elaine’s father. It was supposed to be a recurring role, but I heard they didn’t want to work with him again.
CCJ: The DVD has that great supplement where they talk about it.
LJD: You took care of him for a while…
CCJ: Yes. The nicest thing that came out of that period was that I was able to bring Larry together with Quentin, and that resulted in his being cast in Reservoir Dogs (1993). When something like the Seinfeld taping would come up, Larry would always invite me along. So, we went to the taping, and Larry—particularly as he got older—was always conscious of going off on his lines, as his concentration could be easily thrown. So, he really worked hard on Seinfeld. But I guess there was problem with him stealing some knives; he had a tendency to just pick things up. Larry could do it, boy—you go into a cafeteria with him and he’d have glasses and silverware and stuff shoved into his pockets, (Tierney impression) “Go ahead kid, just go—move, move…” And he’d be rattling out the door (laughs). So, he took this butcher knife from the kitchen set—which is classic Lawrence Tierney behavior…
LJD: (Laughing uncontrollably) He can’t just palm a dish or an ashtray—he has to steal a concealed weapon…
CCJ: …And Jerry Seinfeld confronted him on it. And, Larry, of course, took the knife and said (impression), “I thought I might need it to stab you in the heart with…” And, he just terrified everybody (we dissolve into laughter). …I remember when Larry got the script; he had me read it with him. And, of course, the Seinfeld humor is so straight-faced—it’s a very funny episode—but, Larry didn’t get it. He kept saying to me, (impression) “Do you think this is funny? I don’t find this humorous at all.”
He really was kind of challenging to the people at Seinfeld, but they were very sweet to him, and when he was taping, Larry brought Julia Louise-Dreyfus over to meet me and she thought I was his grandson. A lot of people thought I was his grandson. He loved (Julia), and my understanding was that he was recommended for Seinfeld by Barney Martin, because they were very good friends.
LJD: Barney Martin played Jerry’s father—and also Liza Minnelli’s father in Arthur (1981).
CCJ: Larry is in Arthur. (He’s) the customer in the diner who keeps yelling about his roll when Dudley Moore is trying to propose to Liza. He’s very funny.
LJD: I had a couple of encounters with Larry, and he was something else all right.
CCJ: He was the real deal, and he lead his life in a certain way that’s foreign to most of us, thank God, ’cause he really pushed it to the edge and got involved with some pretty horrible things. I will say this: Lawrence Tierney was the most loyal person I think I’ve ever known; if he liked you, that was it! He really was—hell, unless you shot him in the gut—and even then… (impression) “That’s okay, kid, I know how these things are…” (we laugh).
We were at a convention, and Larry wasn’t signing or anything, he just wanted to get out of the house. And, it was a movie thing. I love The Long Goodbye (1975), the Robert Altman movie, and Larry—actually, he knew Altman back in New York. He might have been up for the Sterling Hayden part—that was originally going to be Dan Blocker but Dan died. Anyway, there was a dealer there who had a 16 mm ’Scope print of The Long Goodbye. I was like, “Wow—look at this!” And Larry told me his Robert Altman story. So, I put the thing down, and we meander on, and we’re just looking at the posters and lobby cards, things like that, and Larry tapped me on the shoulder—and he had bought the thing. It was $250, I’ll never forget it, and he gave it to me as a gift. I passed the dealer again, and he said, “I love it—I called my wife and told her I just sold a movie to Lawrence Tierney!”
LJD: That was very sweet of Larry to do.
CCJ: He was the real thing, and he had his own code. I’ve read these insane biographies of Larry that claim he grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and stuff, none of which was true.
LJD: In the book Hollywood’s Hellfire Club, (Gregory Mank with Charles Heard & Bill Nelson; Feral House; 2007) there’s an account of a party at artist John Decker and Errol Flynn’s studio/gallery off the Sunset Strip where Tierney got in a fight with Sammy Colt and Jack LaRue that put La Rue in the hospital. Diana Barrymore allegedly slapped Larry eight times demanding that he hit her, too—but he wouldn’t. That was in January 1946. You befriended him over quite a period of time; there must have been instances where he exasperated you beyond the limits of…
CCJ: Of course, Larry and I were close, but—well, you knew him, it would be impossible to spend any time around him at all and not be exasperated. (There was) one incident that just killed me—I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden in a car with Larry behind the wheel?
C.J. strangling Lawrence Tierney on a pool table.
LJD: No. I recall he used to ride a bicycle around Hollywood Boulevard at one time.
CCJ: When Larry was driving—and I rode with him a few times—it was always an adventure. One day, Larry decided he wanted me to meet Jack Nicholson. So we drove up to Jack’s house off of Mulholland, and Nicholson actually answered. (Tierney impression) “Hey, I’m here with a buddy of mine…” Nicholson was in the middle of something and kind of put him off, but was very nice about it and I knew that they had known each other for a very long time. So we were driving back down Mulholland, thinking about lunch and there was a guy hitchhiking on the side of the road, and he had a guitar case. Larry kind of swerved over onto the shoulder, and the guy had to jump out of the way. So Larry stops—(impression) “I’m just kiddin’ ya, kid—come on, I’ll give ya a ride…” And the guy was terrified—(We laugh; he does hitchhiker impression), “No—that’s okay! That’s okay!” Then, Larry got mad! (We laugh louder; Tierney impression) “I’m tryin’ ta give you a ride, goddammit!” That was a classic!
LJD: Did you ever pull him out of any fights?
CCJ: When Larry would go on a bender, he was a force of nature, and you had to just get out of the way—that was the old school, Broderick Crawford type of drinking, where the demons would come out. He called me up one day to bail him out of jail. And I went down to the Hollywood station and got him, and Larry came out carrying his belt and shoes and he had blood all over his shirt. He didn’t want to go home—he had misplaced his wallet, money and keys somewhere…
LJD: Oh, no…
CCJ: …And we needed to go find ’em. We had to retrace his steps, and I thought I knew Hollywood—well, I didn’t know it like he did. We went to some dives in basements and some things I never knew existed. Of course, we had to have a drink everywhere we went, and Larry started hitting it pretty heavy again; he was in this blue polo shirt with bloodstains all over the front. I’m a scotch drinker, but with Larry, as you know, drinking scotch means you drink a full water tumbler with a little soda back. There’s no ice—everything is neat—and a water tumbler for him is a 16-ounce glass.
We’re going from place to place, looking for his stuff and we ended-up in the old Power House on Highland. And, he had been in there…
LJD: Joe Power would throw him out if he started swearing.
CCJ: Joe Power—right. Apparently Larry had gotten into a tussle there the night before, and that was where the blood came from. Some fellow—and Larry was already in his cups again—came up and challenged him about the events of the night before. (The guy) goes, “Hey, look, you…” And you know Larry—the guy touched him on the shoulder—you remember how his hands would go up immediately… Well, he turned around and he hit this guy with a barstool so fast—I didn’t even see what happened—he managed to turn and grab this thing and whack this guy… like he was swinging a fly swatter.
And, we walked out of there—they called the cops—and I got Larry up (through the Cahuenga Pass) to the old Casting Office. And that’s where we found his possessions; the bartender there knew Larry, and had gathered up his wallet, cash and keys for him the night before.
LJD: So, the story has a happy ending?
CCJ: I took Larry home—and the cops picked him up later that day for hitting the guy in the Power House. But, they released him a couple of hours later. This is a classic—I knew John Agar, not really well, but I liked John a lot; he was an incredibly nice man. He had his history with the drinking, which he was very frank about. I’d seen John at a party, and we’d had a lovely talk as usual. So, I mentioned it to Larry the next day—(Tierney impression) “I like that John Agar—I spent a couple of weeks with him, he’s a good guy…” I couldn’t remember… and I said, “Larry, did you ever do a movie with John Agar?” (Impression) “No—we were in the can together—he was in for drunk driving and I was in for assault and battery.”
LJD: Please, elaborate about introducing Lawrence Tierney to Quentin Tarantino. Larry was wonderful in Reservoir Dogs, arguably his last great role.
