Budd Boetticher (pronounced “bettiker”) was primarily known for his work as a director in the Western genre, but I didn’t want to tell him that. Boetticher refused to be pinned down with any labels, and described any attempts to pigeonhole his talents as “laziness on the part of all those critics.” Born Oscar Boetticher Jr. on July 29, 1916 in Chicago, Boetticher attended Culvper Military Academy and later Ohio State, but during college went to Mexico to recover from a football injury, and saw his first bullfight.
Entranced by the drama of the ring, Boetticher wanted to make a career for himself as a matador, returning to Hollywood only at the behest of his father, who got him a job working as a horse wrangler on the second unit of Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939). (In our talk, Boetticher disputed this, stating flatly that “I was never a horse wrangler in my life …I was the second assistant director.”) This led to work as technical advisor on Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand (1941), in which Boetticher coached Tyrone Power on the fine art of bullfighting, and served as choreographer for the “El Torero” dance number, without receiving formal credit.
From 20th Century Fox, Boetticher drifted over to Columbia, where he formed an unlikely alliance with Harry Cohn, the mercurial head of the studio, and was soon working as an assistant director on such films as The More the Merrier (1943), Destroyer (1943), The Desperadoes (1943), and the big-budget Rita Hayworth vehicle Cover Girl (1944). Simultaneously, Cohn allowed Boetticher to finish up directorial chores on two films credited to Columbia “B” director Lew Landers (Submarine Raider (1942)) and U-Boat Prisoner (1944)), before giving Boetticher his first chance to direct an entire film, as Oscar Boetticher, on One Mysterious Night in 1944. From then on, Boetticher made name for himself as a reliable and inventive director in a variety of genres, until he left Hollywood in 1960 for what should have been a brief trip to Mexico, to make a documentary feature on the life and career of matador Carlos Arruza, one of Boetticher’s idols.
The project, entitled simply Arruza, turned into an epic, seven year long disaster. Obsessed with completing the film, Boetticher turned down numerous directorial assignments, finally ran out of money, got divorced, and wound up spending one week in an insane asylum, and another in a Mexican jail. To make matters worse, Arruza himself was killed in an automobile accident on May 20, 1966, forcing Boetticher to complete the film with the materials at hand. Finally, after numerous other production and financing problems, the film was released in 1972 to rapturous reviews, and remains one of the classics of the documentary film. Boetticher made one other film, My Kingdom For… (1985), and wrote an autobiography, When in Disgrace, which was published in 1989.
Throughout our interview, Boetticher was frank and blunt in his assessment of his own work, as well as that of his associates, and refreshingly candid in his opinions. Entirely his own man, Boetticher was utterly unreconstructed and unapologetically macho during our long talk, occasionally shouting at me if he didn’t think I understood the point he was trying to make, and then apologizing a bit sheepishly afterward. There were a number of surprises for me during our conversation (Boetticher’s intense love/hate relationship with John Wayne and John Ford; his frank admiration for the German propagandist Leni Riefenstahl), but Boetticher tells the story much better himself. This interview took place on June 5, 2001, just a few days after the death of actor Anthony Quinn, one of Boetticher’s best friends, and Boetticher was still quite shaken by Quinn’s passing. Ironically, it was one of the last interviews that Boetticher himself gave before his death on November 29, 2001.
Well, where do you want to start? If you want to start with The Missing Juror (1944), then you want to go pretty far back. That’s only my second picture!
Well, actually I want to start before that, with Of Mice and Men (1939). You worked as a horse wrangler on that film, I believe….
Well, you know, I didn’t really start out wanting to direct pictures… when I was young, I did a lot of things. For a while, I thought my whole life was football, but then I had a knee injury, and I went to Mexico to spend a year away from school, but not lose my eligibility as a football player, and that’s where I saw my first bullfight. It was like the opening of a whole new world. Actually, my favorite sport was not football, and not boxing; it was track. My favorite was the 100-yard dash, because if you lose, it’s your fault; you don’t need ten men to block for you. And when I looked down in the bullring, this first week I was in Mexico, I was 18 and here’s a fella in a gold suit who later became my mentor. And I thought, “boy, talk about individualism, he’s really in a lot of trouble out there.”
Was your goal then to become a professional matador?
Well, I became an apprentice, sort of like an intern becoming a doctor. I was honored when I was 40 years old, fighting with Arruza, when they made me a formal matador. It was during a charity bullfight, and I hadn’t killed a bull for 17 years! By that time, I’d been a director for many years, but it was a great honor. Half of the people were there to see me get killed, but I came through all right.
They had a lot of faith in you, huh?
