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    Carradine's Two Rail Rides

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    David Carradine (1936-2009), who would have turned 81 today, confided in his 1995 autobiography Endless Highway that his casting as union organizer-turned-outlaw Big Bill Shelly in the Roger Corman production of Boxcar Bertha (1972) came about because his then-girlfriend Barbara Hershey, rising in prominence following Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Dealing (1972), wanted him as a condition of her playing the title role of a Depression-era bandit leader of a motley train-robbing bunch striking out in retribution against the greedy stranglehold of the Southern rail barons. The new-to-the-business director fell in line. Carradine wrote: “The director climbed the steps to meet us. He was a little round guy, very nervous. He talked very fast in short, explosive sentences. He told me he would have preferred Bruce Dern. I liked him immediately for his forthrightness. His name was Martin Scorsese. This was his first [Hollywood] picture. It was also my first leading role. Not starring, leading. There’s a difference. Barbara was the star.” Filmed in Camden, Arkansas, and featuring Barry Primus, Bernie Casey, Victor Argo and David’s venerable father John Carradine, it turned out to be “a good movie” for Carradine, and The New York Times’ Howard Thompson felt: “The main reason is the character of the hero, a kind of stumblebum union organizer, whose battered altruism sharply reflects the labor despair of the era, even as he detours into crime and wars on the railroad bosses. David Carradine is excellent in this role. Matching him, as the childlike boxcar itinerant, is Barbara Hershey. Fine, too, as their confederates, are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey.The thoughtful, ironic script by Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington thins only toward the middle and the whole thing has been beautifully directed by Martin Scorsese, who really comes into his own here.” Carradine and his lady came into their own in a provocative way. He recalled: “Barbara and I had two love scenes, and we really got into them. I saved the outtakes. They’re still racy, even by today’s standards. Somehow a story got circulated that we conceived our son during the love scenes. A romantic idea, but untrue. We didn’t go that far. We reenacted the scenes for Playboy’s photographers and became what must have been one of the very first nude couples ever shown in that magazine. In Boston the movie was banned because of those pictures. The censors hadn’t even seen the movie, which was not radical in sexual terms. In the South, it was banned because it shows a black man blowing away a bunch of white guys with a shotgun. Eventually they just cut out that part, leaving Bernie Casey with spatters of blood all over him for no apparent reason. AIP [American International Pictures] was advertising the picture as a sexploitation film, which didn’t help. I pointed out to [AIP chief] Sam Arkoff that the people who came to see what he was advertising would be disappointed, and the people who would want to see the picture as it really was wouldn’t come. Sam wouldn’t budge. So I turned over his desk into his lap and walked out. Later I mentioned to Saul [Krugman, his one-time manager] that maybe that was not a good idea. He said, ‘Who cares? You’re never going to work for them again anyway.’” 

    One role he was determined to play – in a long-gestating big-screen project – was not going to elude him, even if he had become strongly identified as the mystical Kwai Chang Caine of the three-season TV hit Kung Fu from 1972 to 1975. Carradine recounted: “I had another meeting with Hal Ashby. He told me that if I were six years younger and six inches shorter, he would hire me right on the spot. I told him I’d do the part with my knees bent. Hal talked to Dustin Hoffman, who told him he didn’t play guitar well enough for the part. He sent the script to Bob Dylan, who wanted to direct it. Finally, he made an offer to Richard Dreyfuss. When Richard asked for more money and a shorter schedule, Hal said, ‘The hell with it!’ and told me I had the part” of Woody Guthrie in the soulful, gorgeously lensed and musically resplendent biopic Bound for Glory (1976). Carradine savored the memory of its production: “My days were filled with fulfilling labor, drama, comedy, music, fights, jumping on and off trains – all presided over by the best director I had ever worked with. Hal sent me to Oklahoma to soak up the lingo and study the fiddle. I visited Woody’s hometown and went to a party in a house full of fiddlers. There was one very tall fiddler who told me there was only one way for me to play. He said, ‘You have to play your fiddle in a graveyard at midnight….Because the devil will pop up and offer to buy your soul, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to learn.” As with his Boxcar Bertha leading lady, he got up close and personal with the actress portraying the legendary Depression-era troubadour/activist’s wife Mary: “Melinda Dillon and I had a scene in bed. We were playing a married couple and we had all our clothes off. It took in a big way. We stayed under the covers, mooning with each other, while the crew quietly took the equipment away. We considered a long-term relationship, but we couldn’t quite get up to that. Melinda had been in the Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The show had driven her over the edge. This was her first movie. [At least her first principal role after a small part in 1969’s The April Fools.] She was still somewhat lost. Saul told me to grab that girl. I told him I already had and it didn’t work. He said, ‘Try again!’ At one point Melinda proposed we stay together forever. I said, ‘Forever is a long time.’ She said, ‘It’s only now.’ I told he she wasn’t in love with me, she was in love with Woody. And being Woody’s girl was a bum trip. I still dream about her.” Bound for Glory endures – dreamlike – for Ashby fans and Americana buffs, for its Academy Award®-winning cinematography (Haskell Wexler) and adaptation score blending Guthrie standards and original music (Leonard Rosenman), and for Carradine’s committed portrayal that won the 1976 National Board of Review Best Actor Award. Hop a freight for two thrilling rambles with the birthday honoree, Boxcar Bertha and Bound for Glory, on lovely Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays.