All boys grow up watching “cowboy” films. The Western movie has been a Hollywood staple since before the advent of sound. In the 1940s & 50s great directors & stars produced a classic run of films that we saw on TV, often sitting with our fathers who considered John Wayne, Gary Cooper & others to be real men, not like these film stars they have today. A Western has so many conventions, a man has got to do what a man’s got to do, the cold-hearted killer in a black hat gets his just desserts (death on a dusty Main Street), heading them off at the pass, it’s a long list. No Western is complete without a whiskery old-timer spouting authentic western gibberish while looking for the nearest spittoon. In the great years popular actors like Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan had long careers playing essentially the same character in slightly different saloons. In the 1960s the actors were older, Wayne wore a toupee & a corset, James Stewart just the wig. The fine tradition of the “darn tootin'” & “dadgumit” sidekick was continued by one of our favourite actors, the incomparable Slim Pickens.
A gunshot & “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-going on here. I hired you people to try to get a little track laid, not to jump around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots !”. Slim Pickens’ entry into Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (1974) is just perfect. By this stage of his career you knew what Slim could deliver. The script of “Blazing Saddles” by Brooks, Richard Pryor & 3 others) is almost perfect, still hilarious, still provocative & offensive. It nailed every Western cliche as a black sheriff got to do what a black sheriff got to do. In a fine cast Slim, as Taggert, was given some great lines, none delivered with more relish than “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks” before he punched Buddy Bizarre (Dom de Louise) in the balls.
Slim had been a rodeo cowboy before making movies. In the 1950s he made a lot of B-movie Westerns (and “One Eyed Jacks” the Brando directed cowboy film of 1961) before becoming a regular in the many TV Westerns of the early 1960s. It was in “Bonanza”, “Wagon Train” & “The Virginian” where he had become our favourite. He caught a break in 1964 when the best director of his day needed a cowboy to ensure that the world ended with a bang.
Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love the Bomb” (1964) is one of cinema’s great comedies. A comedy so black that “even the white bits are black” (© Michael Palin). This satire on the ridiculous and dangerously flawed Cold War posturing of the time, paranoia posing as policy, has so much to recommend it. The performances of Peter Sellers (3 of them), George C Scott, Sterling Hayden & Keenan Wynn are all the greatest roles they have ever played. Major T J “King” Kong is the pilot of an American plane which, despite the efforts of the US & Russian forces, avoids detection & delivers its deadly nuclear payload. Slim Pickens got to end the world astride a bomb while whooping & waving like the rodeo star he once was.
The role had been offered to John Wayne ! The story is that Slim was not told the film was a comedy & was not shown the whole script. After a hasty acquisition of a first passport he arrived in England seemingly already in character. “Gosh, he’s arrived in costume!,” not realizing that that’s how he always dressed … with the cowboy hat and the fringed jacket and the cowboy boots — and that he wasn’t putting on the character — that’s the way he talked. “Shoot a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff”, Brilliant ! Slim knew that he was in the right place at the right time. As he said, the dressing rooms and the cheques got bigger after this film.
Another outstanding director had noticed Slim Pickens too. He was cast in 4 of Sam Peckinpah’s movies, probably more than any other actor. In 1973 Peckinpah directed “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”. In 1969 he had set the standard for the modern Western he made “The Wild Bunch” .”Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle”, wrote Pauline Kael. Sam packed his film with gnarled Western character actors, Jack Elam, Chill Wills & others. However “Pat Garrett” was troubled in production & post-production (6 editors were employed). The impressionistic result could have been by accident or design. It’s a sprawling, philosophical movie not a rooting-tooting shoot-em-up & it is another great film from a great director.
Slim Pickens played the small part of Sheriff Baker who accompanies Garrett (James Coburn) to arrest Billy’s gang. Baker is mortally wounded &, watched by his wife (Kathy Jurado), sits by the river waiting to die. Bob Dylan acted in the film and wrote the original score. It is this scene which uses “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, now rightly considered a classic song. There are ins, there are outs, there are stories that Peckinpah did not want to use this song for this scene. Whatever, this is an important & effective scene. It deserves to have one of the best songs specifically written for movie to add to its effectiveness. That soundtrack LP got a lot of play round our house, I shall dig it out for a re-visit I think.
Well, ain’t this just fine & dandy. I set out to tip my hat to a character actor who made an impression & always entertained. In just 3 clips I have been able to include 2 of the funniest comedies ever & 2 of the most iconic scenes of my cinematic memories. Maybe Slim made a pretty good contribution to the movies. It is for sure an Immutable Law of Hollywood that no film was ever made worse by the inclusion of Slim Pickens.