(laughs) Yeah! It was wonderful, though; I made Carlos take the tour of the ring with me after the bullfight, and I still have the ear of the bull I killed that day, and it’s the only trophy I have in my whole house that I ever put up. It’s down in the den.
Well, how did you get from this to working on Of Mice and Men?
Well, God, first off, I was never a horse wrangler! I was the second assistant director on that picture, working under Lewis Milestone. Great picture.
But how did you get from Mexico to Hollywood? You were set on a career as a matador. What happened?
Well, I didn’t drift back to Hollywood. My mother discovered what I was doing from the papers, that her son had become a bullfighter, and she couldn’t have that. It wasn’t that she was worried about me getting killed; it just wasn’t culturally acceptable for a Boetticher to be a bullfighter. So she called Hal Roach, and Mr. Roach got me the job working on Of Mice and Men. That film was made at the Hal Roach studios. And after that, Roach called up Darryl Zanuck, and that’s how I got the job as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand.
How did you wind up at Columbia after working at 20th?
Well, they wanted me there! George Stevens was working over at Columbia, and you know, being a bullfighter was a pretty romantic thing in Hollywood. Everyone wanted me to visit with them. I went to Columbia as a messenger boy, ‘cause I didn’t have any talent for anything else, I had no career ahead of me, but I would take letters to the different offices as a mail carrier, and I would sit down with the great directors, like George Stevens, who is my favorite director in all the world. And then we would talk about bullfighting, and the mail would never get delivered! So from there, they made me a reader, and I would read things, and suggest that the studio buy them, and eventually I worked my way up.
How did your involvement with Submarine Raider (1942) come about? You directed sections of that film, apparently, but it was credited to Lew Landers.
Well, Harry Cohn was a very dear friend of mine.
You don’t hear many people say that!
(laughs) No, you sure don’t, but what can I tell you, he was a great guy, and we got along great. I liked him a lot, and he liked me for what I had been. You know, it’s a great thing; even when you’ve been a novice bullfighter, the bulls are just as big for you as they are for the real pros, and you get a lot of dignity. Nothing really frightens you.
Yeah, I get the impression that if you let Harry Cohn walk all over you, he would, but if you stood up to him, you were in.
That’s it exactly! We met when Cohn walked on the set while George Stevens was making The More The Merrier (1943), with Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur. I was the assistant director. When Cohn walked on to the soundstage, I tossed George Stevens a tennis ball. George had a backboard built on the set, and he started to play handball by himself with the tennis ball until Harry Cohn left. Which didn’t take too long, because every moment that Stevens was playing handball was costing Columbia about $100 a second! So when Cohn came on the set again, and I tossed the ball to George, Cohn turned to me, pointed at George Stevens, and said “tell that son-of-a-bitch I want to talk to him.” And I said, “that son-of-a-bitch you’re referring to is probably the best son-of-a-bitching director in all of Hollywood. I’m sorry, but he’s busy.” Cohn was furious, and started in on me. He said, “hey listen, you son-of-a-bitch . . .” and that got me mad. I said “whoa, wait a minute! Nobody calls me a son-of-a-bitch, and you better not say that again.” Cohn said, “and if I do?,” and I said “if you do, I’m going to knock you on your ass.” He said, “do you know who I am? and I said “yes, Mr. Cohn, I certainly do, but compared to those black bulls that come out of the chute at the bullring you look like the Virgin Mary.” That’s word for word. And so Cohn stared at me for a long time, and then said, “look, you be in my office at 6 o’clock; I want to talk to you.” And I thought to myself “brother, here you are, 26 years old, and you better get a lot of pencils, and a lot of apples, because you’re sure as hell not in the picture business anymore. I’m going be out on the corner, selling pencils or something.”
So I went to his office, and told me that he needed a young director to finish up a picture. So he put me on the last two days of Submarine Raider, which was a twelve-day picture. And my God, I studied! I prepared every angle, I went over the script line by line, I prepared for those two days as if I were directing Gone With the Wind, because I didn’t have any talent for it. But they gave me an assistant director who was a deadly enemy of mine, and I knew I had to show him who was boss. So when he came over to me on my first day on the set and said “excuse me, sir, but would you mind telling me what your first set up is,” and I said “yeah, I will, as soon as I have a cup of coffee.” And I turned away and said to myself, “son-of-a-bitch, you’re really a director now.” And it worked; he never gave me any trouble after that. So I directed the two days, and then I went back to working as an assistant on the bigger films. Two years later, Cohn put me on another Lew Landers picture, U-Boat Prisoner (1944), which was an eight-day picture. Well, Lew Landers was really a no-talent guy. They called him the “D” director there at Columbia; he just wasn’t any good. Whenever they had a picture they didn’t really care about, they’d give it to Landers.
