Burt Kennedy: Writing Broadway in Arizona
Burt Kennedy has a long resume as a director, with such credits to his name as The Rounders, Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Gunfighter. But he started his film career as a screenwriter under contract to John Wayne and made his reputation with four brilliant westerns that Budd Boetticher directed and Randolph Scott starred in: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. I had been trying to get an interview with Kennedy for a long time. All it took, it turns out, was a little help from Budd Boetticher. During my second trip to interview the Boetticher I mentioned my problem in connecting with Kennedy. He simply called him up set up a meeting for later that day, and I raced to catch Kennedy in his home in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles before he left that evening for a rodeo (seriously). I eventually interviewed Kennedy twice, first in 1989 and then again in1994. In these excerpts he talks about his origins and discusses his work with Boetticher beginning with Seven Men From Now, Kennedy’s first produced script. He died in 2001.
I want to ask about your background. I read, in old publicity reports, that you were the son of vaudevillians.
Yeah, my mom and dad were a headline act in vaudeville for 20 years, the Keith-Orpheum circuit. They were dancers. As a matter of fact, they danced in the Webber-Field show in New York in 1911 and Vernon and Irene Castle were in the chorus. And of course Vernon and Irene Castle did dances later on that people could do. My folks didn’t, my folks were just real good dancers, but that’s why they didn’t have the popularity that Vernon and Irene Castle did. They had a great act. And I was born in a trunk.
Born on the road?
Yeah. I don’t really remember much of it. I remember some because I worked in the act when I was about 5 and I think I was a has-been at 7. Vaudeville didn’t just die out, vaudeville just died overnight. I mean radio is kind of still around, you know, it had its heyday and then it went gradually downhill, but it’s still there. But not vaudeville. One day vaudeville was going full bore and the next day pictures took over and all these acts were out of business.
That’s sound pictures specifically?
That’s what did it. Overnight. Right in the thirties. Early thirties and they were done. The crash in 1929, which really didn’t bother many vaudevillians because they didn’t have any money anyway, but about 1930 it was over. I was 8.
What did the family do?
My dad had bought a house in Michigan on a lake, a number of acts did, so we moved there and I started school there, then my folks were divorced and I ended up in another town in Michigan when I was in the fifth grade and I stayed there until I graduated in 1941. And then I went right out of high school and into the war. I joined the cavalry, as a matter of fact. That was early 1942, when I joined the cavalry.
There weren’t too many cavalry units in the US Army at that time, were there?
What we had was the First Cavalry Division, and when I joined them they all had horses. And then about a year later they lost their horses and became infantry. We were actually infantry. Some of them were mechanized but I was in the group that just became infantry and we went overseas as infantry. As a matter of fact, all of the cavalry guys in the First Cavalry Division wore combat infantryman’s badges, so we were infantry. Now, except for show troops that march in funerals, there aren’t any. All the horses are gone.
Out of the war you went into writing.
I went to the Pasadena Playhouse because I figured there was some way I had to find my way around town, and then I started writing radio. From radio I went to television and from television I went on to pictures.
So from the Army you wound up in Los Angeles?
No, I wound up back in Illinois but a friend of mine went to the Playhouse and it sounded like a good place to learn the business. And I did act some but I didn’t like it at all. You’re too limited. You could only do what you could do, the parts you could play were only certain things, so I thought “I don’t want to do that.” On the job training is mostly what I did. And I was a writer for about 15 years before I got to direct a picture.
How did you get interested show business to begin with?
Only because I was born into it. As a matter of fact I did some plays at the Playhouse and I felt completely at home doing them. I’d walk out on stage and it felt like I’d been there my whole life. So that part was fine except I could see that you could be around this town for a long time before you could be a success as an actor. But writing, no one could stop you from writing. You’re never out of work if you’re a writer, you could just sit down and write.
How did you transition from acting to writing?
