Actor Robert Carradine on his early days working with John Wayne, Martin Scorsese, his brother David and Sam Fuller in The Big Red One
TV STORE ONLINE: Robert, what were you like as a kid?
ROBERT CARRADINE: I think I was kind of a loner. Some kids when they're younger have an imaginary friend, that was me.
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up in a big Hollywood family as you did, was there ever any wonder what you were part of was abnormal, in comparison to the kid down the block whose dad worked in construction or something of that nature.
ROBERT CARRADINE: Well, that was the thing. That wasn't something that was a big deal. We weren't aware of what our dad did. It wasn't until I was around eight or nine years old that I went to a set with my dad, and then I pretty much figured out what he did for a living. Prior to that, when he wasn't around, we just knew that he was "working." So growing up, we never really made a connection that he was a movie star.
TV STORE ONLINE: As a younger guy you really developed a big interest in music and car racing as well?
TV STORE ONLINE: As a younger guy you really developed a big interest in music and car racing as well?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Oh yeah, I started playing guitar when I was ten years old, and my entire childhood I was obsessed with cars. In fact, you can tie that in to the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater, which was Grand Prix (1965).
TV STORE ONLINE: One thing I love about your career in relation to your musicianship is that several of the characters you've played over the years, have also played music. How did that happen?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Well, my father was a musician. My brothers are musicians. Either you're born with it or you're not. Once I figured out that I could do something with the guitar, I just decided to use that to my advantage.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you become involved with John Wayne in The Cowboys (1970)?
ROBERT CARRADINE: I was living with my brother David at that time, and they wanted to cast him in the Bruce Dern role in the film, but he passed on it, cause he decided that he didn't want to play the guy that would kill "The Duke." But in the same breath, he said, “Why don't we get Bobby into the movies?”
So he tried to talk me into going in to meet with the director on the film. I passed. I was scared, and it freaked me out. I just didn't wanna do it. So David told me, “Look you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.” That made sense to me. We went over to Warner Brothers and met with Mark Rydell and Tim Zimmeman and I read that scene in the movie where I read that piece of poetry in the school house in front of John Wayne. It was really easy to be that character, to read that, cause I was really nervous. So I got the part.
TV STORE ONLINE: So were you a John Wayne fan prior to going in to read for the part?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Not really [laughing].
TV STORE ONLINE: Working with John Wayne as a young kid, what was it like to meet him, and then work with him?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Again, I was living with my brother David at that time, so I was aware of John Wayne's political bent. Of course, his opinions were the polar opposite of David's. So when I showed up on location for shooting I had this attitude. I was out there for three days before I even met John Wayne. We were young kids, so we had to go to school on the set. One day Mark Rydell walks into our school and says, “OK, it's time to meet The Duke.”
All the kids were excited, but I was thinking to myself, "big deal." We got in line and I was at the very end of it, and when John Wayne walked in -- he was this larger than life guy. He was 6'5'' and around 250 pounds, he was a big guy. By the time I filed up to him, I couldn't find my voice. So meeting him for the first time I had this physical reaction, and it took a little lead out of my pencil.
|Carradine in The Cowboys (1970)|
A week later, we're shooting that scene in the film where all of us kids have to ride that bucking bronco, and A Martinez and I get into that fight, and John Wayne breaks us up, and tells my character to “Get back on that fence where you belong!” So we did the scene once, and I stopped John Wayne, and said “Wait a minute Mr. Wayne. I'm the head kid here, and I don't think you should be telling me to get where I belong, just tell me to get back on the fence.” You could've heard a pin drop on that set at that moment. John Wayne looked at me, and began to tell me in very certain "terms" what he thought of my suggestion in front of everyone [laughing].
TV STORE ONLINE: So you had a bit of an ego as a child actor?
ROBERT CARRADINE: I just thought that as the head kid he shouldn't be telling me to get where I fuckin' belong, but to get back up on the fence only. It just seemed logical. If you watch the film now, he doesn't tell me to "get where I belong". So I guess it was ego [laughing].
