Until very recently, Hollywood was chock-full of drunkards.
Some of our finest writers, directors and actors have turned in Academy-quality drinking performances. Whether you’re talking about Silent Age greats like Charlie Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle, Golden Age stars like Humphrey Bogart or William Holden, you could be relatively certain that where you saw a film crew, you would also find quality drunkards.
A exemplary drunkard who has not gotten his due, professionally or personally, is the screenwriter, director, innovator and rebel, Sam Peckinpah.
Over his career he directed a handful of this country’s finest motion pictures, notably Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a pair of cult classics, The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and his twin masterpieces, Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch. He changed the way movies were written, adding previously unknown depth to his characters; how they were shot, with his use of integrated slow-motion footage; and how they were edited, as with The Wild Bunch, with its 3,200+ cuts in an era when most features averaged fewer than 600. And he did most of his best work with a glass of iced vodka in his hand.
Born and raised in the quiet suburbs of Northern California, Peckinpah was the son of David Peckinpah and part of the wealthy and politically powerful Peckinpah clan that featured a slew of lawyers, judges, and politicians. Destined for law school and the State House, Sam turned his back on that life, intent on more noble artistic pursuits. He studied theater direction as an undergraduate and earned a masters in film from USC (the same program that would, a generation later, produce George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). Sam cut his artistic teeth directing plays and as a technician at a Los Angeles TV station before turning his hand to screenwriting.
As a writer, Peckinpah was instrumental in the creation of the TV classics Gunsmoke and The Westerner. Neither show has aged well, but in their day were rather marvelous reinventions of the Western genre. Hollywood movers and shakers noticed and before long handed Sam his first feature, Ride the High Country. After that it was a steady rise, as he directed a seemingly endless series of movies (four films in four years during one frantic stretch) each better and more demanding than the last. He also garnered a reputation as a rebel, an iconoclast, and as a producer’s worst nightmare.
That he accomplished so much while being almost constantly in the bag is an element of his career that has been misrepresented or egregiously misinterpreted. His primary biographer, David Weddle, makes constant mention of Peckinpah’s booze intake, but always as a predicate for Sam’s sometimes erratic and often angry behavior. Weddle fails to acknowledge (or even recognize) the fact that at the height of Peckinpah’s boozing he was simultaneously at the height of his creative prowess, helming The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett, and Straw Dogs over an intense four-year period. Critics and biographers are always on the lookout for signs of artistic decline and have a lamentable tendency to leap at facile answers. In truth, Peckinpah’s artistic decline really began when he got hooked on cocaine in the late ‘70s.
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Sam (called D-Sammy by his family) learned to drink at an early age. The Peckinpahs made their money ranching, and every summer Sam went to his grandfather’s spread in the high country of north-east California and north-west Nevada. Up in those hills young Sam learned to drive cattle, and how to brand them and cut their ears. He hunted deer, bear and mountain lion, and learned to “read” the wilderness.
He also met and became friends with one of his grandfather’s ranch hands, Bill Dillon, and the ranch foreman, Ed Klippert. These men were real cowboys, and took Sam, who they felt was growing soft in the suburbs, under their tutelage. They showed him how to sit a saddle, how to track a big cat, and how to drink what they called “the brown,” and what Sam would come to know as “the elixir of liberation”—whiskey. By the time he was seventeen, the boys were taking Sam along on benders that might last a week. They careened through life in a whiskey blur, singing, fighting, and throwing their money around Nevada whorehouses. Dillon had a small wagon that he pulled around with a pair of mules. The beasts knew the way home, so when Dillon, Ed, Sam or all three got too loaded to make their own way, friends would pour them into the back of the wagon, give the mules a slap, and the boys would wake up in the ranch’s foreyard, blitzed but happy to be home. Late in his life, Ed Klippert would say they behaved like a “bunch of crazed Comanches.”
Peckinpah learned his lessons well, and would use his memories from the Dunlap Ranch to stoke his artistic furnace throughout his career. Dillon and Klippert would appear, in various guises, again and again in Peckinpah’s movies as he inserted autobiographical moments into his ongoing celluloid quest for truth.
