Two cowboy actors.
One is Slim Pickens, a personal favorite, for his irrepressible Oklahoma-Texas drawl (though he was born in California) and frontier-feeling authenticity. Though he is perhaps best remembered from Dr. Strangelove, Yeehawing down to Russia astride an enormous H-bomb, Pickens is primarily known for performing in westerns, both serious ones, like Will Penny (a neglected classic), The Cowboys and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and comedies, most notably, Blazing Saddles.
Before his movie career, Pickens worked in the rodeo, often as a “rodeo clown”, whose primary responsibility was to distract murderous bulls away from the fallen riders the bulls had violently bucked off. “Clowning” was known to be one of the most dangerous jobs in rodeo.
In the early seventies, Pickens guested on a Canadian Talk/Variety show called Everything Goes, where another writer and I wrote a parody western sketch for him called “Gunfight At The I’m Okay – You’re Okay Corral.” That title was actually funny back then. Though perhaps less so today.
In our next encounter, in 1981, Pickens was the guest star on a comedy western series I created called Best of the West, playing a talkative marshal who would not shut up, even when lying face down with a doctor probing for a bullet lodged in his back. Yammering on about a posse he had led to capture the notorious Plummer Gang, Pickens expounded,
“We was a-ridin’ through rocks, we was a-ridin’ through desert, we was a-ridin’
through shale, we was a-ridin’ through alkali, we was a-ridin’ through…”
And on and on about things they was a-ridin’ through.
The problem was that, though he was letter perfect in rehearsal, on “show night”, before the live studio audience, Slim Pickens, the intrepid cowboy and rodeo clown,
Freaked out by the reality of performing before an actual audience of people, Pickens could no longer remember his lines.
After a while, it became agonizing to watch. Take after take it was,
“We was a-ridin’ through rocks, we was a-ridin’ through desert, we was a-ridin’ through…um…
At the end of the show, Pickens got a big hand from the audience, appreciative of his good sportsmanship for taking a shot outside his comfort zone. Pickens, however, was less forgiving.
When the Prop Man came out to take possession of the carbine he was provided for his performance, Pickens angrily yanked the rifle away, and drawled,
“Ah wohnta hohled onta this, so ah can shewt the guy who gawt me this jawb.”
With Slim Pickens it was stage fright. With Lee Van Cleef , it was even worse.
Van Cleef specialized in playing tough guy hombres in numerous westerns, including the iconic High Noon, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Van Cleef, his bio tells us, also served on mine sweepers and subchasers during World War II.
We hire Van Cleef to play a deadly gunfighter whose girlfriend jilted him for one of the less courageous characters on the show, named “Frog.” How brave can a guy named “Frog” be?
Van Cleef participates in the first step in the production process, the table reading. Things seem to go pretty well. After the reading, the staff heads back to the office to commence the rewrites.
But before we begin, there is Lee Van Cleef, standing in the doorway. The menacing mountain of manhood seemed to be quivering.
“I’m quitting,” he announced.
“I can’t handle it.”
Maybe when taking on Brahma bulls and enemy submarines.
Sitcoms shot bullets at their feet and made them dance.