While we’re in the 1940s at Columbia, I’m going to throw some other names at you and get your reactions. What about (director) Ray Nazarro?
Well, Ray Nazarro is a very interesting figure in my life. Ray was a ten-day picture guy, and they assigned me to his company for two days work as an assistant director. We had lunch together, and I told him the story of my life in Mexico, because he wanted to know about my life as a bullfighter, which, as I said, everyone always thought was fascinating. And he said “Budd, if you put this down on paper in longhand, I’ll type it up. There’s this fellow I know named Dore Schary at MGM; he’s a producer, and I can get this picture made.” And then years later, when I finally made the picture, Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), which originally was called Torero, Mr. Nazarro got credit for my screenplay (along with Boetticher), and I was nominated for an Academy Award, and if I go down in the den and look it up, I have a certificate that states that Bullfighter and the Lady is “an original screenplay by Ray Nazarro and Budd Boetticher.” Can you believe it? But there was no such thing as arbitration then…there was nothing you could do.
What about William Castle?
Oh, Bill Castle was a hell of a nice guy. He directed all those Whistler pictures for Columbia, which were great mystery films. We didn’t hang around together, though, there was no sort of relationship. Directors are worse than bullfighters, believe me; they all want to be stars. But he was a good guy, and he ended up doing some really good horror pictures (such as House on Haunted Hill (1958)).
The next credit I have for you is The Girl in the Case (1944), and once again, you’re helping out on someone else’s film, in this case director William Berke.
Well, what happened there was that they fired the director and I got the job, and I finished the picture. It was another short schedule picture. My first real film as a director was One Mysterious Night (1944), as Oscar Boetticher, which was a Boston Blackie picture with Chester Morris. Once again, it was a very short schedule; twelve days. All these pictures were made for under $100,000; they cost so much, they made so much, and that was it.
Did you do any pre-planning on these films? Did you start off with the master, and then go for the close-ups, or how did you break it down?
No, I didn’t do anything like that. I just figured I was the director, and I’d go on the set and direct the picture. Listen, you don’t learn to be a director; you either are or you aren’t. And you better damn well be able to deal with people. I would look at the scene, and rehearse the scene with the actors, and then shoot it. Today they don’t really know what they’re doing, so they use a lot of different angles to protect themselves in the cutting room. On the “Buchanan” pictures, they averaged a running time of about an hour and seventeen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of wasted footage, because we didn’t have any film to waste! I cut the picture on the set, in the camera, so they couldn’t cut it any other way, and then I’d go off between pictures to Mexico and shoot another two or three bullfights. Then I’d come back and make another eighteen-day picture, then back to Mexico for more bullfights. I did all of this stuff intuitively, and I can’t really analyze them, because I didn’t shoot ‘em that way. If you tell me a story, and you’re a good storyteller, I pay attention. You’ve got a beginning, you’ve got a middle, and you’ve got an ending. That’s the way I made pictures. And I did that very well, and suddenly, I was a good director, after about 15 pictures (laughs). But I didn’t design anything; I just went on the set, I was the boss, and I did it.
On your second feature, the mystery programmer The Missing Juror (1944), you’re working with George Macready (a memorable screen villain, whose most famous role is probably Ballin Mundson, Rita Hayworth’s cold, calculating husband in Gilda (1946)). What was that like?
Oh, he was great! And that was his first really big performance (as a man falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, who then “snaps” and exacts his own brand of justice upon the members of the jury who convicted him). From that picture, he went on to be one of the top character actors in Hollywood. He had a scar on his cheek that was real; I don’t if it was from a car accident, or a dueling accident, or what, but it really added to his personality on screen, and I liked him very much.
From there on, you went on to direct several program pictures for Columbia: Escape in the Fog (1945), A Guy, a Gal and a Pal (1945), and Youth on Trial (1945), all as Oscar Boetticher. These were very small pictures, right?
Oh, they were nothing pictures! But they gave me a chance to work with some great people; Nina Foch, Otto Kruger, people like that. Nina is a great actress; she went on to do some really good stuff.
Why did you decide to drop “Oscar” and become simply “Budd” Boetticher?
