Looking Back at a Film Legend
BY PAT HILL
Blood and guts aptly describes the films of the late screen-writer and director Sam Peckinpah, who set the stage for movie violence during his career.
Peckinpah earned the nickname Bloody Sam after production of the high-body-count western The Wild Bunch in 1969, and westerns are among his best films. Peckinpah was born in Fresno, California, in 1925, when it was still a typical western town, and that influence helped shape his career. Later, Livingston became one of his favorite haunts.
After serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, Peckinpah began graduate studies in theatre at the University of Southern California. By 1954, he was working in Hollywood as a production assistant and dialogue director, breaking into westerns the following year as a television scriptwriter and director for shows like Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, Have Gun, Will Travel, and also The Westerner and The Rifleman—shows he created. Peckinpah directed his first film, a non-western called The Deadly Companions, in 1961. The following year he wrote and directed the classic western Ride the High Country, which firmly established his reputation in Hollywood.
Peckinpah was also developing a reputation as a hothead, druggie, and drunk by the time his 1965 film Major Dundee was produced, and his career lagged until The Wild Bunch hit the big screen. His burgeoning reputation for savage, in-your-face violence was bolstered with films like Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973), and the cult classic Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), which bear trademark Peckinpah slow-motion action scenes and bloody climaxes. He wrote three of the post-1965 screenplays (excepting Junior Bonner and Pat Garrett ), and directed all five films.
Peckinpah first came to Livingston in 1973 after former Montana Governor Tom Judge paid a visit to Hollywood in an effort to entice the movie industry to Big Sky Country.
“Peck met the governor at a (Hollywood) party, and came to Montana,” said Pat Miller of Liv-ingston, former co-owner of the Murray Hotel. “We had a business partner, Bill Amsk, who played poker with him at the Mint, and that’s how we met him.” Miller said Peckinpah was looking for a place to live permanently in Livingston, and railroad magnate James J. Hill’s luxurious third-floor suite (circa 1900) in the Murray soon became “Peck’s Place.” Peckinpah even had a stand-up bar installed in the 700-square-foot suite so he could arm wrestle with friends.
Miller said that she didn’t know anything about Peckinpah’s career or reputation when she met the film legend.
“That was the best thing,” she said. “I got to know him as a person. I got to know a lot of him that was out of sight because we all lived together. He was a good friend.” She said that Peckinpah was a “consummate gentlemen” who loved women.
“He had incredible blue eyes, and he spoke very softly,” she said. “Everybody listened because we were never sure what would happen next.” That was because Peckinpah was still living life full and hard.
“He had a wild reputation in Livingston,” said Miller. “They drank so much…but he always paid his bills.”
Like professional film critics, Miller agreed that Peckinpah was “probably the father of violence in movies.”
“He did that to make his name…I know that,” she said. “He did things no one else had ever done. He was a genius and a maverick…the studios couldn’t boss him around.”
After moving to Livingston, Peckinpah directed The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977), and Convoy (1978), not a classic Peckinpah movie by any means, followed by Jinxed (1982) and The Osterman Weekend (1983). His last completed work as a director was a music video for John Lennon’s son Julian. Bloody Sam was hoping to produce a Stephen King script, The Shotgunners, when he died of heart failure in December of 1984. Peckinpah was only 59 years old.
Peckinpah’s good friend, actor Warren Oates, also made the journey to Livingston. Oates first worked with Peckinpah in Ride the High Country, and the two men developed a camaraderie that was both personal and professional (Oates was a featured actor in Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Once they arrived in Montana, Peckinpah and Oates purchased property together in the Paradise Valley. “They sure had some wild times up there!” Miller said.
Warren Oates’ son Tim talked about his father and Peckinpah in a (2004) interview with the Pioneer.
“Sam had a way about him,” Tim said. “He was a small man but he commanded large respect. He liked to keep the people he loved close to him, like my dad.” The friendship that grew out of their professional relationship was unfaltering—when Oates died, Peckinpah told Rolling Stone magazine that “Warren was always there for me. I wish I could have been there for him.”
“Sam, as a director, expected a lot out of his actors,” said Tim. “My dad liked being an actor, and Sam liked his professionalism and good-old-boy nature.” He said the two men could party as hard as they worked, and that partying, including cocaine with liberal doses of alcohol, led to both men’s early deaths.
“I think the drugs took over,” Tim said, explaining that while Livingston was supposed to be the place for Peckinpah to get away from the fast life (doctor’s orders), it didn’t always work out that way, like the time Peckinpah “screeched into the driveway” and ran into the house for some Southern moonshine.
“Hey, Warren!” Tim remembered Peckinpah hollering. “I hear you have some of the good stuff!” Peckinpah then reached behind the 18-year-old Tim Oates, who was sitting at the dining room table with three of his friends, grabbed a Mason jar filled with golden-colored liquid off the shelf, and took a stiff drink.
“Then he said, ‘Thanks, Warren!’ and screeched away,” Tim said. “He liked getting away from the skeletons in the closet like that, but I don’t think he could.”
“All of them have quit drinking or died by now,” Miller said. “He was already burned out when we met him, but we liked him at the Murray and looked after him. He was trying for the last big hurrah before he died, but there were too many demons at the door, and it didn’t happen.”
Tim Oates was in Livingston with his sister to scatter his father’s ashes at the family ranch (now owned by Dennis Quaid, though Quaid placed the property on the market in July, 2012, for $14 million) the last time he saw Peckinpah. They were at the Murray in Peck’s Place, reminiscing about Warren at the stand-up bar, when Peckinpah suddenly looked at the dice he was rolling around in his hand.
“What would you think if I rolled five sixes?” he asked, and rolled the dice.
They came up five sixes.
“Sam traced the positions of those dice on the bar,” Tim said. “I wonder whatever happened to those drawings?”
This article by Pat Hill first appeared in the Montana Pioneer in August 2004. Interviews included were also conducted at that time.