CCJ: Quentin and I had the same manager at the time, the late Cathryn Jaymes, and actually he had recommended me to Cathryn. This was before he had really hit, but his reputation was growing. He hadn’t made Reservoir Dogs yet, and (Jeff Burr and) I read the script. Quentin had a whole list of people he’d dedicated the script to, including Raoul Walsh, and all these people—well, Larry was one of them! We said, “Lawrence Tierney?” And Quentin said, “Oh yeah, Lawrence Tierney—he was the toughest guy of ’em all. I heard he got killed in a gunfight…” or some crazy thing! I said, “No—he lives in an apartment off Hollywood Boulevard,” and Quentin couldn’t believe he was still alive. So I threw a Christmas party, and Larry was there and Quentin came. I brought them together and the rest is history.
LJD: You’ve also written TV movies for CBS, USA and Showtime. The Devil’s Prey (2001) was a Showtime movie with Patrick Bergin (as the Devil), with whom you’ve also had a long-standing friendship.
CCJ: Yes. We haven’t worked together since, but almost did once—he’s another great guy.
LJD: You are considered a film journalist, and have written articles for True West, Wildest Westerns, Round-Up, Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland and The Hollywood Reporter. Recently, AFI started calling you to host film screenings, and you have a book of interviews called The Westerners from McFarland, that’s going into its second printing. Did I hear right about a second volume?
CCJ: It actually has done multiple printings and, yes, I am doing a “part two.” My next book is called Warner Brothers Fantastic, coming in 2015, and it’s the history of Warner Brothers horror movies from 1927 to the present (also encompassing fantasy and sci-fi films). I like this project because people don’t identify Warner Brothers as a horror studio, like Universal, although they made the first color horror film, first one in 3D, etc.
LJD: And you have short stories out in The Traditional West: a Fistful of Legends, Law of the Gun, Hollywood Hell and Beat to a Pulp, Round 2—great title. Is that boxing stories?
CCJ: Beat to a Pulp is a fantastic website run by an editor named David Cranmer, with writers like Joe Lansdale, wanting to write either detective stories, or westerns… pulpy romance or whatever. They asked me to contribute something; the co-editor is a fellow named Matt Mayo, whom I know quite well. So I wrote a story about a murder that takes place at Universal Studios during the shooting of Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). And, Richard Conte solves the homicide.
LJD: That sounds great! And your short story, “Two Bit Kill,” from the Law of the Gun anthology, was nominated for a Peacemaker Award by the Western Fictioneers as Best Short Story of 2010. You also have a western novel coming, Tracking the Devil?
CCJ: Yes, and yes.
Joyner's short story "Two Bit Kill" is included in the
Greenberg/Davis anthology, LAW OF THE GUN.
LJD: Comic book projects—don’t you have something else going on with the Estate of Jack Kirby besides Dr. Mordrid?
CCJ: I worked with Lisa Kirby on Galactic Bounty Hunters. When Jack died, he’d done a great deal of work on this project. He was interested in trying to bring back a younger audience to comic books, because he felt that now, everything was so graphic novel-driven, and it was Love and Bullets and Sin City and that type of thing. The idea of kids—like we were, who bought comics in drug stores—was kind of gone, so he wanted to do a project that was aimed at them. Mike Thibodeau and Steve Robertson finished it. Mike had been Jack’s assistant, and Jack had done thumbnails—even some covers and other extensive work. They had this comic book series, and Lisa got Marvel to publish it through their Marvel Icons brand, and it was also published as a hardback collection. I was brought in to adapt it for movies and television. We haven’t been able to place it yet, but we’ve come awfully close.
LJD: Didn’t you write some dialogue for the comic books?
CCJ: I ended-up working on Galactic Bounty Hunters, number two, because number one actually did very well. I don’t know who’s going to be bringing out number two, but it won’t be Marvel. I’ve written comics before… like the D.C. style, where you actually describe the panel, and they do it literally, like a movie script. But with the Marvel style—you receive pages. Mike would send me pages, and then you fill in where the balloons are, and you have an idea of the story.
LJD: So they draw it first?
CCJ: They kind of draw it first, and hash out the story, and then they send me the artwork. Those issues will be in the second tier.
LJD: And also, The Wicked West 2?
CCJ: That’s a comic anthology that came out through Image. My piece is an illustrated narrative; I basically wrote a short story for the comic book and then they illustrated it.
LJD: You’re a member of Western Writers of America and recipient of their President’s Award—what year was that?
CCJ: That was 2011.