I dropped it when I did Bullfighter and the Lady. I came from a very, very wealthy family, and I’ve survived in spite of it. And I didn’t find out until I was thirty that I was adopted. My father named me Oscar Boetticher Jr. because he wanted me to follow in his footsteps, and go into the hardware business. When I was fifteen, he said, “Budd, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “Dad, I don’t know, probably a football coach if I’m lucky.” He looked disgusted and said “Oscar, you see that telephone right there?” and said “yes, sir.” “Well,” he said, “I can pick up that telephone, and I can call Chicago, and buy a million dollars worth of kegs of nails. I’ll buy them at $16 a keg, and I call Los Angeles and I sell them for $17 a keg, and I’ve made a huge profit in five minutes.” And I said “yes sir, but you’ve made it in Evansville, Indiana.” He was furious. He didn’t speak to me after that for many, many weeks.
What did your mother do?
She didn’t have to do anything.
She was a homemaker?
(laughs) A homemaker? She was never a homemaker! She was the countess of whatever you want to call it; she was something very special to me.
Now we come to Behind Locked Doors (1948), which was one of three pictures that you made for Eagle-Lion, which was formerly PRC, perhaps the cheapest studio in Hollywood.
That was the first picture I made after the war. Three weeks after I got out of the Navy, my agent called me and said “Budd, I’ve got you a three picture deal at Eagle Lion Studios.” I said, “what the Hell is that?” He said “well, it’s a studio right next to Warner Brothers, Brynie (Bryan) Foy is the head of it, it’s a new organization, and I talked them into giving you a contract.” I said, “how the Hell did you do that? I don’t know anybody there.” And he said, “well, I told them you were the gentile Sammy Fuller,” and I said, “Jesus, I’d rather be the Jewish John Ford!” But I was stuck with the deal. It was a small studio, and they didn’t have much money, but the pictures were all right. Richard Carlson starred in Behind Locked Doors, and it was fun to work with him, and Doug Fowley, Lucille Bremer, Tor Johnson, the rest of the cast. The others were Black Midnight (1949) and Assigned to Danger (1948); they were all right, but nothing special.
Then you went to Monogram for The Wolf Hunters (1949).
Monogram! That was really second rate! Wolf Hunters was an outdoor picture, kind of an “in the snow” thing, and I put all my friends in it who were out of work. Jan Clayton, Kirby Grant, everyone I knew who was out of a job. It was twelve days; just terrible.
Killer Shark (1950)?
That was a small picture with Roddy McDowall as the star, and I just loved him. He always had his mother and father with him on the set, but he was just about to have his 21st birthday. So we went out on location on purpose, so that he could get out from underneath their jurisdiction, and see some girls here and there. So we made the picture in Baja, California, and Roddy was no virgin after that.
Now we come to Bullfighter and the Lady, which is one your most famous pictures.
Well, Bullfighter and the Lady was my life story. Bob Stack was in that, who is still a very good friend of mine; but I’ve lost two very good friends in just the last couple of months; Burt Kennedy and Tony Quinn. Burt was a great writer and director; he wrote most of the Randolph Scott westerns I directed in the 50s. And Tony Quinn…well, I don’t have to tell you, he was one of the greatest actors in the business. Bullfighter and the Lady was a Republic picture, but we never went in the studio. John Wayne produced it. Duke heard my life story, and wanted to meet me, and I went over and met him, and that was the beginning of the war between Budd Boetticher and John Wayne that went on and on and on. I’ve done five forewords for books about the Duke, and they all have to say exactly the same thing, and this is the way that we felt about each other. I always say, “anybody who knows me well, knows that I truly love John Wayne; but anybody who really knows me well knows that I also hate his guts.”
What was going on?
Well, Duke was Duke, and he was wrong about a lot of things, I thought, and I was the only one around who ever told him so. He was a tough, wonderful son-of-a-bitch, but he was wrong about a lot of things. We didn’t agree on anything, politically or otherwise. Politically myself, I’m right down the middle.
So then how did he wind up producing the film?
Well, he liked the story; it was as simple as that. And so we did it.
Were you at loggerheads all during the shooting?
No, he never bothered me at all; he was wonderful. Duke produced the two best pictures I ever made: Seven Men from Now (1956) and Bullfighter and the Lady. But then he and John Ford cut 42 minutes out of Bullfighter and the Lady, so that it would be less than 90 minutes, a “B” picture. It took me forty years to get it back the way I wanted it, and that’s the way it is now, in the full 124 minute cut. After I put together the first rough cut, no one would look at the picture, much less release it. I called up John Ford, and he said, “you know how I love Mexico, Goddammit; call the studio and tell them to let me see the picture.” So he ran the picture on a Monday, but nothing happened until Friday. He called me up at 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon and said “Budd, I saw your picture.” And I said, for the only time in my life, “is it any good?” He said, “nope, it’s great! You know it is; come in and see me and we’ll talk about it.” So I got in my car and drove straight to Republic. There was a drive-on pass for me, and I parked my car in the lot, and walked into Mr. Ford’s office. He said, “sit down, kid.” So I sat down, and asked him again “you really thought the picture was great?” and he said “it sure as Hell is! ‘Course, it’s got 42 minutes of real shit in it.”