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After Sam hit the big-time with Ride the High Country (which received three Oscar nominations), he turned some of his new wealth into a beach-front house in a nowheresville town called Malibu. He owned almost no furniture, but did invest in an industrial-strength blender. He and his first wife (he would eventually have four) had just divorced, so every weekend was a party at Peckinpah’s. It was the 1960s, and the frozen-drink craze had infected the West Coast—daiquiris, margaritas, etc.—and Sam served them to his guests by the bucketload. His blender started humming around nine in the morning and ran almost continuously until the wee hours.
In those days Malibu was something of a Hollywood secret, populated by selective celebrities and a few others in the know, and hadn’t yet deteriorated into the yuppie nightmare it became in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Sam’s house sat on several acres of beach and scrub, far from most neighbors, so the parties could go on for days at a stretch without annoying the neighbors. Not that any locals would’ve cared as most of them were guests.
Brian Keith regularly parked his carcass on Sam’s sofa, flush with the celebrity of a hit TV show (Family Affair), as did Sam’s neighbors to the north, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who often invited other big-time movie people, telling them they’d be hard pressed to find more fun than a party at Sam Peckinpah’s. Local teenagers quickly learned that they could cadge free booze from Peckinpah simply by walking up the beach and helping themselves. The adults were usually too blitzed to notice.
Sam felt a special affinity for and kinship with stuntmen. In many ways he preferred them to actors. They were tough, capable, and real in a way that seemed to defy most Hollywood clichés. Sam liked to challenge them to drinking contests, often wagering on the outcome. Afterwards, win or lose, Sam usually tried to fight them. He was only about 5’5” and weighed maybe 150 pounds, but he was scrappy and held his own. When he showed up at the set on Monday morning with a black eye, a fat lip, or other bruises, his people knew there had been a good time out in Malibu.
Peckinpah named his house the “Bird Nest,” which was fitting since he and his guests were usually drunker than noggin-swatted geese.
* * *
Sam Peckinpah’s love for hard liquor, especially vodka, gin and mescal, carried right into his movies and, more importantly, into his directorial philosophy.
Drink plays a role in many of his movies, but is generally there with no comment. It’s not an element of “character development” (whatever that means), but is simply there. People drink in his movies for all the reasons we drink in our personal lives. There are no alcoholics in Peckinpah’s universe. Contrary to many movie worlds, Sam’s was populated with men and women who could hold their liquor. Intoxication is presented as a simple fact of life, which it is, or as a cue for fun. Imagine Peckinpah confronted by a group of twelve-steppers. He would’ve eaten them alive like so many corn nuts, with only a lingering belch as evidence they’d ever existed.
No, Peckinpah knew alcohol. He spoke it’s language.
Two of the best examples of what I’m talking about can be seen in his epic masterpiece The Wild Bunch. (I’ll forego a plot synopsis, but if you haven’t seen it, you’ve done yourself a great disservice.) Looked at side by side, you can see clearly the depth of Peckinpah’s understanding of, not only intoxication, but of human psychology in general.
Near the end of the movie, just before the Bunch (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) decide they must rescue their captured comrade, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) from General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), Holden is shown in the dim confines of a prostitute’s room, where he has spent the night. He sits on a cot, half dressed, polishing off the contents of a bottle. He has decided to save Angel, and will sacrifice himself if need be, to save what little is left of his honor. He stares into the bottle, then at the girl, then at the bottle. There is courage in there, yes, but there is more. He can see his past in the mirror of swirling liquid, his mistakes, his failures. Grimacing, he kills the bottle and tosses it aside. He is steeled now for action, having seen himself in liquor’s magic mirror. He pays the girl and leaves.
The whole sequence is free of dialogue or music. It’s just an actor and a bottle, and is one of William Holden’s finest moments as an actor. If written today, the scene would probably include some Christ-awful monologue where the character describes his feelings. Peckinpah distilled it down to only its most basic elements, and let Holden’s eyes and body language tell the story. Now that’s acting, folks.
