[Our old pal Robert Ward has been telling a story about Rod Steiger for years and he's kind enough to drop by and share it with us. For some good ol’ on location movie fun, check this out.—Alex Belth]
By Robert Ward
I was in Durango, Mexico in the 70′s on the set of a movie I had written called Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a comic western starring Amanda Plummer as Cattle Annie and Diane Lane as Little Britches. The male stars were Burt Lancaster as Bill Doolin and Rod Steiger as Bill Tilghman, the sheriff who hunts the gang of outlaws down. The whole tale was pretty much true, about the teen aged girls joined the infamous Doolin Dalton Gang. They were smarter than the boys and ended up planning their robberies.
The shoot was going fine until Rod Steiger showed up. He and Lancaster hated one another because of some financial matter, which had transpired years back when they were going to be in the movie making business together. Apparently, Rod pulled out at the last minute and the whole project nearly fell apart. Lancaster kept it together with other people but there was still bad blood between them. Perhaps that was part of the reason for the ghastly things that transpired that night. That and the fact that Steiger was on the down side of his career and was feeling vulnerable.
In any case we held a first night “welcome to the movie ” dinner party for Rod at a real Mexican restaurant in down town Durango, with real Mexicans in it. Everyone but the movie people and Rolling Stone writer Jack Hicks were local folks. The party started on time but Rod showed about a half hour late. He was seated in the middle of the table next to some of the gang members, cowboys like Kenny Call, who had won every major rodeo award known to man. Rod objected to this seating and demanded to be at the head of the table where the producer Rupert Hitzig was sitting. Under his breath he mentioned his Academy Award for “The Pawnbroker.” Rupert happily gave up his seat to Rod, who was now sitting next to me.
We all started eating, and drinking, trying to forgetthe nasty vibes Rod had laid on the gathering. Things seemed ok, until this young girl got up with her guitar. She was about 14, and sang these earnest love songs in Spanish walking among the tables as she warbled. She was young, beautiful and her songs were heartfelt. Everyone loved her, the Mexican patrons, and our table applauded fiercely. Everyone but one man, Rod Steiger. He looked at me and said, “Do you see what she’s doing?” I said, “Yes, she’s singing a song and doing it quite well too.” Rod glared at me and said “No, she is trying to destroy me! I heard you play the guitar today Ward. Get it from her. We have to top her!”
I tried to reason with him. “Rod, you’re a international movie star. You don’t need to compete with a 14 year old girl.” Rod looked at me, said “You obviously know nothing about competition. You must always compete with anyone who tries to top you.” Reluctantly, I asked the girl if we could borrow her guitar. She was happy to loan it to us. I sat down and started playing some blues licks and Senor Rod got up and began to improvise a blues song which sounded like something Sophie Tucker might have sang.
Hideous would not be too strong a word to describe his singing. He pranced through the tables, sometimes hitting them, and upsetting glasses of wine and beer. Yet, the patrons were kind and clapped for him, some even yelling “Hooray for Senor Rod.” He sat down and smiled in a victorious way and we all began to eat again.
It was then that I noticed these four swarthy Mexican workers staring at us. These guys were muscular and wore grimy shirts. They had obviously just come off some tough job. They didn’t like Senor Rod. They didn’t like me, the guitar player, I was pretty certain. I tried to ignore them. Everything seemed to cool down. That is, until the girl got up and sing again. This time she sang the song of her native town, Durango. Heartfelt sentiments about her home, city of her family, city of her heart. People went crazy whistling, yelling.
Senor Rod looked at me. “Get the guitar, Ward. You don’t understand, we can’t give in!” I looked at Hitzig who whispered that I had to play or Rod might not show up tomorrow to say his lines! So I borrowed the guitar again, feeling like the biggest ass in Mexico. This time Senor Rod got up on the floor and poured Cognac into people’s drinks as he waddled around singing more of his horrible, show tune blues. This time there was practically no applause and the four tough workers glared at all of us. It was now obvious to everyone in the place that Rod was trying to top the local heroine. And failing miserably.
Everyone in our party felt that disaster was about to strike us all so we paid the bill and ran out to the cars which waited to take everyone to the safety of the set encampment. A few seconds later everyone was safely whisked away. That is, everyone but Rolling Stone reporter Hicks and yours truly. We were mere writers after all. Who cared what happened to us? So we were left out in the street outside of a restaurant where inside lay a gang of Mexicans who rightly hated us as the ultimate Ugly Gringos. I prayed a little: “God, don’t let that door open until we can call for a cab.” I put pesos into the pay phone on the corner and waited. And then it happened.
The door to the cafe opened and the four Mexican hardasses who had been eyeing us all night, stepped out, and walked toward us. They walked in lockstep and looked like they were out to kick some serious American butt. As they got closer I whispered to Hicks, “This is it man. I’m hitting the first guy and you get the guy on his left” “What then?”Jack said. You’re your ass off.” Was my clever reply. They came closer, closer still and then the toughest one stopped, only a foot away from me. He stared into my eyes and said: ” Hey man you play Chuck Berry?”