Isn’t that awful? He said, “you’ve got to cut it down to an hour and a half, so it’ll come out as a “B” picture.” I finally restored it just a couple of years ago, but it was a helluva blow, I tell you.
Your next picture was The Sword of D’Artagnan (1951), which is a very small film for Hal Roach. How did you get involved with that?
Ah, that’s a very interesting story. Hal Roach called me up, and said, “Budd, I need your help.” So I went in to see him, and he said “Budd, we’re going to make The Three Musketeers as an hour picture for television” for Westinghouse, I think. I said, “OK, what’s the shooting schedule?” He said, “three days.”
(laughs) One day for each Musketeer, right?
(laughs) Yeah. I said, “three days??!! Just how much do I get, for my own information?” He said, “five hundred dollars.” I said, “I get five hundred dollars to direct a three day picture?” He said, “yep,” so I went in and I did it in three and a half days! A year went by, and my ex-wife and I were at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the second feature came on, and it was The Sword of D’Artagnan, my three and a half-day picture. I thought, “great, just when I’m getting somewhere, here comes this three and a half day TV film to screw the whole thing up.” The next morning, I called up my good friend Hal and said, “Hal, you owe me $34,500.” He said, “what are you talking about?,” and I said “I made you a feature picture, and you only paid me $500; my current fee is $35,000 a picture, so you owe me $34,500.” And he shot back, “a deal’s a deal,” and that was that. You know, we never saw each other again. That’s all I needed.
You made a westerns after that, The Cimarron Kid (1951) with Audie Murphy; a war picture, Red Ball Express (1952), with Alex Nicol; and then you really seem to get into your Western phase with Horizons West in 1952.
These were all for Universal; I got a seven-year contract there, and wound up directing a lot of pictures for them. But let me tell you something; I don’t make westerns. I make movies. That’s just laziness on the part of all those critics! I’ve made 52 pictures, counting the one that I made during the war for the Navy (The Fleet That Came to Stay (1946)), and out of that, I’ve made 12 Westerns, and they say “he’s a Western director;” I made three bullfight pictures, and they say “he’s a bullfight director;” and I made one gangster picture, (The Rise and Fall of) Legs Diamond (1960)), and they say “he’s a gangster director.” So it’s a lot of nonsense. I’m a director; I don’t make westerns.
But do you have a fondness for the Western genre?
Oh, I love it, because it’s outside, and you can do a lot with people, and there’s a lot of action. I’ll tell you a story. When we were getting ready to do Seven Men from Now (1956; the first film in the “Buchanan” series, comprising seven films in all between 1956 and 1960), we walked into Duke’s office one day, Burt (Kennedy) and me, because Duke was producing the first show. Duke said, “hey, who do you want to play the lead in Seven Men from Now?,” and I said “I don’t know, Duke, who do you want?,” and he said, “let’s use Randolph Scott. He’s through.”
And we shoved Randolph Scott up Duke’s ass! We made five pictures in the series, and then they wanted to make two more. But Columbia wanted to fire Harry Joe Brown (who produced the series), can you believe it? He made 100 pictures for that crappy organization.
Why did they want to fire him?
They figured that Randy, and Burt, and I could do it by ourselves; they figured we didn’t need him. Save some money. So we just said, “if you fire Harry Joe, we’ll go to Warner Brothers.” And they backed down, so we did Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960), the last two films in the series.
Let me back up a bit to The Magnificent Matador (1955). That’s Anthony Quinn.
That’s Anthony Quinn all right, and he’d won two Academy Awards, and he couldn’t get a job. So I wrote a script, and the studio changed the title to The Magnificent Matador, which is about the worst title you can imagine. He was typed; he couldn’t get work, so I wrote a script in which he was the star. Maureen O’Hara played the opposite lead; she was great, the greatest lady I ever worked with. The picture was OK, but I was happier about what it did for Anthony Quinn. We put him in a gold suit, and he was a star! He wasn’t a star in Viva Zapata! (1952), he was a character actor, and The Magnificent Matador made him a star of the first magnitude.
The Killer is Loose is a “noir film” from 1956, which has been rather overlooked by critics.
I did that with Lucien Ballard, the best cinematographer there ever was. We shot The Magnificent Matador together, and when we got through with that, all the producers said “don’t let these two guys make a picture together ever again; they’re tough as Hell; they don’t care about the money; they’re going to break the studio.” So I discovered that there was an eighteen-day picture called The Killer is Loose at Warner Brothers, so Lucien and I went there and we made it in fifteen days. And that put that rumor to rest. Joseph Cotten was the star; a complete professional, always knew his lines; of course, he’d worked with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941); he was a member of the Mercury Theatre group, so he was great to work with.
