Wild Westerns – part 2

Tomas Milian in THe Big GundownPart one of this article can be found here

[continues…] Got table at the Doney and watched the mini-skirts, the mini-furs and the lighting-rod-shoes go gliding by. No one wears cuffs on the Veneto, and the pocketless pants are so tight the men carry their money in their shirt pockets. Bob Silverstein advised me to go out to Cinecitta, the big movie-making center, and take my chances. Then he snapped his fingers. “Got an idea. Write up the movie I’m working on. It’s a ghost story. You could say the ghosts were cowboys.” We ordered lunch. “Seriously, if you get in trouble, call Jennings Clayton.” Silverstein scratched a phone number on a memo pad and tore it off.

Around us big deals were as thick as flying ants around a beer sign. No one was discussing anything small. Fifty-thousand-dollar scripts, hundred-thousand-dollar scripts; million-dollar budgets, two-million. One deep, official-sounding voice under a Caligula haircut and a pair of dark glasses as big as playing cards was mad: “OK, so we can’t get Paul Newman. Steve McQueen will jump for the part.” It had the familiar sound of fraud.

Headed for Cinecitta after lunch. After an hour’s tour of greater Rome and a four-thousand-lire meter reading the cabbie hit the right road and pulled into the big studio lot. Inside the gate crouched over my Getting-Along-In-Italian book, trying to ask the guard who spoke no English if a Western was being shot. He called for a friend. Friend knew even less English, but was more expressive with hands, more expansive, more enthusiastic. Said something big was going on, something very big! A Western? ” Si! Si! Si! ” He led me through four double doors and four big empty sound stages. He began grinning. We were getting close. He opened a final door and pointed into a set-construction shop.

There in the middle of the floor was a huge clipper ship, almost finished. Workers and a foreman climbed down, and the guide, who was now acting as my interpreter, announced proudly that I was a journalist. Foreman took me by the arm and led me into the ship. Began telling me about it-in Italian. How long they had worked on it. How pleased they all were! I congratulated them and shook hands with all present. Said I would write good things about, for indeed it was a fine ship. Back outside, I pretended I was drawing a gun and made a bang-bang sound for my interpreter-guide. He smiled, drew a phantom .45 and fired off a few rounds. I whipped out my Italian phrase book and asked him: Where? His smile vanished. He holstered his gun and shook his head.

At eleven that night, back at the CafĂ© Doney, I met Jennings Clayton, the man Silverstein had said to call. Jennings, a tall, ex-relief pitcher from the Atlantic Coast League, likes Rome but misses North Carolina. As a producer of independent films, he knows every drifter and mark in town and can sit on the Veneto and pick them off like cherries. “See him?” He pointed to a tall beard wearing his coat like a cape. “Looks like a millionaire, doesn’t he? Doesn’t have a dime. He stole that suit from Mastroianni’s wardrobe three years ago.” Jennings laughed, enjoying his inside knowledge. “Check the names on the marquees and the billboards. Lot of them are look-alikes. Damn promoters think some sap will read Warren Beatton and pay his money thinking it’s Warren Beatty. I heard one is trying out Clark Grant.”

He hitchhiked his thumb at some ex-gladiators from the old muscle pictures, sitting behind us with the biceps bunched and straining against their short sleeves. “Few years back, anyone with a good set of pectorals and a fifty-five-inch chest was a star. Now all that’s being shot is Westerns. The muscle boys are dead. Hell, you put two guns, a pair of chaps and a belt of ammo around one of them, and he photographs like a heavy cruiser.”

Jennings wanted to talk National League baseball, but I squirreled him back to my assignment. “You shouldn’t have any trouble,” he said. “The cowboys are dying for publicity. Ever since A Fistful of Dollars hit, every last one of them figures he’s next.” He wrote out a name. “Rod Dana. Tell him I sent you. I owe him a favor. Californian, big fellow. May have played some ball. Came over here to study singing and wound up carrying a spear in Cleopatra. Had a couple of leads lately. He’d love some publicity.” A cold fog moved up from the Tiber River, and the mini-skirts crossed their legs and hunched up. The waiters secured the checks with Cinzano ashtrays, and the morning shift came on.

The next day I met Rod Dana and his producer, Leopold Savona. Dana is big, six feet three or four, and an easy 210. Suspect he lifts weights secretly, but is too smart to great blown up like the reverse-curl and high-definition-pectoral set. Dana speaks good Italian from his operatic background and acted as interpreter between Savona and me.

Savona, whose credits include a film in Spain with Jack Palance, was starting a Western, The Burning Man, with Rod in two days at Cinecitta-script, money, cast and director all set. He was delighted at the prospect of Saturday Evening Post publicity. Said he had a great script, a natural for sale to America, perfect spin-off possibilities for a television series. We drank to it. My problems were over. Cables the Post that Leopold Savona, who had directed Warriors Five with Jack Palance, was beginning Western starring Rod Dana. Should I go ahead with this one?

Post replied: “Go ahead on Jack Palance film. Good luck.” Back to Post : “Not Jack Palance. Rod Dana. Also known as Robert Mark in movie. God Never Pays on Saturday. Shall I go ahead?” Post : “Never heard of Rod Dana or Robert Mark, but go ahead anyway.”

The next morning Rod called. The movie had been cancelled.

“Why?”

It was just one of those things. He would buy me breakfast and explain.

At the Doney, Rod talked about schedule and money problems as I pushed my eggs around, thinking about the cable I had to send now. Hunt Powers, an ex-lead from General Hospital , an American daytime television series, stopped by and shook hands. He told us he was starring in a Western called The Greatest Robbery in the West that was being shot that week at Cinecitta. I wondered if there was a small part in it for a clipper ship under full sail.

Rod had to leave for a dubbing job. He offered to take me along, said I might pick up something for the article. He explained that actors don’t like to spoil their images by taking bit roles, but they can and do take dubbing jobs. The jobs pay well, and the audience doesn’t know or care whose voices are being used.

Go to part three of this article

About Matt Blake 889 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

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