This is about my part in Sugarland Express and the zany world of movie folks like Steven Spielberg and Goldie Hawn. Goldie did not like Luckenbach. This and other material may be viewed on the Sam Kindrick blog. The link is actionmagsa.com
When I met Steven Spielberg my head was falling off my shoulders and rolling around my feet.
It was spring of 1974 in Floresville. I was hungover bad and wishing I had never heard of Spielberg or casting director Shari Rhodes.
The filming of Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson had begun. I have a speaking part in the movie.
This was Spielberg’s first gig as a director. He had somehow persuaded co-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to foot the production bill.
I was still with the Express and News during those times, and my drinking was starting to escalate. I had the shakes that morning in Floresville. I was hurting so bad that my hair hurt.
I am the Texas newspaperman in the film who tries to inverview a howling baby Langston. I will get into the story line and other details later.
There are tidbits here of human interest, like Goldie getting her drivers so stoned on weed they never got her to the movie set on time, or the fit she pitched when some of us hauled her to Luckenbach.
`Suffice it to say that Goldie Hawn did not care for Luckenbach, but more on all of this later.
What I remember most about Steven Spielberg and the Sugarland Express filming was my miserable hungover condition and Spielberg’s torturous obsession for detail. He achieved it through mind-rattling repetition, bolstered by a fetching ability to reach the hearts and souls of veteran film stars.
It all started for me in the Gunter Hotel coffee shop where I met casting director Shari Rhodes. I’m not sure how this meeting came about, but I think it may have been arranged by my friend Big John Hamilton, owner of Big John’s Steak House and a movie actor himself who appeared in seveal John Wayne movies.
Guich Koock may have been with me that morning. He did wind up with a part in the movie. Koock had partnered with Hondo Crouch to buy the town of Luckenbach, and the two of them were popping up all over the burgeoning San Antonio and South Texas entertainment map.In Sugarland, Guich played a Louisiana highway patrolman.
Shari Rhodes was a delight. Even with the hangover I took to her immediately.
“How would you like to play a part in our film?” Shari Rhodes laughed. “You look like a movie star in the making.”
I didn’t have any idea what Sugarland Express was all about, but I agreed to give it a try. Shari had me sign a bunch of papers, and two mornings later I met her and other people from Universal Pictures back at the Gunter Hotel. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and we were loaded in a van and headed for filming in Florersville.
Shari was with us. I had no idea of her stature in the film industry. She was laughing and cutting up with me like we had been friends for ages.
Who would have suspected that she would work in films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many other films? I think she may have directed a few movies herself. Years later I was to learn that Shari Rhodes died from breast cancer in 2009.
In addition to me, Shari, the van driver, and maybe a couple more, there was Louise Latham, a veteran Hollywood character actress
who I recognized immediately but had no inkling as to her name. The supporting actors and actresses like Louise Latham are the true talents who keep the Hollywood star ship afloat. You see them in a film and there is immediate recognition, but their names are but a meaningless string of letters among the film credits.
Like Shari Rhodes, Louise Latham proved to be an affable, down-to-earth, and engaging lady of grace with a ready sense of humor.
I had been drinking most of the night and early morning in San Antonio’s downtown Commanders Room, an after-hours nightclub that sometimes stayed open until daylight. Louise must have sensed that I wasn’t quite right in the head and nervous system.
“Are you feeling all right?”
I didn’t want to tell her I was experiencing a monumental hangover.
“It’s early for me,” I said.
Latham seemed to understand.
“This is just the way for us people who work in films,” she said. “The public has no idea. The reason we are up at these ungodly hours is all about time and money. When we are on location away from the Hollywood studios it costs a tremendous amount of money to pay everyone involved and cover the huge production expense.
We are up at dawn because we utilize every minute of real daylight we have available. Daylight is like pure gold in the film industry. When on location, we go from first light until dark.”
The setting in Floresville where my scene was filmed was one of those old country-style houses with a wide front porch, wide concrete steps, and a long concrete sidewalk which led from the street to the porch.
I recall laying down in the shade of a tree, waiting for instructions. Finally I was up and facing the director. I had donned a new dark red and black sport coat that was almost new. I owned only two sport coats. I was ready for my debut on the silver screen when Spielberg called out to Shari Rhodes.
“Take this guy to the wardrobe trailer and have them outfit him in a gold coat,” Spielberg told Shari.
Turning to me, the director explained:
“Nothing against your red coat, but gold fits your dark coloring. We want you to look your best for this scene. I know you will do fine.”
Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest and most liked directors in Hollywood.
We saw the Spielberg genius early with Sugarland. The world saw it one short year after Sugarland when he broke the record bank with Jaws.
Spielberg was a fuzzy-cheeked 28 years of age when Sugarland was filmed, yet he held some sort of hypnotic magic over his veteran actors and actresses, grizzled pro Ben Johnson being a prime example.
Over and over and over again, in one scene, Spielberg coaxed Johnson into jumping out of the same pickup truck.
Slamming on the brakes, Ben jumped from the vehicle.
Spielberg the kid director was congratulating Johnson when his feet hit the street.
“Great job, Ben,” Spielberg gushed. “An incredible scene. Let’s do it once more, please sir.”
Johnson jumped out of the truck again.
“Fantastic, Ben,” Spielberg bubbled. “What an actor you are. I would like to see this at one more angle. Please do it for me again. Ben.”
Johnson jumped out of the truck yet again.
“Incredible, Ben. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything better,” Spielberg was relentless.
I don’t know how many times Ben Johnson jumped out of the truck with Spielberg rooting him on. Nobody was keeping count. And I can’t say how many times the director had me and and other faux newspaper reporters and TV cameramen walk up the sidewalk to the front porch of that old house in Floresville.
Sugarland Express was also written by Spielberg, the story based on a true Texas tale of comedic madness which started when Lou Jean Poplin talks husband Clovis Michael Poplin into breaking out of a low-security prison to go after their 2-year-old son Langston who is in foster care. Adding to the obsurdity of it all was the fact that Clovis was only four months short of release from the pre-release prison farm when Lou Jean talked him into the jail break.
The slow-motion and ever-growing chase that ensued, with over 200 cop cars, rubberneck spectators, gun nuts, and self-annointed honky-tonk heroes, was a carnival on wheels with a light show the likes of which Hollywood had never known before.
Clovis and Lou Jean were crossing South Texas to retrieve their 2-year-old son from foster parents in what was actually Floresville. They had a kidnapped highway patrolman in tow. Adding to the insanity of it all was a Boy Scout troop Spielberg had out directing traffic.
Goldie Hawn played Lou Jean Poplin. Her husband Michael was played by William Atherton. The zany plot has Lou Jean and Michael kidnapping Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide, who is portrayed by Michael Sacks.
The baby Langston was portrayed by producer Zanuck’s 2-year-old son Harrison Zanuck. Louise Latham played Mrs. Looby, the foster mother. The foster father was played by Merrill Connally, Governor John Connally’s brother. Ben Johnson plays DPS Captain Harlin Tanner, and it was Captain Tanner who led the procession of lawmen and weirdos.
The news crew arrived first at the Floresville house where baby Langston was being fostered by Mrs. Looby and the governor’s brother, Merrill Connally.
The script called for us news people to march down the sidewalk, up the flight of steps, and onto the porch where we are met by Mrs. Looby and Merrill Connally, who is holding Baby Langston.
While this may sound simple, it was not. I think there were five of us in the entourage of news people. I know that country singer Dale Jackson was holding a giant TV sound camera. The others may have been holding notebooks. I was the only one of the bunch with a speaking part.
Here was the rub. After we completed our advance down the sidewalk and upon the porch, Spielberg insisted that we all land in the exact same spot. He also insisted that none of us look down at our feet as we advanced on the house and stopped on the porch. Here is where the operation got maddeningly tricky. Spielberg got down on his knees and placed chalk X marks on the exact spots where he wanted us to land. We had to repeat that advance maneuver over and over and over again, counting the exact number of steps from the street to our exact designated landing spots on the porch. Not until all of us were able to count our steps and land squarely on our designated porch positions in complete unison did the filming proceed.
It was late afternoon before we got to the grand climax, an irate foster mother meeting the encroachment of a bunch of news yoyos trespassing on her porch.
By this time everyone was irritable, restless, and discontent. Especially Harrison Zanuck, the Baby Langston who was the object of it all. He was holding soda crackers slathered in grape jelly because his father said that was the only goodie he would respond to. And producer Zanuck was there overseeing his baby.
I was leading the news people onslaught, so it was me who the infuriated foster mother lit into.
“I know why you people are here,” hissed Mrs. Looby. “You are not welcome here and I will have to ask you to leave.”
Here is where I saw the great actress in action, eyes narrowed in slits of hate. Louise Latham was earning her pay.
She was scary. She was living the life of a foster mother in danger of losing her baby. Mrs. Looby did not resemble in any way the Louise Latham I rode to Floresville with.
I had my lines down.
“But, ma’am, we just want to talk to the little child.”
Then I hollered the kickers:
“Langston, do you know who your real mother is? Could you wave bye bye to your real father?”
At this point, someone hollered “Cut.”
Baby Langston had smeared his grape jelly cracker across his foster father’s shirt and coat front.
When my lines were repeated the next time, Harrison Zanuck broke into an ear-splitting scream, flinging one of his crackers at me.
“You are scaring the child with your voice,” a bystander said.
Daddy Zanuck broke in at this point.
“This is exactly how we want him to react, like a frightened 2-yeaar-old.”
Earlier movie reviews failed to give Goldie Hawn her just due because they didn’t know Goldie.
The Hollywood Reporter said of Spielberg’s Sugarland Express: The fledgling filmmaker often fails to keep a tight enough rein on Hawn. Too often she breaks into her Laugh-in giggle and bubble-headed blonde routine, destroying the image of a distraught driven mother.
When Sugarland was filmed, Goldie was only a few months removed from a go-go dancer job in a cheap saloon. When members of the Sugarland cast took her for a visit to Lucenbach, Goldie turned up her nose and started bitching and complaining about “the nasty place” until Ben Johnson told her to shut up.
“If you don’t like it here,” Johnson told Goldie, “you can hitchhike back to San Antonio.”
And that was it. Johnson knew how to handle the petulant kid, and Spielberg knew what he was doing when he signed her on.
Goldie fit the Lou Jean Poplin part to a T.
Sugarland Express concluded my movie careeer, although I did have a significant part in an independent production that never made it off the cutting room floor. This one was The Adventures of Jody Shannon, and again I was recommended for the part by John Hamilton. It was filmed in Brackettville.
In this one I played a hypocritical dice shooting circuit-riding Preacher Sam with a whiskey flask protruding from a hip pocket. I rode a white mule and preached hell fire and damnation to a bunch of saloon girls in the main scene. Playing piano in the saloon was Wild Man Ray Liberto, former brother-in-law of Johnny Cash.
This ill-fated production was financed by a group of San Antonio dentists. It was produced as a children’s film, but funding was withdrawn when the dentists decreed that it was unfit for kid consumption.
The Preacher Sam saloon sermon, and a fight among a bunch of buffalo hunters were the two scenes deemed too rough for kids. And these were the two scenes the kids went wild over when showed some raw rushes of the film.