TV STORE ONLINE: Shortly after, you worked on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973). Didn't David get you the job on that film as well?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Yes, he did. David had just shot Boxcar Bertha (1972) with Scorsese. That sequence in Mean Streets was based on a true story. It really happened in Little Italy years prior. Scorsese asked David if he'd do it, and he suggested that he use me as well. So we did the interior aspects of that sequence in Los Angeles in one day, and the outdoor fight shortly after in New York City.
Back then, I had really long hair and there was no way that I was going to cut it for one day’s work. Having long hair back then was really important to me. So we came up with the idea to comb it down, and then tuck it into my collar. This drove Scorsese a little nuts I think. Every half hour he was asking the crew, “Does that look OK?” I think it really got to him. By the time we get to that part in the sequence where I go into the bathroom to shoot David, Scorsese asked me to pull out my hair before I shoot him. I've since heard a few times, that when Scorsese goes to lecture at USC or AFI or wherever, people ask him what the meaning is to the ritual when the killer pulls out his hair in Mean Streets. [laughing]
TV STORE ONLINE: So at that time in your career do you have enough insight to realize that you're working with someone very special like Martin Scorsese?
ROBERT CARRADINE: No [laughing]. It took me a long time to really appreciate the opportunities that I've had in my career. I didn't know shit back then. I was just going from one day to the next, without a plan. This all just sort of happened.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm a big fan of Aloha Bobby and Rose (1975). What were your experiences like working on that film?
ROBERT CARRADINE: I really like that film too. The thing about that film is that there are a couple things that really frost me about it. The first, being that the director of the film cut this big scene that Paul LeMatt and I did that was really great. Even worse, he didn't have the decency to let us know either so we found out at the screening of the film.
It's a scene where my character "Moxy" emotes to Paul LeMatt's character in the film. After the scene was over, Paul Le Mat walked up to me and told me how wonderful he thought it was. This was really big for me ‘cause at that time as an actor, I had not yet displayed any type of range like that. So it was kind of a breakthrough for me. So that was that, I think it was some of my best work and it pissed me off that it was cut.
The other thing that really always stuck in my craw when I think back about working on that film is the fact that Paul LeMatt didn't know how to drive that fuckin' Camero. Paul LeMatt is an amazing actor, but he couldn't drive that car. I had to teach him how to shift properly in a race. At this point in my life back then, I was down every single night on Mulholland Drive racing my own car. I really wanted to be a professional driver. Some of the cars in that film, I knew those guys cause they were down racing on Mulholland every night with me.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm such a huge admirer of David Carradine's You & Me (1975) and Americana (1981). Can you talk about how you became involved in those films, and also what was your trip out to Kansas like with David?
ROBERT CARRADINE: You & Me--I wasn't too involved with. My brother Keith [Carradine] and I only had small roles in that film. But with Americana, we went as a family to Kansas. We were living with the entire crew out in a two story farm house there.
We were waiting for the Chapman crane to arrive from Los Angeles. It was supposed to arrive in about seven or eight days after we had arrived. So David decided that we should shoot this other script he had until the crane arrived that he had called A Country Mile.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you know where the footage for A Country Mile is?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Sure. I know where all the negative is. I'm working on a project right now that will put that footage out to the public. I've got a great idea for it. I'm working on it, but it's a slow process. A County Mile is a music film, and we shot some amazing stuff for it. We recorded it in stereo even though we didn't have stereo Nagra recorders. We did that with two Nagra recorders we had and tried to capture true stereo in the instant it was happening. It caused a bunch of problems in post production, cause they'd run out of sync often.
TV STORE ONLINE: So how did you get involved with Sam Fuller on The Big Red One? Offer or audition?
ROBERT CARRADINE: It was a meeting at Warner Brothers. Sam Fuller is sitting behind a gigantic desk in an otherwise empty room. So I go in there, and Sam is sitting there smoking a stogie and we introduce ourselves to each other. He says, "So tell me lad, do you like to smoke cigars?" And I said, "You know, yeah...Every time I'm at Denny's and I'm paying the bill, I'll get one out of their case." He then asks me to turn around so he can see my ass. So I turn around and he says, "You'll do." So I said to him, "If you don't mind me asking, why do you want to see my ass?" He says, " Because I'm gonna be filming you guys from the back a lot and I need four very distinct asses." That was the meeting.
