“Ol’ Tony Hillerman told me one time, ‘Max, you know, if you option a novel, you’ve got to hope they don’t make the movie. Because then you can’t option it again.’ He was giving me advice long after the horses had entered the corral.” Legendary Texas-born cowboy, artist and author Max Evans—who is 93 and still writing—recalls, “I lived off options for a long time.”
His first novel, The Rounders, was published in 1960, and became a hit movie in 1965. His second novel, The Hi-Lo Country, was published in 1962, and despite being optioned repeatedly, didn’t reach the screen for 37 years—it was a contemporary story when he wrote it, but a period picture when they filmed it. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of the film version of The Hi-Lo Country, Evans talked with True West about his Hollywood adventures.
“I’d read everything from Shakespeare and Balzac to dozens of shoot-’em-up Westerns. Enjoyed ‘em all. But I wanted to write about what I really knew. So, I decided to write post-World War II. When I left for that war, ranchers were working cattle mostly from horseback. After I got back, the West was changed forever by pickup trucks replacing the horse.”
The Rounders, the comical adventures of two down-at-the-boot-heels cowboys, reinvigorated the careers of stars Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford, and established Burt Kennedy as a top Western writer-director. But Fess Parker, fresh from his success starring for Disney as Davy Crockett, was the first to option The Rounders. He’d even convinced an Oscar-winning writer-director to pen a script. Evans recalls, “William Wellman came out of retirement because of The Rounders. We all had a meeting, and Wellman is talking about who Fess was going to play. And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, Max is just right for the other part.’ Ol’ Fess just threw a damn fit. He made a real mistake: Ol’ Wellman just dropped the project. Fess killed the whole thing.”
Kennedy optioned the book three times before he got it set up at MGM. “Sam (Peckinpah) lost The Rounders to Burt Kennedy, and it really pissed him off. I had just published The Hi-Lo Country, and my agent sent it out to him. Sam optioned that at least five times. He was obsessed with that thing, and he never did get to make it.” They became close friends to the end. Although there could be friction.
“We’d been in some joint in Malibu with Lee Marvin, drinking. On the way out, there was a swimming pool. Sam knew I couldn’t swim and the ‘sonuvabitch’ pushed me in! I went to the bottom, (came up), caught the edge of the pool, and Sam started kicking my fingers! Ol’ Lee jerked him back to save my life! (Back at Peckinpah’s house) I had an impulse, picked him up and whammed him on the floor. He said, ‘Oh, you s.o.b., you’ve broken my leg!’ I just patted him on top of the head. ‘I’m sorry Sam. I meant to break your goddamn neck.’ That’s how we got to be real deep friends.”
Although Peckinpah would never film an Evans story, he would direct him, as the stagecoach shotgun rider, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.
The Rounders became a TV series, with Chill Wills returning as rancher Jim Ed Love, Patrick Wayne in the Fonda role and Ron Hayes in the Ford role. But it didn’t last a full season. Max remembers meeting Wills, who was holding court in a Beverly Hills bar. “He punched me in the chest, and says to everybody at the bar, ‘I cost this boy $2 million, I ruined his TV show. I took it over and ruined it.’ Damn good actor, but that’s exactly what he did.”
Then Gene Kelly, planning to direct, optioned Evans’ sequel to The Rounders, The Great Wedding, which would again star Henry Fonda. But the option ran out, and a couple of years later Kelly and Fonda were joined by James Stewart in the rather similar The Cheyenne Social Club. “Well, they did sort of plagiarize it,” Evans notes, but had no hard feelings. “They had wanted to make The Great Wedding, and this was a substitute for it. They were good guys.”
Indirectly, Peckinpah’s interest in The Hi-Lo Country helped get it made. Evans explains, “Martin Scorsese read it simply because of Peckinpah’s interest. He produced it, but he hired ol’ Steven Frears to direct it.” As dark as The Rounders is carefree, The Hi-Lo Country was inspired by the murder of one of Evans’ closest friends. The Western noir stars Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup as cowboy friends drawn to the same dangerous woman, played by Patricia Arquette, and features Sam Elliot as the same character Chill Wills played in Rounders. “Frears did his research and made a legitimate post-World War II Western. There’s very few of them made, you know.”
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com