Christian Niedan’s Hollywood Interviews – Part One: The Cowboy

by: Christian Niedan

The first installment of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s great storytellers and cult figures. We kick off the series with actor, director, and writer L.Q. Jones…

The lanky and mustached L.Q. Jones once told me there was a time when you could write his name on a piece of mail, above the words “Los Angeles,” affix the proper postage, and that parcel or letter would still get delivered to his house. While this displays a confidence in his local notoriety, this idea isn’t entirely far-fetched considering the sheer number of fellow L.A.-based actors, directors, producers, armies of crew, and unseen hordes of audience who knew him from a fifty year acting career. A career that found LQ. starring in one hundred and fourteen films and almost five hundred television episodes by the time I sat down to interview him for my film-related website, Camera In The Sun. 

L.Q. Jones was born in Texas August 19, 1927, christened by his parents Justus Ellis McQueen Jr. It wasn’t until his 1955 big screen debut as Marine “Pvt. L.Q. Jones” in the World War II drama Battle Cry where he adopted what became his known moniker. That same year, he scored a part in an episode of Cheyenne — his first of many television Westerns. In that episode, the credits listed his name as L.Q. Jones, a homage to his first starring role, and from there his stage name was born. Throughout his career, L.Q. Jones would go on to play far more cowboys than the soldier that birthed his name as his work coincided with the Western genre’s golden period in American television and cinema. Westerns were everywhere in the 1950s, but the social turmoil of the ’60s rapidly reshaped their content to be both bloodier and more narratively adventurous and impactful. It was during this crucial period that Jones repeatedly found work with one of America’s screen iconoclasts: Sam Peckinpah. Jones went on to become a pivotal member of Peckinpah’s stock company of actors ((Cast in the Klondike series (1960–1961), Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973).)), highlighted by Jone’s appearance in the famed director’s 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. Six years later, in 1975, Jones released his own directorial opus, A Boy and His Dog, with the lensing of the film’s swaggering young antihero and his journey across a bleak, post-apocalyptic 2024 America resembling many an antihero gunslinger’s lonesome trek through 1960s cultural take on the stark Western frontier of 19th Century America.  

Jones adapted A Boy and His Dog from a novella by Harlan Ellison, and it’s the reason that I reached out to the then-eighty four year old filmmaker for an interview in 2011 as I was a huge fan of the film, which had also inspired me to seek out more of Ellison’s many fantastic stories.

Jones and I talked for three hours, and he recounted to me willingly his recollections as an actor, writer and director in the warm rollicking tone and steady pace of a veteran raconteur. Jone’s delivery mirrored the talents that German filmmaker Mike Siegel had already harnessed for his comprehensive 2005 documentary, Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah, wherein Jones recounts a decade-worth of memorable stories from working with the talented-but-temperamental Peckinpah. For our conversation, I chose to delve into the making of his most-remembered directorial effort, A Boy and His Dog, the final of four films produced by his production company, LQ/JAF (L.Q. Jones And Friends), co-founded with fellow actor, Alvy Moore.  

During our conversation, I learned that Jones wrote the script for A Boy and His Dog, but he was reluctant to do so. First, he gave Ellison multiple shots at adapting the screenplay himself. The story Jones told me about that saga provided me with valuable insight into the the often-fractious relationship between novelist and screenwriter:

L.Q. Jones: “I asked Harlan how long it was gonna take, so we’d know what things to start doing. He said, ‘Well, this is if not my very favorite, certainly the top three of what I’ve done. I’ve done it in my head a dozen times, and so I should be able to whip it out in a couple of weeks.’ Well OK, I’ve heard that before, of course. And after two months, I hadn’t received anything. So I called my partner and said, ‘What the heck is going on?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll find out.’ So he called, and Harlan said, ‘Oh, I’ve had some of this come up, some of that come up. I’ll dash it right off.’

Well, I got back in town after about four months…and we had nothing. So I said, ‘Harlan, we’ve gotta make a move here.’ And so he said, ‘OK, no problem. I’ll get it done.’ Well, three weeks later he sent me fourteen pages. And I said, ‘This may come as a shock to you, Harlan. I cannot shoot fourteen pages.’ He said this, that and the other happened. I said, ‘Harlan, I have no choice. I’m running out of money here very quickly. I’ll wait another month, and if you don’t have it, the worst thing you can imagine is going to happen.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to write it, because I have to shoot the darn thing.’

