You did two more of the Italian westerns with Leone: For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Yeah. The other two, the productions were glossier, more refined. The stories didn't mean a whole lot. They were just a lot of vignettes all shuffled together. I enjoyed them, they were fun to do. Escapism. And the American western at that point was in a dull period. But when Sergio approached me about being in some of the subsequent westerns, I thought it would be going too far. So I came back to Hollywood and did Hang 'Em High. Sergio was interested in expanding the size and scope of his films, and I was more interested in the people and the story line. I guess, selfishly, because I am an actor, I wanted to do something with more character study.
You've described yourself as introverted. Do you think that's because you moved so much as a kid?
Maybe, yes. We moved around California a lot. We lived in Redding, Sacramento, Hayward. My parents were married around 1929, right at the beginning of the Depression. It was a tough period for everybody, and especially a young guy like my dad who was just starting out. In those days, people struggled for jobs. Sometimes jobs didn't pan out, or they couldn't afford to keep you. We drove around in an old Pontiac, or something like that, towing a one-wheel trailer. We weren't itinerant: it wasn't The Grapes of Wrath, but it wasn't uptown either.
It gives you a sort of conservative background, being raised in an era when everything was scarce. Once, I remember, we moved from Sacramento to Pacific Palisades because my father had gotten a gas-station attendant's job. It's still there, the station. It's at Highway 101 and Sunset Boulevard.
Were you involved in any school activities?
Yeah, I played a little basketball. Some football in junior high. I didn't really get involved in team sports, because we moved so much. I did some competitive swimming, and one of the schools I went to had a great gymnastics program, so I diddled with that for a while. I wasn't particularly suited for it, because I was so tall, but I liked it.
I suppose one of the biggest things when I was a kid – I always liked jazz. A wide spectrum of jazz. Back in the Forties and Fifties I listened to Brubeck and Mulligan. And I loved Ellington and Basie. I'd get books on everybody: Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden. I used to be very knowledgeable.
Then, up through the Forties, I used to go to those Jazz at the Philharmonic things. One time, they had Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and a whole group of classic players. In fact, nowadays, when I talk to composers that are maybe ten years younger than I am, they're all jealous about that concert: "You saw those guys live!"
You play some jazz piano yourself.
Yeah, when I was a kid, I played. Fooled around with some other instruments, but I was lazy. I didn't really go after it. I just started again in the last few years. I've been diddling around with composition. Five or six things. I used one as my daughter's theme in Tightrope, and I also did the theme for the young girl in Pale Rider.
I have some regrets that I didn't follow up on music, especially when I hear people who play decently. I played on one cut on the album for City Heat. After the session, Pete Jolly and Mike Lang and I were all talking about how we started out playing piano. We all started the exact same way, only those guys went on to really play. We began by playing blues: blues figures at parties. I was such a backward kid at that age, but I could sit down at a party and play the blues. And the gals would come around the piano, and all of a sudden you had a date.
You had a country hit, "Barroom Buddies," a duet with Merle Haggard. When did you get interested in country music?
Well, I think you can say that Merle Haggard had a hit and sort of dragged me along. I was never terribly knowledgeable about country music. The first real good taste of it I got was when I was eighteen or nineteen, working in a pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon. It was always wet, really depressing. Wintertime. Dank. I really didn't know anyone, and someone told me to go out to this place where there was a lot of country music. I wasn't very interested, but this guy told me there were a lot of girls there. So I went. I saw Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Unlike most country bands, they had brass and reeds and they played country swing. They were good. It surprised me a little bit, how good they were. Also, there were a lot of girls there, which didn't surprise me at all. So I guess you could say that lust expanded my musical horizons.
Why didn't you follow up on the music?
I was going to. I tried to enroll in Seattle University, where they had a good music program. I got my draft notice before I got in there, though, and ended up at Fort Ord [California]. And I guess I just failed away from music.
I served my two years and went down to L.A. City College, where I enrolled in business administration. In the service I had met some guys who were actors – Martin Milner, David Janssen – and when we got out, a cinematographer got me a screen test. I got an offer to go under contract with Universal, seventy-five bucks a week to start. They threw me out a year and half later. But it was a pretty good deal for a young guy. We had acting classes every day.
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