I was so stunned by this friendly request I almost answered with the a hostile reply. Then I heard what he had actually said. Stunned, I smiled and said, “Hell yes, I do.” He smiled and said, “Then come on back in. Let’s have some fun, man!” And Hicksie and I went back in with our new amigos, and played all night. As we drank and sang “Maybelline,” the toughest one, Julio, looked at me, laughed and said, “You know Bobby, we all knew you hated Senor Rod as much as we did.” They were right, I did.
It’s been awhile. Too long. Listen to the 1944 Esquire All-American Jazz Concert. It’s hot.
Another huge loss. Prince is dead at 57. He was one-of-a-kind and had what George Frazier used to croon about—he had duende, that special combination of charisma, talent, looks, style and magic.
Back in 1997, Mark Jacobson wrote in Esquire, that Prince “dominated the eighties music scene as Louis Armstrong did that of the twenties, as Charlie Parker did that of the forties. Eloquently exploiting his gender/race dichotomies with a horny sincerity that made him the legitimate successor to such crossover gods as Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, the Artist was indisputably the Man.”
I was never a huge fan myself but liked more than enough of his music and certainly admired his genius—“horny sincerity” is about perfect.
Rest in Peace.
The Hip Hop universe has awoken to some more tragic news this morning; Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg “The Five-Foot Assassin” and “The Funky Diabetic” , a founding member and literal cornerstone of the world renowned Golden Age of Hip Hop era group A Tribe Called Quest, apparently succumbed to the very disease he had made a favored appellation of and in recent years had struggled with. As of this writing, no official announcement has been made yet, but news sources had independently confirmed his passing, first noted on Twitter by legendary DJ Chuck Chillout.
I cannot for the life of me run down the details of his life at this point; having been a huge fan from the beginning and A Tribe Called Quest being on the itinerary of my musical young adulthood, it’s just mind-numbing to have lost someone critical too soon by anyone’s measure. Not to mention, we are losing so many dearly-held artists from so many areas in music these days that I can honestly say that I was shocked to hear about this, but that shock was quickly replaced by that very numbness that such an event would often inspire days later when you’ve had time to process the entirety of a person’s life, impact and death while you compare feelings and moments with friends and fellow fans. If there is PTSD for music, I must be in the throes of it, and it’s not something I would wish on anyone.
Nevertheless, instead of a eulogy culled from multiple news items, I present a link to an article from Vulture.com that was published last November in which Phife runs down his five favorite songs of A Tribe Called Quest; one from each album they made together. Perhaps at a later date I will revisit the idea of discussing the band’s impact on Hip Hop and music as well, as they are certainly worthy. Meanhwile, Rise In Power, Malik Taylor.
More Interviews with Phife Dawg:
Lastly, the title is borrowed from this track I came across while thinking of what to write. Listening to it again, I finally broke away from the numbness I implied earlier and had a moment with my inner self. We all can relate to that moment because we all have someone or something that touches that button one last time before they go on their journey, leaving something for us to think about; what was, what could have been. I just don’t know.
Head on over to Rolling Stone and check out Brian Hiatt’s excellent look at Bowie’s final years.
[Photo Via: Cos]
The time has come to say goodbye to a New York treasure, a man who embodied the well-traveled and experienced New Yorker of old, the one who seemingly knew every nook and cranny of the city and who occupied them and touched everyone he encountered with a bit of grump, a bit of wit and a bit of sage advice to keep them moving from one corner to the next throughout the day. And Preparation H. That’s the impression I always got when looking at his face. How it just carried a whole lot of everything behind it, processed it and gave you back a little piece of New York.
Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, began a long and notable acting career as a teenager, appeared on Broadway quite a few times, including in one of my personal favorite plays (Marat/Sade, which I also acted in while in college), landed the role of a lifetime in an open call in L.A., made an even bigger impression a few years later with a role he’s become synonymous with, and lived life as sort of the unofficial ambassador of Fiorello LaGuardia’s New York, by his very presence able to link that era with the Wagners and Lindseys and Beames and Koches that followed.
By the time Michael Bloomberg ascended to the throne, we looked back at all of this and remembered fondly the ugliness that New Yorkers endured to this point like a rich man who had climbed out of Hell’s Kitchen to dominate the skylines, and in the back of our minds we always wanted to know how Abe Vigoda was doing, and when you get home you’d go and look for that Timex you still have for some strange reason. Everyone was doing it.
Check out Michael Sragow’s admiring review of Once Upon A Time In America and then dig the restored director’s cut that was released a few years back. I haven’t seen the movie since the Eighties. It’s time.
Flourishing Foodie gives us this lovely-looking vegetable soup with white beans and rice.