Now, you have to go back to ground level zero, and Harlan was never happy with anything that he had written that someone had made into a picture or a television thing. It wasn’t in the contract, but we agreed that nobody could change anything. You had to work out things to make the whole thing go together, but you couldn’t change it. You had to do it exactly the way he wrote it. And so I said, ‘OK, I’ll agree with that.’ So with that in mind, when I told him, I wasn’t even allowed to change a word, a comma for chrissakes. That’s just the way he is. That’s fine, because I’ve been around the business long enough to know no one ever does anything the way you want them to. But you have to understand with Harlan, he wrote a picture — I won’t even name it. It’s probably one of the worst pictures ever made. I know, because I’ve worked in a number of them. But he was just not happy with what they had done with it. And as it turned out, the producer had the temerity to change one of his lines. Now this is a hideous picture, and they’re spending all of this money, but they changed one of his lines. Harlan tried to throw him through the window. Now, it would be bad enough if you were on the first floor. They were on the seventh floor. Didn’t bother Harlan. That’s just the way he felt about his stuff.

So, okay, with that in mind, I wait a month. I have nothing more than fourteen pages, so I write the script. Now I call him. ‘Harlan, I finished this script. Let me send it over, and you take a look at it.’ [He said,] ‘I don’t want to read it.’ [I said,] ‘Well, okay, you sure?’ [He said,] ‘Yep.’ [I said,] ‘Okay, I’m gonna start shooting as soon as we can put the pieces together.’ [He said,] ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to read it.’ So we worked for another nine, ten months getting everything ready, and we started building the area. We were at it, and we’re getting ready to go start shooting, so I called Harlan and said, ‘Hey listen, why don’t you come by and visit? Maybe you can take a look at it, and see things you want to change.’ [He said,] ‘No.’ [I said,] ‘Okay.’ And a couple of weeks later I called and said, ‘Look, you don’t wanna come out and just look?’ [He said,] ‘No.’ I said, ‘How about if I write a part for you?’ [He said,] ‘No, I won’t do it.’ [I said,] ‘Okay.’

So we’re getting the dailies in, of course, and so I’m looking at them to see what we need to do, and what I need to change. And so I called and said, ‘Harlan, I’ll set it up for you. You can take a look at it.’ [He said,] ‘No.’ [I said,] ‘Okay.’ We get through with it. We’re back here, and I’m putting the thing together, and we come up with what we call a join, or an assembly — the first time it’s been together. So I call Harlan and say, ‘Hey…’ [He said,] ‘I don’t wanna see it.’ [I said,] ‘Okay.’ So we went and finished the picture, and I’ve already cut the negative, which means that’s it. It doesn’t make any difference. You can make changes, but it screws everything up. I get a call from Harlan. He said, ‘I want to see the picture.’ Well, Okay, so I have a secretary set it up, and I tell my partner, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this. We’re showing it in technicolor. Invite no one. You stay away. It’ll just be Harlan and me. That way, when the fight breaks out, nobody’s gonna get hurt.” He said, “Okay.” So, we set it up. Harlan sat down front. I sat in the back, so I could work the controls. We go to the end crawl credits, and here’s this hulk rushing up the aisle towards me in the back. And I’m getting ready for the fight, and he reaches out and slaps me on the shoulder and says, “Now, that’s the story that I wrote.” Bear in mind that I have changed the beginning, the middle, the end, the characters and how they’re presented. But I was lucky enough that it took me over a year to write it. Maybe a little more than that. Because I was shooting all day, and I had business to do at night, I normally wouldn’t get started until around midnight. Then, if I got very lucky, I’d crank out about eight pages. Next morning, I’d look at them and throw seven of those away. So it takes a little time to get there, and he was rightly protective, but I somehow or another found what he was trying to say. So, it was just lucky.”

A Boy and His Dog was shot at Coyote Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert, which doubles for post-apocalyptic Kansas. It’s here that eighteen year-old Vic (Don Johnson) wanders in search of food and sex, accompanied by his “talking” dog, Blood (Tiger the dog). While the film marked Jones’ last film-directing credit, he continued landing regular acting gigs over the next thirty years. On TV, that included 1980′s Western soap opera, The Yellow Rose. In films, it was Robert De Niro’s cowboy hat-wearing County Commissioner nemesis, Pat Webb in 1995′s Casino. By the time of our interview, Jones’ last acting credit was as country crooner Chuck Akers in Robert Altman’s 2006 film, A Prairie Home Companion.

