The characters are not people, but rough drafts of simplistic character-traits, and the actors (game as they all are) cannot create something out of nothing.
L. Q. Jones is one of these guys who meets you for the first time as if he's carrying on an old friendship.
"So what'll it be, Rog?" he says, studying a menu. "Sex, violence or cheeseburgers?" He decides on the shish kebab and ice tea: "Make it weak, please, and with a whole lot of sugar." This is in the Bar Association, a restaurant on Webster, and everyone's looking at him as if they've seen him somewhere before.
They probably have. L.Q. has been a supporting actor in about 50 movies and 300 TV shows. For awhile, he made a specialty of playing GIs in movies made from novels, and was in "Battle Cry," "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Young Lions." He's been in five Sam Peckinpah films, was one of the Wild Bunch and describes himself as Peckinpah's best friend "for about five or six years before I stopped talking to him."
There are maybe a dozen and a half top Western character actors, and in any big Western - a John Wayne movie, for example, or something by Peckinpah - there'll be a half dozen of them. Jones talks about a time in Durango, Mexico, when both Wayne and Peckinpah were shooting at the same time and there was a veritable Western actor's convention. "Neville Brand was there, and Slim Pickens, and Strother Martin, and Dub Taylor - he's the best hunter in the world, you know - and, hell, we had a time.
"Emilio Fernandez was down there then. He's a Mexican hero turned movie director, only he's a little unpopular because he shot his producer once. Hell, I was in a restaurant once where the waiter dropped a plate and Emilio pulled out a damn elephant gun and chased him down the street.
"That wasn't the worst. When Peckinpah was in Durango shooting 'Major Dundee,' he lost three people - one of natural causes and two crew members from Mexico City who got shot by the local stagehands in order to make more work for the folks in Durango, you see."
Jones was not, however, visiting Chicago to promote the latest Western he's appeared in. He was here to talk about a very different project. "A Boy and His Dog," the new science-fiction movie he wrote and directed, which is in local theaters. It takes place in the next century, is based on a famous story by Harlan Ellison and is about a post-atomic USA in which a young man and his telepathic dog attempt to survive in a world of outcasts and sexual oddities.
"I read the story and never thought it could be made into a movie," he said. "It would have had to be triple-X. I got it down to a soft R. I was afraid of how Harlan would like it; when they screened 'The Oscar,' which he wrote, he went screaming down the aisle like a madman threatening to sue them all if they didn't take his name off that crap. But I came out OK. He liked 'A Boy and His Dog,' which was a relief, because he might have killed me. He's so tall, he comes up to your knees, you know."
Jones is distributing the film himself. He premiered it at the World Science Fiction Convention last year and is moving it from territory to territory: "We're marching on New York City, where it costs a fearsome fortune to open a picture." Business has been good to great, he said, and the reviews have been OK," all except for those ignoramuses who want to know how come the dog's telepathic. Hell, we could have bogged down the whole movie explaining that."
It's not his first movie as a producer or director. "My company has made four, not all of which were what you might call unqualified successes. I directed one called 'The Devil's Bedroom.' I saw it playing once in a porn palace in Manhattan. Hell, it was so tame it could have played in church. It wasn't a bad picture. It was hideous. The cameraman was nearsighted. We didn't know that until six weeks later, because we never took time to look at the daily rushes. Then I had to kill myself getting another guy who could shoot out of focus the same way, so everything would match. But I love horror films, if they have a little imagination, that is. Spare me the giant radioactive carrot carrying away the girl."
The real star of "A Boy and His Dog," he said, was the dog; a trained animal named Tiger.
"The son of a bitch did better than I did," he said. "Had his own car, his own motel room. And where we were shooting, the mosquitoes were so big, the only sleep you got was when they lifted up to the ceiling; you could doze off on the way down, before you hit the floor.
"That dog knew 40 or 50 words. Once it did six tricks in a row, without us having to cut, and that's unheard of for a dog. He works all over the place. He was in the Brady Bunch, now he's on the Cher show . . . but I think he liked our picture best, because in the farewell scene, he cried. And those were real tears, too."
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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