Did you know Orson Welles?
I knew him very well. I met him when I was working on Blood and Sand when I first came to Hollywood; he and I sat around the set between takes talking about bullfighting, and we became very good friends.
The Killer is Loose led into the “Buchanan” films.
Yes, we made five great ones, and two mediocre ones: Decision at Sundown (1957) was already written when I did it, and they wanted me to do another picture; actually, when Burt and Randy and I got together, we all wanted to do another picture. So we did Decision at Sundown from the existing script, and we tried to salvage it, and we did the best we could. Then Randy called me one night and said “I have a terrible thing to tell you,” and he was really serious. “I’ve got to do another Randolph Scott picture at Warner Brothers” he said, and I said “oh, Jesus Christ!” So I called the studio, and by this time I was riding high, very expensive. I went over to Warners, found the producer, a guy named Henry Blanke (I’d never met him, and I’ve never seen him since), and said “I want to direct Westbound (1958).” He said, “have you read the script?” I said, “I don’t have to see the script; I want to make the picture.” So Randy and I made the picture, which was pretty good for an eighteen-day picture. But those were the two weakest ones; the rest were really great.
A lot of these films are in CinemaScope; do you like working in ‘scope?
I liked it very much. I didn’t think most of the directors knew what to do with ‘scope; they thought with ‘scope that you put your leading lady camera right, and your leading man camera left, and that’s the way you fill your screen. I filled the left part of the screen with trees. But the real reason we used ‘scope was because it was a war, to try to combat this horrible thing called television that was raising its filthy head. But I loved ‘scope; I thought it was great, if you knew how to use the camera.
Did you ever see Forty Guns (1957), Sam Fuller’s ‘scope Western?
No, but I love Sam. I liked him immensely; we became very good friends. But you know, you don’t have the time to see too many other people’s movies when you’re active in the industry; you’re too busy making your own!
A lot of people have commented that the Buchanan films are very tough and unsentimental, and very different from the kinds of Westerns that John Wayne and John Ford were making; do you agree?
(laughs) Well, I don’t think that John Ford and I had the same sentimentality! Jack Ford, the last time I saw him was two weeks before he died (on August 31, 1973), and he was dying year after year in Palm Desert, California. My wife and I had horses stuck from Portugal to Mexico City to Tijuana, and once a month we would go to see Jack. And during this last period of his life, he and I became very, very intimate friends. And the last thing he said to me – we would kind of do a Of Mice and Men, George and Lenny routine; you know, “tell me about the rabbits, George” – and I would say to Jack, “tell me about your next picture, Jack,” which was going to be about the Black soldiers in the Civil War, the Buffalo soldiers, and he would tell me what we was going to do. Two weeks before he died, I was sitting on the corner of his bed, and I started to leave. I said “Jack, before I go, tell me what else you’ve thought of for your new picture.” He said, “Budd, you know I’m never gonna make another picture.” And then he reached up, and he held my hand like my wife does, and he said “listen, kid; if you ever want to be known as the best director in the world, always remember that everybody else is a son-of-a-bitch.” And that’s the John Ford I knew.
Next we come to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), starring Ray Danton, your only gangster picture. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, the only two actors ever that I really hated – I don’t know that word, I’m a very happy guy – one was Ray Danton (1931-1992), and the other was Gilbert Roland (1905-1994, in Bullfighter and the Lady). Those two gave the best performances of their life. I hated those two bastards so much; what a total pain in the ass! Ray Danton was married to Julie Adams, and Julie Adams was the only lady in Hollywood who was a star that I really cared about. Right before the show started, I read in Louella Parsons’ column that (Ray Danton) was divorcing Julie Adams. I hadn’t seen her in years, but she was doing a Maverick (episode of the television series starring James Garner), and I said “honey, is this true that he’s divorcing you?” and she said “yes, I guess so.” I said, “why?” She said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Do you think it’s possibly because you’re a star and Ray Danton is a bit player?” She said, “maybe.” I said, “how would you like him to play Legs Diamond?” She said, “no, I’ve read the script.” I said, “no, I’m talking about the leading man; Ray will play Legs Diamond. She said, “don’t do that for me.” I said, “he’s gonna to be the leading man.”
