Bands of Brothers

The Long Riders True West
Director Walter Hill’s first Western, The Long Riders, cast four sets of brothers as real-life outlaw brothers, including (l.-r.): Randy Quaid as Clell Miller, Keith Carradine as Jim Younger and Stacy Keach as Frank James.
– All Images Courtesy United Artists –

Forty years ago, an audacious casting inspiration—real acting brothers portraying the outlaw brothers who made up the James–Younger gang—triggered the making of a classic Western, The Long Riders. Surprisingly, the brothers who thought of it, Stacy and James Keach, credit another pair of brothers with inspiring it. In 1972, they’d costarred in a TV movie called Orville and Wilbur and, Stacy recalls, “We said, well, we’ve done the Wright brothers. Now let’s do the wrong brothers: the James brothers.” The sons of actor and Tales of the Texas Rangers creator Stacy Keach Sr., they were no strangers to the genre: Stacy had been nominated for a Tony in 1969 for playing Buffalo Bill in Indians, and starred as the consumptive dentist in Doc. James remembers, “I wrote a show called The Bandit Kings, a musical about Frank and Jesse James. We did it off Broadway.”

“It was not very good,” Stacy admits, “but it was spirited, and we decided we should do it as a movie rather than a play.” They headed for California, dropped the songs, rewrote it as a screenplay, and tried for nearly nine years to get it made. Then came the Keaches’ stroke of genius, the casting: the Keaches as the James boys, David, Keith and Robert Carradine as the Youngers, Randy and the then-unknown Dennis Quaid as the Millers, and Beau and Jeff Bridges as the dirty little cowards, the Fords. When the studios wouldn’t believe they were all on board, James remembers, “We got all the brothers together, and we took a picture. And that was our calling card for anybody who couldn’t believe we could get all these guys together.”

While James was in Bora Bora, acting in Hurricane, producer Tim Zinneman (son of High Noon director Fred Zinneman) read his script. A friend of Walter Hill’s since they’d been assistant directors on Bullitt, Tim told James, “I’ve got to give this to Walter. He’s going to love this.”

Hill, a big-time screenwriter since Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, had made a splash as an action-director with the hit gang drama The Warriors. Zinneman set up The Long Riders at United Artists. Hill says with a laugh, “They thought they were getting a ‘catch’ in me. The truth is, it was my first Western, and I’d have crawled through fire and broken glass to do it. So they had me at a bargain, and all the brothers worked at a bargain too, those who were in more of a commanding position for salaries, David and Stacy.”

There was more casting to be done. The Quaids were added, then the Guests, Robert Carradine remembers, because, “the Bridges backed out. They didn’t want to be the guys who shot Jesse James in the back.” Pamela Reed, who played Belle Starr to David Carradine’s Cole Younger, had very little film experience, but Hill remembers, “She came in and read and I just thought she was perfect.”

Long Riders True West
L.-r.: Robert Carradine, David Carradine, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid (partially blocked), Stacy Keach, James Keach and Keith Carradine made up three of the four sets of outlaw brothers in The Long Riders. Not pictured are Nicholas and Robert Guest as Bob and Charlie Ford.

Reed had her doubts. “There was the scene in the bathtub with no clothes on, something I swore I’d never do. Hill said, ‘I will not embarrass you, and I will give you the respect that an actor deserves.’” She agreed. “David was just a consummate professional: wry, dry, charming, sexy, smart, really sensitive. On the first take, he just looked at me. He started with my toes and went up to my head, and by the time he finished looking at me, I felt like I was Simone Signoret in her prime. I stood up out of that tub and I said, ‘Well, here I am.’ And I guess I meant it in every sense of the word.”

James says the film was shot in Georgia because “Missouri [had] too many Fosters Freezes and telephone poles; the first day of shooting was nearly a terrible disaster.” James and Stacy were riding across a river when, Carradine remembers that Stacy’s “horse caught a foot in the rear cinch on his saddle, was going to drown.” The horse kept coming up, gulping air and going down again. “The head wrangler timed it for the next time he came up, threw a rope around that horse’s neck and they were able to pull him out.”

Long Riders True West
The Long Riders has the best re-creation of the failed Northfield Bank Robbery of any of the James Brothers’ movies, with l.-r., Randy Quaid as Clell Miller, James Keach as Jesse James, Stacy Keach as Frank James and Robert Carradine as Bob Younger.

There were other occasional problems along the way. In the barn shootout, James got too close to a squib, “and it blew a hole in my back.” The crew went to Texas to shoot a scene with a train that the Heaven’s Gate crew had been using, “And when they gave it to us, they’d painted [it] red, so they would f**k us up. We did the train robbery in Northern California.”

Despite outside predictions, the brothers got along well. James suggests one reason: “We were all musicians, so we would play music all the time. Keith won an Academy Award. Bobby’s an incredible guitar player.”

Stacy’s only complaint is that they changed his ending. “We felt that Jesse shouldn’t die at the hands of Bob and Charlie Ford, hanging a picture on the wall.” In the Keach version, they faked Jesse’s death, the Fords took the credit, “and Jesse went off and lived in obscurity. Walter thought it was too gimmicky; but my brother and I still would love to tell that story.” Why not in The Long Riders II?

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