However, throughout those decades, Jones maintained a lengthy second career appearing at screenings of A Boy and His Dog at colleges, cinemas, and festivals. The film’s ending is infamous for Vic’s treatment of his new female companion, Quilla June, in order to save his starving four-legged companion. The film’s ending also proved to be one of the rare points of narrative disagreement between Jones and Ellison, and serves as a good conclusion to this look back at Jones’ self-assessment of his career, with its most crucial writing choice:

L.Q. Jones: 
“The end is as delicate and as structured as the beginning, if not more so. Because if you watch it, you can see that when [Vic] escapes from down below, he comes up above, and they find Blood dying. And [Quilla June] is saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. We can go on. If you love me, you’ll leave him.’ Well, Don does it gorgeously. You can see it running through his mind, ‘What happens if I go with what she wants to go with?’ And in the very end, I expect you to put it together. He is figuring, ‘Okay, she and I try to make it. We can’t make it. We’re just not gonna make it. Blood is the brains of the outfit. She and Blood can go and live, but both detest the other. Therefore, that’s not gonna work. I have only one option.’ And the option is to do what he did. It’s not accidental. That’s the way the ending is reinforcing what we started out to prove: who’s an animal, and who takes care of whom? It’s not a message. It’s just there. If you see it, great. If you don’t see it…I’ve seen the picture five hundred times. And I have been in audiences as little as one person. I have been in audiences as big as seven thousand people who are watching the picture at the same time. About twenty five percent of the audience catches what is going to happen when we switch from his first coming up, and we hear fire crackling, and fat is dripping into the fire. But that’s so subliminal, probably seventy five percent of people never hear it. But we have already told you what’s happened right there. About twenty five percent of the people will get it when the boy looks at the girl. You know what’s going to happen. About twenty five of the people get it when the dog at the end says, ‘Well, at least she had good taste.’ About twenty five percent of the people never understand what took place.

And that’s what I wanted. Harlan wanted to beat them over the head with it. There was only two times in the whole picture that we disagreed. That was the second one. I said, ‘Harlan, unfortunately for you, I’m the one that put up the money and wrote the script. When you do that, you can change it the way you want it. But now, guess who gets to make that choice?’ So that’s it, and for me it worked.

The first change was in the ‘putz scene’ — the scene where the dog is lecturing him, trying to figure out what they’re gonna do. And Blood makes a comment about a cow and the girl. Harlan’s thought was, ‘One animal would not put down another animal.’ It was the wrong thing to say, and he was right. I said I agreed. We would take it out, but I’m out of money. So we showed the picture to the group that gets together once a year. And when they were there, I think I was here working on another picture, so Harlan and my partner Alvy went. And they sold at the showing, which started I think at eight o’clock at night, and ended up at around four in the morning, because the machine kept breaking down. We were in separate sound and picture, and they weren’t fixed to handle it, so it kept breaking down. But they sold enough, which I think was about two thousand dollars they raised selling the picture in color clips. And we went and shot the thing that he wanted changed, which was about the cow. We took it out and did another line.

The other disagreement was my last line. Harlan’s last is, ‘A boy loves his dog.’ My last line wasn’t. I told him, ‘Harlan, yeah I understand what you’re saying. I’m pushing the same thing visually. But yours will not work, because in your short story he repeats that phrase several times — “A boy loves his dog” is the reason for the ending.’ But I said, ‘That won’t work for the picture.’ And it took me over six months to write the new line. [“Well, I’d say she certainly had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.”] It’s a matter of choice. And it works. But a lot of times when I go out with the picture, I go down the street to get a drink, pick up a cup of coffee or something — I can be two or three blocks away, and I know when the picture ends, because the reaction is such that I know what it is. I mean, I’ve seen people who’ve fainted. People have gotten mad and torn up furniture. It just doesn’t leave you much. You realize you’ve been hung out to dry, because you don’t expect it. Who would expect that ending? So it works, and the whole thing works. My line works. If you go back and then redo it, Harlan’s line would work. And those are the two that we just could not agree on. And I still think I’m right. He’s right for his. I’m right for mine.”

Author’s Note (Update): In August 2017, Jones celebrated his 90th birthday by hosting a screening of The Wild Bunch at TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, with an audience Q&A afterward. Previewing the event, USA Today’s The Spectrum” published an interview with Jones, where it noted that his home phone’s answering machine message is, “I’m around somewhere, probably just counting my money. When I get through, if I’m not too tired, I’ll return your call.”

Continue With Part 2: The Poet!

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