LJD: The thing I’m most impressed with in all your work with westerns, was that A.C. Lyles (who passed away in September, 2013) called you and asked you to write an episode of Deadwood when it was on (2004-2006)—my favorite TV drama of all time (Courtney laughs).
CCJ: It didn’t get filmed. A.C. Lyles has always been very lovely to me, and he wanted me to at least have a shot. He asked me if I knew David Milch at all, and I do not. He said take a crack, and we’ll see what we can do. It was a terrific opportunity, and he was so nice to let me do that, but that’s the kind of fellow he is. Of course, Deadwood was a staff-written show, and very much so, because it was really a collaboration. I’ve had a lot of luck… whether it’s A.C. Lyles, or Andy Fenady—I’m working now on a writing project with Miles Swarthout, who wrote The Shootist (1979)…
LJD: You’re friends with the (John) Wayne family, the Chaney family, Andy McLaglen (Sadly, director Andrew V. McLaglen passed August 30, 2014)…
CCJ: I’ve been very lucky—well, you know—we’ve talked about this. When you get into this business (the) great thing is where we actually get to meet and work with our heroes! We grow up watching these movies and TV shows, and the next thing you know, you’re doing something with George Kennedy or somebody, and that’s the way it goes, and that’s like, so cool—it’s the greatest. [I worked with Kennedy on my 2012 feature film, The Boneyard Collection, in which Courtney was kind enough to appear in a cameo—LJD.)]
LJD: I’ve done commentaries on my own movies—but you get asked to contribute commentaries on classic movie releases; The Big Trail and The Comancheros, both with John Wayne; Charlie Chan at the Opera; The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray—I’m assuming that’s a documentary (laughs); and, The Brute Man with Rondo Hatton. How did you get all these commentaries? Is it through your AFI connection?
CCJ: No. The first (commentary) I did for 20th Century Fox was the Charlie Chan set. My friend John Cork was doing the supplements, and they wanted someone to talk about Boris Karloff because they were doing Charlie Chan at the Opera. That went well and Fox seemed to like me, and right after that they asked me to do The Big Trail. On that one we discussed Raoul Walsh and John Ford, and of course Wayne, and that whole history… so that kind of got me on a roll. And then, Daniel Griffith called me—he knew Jeff (Burr), and he’d been doing some work with Bill Grefe, and doing supplements for Stanley (1972) and some of those movies—and he was doing the thing about K. Gordon Murray. I said, Oh, that’s great, and remembered The New Invisible Man (Mexico; 1958) and I did my New Invisible Man impression (laughs)—so we did it. …Daniel pretty much gets asked to do older films—I’m not on any of the DVD supplements for the Hammer things he’s done, but (am on some of) the American Hollywood films, particularly from the ’40s. We just did a documentary about Robert Lippert that was terrific; I was able to help out on the Lon Chaney, Jr. documentary for Universal…
LJD: You should be on that one…
CCJ: Yeah… I enjoyed it. The more film journalism I do, (the more) people look up the articles or what have you, and find my area—particularly with the westerns—and then they ask me to… yak away.
LJD: Thank you for the time you took to set down your recollections of an on-going career—so far, very well-spent.
Postscript, October 14, 2014
The original interview ended with a discussion of Courtney’s first novel, Shotgun, a Pinnacle Western paperback, which was published in December of 2013, and sold out its first printing in three months. It includes his award-winning short story, “Two Bit Kill,” with a hardcover version released this past June. Courtney has just finished Shotgun's sequel, and is about to start a new fantasy-adventure series of novels for Tor/Forge. He has continued with commentaries and interviews for film documentaries on This Island Earth, Gorgo, Companeros, The Big Gundown, Grand Duel, The Twilight Zone as well as blu-ray editions of his own films, Puppetmaster 3, Prison and From a Whisper to a Scream (AKA The Offspring). He is the television and film editor for True West Magazine, with a monthly column of reviews and news of past, present and future westerns. He's covered the hit, Elmore Leonard-based cable TV show, Justified, for that magazine, and show creator Graham Yost has asked him to do a follow up piece. Courtney interviewed the late Mr. Leonard for his book The Westerners, and Dutch even helped him with the project.
At a lunch last fall he went back through his cell phone messages and played one for me: “Hello, Courtney? This is Elmore Leonard calling...”
© 2014 — L.J. Dopp