J.W. Coop & Riding Tall

The late comedian Bill Hicks opened his 1993 stand-up special Relentless by saying, “Just before we lost our innocence irrevocably, when the TV eye brought the horror of our lives into our homes for all to see. I was told when I grew up I could be anything I wanted: a fireman, a policeman, a doctor, even president it seemed… But like many kids growing up on a steady diet of westerns I always wanted to be the cowboy hero, that lone voice in the wilderness fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth, and justice. And in my heart of hearts I still track the remnants of that dream wherever I go in my never ending ride into the setting sun.”

And indeed, in the ‘70s, as almost all of the archetypes of American culture were being scrutinized and reexamined, the cowboy continued to hold a thrall, albeit in a new fashion: the present-day loner that made his living from knowing how to feed, ride, and survive the whims of beasts that were never meant to carry men on their backs, often torn between the rush of hardscrabble victories and the temptations of ordinary comforts of romance and affluence.  On Wednesday, March 13th & Thursday, March 14th, the New Bev presents two underseen and intimate portraits of taciturn older men, the sheltered women who fall for them, and the alternating interludes of happiness they share and ambitions that threaten their union and their lives.

J.W. Coop’s promising rodeo career was derailed by a near-decade spent in prison. Now he has been released, starting from bottom to establish his name on the circuit again, and is being constantly confronted with how many changes in the scene, in the very world, have taken place in his absence. On his slow advance, he meets unencumbered hippie chick Bean (Cristina Ferrare), who becomes fond of the rugged remnant of another generation. Maybe together, he’ll figure out how to compete against younger, cockier competitors more interested in money than achievement. Or maybe he will find out that whether he’s on the bull or off of it, the clock is working against him. This is the saga of J.W. Coop, from 1971.

 

J.W. Coop

 

Coop was the first feature film written, produced, and directed by Cliff Robertson; he had previously made his writing/directing debut with an episode of the early ‘60s NBC western “Outlaws.” After his Oscar-winning role in Charly. Robertson spent two years developing the passion project, interviewing rodeo riders and crafting a story from their testimony; in turn, many actual riders with no acting experience were cast to fill roles, while almost all the professional cast worked for scale. He had hired writers Gary Cartwright and Edwin Shrake to fashion the script, but later claimed only a sliver of their material was retained. He also provided his own completion funds for the low budgeted project even though it was set up with Columbia. Robertson would later attempt to direct a sequel to Charly but the project was never realized; he would produce one more film, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid in 1972, direct one more film, The Pilot in 1980, and wrote one more, 13th Child in 2002.

Co-star Cristina Ferrare had been a teenage model who was employed by Max Factor cosmetics into her 20s, and initially signed as a contract player at 20th Century-Fox, where she appeared on “Batman” and the David Niven comedy The Impossible Years. She would later headline Juan López Moctezuma’s vampire drama Mary Mary Bloody Mary, a frequently-screened New Beverly favorite. Ferrare ultimately shifted from acting to presenting, hosting several talk shows including “A.M. Los Angeles” on KABC. Coop also has the interesting casting of both longtime character actor and Sam Peckinpah collaborator R.G. Armstrong, and western bit player R.L. (Tex) Armstrong, no relation. Geraldine Page, the only cast member to be paid above scale, played Coop’s mother even though in real life, Page was only one year older than Robertson.

Riding Tall from 1972 opens with its protagonist, rodeo rider Austin Ruth (Andrew Prine), doing the exact opposite: losing a match quickly, his car shortly after, and with little money to his name. While hitchhiking, he is nearly run over by Chase (Gilmer McCormick), a blithe college drop-out who agrees to let him drive it and her to his next event to avoid having the incident reported. Amid their charged interactions and frequent separations, the two grow to depend on each other as Austin pursues more competition and Chase finds someone other than herself to invest feelings in. But she is not prepared for how rough of a life he seems content to live in, while he is not comfortable with her her often aggressive interventions in his affairs. As they can’t articulate what they’re each really looking for, they must ask if it’s feasible to find it in their relationship.

 

Squares / Riding Tall

 

Mary Ann Saxon’s screenplay, originally titled Squares Don’t Fit Into Circles, was optioned by Plateau Productions’ Patrick J. Murphy, who had previously produced the cross-dressing biker comedy Pink Angels; it would be his sole directorial credit. The $1 million independently-financed film was shot in August 1971 in sections of Espanola and Santa Fe, New Mexico, following an earlier shoot in the same region by Robert Downey Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace, with some scenes shot during the actual Santa Fe Rodeo. The finished film, titled simply Squares, received premieres in Santa Fe and Albuquerque in April 1972, and received a small theatrical release afterward, stressing the romantic and existential aspects of the story. It was retitled Riding Tall in 1974 and given a new ad campaign focusing on the rodeo riding action; under this title, it would play the now-demolished Optic Theatre in Downtown L.A. for three days in August 1975, and premiere on the CBS Late Movie on July 21, 1980. Trade articles announced that  shortly after completion of Squares, Saxon had a follow-up script optioned by Murphy, called Jerry, and a few years later, she had sold another called Marino to star her then-husband, action star John Saxon; neither project was ever realized.

Co-star Gilmer McCormick, making her film debut here, had previously drew attention as a member of the original off-Broadway cast of Godspell, and would appear in the feature film adaption in 1973, though her solo song from the stage incarnation was not included in the soundtrack. Cult movie fans will know her best as Sister Margaret, the only sympathetic nun in the childhood of Santa-obsessed killer Billy Chapman in Silent Night, Deadly Night. Harriet White Medin, playing the prim, loving mother to Prine’s protagonist, distinguished herself as several Italian horror films, including Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body and Blood and Black Lace, before returning to America, doing memorable roles in Death Race 2000 and The Terminator. Making a brief appearance is Robert Easton,  a prolific bit player who also doubled as a dialect coach to the stars, to the point he was called “The Henry Higgins of Hollywood.”

As the classic Waylon & Willie song mused, cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold. But for a couple nights at the New Bev, you can spend a few tender hours rekindling your infatuation with them all over again.

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