Mexico is high desert. This means it is very, very dry. This
also means it is dusty. In the Spring the "Dust Devils" can knock
you off your feet, fill your eyes and mouth with grit, make eating outside
impossible, and spook your horse.
It also means it is a perfect place to shoot a Western!
That’s why I was there for three months. I was going to work with
Harry Belafonte in "Buck and the Preacher." I'd eat sand any
day for that opportunity! It was Sidney's debut as a director and
he was also playing Buck. You guessed it – Harry was the Preacher.
Cameron Mitchell was the main heavy and I played his nephew,
a stupid bundle of angry nerves. One of Jeff Foxworthy's definitions
describes the role I played. "If you whistle through your tooth when
you talk, you just might be a Red-Neck."
My character's goal was to get Buck's wagon train of slaves
to turn back to the plantations. Having been declared FREE, their
goal was to settle farmland out West and live as free people.
I had already done one hundred and ten episodes of the
television series “Wagon Train.” You would expect me to be a handy
horseman. You would be wrong. Even with all those hours on
a horse, people could still read a newspaper between my butt and the saddle.
When it came to horsemanship, I was a misplaced basketball player, bouncing
all over the place.
The first shot in “Buck and the Preacher” was a long shot
of the bad guys riding into town. About fifteen of us gathered about
a half a mile away from the camera. Sidney yelled, “Come on!” and
we were off. Cameron had the fastest horse and for him it became
a race. The rest of the guys were stunt men and real cowboys. Among
them was my Double, Walter Scott. Walter made a good living riding
broncos on the rodeo circuit.
In this scene, I was also riding with the group.
I was in last place before we ever got started. When Cameron got
to the camera, I was still about fifty yards back. Everyone was there
by the time I rode up, demonstrating one of my patented stops. When
I finally got my nag to stop, my right foot was hooked around the pommel,
my right arm was wrapped around the horse’s neck, the horse’s nose was
in my left armpit, and I was looking down the horse's left ear. Sidney
pretended not to notice my lack of equestrian skills and suggested we do
it again, at a little slower pace.
Cameron didn’t take direction sometimes and it took three
takes and some prodding from a couple of stunt men for the group to arrive
as a group. After that shoot, Walter Scott was my Double and for
the next twelve weeks he rode all over the high desert and made me look
great on a horse!
I have been lucky to work with fine directors. Each
has his or her own style of getting what they want from a scene and the
actors. Sidney created an atmosphere of relaxed calm so the actor
had the courage to go for it... "IT" being to let their character come
to life in the telling of the story they are working in. They can
go out on a limb and know the director will catch them if they fall, or
if they go too far or not far enough.
On top of a windy, bleak mountain, we were rehearsing
a scene between the Sheriff and I. We got into an argument and I
ended up slitting the sheriff’s throat. After a couple of times,
Sidney motioned for me to follow him and we walked off away from the cast
and crew. He turned to me and took one step closer so our eyes were
less than a foot apart. Not taking his eyes from mine, he whispered,
“I just don’t believe you hate us n*****s enough.” He smiled
and walked back to the set.
There it was. In his first job as a Director, he
knew, as the Director, he was my safety net. He was saying, you can
go bananas in this scene, go as far as you want and I will catch you if
you go too far. We rehearsed the scene one more time and I added
a large dose of hate. Then we shot the scene in one take. When
we finished, I looked at Sidney and he nodded. That made me feel
My character, in this film, died in a way that left no
doubt that I was dead and woudn’t be returning.
Harry played a very unusual Preacher. His Bible
was a handy place to hide a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. His
“good book” was really a holster. So, when he took up a collection, he
really TOOK a collection!
When I peeked over a rock, to get a good shot at the Preacher,
Harry blasted me with that shotgun. Before the scene, the special effects
crew showed me their special air-compressed blowgun. I watched them
load its inch-wide barrel with a Max Factor blood containing hundreds of
little pieces of sponge in it. It was a close shot. So, when the
blast from Harry’s shotgun came, WHOOSH goes the air gun and my face was
instant raw hamburger. Ugly? Very!
There was an immediate hustle and bustle of hands with
towels, hands with a folding chair for me to sit in, so they could clean
me up and inquiring minds wanted to know if I was alright. I was
aware of more hands, with what seemed like gallons of Murine. Lots
of blinking. I’m okay. Well, I was okay until I heard the camera
operator tell Sidney that I blinked too soon and that we would have to
do it again.
“The show must go on!” I could kill whoever came
up with that slogan! Of course, we did the scene again. This
time I didn’t blink too soon, it worked and it took a double dose of Murine.
For the next couple of days, I looked like I had cried and cried.
But I lived to die another day, or two, or three.