The second scene involves the Gorch brothers, played to perfection by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, who also spend their final night in the company of some “sporting” women. Drunk as five Irish padres already, the brothers take the ladies for a naughty cavort in a gigantic vat of wine. The four splash about in the vino, fondling, kissing, singing, and otherwise conducting themselves about as you’d expect.
When the day came to shoot the scene both Johnson and Oates went to Peckinpah, wanting to know how they were supposed to play it. Sam asked them what they’d do in a vat of wine with two lovely girls, and Oates suggested something that would never survive review by the MPAA. Flummoxed and irritated, Peckinpah gave each of the foursome a bottle of brandy and called a halt to shooting so they could go and polish it off—all of it, no exceptions. The actors returned to the set an hour or so later, having done as instructed, and Peckinpah told them to get in the vat and “surprise” him. The result is a classic scene of drunken gaiety. The Gorch brothers, it appeared, have never been happier in their lives. Oates uses his revolver to blast some holes in the vat, and the four stand under a shower of wine, laughing hysterically.
The scene played so real, in fact, that Ben Johnson’s wife never let him return to Mexico ever again.
* * *
If there was a group of people Peckinpah hated above all others, it was movie producers.
He entered the Hollywood scene as it was transitioning from the studio system to today’s corporate structure, and Sam was often caught in the middle. All he wanted was to shoot and edit his movie the way he felt it should be done, but faced constant interference from producers. Then, as now, producers usually knew nothing about film as a craft, and even less about art. They were, and remain, bean counting middle-managers, concerned with nothing but the bottom line. There were days that, if Sam could’ve figured out the logistics, he would’ve rounded them all up and had them killed before they could cause further damage to his art.
Now, it must be said that Peckinpah was one of those “problem” artists we read about from time to time. People who disliked him did so violently. Even his friends thought he was a royal pain in the ass. At the end of principal photography for Major Dundee, one of the films stars, James Coburn, who was a close friend and drinking companion of Peckinpah’s, shouted at the director, “Goodbye, you rotten motherfucker!” So, yes, Sam Peckinpah, when he was really on fire, could cause Mother Theresa to use naughty words.
Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—Sam’s alcohol intake increased the likelihood of an egomaniacal outburst. Usually, though, the hooch helped him maintain control of his emotions on the set. Until, that is, he started shooting Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. On that shoot Sam ran headlong against a studio suit who thought Sam needed “controlling.” When Sam fought back, the suit systematically set about sabotaging Sam’s movie, as well as Sam’s reputation and career.
The man’s name was James Aubrey. He was the president of MGM, and a total piece of shit. The very definition of a corporate suit—talentless, narrow-minded, paranoid, mean-spirited, and vengeful—he was the man responsible for defacing the Las Vegas strip with that monolithic eyesore the MGM Grand Hotel. In the process, he damn near bankrupted MGM by pouring 120 million dollars into the casino, and is the sole reason why Ted Turner owns the entire MGM film library. Aubrey had to sell it to save the studio from a bankruptcy caused by his utter ineptitude. In his day, however, Aubrey wielded as much power in Hollywood as anyone ever has, and he became obsessed with using it to destroy Sam Peckinpah.
Sam was forced into daily battles with Aubrey, who nit-picked budgetary items line by line and capriciously OK-ed some while vetoing others, which proved to be an insurmountable distraction for the director. The movie was going to be his masterpiece—a powerful meditation on honor—but he was unable to pull it off because of Aubrey. Not that he didn’t try. He got back at the guy by using certain of his contractual rights to spend gallons of the studio’s money. When Aubrey sent a lackey to spy on the production, as he often did, Sam would produce his Bowie knife and practice throwing it as the lackey tried to talk. Sam also carried a pistol in a shoulder holster and enjoyed creeping up behind the suits and firing several rounds into the sky, just to watch them jump and scramble for cover.