So I tested seven fellows, and I shot them over Karen Steele’s shoulder (Steele was the leading lady in Legs Diamond, playing the role of Alice Shiffer), so that you couldn’t see them. And then I brought in Ray Danton, and I sent all the other guys home. Then I shot Ray straight on, so you couldn’t miss him. When we got in the cutting room, I ran all the tests for Jack Warner (head of production at Warner Brothers). I could do no wrong at that time at Warner Brothers, because I was doing a gangster picture, which was what put Warner Brothers in the public eye in the first place. So we ran all the tests, and the only guy you could see was Ray, and Jack said, “Budd, that’s the only son-of-a-bitch who knows what he’s doing!” because that’s the only son-of-a-bitch he saw.
When I was doing research for that picture, I went out to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and I met all the hoods. They would meet me in restaurants, and they would say “Mr. Boetticher,” pronouncing my name correctly, “may we sit down?” always two guys, very well dressed, Brooks Brothers suits, and they would sit down and say “we understand you’re gonna make a picture about Jack Diamond.” I said, “well, I’m gonna try.” They said, “what kind of picture is it gonna be?” I responded, “well, the greatest picture I ever saw was made by a woman, Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934), about one of the most despicable men of all time, Adolf Hitler. So I want to make a picture about a miserable, no good son-of-a-bitch that when you walk out of the theater, you say “God, wasn’t he great!” And then you take two steps, and you say, “wait a minute, he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch!
You know, there’s nothing like Triumph of the Will ever. That film not only made Nazism look good; it made Hitler look good! That’s a neat trick if you can do it. I first saw the film in a theater in the Navy Department, with Richard Carlson and Gene Kelly, and we ran the complete uncut version of Riefenstahl’s picture. And when the lights came on, we really peeked around to see that nobody was there, and then we said to each other, “Heil Hitler!” The thing is, no matter how you try to recut that film to make Hitler look bad, you can’t do it. You start with him flying through the clouds in an airplane, and then he descends from the heavens, and he looks like Christ. So the hoods said “are you really gonna do that?” and I said “yeah,” and they said, “you know something? That’s a great idea. Everybody thinks Jack Diamond was a great guy, but he was really a no good bum.” So then they told me everything, who had really murdered who and so on, and when I went back to Warner’s and told them everything I’d learned, they wouldn’t let me make the picture! So we had to clean it up a bit. We had twenty-four days on that; it was a good picture.
I’d like to ask you a bit about your TV work; you directed episodes of Public Defender (1954), Maverick (1957), The Count of Monte Cristo (1955), Zane Grey Theater (1956), Alias Mike Hercules (1956), The Rifleman (1958), 77 Sunset Strip (1958), and Hong Kong (1960); that’s a lot of television shows.
All I did in TV was make a lot of pilots. I made the pilot for Maverick, and then the first four shows after that. I did some shows for Zane Grey Theater because I liked Dick Powell so much. Other than that, I only did pilots, and the episodes of Zane Grey. I did the pilot for 77 Sunset Strip; I did the pilot for The Rifleman.
Did you know nowadays that if you direct the pilot, you get a piece of the whole series?
Oh, you get all kinds of things. Back then, I think I made $1,500 to do the pilots.
What about Hong Kong?
Hong Kong was going to be let go. They weren’t gonna do any more with it; they were gonna cut it out. And they called me and asked me to do the last one, and I did, and then they liked that so much they let it go for another three years!
Now we come to Arruza, which you deal with extensively in your autobiography, When in Disgrace.
You’ve read it?
Indeed I have.
Well, it’s all true. I left Hollywood in my Rolls-Royce and went down to Mexico to shoot a documentary on Arruza, and it should have been just a short project, but it turned into a seven-year nightmare. Everything in my book is true; there really was a prison, there really was a sanitarium.
Why did you leave Hollywood right after Legs Diamond, at the top of your career, for such a manifestly uncommercial project?
I left Hollywood because I wanted to do something nobody else in the world could do. I thought, “I’ll make a picture about bullfighting, and I’ll use Carlos playing himself.” That’s why I left Hollywood. I had to do that picture. I tossed the whole Hollywood thing over because I couldn’t see any other time ever when the best bullfighter in the world, who is the best friend of a well-known motion picture director, could make a picture together.
But it didn’t turn out to be that easy, did it?
What are you talking about? It turned out great, in the end? I mean, what else do you count?
Yes, but you ran out of money…
Went through a divorce . . .
Well, that’s no problem.
Spent five days in an insane asylum . . .
Yeah, well they wanted me to come home and do The Comancheros (1961; directed by Michael Curtiz) with the Duke. And I turned them down.
You’re stuck in an insane asylum, and you turned them down?
Well, of course!