I went to a radio show one day at Mutual Broadcasting and I saw the actors come in, take a script they’d never seen before, and do a read through, do a dress rehearsal, and do the show. In those days the first show was live for the East Coast, and then they would put them on record, they didn’t have tape, and they’d play the record of that show at a later hour for the West Coast. And I thought, that’s the way to get in, because if you write you don’t have to know anybody. If the stuff is good you can get it sold. As much as you think when you’re young about having plans, at least I thought it through that much. Plus the fact I was never happy onstage, or even giving a speech. I’d rather be behind the camera telling other people what to do rather than trying to do it myself. Like Budd [Boetticher]. Budd could be a wonderful actor because he’s acting all the time. He’s great.
What kind of scripts did you write in the beginning?
I wrote a western. I got some interest in it, but it never was made. And then I wrote a television series, I wrote 13 shows. There had been a short story in Liberty magazine, that’s how far back it goes, and I wrote 13 scripts, thirteen half hour comedy westerns, probably be good today. It’s a little Mexican guy on the border, in an American town on the border. He’s a shiftless, little lazy guy who does everything wrong but it sort of turns out right, you know that kind of thing. I think I was paid something like $400 a script, and that was a lot of money in those days to write all those. But that’s the reason I went with Duke because Duke read them and tried to make a deal to do them with Pedro Gonzales, remember that actor? That didn’t work out because they couldn’t get the rights from the guy who owned it, so I ended up going under contract to Duke and I wrote Seven Men From Now for Duke and his company.
How did you start in writing westerns to begin with?
I don’t know, just that I like the west and had been in the cavalry, been around horses. Jimmy Grant, who is a wonderful writer, James Edward Grant, he said to me: “Burt, if you’re going to be in this business, why compete with all the big writers when there are hardly any good western writers as such?” Some good writers have written westerns but there were very few genuine western writers in this town that were really good writers. He said that the competition was easier that way, and if you write a good western, you’re apt to go further faster. And it turned out he was right. Because I never stopped, from 1953-54 up until the mid 70s, I never stopped working at all.
Budd said when John Wayne first gave him the screenplay to Seven Men From Now. He read the first 37 pages, came back and said “This is great, I want to do it,” and he introduced you and you said “We’ve met before. I was in one of your movies, remember? I was the rabble rouser.”
I don’t think I was the rabble rouser, though. I think I was, I was in the movie, but I think I was…
What film was this, The Man From the Alamo?
Something like that, yeah. I think Budd has always had me mixed up with a good actor, which I wasn’t, but I was in the picture and I did do something, I had some lines, because I remember it was at Universal and I was trying to be a writer and I was dealing with a fellow over there who was the head of wardrobe. I’m trying to make a deal with the head of wardrobe to write, you know, and he’s trying to be a producer, and I would go in the morning as a writer and then in the afternoon I would go in the back gate as the actor. I worked a couple of days on the picture. But that’s true, that’s where I first met Budd.
There’s a novel of Seven Men From Now. I found an old paperback copy of it with your name as author. Did you write it?
No, I don’t even know who wrote the novel. I didn’t. No, it was an original screenplay. I went in there and when they said they couldn’t make a deal on the other they said “We want you to write something for us.” I had a title, Seven Men From Now, and I didn’t have a story, so they put me in a room and I was in there for about six weeks and I wrote this screenplay. And then when I finished it they put it away, they didn’t even read it. I know it was a good screenplay but you know how it happens, they just put it in a cupboard somewhere. So one day I just gave it to a producer, the guy who made The Silver Chalice, what was his name? Anyway he was going make a picture with Bob Mitchum and Bob read the script and they called me over and they offered me $15,000 for the script. I’d been paid $1500, $250 a week for six weeks, so I went to Duke and I said “Look, it’s your script and these guys must be crazy but they want to pay me $15,000 for the script and of course it’s yours.” And Duke sort of went “Well wait a minute…” So that’s what started the reversal. They sent it over to Warners with somescripts and Warners okayed the script to be made. He wanted Duke to make it, and Duke had just made The Searchers and just didn’t want to make another western. But he used to say to me “I should cut my throat. I should have done that picture.” But then when they made it they paid me $1500, they put it in for $58,000, and then they put me under contract for $400 a week or so. But I paid my way for about four years on that one script. But it was a good picture.
Was that the first feature script you’d ever written?
First one I’d ever written, yeah. I’d fooled around. I’d written a thing called Wanted Dead, the first thing I’d ever did, and it was a pretty good script, but I really had no background except in show business, and it just sort of on the job training, Itaught myself how to write. But Seven Men was a good script. The Tall T‘s a good script, too.
Now that was from an Elmore Leonard short story.
Short story, right. Very good short story, very good short story. He did “3:10 To Yuma” too. That was another short story. Marvelous. He’s a wonderful writer. And now they’ve finally discovered him, after all these years. But that was how Seven Men came.
How did the second film fall together after that?
I’d written The Tall T for Duke. Duke’s company bought it, I’d gotten him to buy it. I had found the short story. They’d bought it and I was under contract and I wrote the script. When Duke broke up with Bob Fellows, it was Wayne/Fellows in those days before it was Batjac, part of the settlement was that Fellows got The Tall T, because Duke had never read it, he didn’t know if it was any good or not. So when Fellows got The Tall T, he made a deal to sell it to Harry Joe Brown for, I don’t know how much but quite a bit of money, and I was part of the deal. I did some re-write on it, not too much, but that was a good script. That was a good picture. Seven Men‘s good but The Tall T was different, because it didn’t have as much of the girl. She was good, I liked the gal.
It was a good cast.
Well you know in those kind of shows, trek shows, where you have a lot of talk… Like I did a thing with Duke later on, much later on, called The Train Robbers. It had to be the right cast, you know. If you don’t have the right cast those talky things don’t work. Trek talk. You got to have really a good cast, and you know I had Bobby Vinton and a couple of other people, and dear Annie Margaret. Like Casey Stengel says, you’re only as good as your horses. I didn’t have the horses.
The four screenplays that you wrote and Budd directed were “talk trek” movies and they all had excellent casts.
Well that’s the secret. If you have good words, even if you have bad words, but if you have good words and good actors you can get away with some pretty good… Broadway, you know. That’s what Duke said, the best thing Duke ever said to me. He said “You write Broadway in Arizona.”
Were you under contract to Columbia after The Tall T?
No, I never was under contract to Columbia. I was still under contract to Duke and then I went to Warners under contract. They suspended and extended my contract with Duke so that I was with Warners for a year and I wrote Yellowstone Kelly, Fort Dobbs and two other scripts. One, called A Distant Trumpet, was from a Paul Horgan novel, which was wonderful. They made it and it wasn’t very good. But then another one, it’s very funny, they don’t even know they own, and I wrote. It’s called The Whip. I wrote it and I tried to buy it back from them recently and they didn’t know what it was. They don’t have a copy of it, they don’t have any record of it, they don’t have anything. So they can’t sell it to me.
Did you write those screenplays before you started working with Budd again, with Comanche Station and Ride Lonesome?
Yeah, right. I forget when that came about. I think probably in ’59. ’58-’59. It was right after I left Duke, anyway. The funny thing is we made a deal, or I made a deal, to do two original screenplays with a start date, and I didn’t have any idea what they were. And the first one was Ride Lonesome and the second one was Comanche Station.
How did the writing of those screenplays work. Did you just come up, sit around and work on getting an idea together or did you talk to Budd?
I don’t remember except I never did work with anybody, you know what I mean, I always worked by myself. But I usually just sat down and wrote them and then we’d get together and this was wrong or that was wrong, but those two and Seven Men were practically word for word. And The Tall T. Because I remembered on The Tall T, Harry Joe Brown called me and wanted to have lunch with me and I met him over at the Hillcrest Country Club and he said “Burt, I think we need some work on The Tall T,” and I said “Read it again, Harry, and read the words. Don’t just read the dialogue, read the words.” And he did and then we never changed anything.
When I asked Budd how the films were made, he said “Well, Burt wrote the scripts and I shot them”
That’s pretty much it. Budd had a way of getting… For instance, the bull thing in The Tall T. I had the stuff where he [Randolph Scott] had to ride the bull, but all the stuff of jumping in the water, that was Budd’s because that’s something as a director you don’t know you’ve got that until you get out on the set. Those are the wonderful things that you do. But Budd was very inventive, kept his camera moving. He was very, very good. The actors loved him, the crews loved him and if anything Budd had trouble with is that we all do, the front office. They would interfere and if you don’t do what they want you to, you’re difficult. And by not doing it, it would hurt the picture, but because you stand your ground and make it work they don’t give you any credit, they just say “Well, yeah, he’s a difficult guy.” I mean, they call me difficult. They never met John Ford and these guys. I mean, Wellman and Ford, they were difficult, they were tough. I’ve walked off some pictures, you know, I just got mad and said “Well, dammit.” But Ford and those guys were miserable to hassle with, rough. Now everybody’s spoiled. Everything is “Please” and “May I” and all that stuff. In the old days it was just like the army, and they had to be run like the army. You had the first sergeant, the captain, the generals, the privates. That’s the only way to make pictures. But if everybody, if we’re all equal, it isn’t going to work. It’s like I say about television actors, I say they know everything but their lines.
Were you on the set for the films that Budd directed?
I was on the set all the time on Seven Men. Not The Tall T, but I went up there a couple of times, but I wasn’t there. Not Ride Lonesome, and very little on Comanche Station, but on Seven Men I was there practically all the time.
Was there much on the set working with the actors, was there much tinkering, reworking lines or action?
I don’t think so. I think if you took the script and you ran it to the picture, I think maybe little tags of things or something, but on the whole I don’t think there were any changes. I didn’t write a lot of words anyways, the only time there was a lot of words was Lee in the wagon [in Seven Men From Now] and that wasn’t changed. And when Randy was telling about how came to be this sheriff, and that wasn’t changed. The rest of the time it was very terse, very one to one.
Budd had said that when he got the script to Buchanan Rides Alone, at the time it was called The Name’s Buchanan, he worked on the treatment and left to shoot some bullfights and when he got back he looked at the script and didn’t recognize it. He said that you helped out on some last minute script work.
Yeah. I forget exactly whether it was… The opening was more of a problem than anything else, as I remember, and I worked mostly on the opening of it. I really can’t remember. I know I worked on it and there was a writer who was a friend of Budd’s…
Yeah, that’s who it was. And Budd said to me “It would be nice if Charles Lang got the credit on this picture, because he’s just starting and really needs it,” and I same “Fine,” because credits really never meant so much to me. They don’t either. I don’t like to see people get credits they don’t deserve, but I think this “Film by,” I’ve done that once and I really felt embarrassed about it, “A Film by someone.” It’s ridiculous.
The three original screenplays are very similar in tone, mood and style. Is that purposeful?
Yeah, in a way. In other words, I found out what worked, it’s a formula. The formula is a leading man who comes into a situation that is not his problem, can walk away from it at any time, and finally stays there and solves it. And usually mine was a lonely leading guy, who had lost a wife or something, which is always a good character. Not because you feel sorry for him, because he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Usually tough guys who won’t tell up front what’s bothering them. I don’t know, I just was working a lot in those days and the more you work the better you get. If you sit down and you really work on a scene, and you do that everyday for a year, you get pretty good. At least you find out what doesn’t work. I have one scene, as you know, if anybody who knows my stuff, that I’ve had in about four pictures and it hasn’t worked yet for me. I did it myself once and it didn’t work. It’s the scene where the one kid is talking about down in Mexico, running women or something, and I’ve done that scene over and over and I’ve been trying to get it right and I’ve never gotten it right yet.
In The Tall T Chink talks about town and the Billy Jack says “Gee, I didn’t know.”
Yeah. Well there’s a wonderful scene in, it’s in Ride Lonesome I think, where Pernell Roberts says to Jim Coburn, “We’re partners,” and he says “Why?” and he says “Because I like you,” and he says “I never knew that.” They’ve been together for ten years and he never knew he liked him.
There’s a couple of lines that show up consistently in your scripts. I was watching Ride Lonesome last night and heard the line: “We’ve come too far, we can’t turn back now.” There’s a villain says some variation of that in all four of your scripts.
Yeah, well I do that. Another one is, this is funny, “That’s all a man can ask,” is line I use and Willie Nelson wrote a song and I got the lyrics in there. To me, dialogue is a lot like music. If it’s really running good, you know what I mean, if it plays, it should play without long speeches. I have this theory about dialogue. If it’s written right… The next time you’re with a group of people and they’re talking, and they’re all talking together, you’d be surprised how few times somebody steps on another man’s line. Even with a little going “Yeah” or “Uh huh,” there’s always a hole and they find it, and if you can write dialogue that way, if you can write scenes that way, it makes it very natural. Howard Hawks does this thing, or he used to do a thing, where he overlaps things, which I hated. It’s supposed to be ‘natural’ talk, that everybody talked at once, but people don’t do that. They let everybody in, I guess they can tell that the guy is going to pause and they get their little thing in. Very seldom do people step on another in a conversation. When you can get that in dialogue it really works.
In all four films all down the line, the villain, whether it’s Lee Marvin or Claude Akins or Richard Boone, basically says “You know I’m going to have to kill you,” and Randolph Scott says “Yeah, well I’m going to have to kill you.” Something to that effect. Basically they let each other know what they’re going to do and they wind up saving each other until it comes down to the showdown.
Well usually it’s because one needs the other guy, like Lee Marvin. When he joins them, he joins them because he doesn’t want to go up against Bodeen by himself. He’d rather have Randy with him, and then when they got narrowed down a little he’d go for Randy, which is pretty smart. Now the heavy, I got a great story behind a heavy. Ride the High Country, I was kind of the David Susskind of that show because Dick Lyons was a friend of mine. We’d done The Rounders and Mail Order Bride together and I introduced him to Randy and then Joel [McCrea], and Randy and I and Dick made a deal to make this picture. And about a week before the picture was supposed to start Dick Lyons called me and said “I’m in terrible trouble. Joel just called and said he doesn’t want to play the heavy. He wants to play the good guy instead of the heavy.” He said “You’re a friend of Randy’s, could you call Randy and get him to change parts.” And I said “Well I’ll try.” So I hung up and so help me when I hung up the phone the phone rang. It was Randy Scott. And Randy said “Burt, I got a problem. Can I come over to your house? I’ve got to talk to you.” Now I’d known Randy for a long time, he’d never come to my house. And he came up and he said “Look, I got a problem. I want to play the bad guy in this picture.” And he said “Could talk to Dick Lyons and see if he could switch the part?” I said “Randy, I’ll fix it for you.” I never told him the other part. Dick over the years has told that story and he gets it all wrong. But that’s exactly what happened. They switched parts in the last week, and Randy played the bad guy and Joel played the good guy. And that’s a tremendous picture.
Did you have a part in the writing of Ride the High Country?
No, not at all. As a matter of fact people think I did it, you know, like a lot of people think John Ford made Red River. Ford said “I got so when they’d say ‘I love Red River‘ I’d say thank you.” But I suggested Sam for that picture because I thought Sam was really good. I didn’t think Sam was as good as Sam thought he was, but he was good. He was a good, crazy guy.
There’s a rumor, never substantiated, that originally they wanted Budd to shoot Ride the High Country.
I could believe that, yeah.
It would have been a wonderful end to the whole cycle.
They were all afraid of Budd, you see, because Budd was a very strong guy, and even though he was… You know people will bad mouth people about they were drinking or something. Budd Boetticher never once, I never saw Budd take a drink on a picture, ever. The only thing he would do is he would scare people because he’s just a physical guy, you know. Tough guy.
They’ll discover Budd again, it’s just a matter of time. It’s what happens in this town. Like Sam Fuller, you know. Sam goes out, he’s gone, and all of a sudden he’s back making movies again. That’s one thing I’ve done. I’ve stayed, but it’s because I write. I mean, I haven’t been through the front gate of a major studio in 18 years except to do television stuff, and yet I’ve made more money making pictures than Columbia has in the last five years, you know what I mean, because I do it myself.
© 2008 Sean Axmaker