Sam was drinking with a righteous vigor by this time. His personal assistant and driver, Chalo Gonzalez, followed Peckinpah around the set carrying an old-fashioned cigarette tray, but instead of smokes he filled the tray with ice, glasses, bottles of vodka, lime slices, and various mixers. He was Sam’s personal bartender. All Peckinpah had to do was hold out his hand and Chalo would cause a fresh drink to appear in it. Since the evil Aubrey and his sleazy minions called most every morning, Sam tried to remain sober during the early hours of the day so he would be more lucid and thus able to win more battles. After talking with Aubrey, though, Sam needed strong drink. It was drink or fly back to Hollywood and beat Aubrey into a coma.
As mentioned, Aubrey had spies all over the set, there to report back on Peckinpah’s behavior. When one told Aubrey about Sam’s lack of focus in the afternoon, Aubrey tried to have Sam sacked for violating the “morals” clause in his contract. In response, Sam purchased a full page ad in the Hollywood Reporter. It featured a picture of Sam lying on a hospital gurney being fed Johnny Walker by an intravenous drip as he grinned at the camera. The caption read:
“Dear sirs: With reference to the rumors that seem to be spreading around Hollywood that on numerous occasions Sam Peckinpah has been carried off the set, taken with drink. This is to inform you that those rumors are totally unfounded. However, there have been mornings…”
Sam eventually got his movie in the can, but when all was said and done, Aubrey, the little prick, corn-holed Peckinpah and took the movie away from him.
Teams of studio lawyers found loopholes in Sam’s contract and eventually denied the director access even to the editing booths. Without Peckinpah’s editorial input (he was known for shooting thousands of extra feet of film so he had as many choices as possible while editing) the movie, as released, was a nonsensical mishmash, and was savaged by the critics. The plot, or what remained, made no sense. Characters appeared and disappeared at random. Shootouts took place with no connection to what had come before or what followed.
Then, as if he hadn’t already done enough, Aubrey circulated rumors around town that the movie’s problems were all due to Peckinpah’s drinking. It’s enough to make you want to travel back in time and do something to James Aubrey involving his private parts and a car battery.
The experience broke Peckinpah. He would direct another few movies, (Cross of Iron and Convoy among them) but they never approached the depth or power of his previous work. His biographers like to point to this time in Peckinpah’s life, during which his alcohol intake reached massive proportions, to show how booze snuffed the man’s creative spark. Most of these people, steeped as they are in today’s “recovery” culture, usually fail to point out that it was just here that Peckinpah began doing cocaine and taking speed with headless ferocity, descending so deeply into drugs that, at one point, he attempted to secure financing for a movie from a pair of Colombian cocaine dealers. He was so out of his mind at this point that he took to tapping his friends’ phone lines and shooting at his image in a mirror with a long-barreled Colt revolver.
Sam Peckinpah died in 1984, after a lengthy fight with heart disease and several pacemakers.
Over the course of the next decade his films started dropping from the festival circuit and his reputation was blasted by the Hollywood rumor mill and by a new breed of movie critic ill-equipped to deal with Sam’s world. Most of these people were useless academics—dweebs with degrees in “cultural studies” and other intellectually suspect stuff. They called Peckinpah a misogynist and a fascist. Instead of citing Peckinpah as an example of Hollywood at its best, he was routinely lumped in among the worst. Yes, his movies make you uncomfortable. Yes, his movies are violent and bleak. But the man was a poet with a profound understanding of the human psyche—which, needless to say, is sometimes far more troubling that we might wish.
Our cultural heritage is diminished without Sam Peckinpah.
* * *
The drugs ruined Sam Peckinpah, not the hooch. When it was hooch by itself, the man created art with inspiring regularity. He was a real American genius, a visionary far ahead of his time. I wish I could travel back a few decades and tie one on with Sam. We could sit at the Bird’s Nest and gabble on ‘til dawn. Since I can’t do that, I plan instead to find a huge vat of wine and go for a swim with a couple of pretty señoritas. How could that not be fun?