Because I didn’t want to quit Arruza, the man or the picture. I had a quarter of a million dollars of my own money in it, I had my life in it, and I wanted to finish the picture. I think that if you quit something, it’s kind of like stealing; and I think once you steal something, you eventually become a thief. And I was damned if I was gonna get licked by Mexico, and the fact that I couldn’t finish my picture, so I stayed there. And if I hadn’t done exactly what I did, I wouldn’t be married to Mary. We’ve been married now thirty years, and I wake up every morning and say “thank you, God.” And I put a lot more than a quarter of a million dollars in it; when you figure I made three or four hundred thousand dollars a year, and I was gone for seven years, and you add all that up…well, Arruza was a very expensive picture. And then, of course, Carlos was killed in a car crash in 1966. I had finished everything except a party scene at the end of the picture. Carlos and I were going to go out to a local ranch and ride, but I didn’t go, and he was killed on the way home. If I’d been in the car with him, we’d have been sitting in the back seat together, and he wouldn’t have been killed. But he sat in the front, and that was the end of that.
Arruza didn’t come out until 1972.
Well, I wasn’t satisfied with it. I didn’t want it to come out until I was completely happy with it. It’s still a picture I can go and look at now and say “boy, I’m glad I made that.” (Roger Greenspun, in) The New York Times said “Arruza may belong among the last great examples of classical filmmaking.” You can’t do better than that.
What about A Time for Dying (1971), your second film with Audie Murphy? Lucien Ballard shot that; Audie Murphy produced it; you wrote and directed the film.
Well, I’d known Audie for a long time. I went to the Hunt Gymnasium on the way home every day from Hal Roach Studios, and there was a little guy there weighed about 150 pounds, and he wanted to box everyday. So we would box a few rounds every day, and he would try to kill me every time! I was a pretty good fighter, and weighed about 185 pounds, and so I’d have to belt him once in a while. This went on, and then we were in the steam room one day, and he pulled off his towel to wipe his face, and I saw this horrible scar where he had no hip. I said “what the hell is that?” and he said, “well, it’s shrapnel.” I said, “really, you were in the war?” And he looked at me with astonishment, and said “well, yeah.” (Murphy was the most decorated combat soldier in World War II.) So I went and asked one of the other guys, “who’s that kid I box with every day?,” and he said “you mean you don’t know? That’s Audie Murphy.” Then when I was working at Universal in 1951, I made a small picture there called The Cimarron Kid, and Audie was in it, so that’s how we made our first picture together. He was just a kid then. But when we made A Time for Dying, Audie got in real trouble with some people in Las Vegas, and he needed a director to make a picture, and he would be the producer. He was a friend, and he was in trouble, so I made the picture for him. But then Audie was killed in a plane crash shortly after the film was finished (on May 28, 1971), so the whole thing was just tragic.
During the filming of Arruza, you wrote the story for Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969, directed by Don Siegel)?
Not what you saw! I wrote a script called Two Mules for Sister Sara, which was a love story, and they wouldn’t make it the way I wrote it. They wanted me to come home and work on it, but I wouldn’t quit Arruza. So I stayed down there, and they made that abortion with my good friend, whom I really like, Clint (Eastwood). I thought it was a just a horrible picture, even though Don Siegel was a great director, and a very good friend of mine. And when Clint walked down to put out the stick of dynamite at the end of the film – it was a stick of dynamite, for God’s sake – I was sitting in the theater at the premiere, and I just said “Jesus Christ!” Don Siegel called me up the next day and said “Budd, thanks for not walking out on the show last night.” I said “Don, how could you make a piece of crap like that?” He said, “Budd, it’s kind of a wonderful thing to wake up every morning and know that there’s a check in the mail.” I just let this fall on dead silence, and he said, “well, I guess I’m talking to the wrong guy, aren’t I?” “Yeah,” I said, “it’s better to wake up every morning and not be ashamed of what you see in the mirror.”
Robert Towne gave a you a small part as an actor in Tequila Sunrise, a film Towne wrote and directed in 1988, starring Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer. You played “Judge Nizetitch.”
Well, Bob just wanted me in the picture. So Mary and I went down, and we did one day, and I looked at what they were doing, and I said “oh my God, this is my industry?” and we went home.
What projects are you working on now?
Well, I want to do a movie based on my autobiography, When In Disgrace. I’ve got a script written, but it’s 180 pages, which is way too long, but I’m not going to direct the film, so I’ll let the director cut it. We should be able to do that next year.
Who would play you in the film?
I have no idea, no idea at all. Robert Redford would have been good about thirty years ago; I was in my 40s when most of this stuff happened, and he would have been good. But I don’t know anyone today who could handle the role. I mean, who the Hell could play me?