TV STORE ONLINE: Originally you didn't wanna play the character of "Zab" did you?
ROBERT CARRADINE: No, I thought I was gonna play "Griff". I remember when Mark Hamill came on board and he decided that he was gonna play "Griff" I was really bummed out about it. But in hindsight, I'm really glad I got to play "Zab" [laughing]. Because "Zab" is a great character.
TV STORE ONLINE: What's interesting is how everyone looks to that character as being the Fuller incarnate.
ROBERT CARRADINE: Well, he was the Fuller incarnate, and then also if you think about it in particular, in one of the scenes that was restored in the reconstruction for the new DVD, the attitude of that character...There's that one scene where "Zab" comes back with all those Belgium francs for the squad party and I'm telling that madame that she has to hold her ass up to the window until it freezes..that whole scene? The attitude in that scene, was this combination of "Johnny Crystal" from the The Pom Pom Girls (1976) and everything that I actually was as a person at that time. I was an arrogant prick [laughing].
|Carradine as "Zab" in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One|
TV STORE ONLINE: So playing that character, do you study Sam Fuller and his mannerisms or how he works that cigar in his mouth?
ROBERT CARRADINE: No. The only direction he gave me pretty much was, "I never wanna see you without a cigar." Period. That's why when we're coming to shore in the D-Day sequence, I've got a cigar in my mouth. I mean, c'mon, do you really think anyone in that type of firefight is gonna have a cigar in their mouth? But...I'm never without a cigar in that movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love that part where you take the cigar off that dead body with all it's guts falling out during the battle.
ROBERT CARRADINE: Oh yeah, that was hilarious. I loved that bit.
TV STORE ONLINE: With the whole frozen ass sequence we just talked about, did Sam Fuller ever tell you what that was really about?
|Carradine on Fuller in the 2014 documentary "A Fuller Life"|
ROBERT CARRADINE: No he never did. But, that's why the little things like that were really important to Sam. Sam's attitude for example with the whole bit about taking the cigar off of the dead body was "Well fuck it, he's not gonna smoke it!" For Sam, war wasn't about being a hero it was about survival.
TV STORE ONLINE: There's a great story I've heard you tell before about meeting Lee Marvin for the first time while you were working on The Big Red One. Lee Marvin said to you, "Fuck you Carradine" when you met him for the first time. Why do you think he said that to you?
ROBERT CARRADINE: Well I asked him why he had said that to me, and he told me that it was just that I was the only one he had heard of before. Not me specifically, but he had heard of the Carradine family before. He said that he felt that he needed to set the tone with us young guys...the four horseman right away cause he said he wasn't gonna take any shit from any of us. So he wanted to set the record straight.
|Carradine as Sam Fuller in The Big Red One (1980)|
TV STORE ONLINE: What's your favorite Sam Fuller memory of working with him on The Big Red One?
ROBERT CARRADINE: We're shooting that sequence that you see at the beginning of the movie. It's that scene where we're coming onto the beach and we're shooting it out with the French. Mark Hamill's character can't shoot this guy. I end up shooting him. So my character says to Hamill, "What's a matter Griff? That guy was close enough to kiss on both cheeks." So we shot the master, the two shot, then we're on my close-up. We did one take. It was my first close up in a Sam Fuller movie. So we shoot the close up and Sam says, "Forget it, we're over here." I was crushed. I was saying to myself, "Fuck, he's not even gonna give me another take? He hated it so much, that he's not even gonna give me another shot at it."
It took me a few days of working on Sam's set to figure out, that what he had said was short hand for "Cut, print, I loved it, we're over here now." Sam didn't waste any words. He wasn't one of those directors that rubs your back telling you how great you are. You weren't gonna get that shit from Sam. And this actually started a mini-competition amongst us actors to see who could get the most takes out of Sam [laughing].
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung