With three albums released in 1968 (all of which contained a Number One hit), Merle Haggard was well on his way to becoming one of country music’s biggest stars of the 20th century – a phenomenal achievement especially considering that at the beginning of the decade, he was doing hard time at California’s San Quentin Prison.
Mired in a life of crime, Haggard eventually turned things around with music, which perhaps explains one of the oddest credits on his considerable resume. In 1968, the singer-songwriter donned a uniform to play an upstanding lawman in Killers Three, a seedy Southern crime drama whose cast included “America’s Oldest Living Teenager,” Dick Clark. The singer’s earnest (albeit brief and ultimately tragic) character is actually one of the film’s few redeeming qualities. In addition to contributing to the country-themed Killers Three soundtrack (which features an instrumental version of the future classic, “Mama Tried”), Haggard is a one-man Greek chorus, singing the lyrics of the theme song which telegraph the film’s plot. Haggard’s wife at the time, singer Bonnie Owens (who had previously been married to Buck Owens), also performs briefly in the film.
A household name thanks to his hosting duties on TV’s American Bandstand, Clark capitalized on (well, exploited, really) the 1967 box-office success of Bonnie & Clyde, co-producing and co-writing what is ultimately a witless, violent tale of post-World War II North Carolina bootleggers and revenuers. In other words, it did not have a good beat and was not easy to dance to. What it does have is Clark, in one of his few acting roles, as Roger, the weirdo Army buddy of the lead character, Johnny, who’s played by Robert Taylor Jr. We know Roger is a little “off” because he mumbles most of his lines. He also has a moustache, wears glasses and is referred to by the decidedly un-PC nickname the “Sissy Bandit.” Roger is something of an explosives “expert.” Thanks to his dubious safe-cracking skills (pssst: the secret ingredient is oatmeal!), Roger is forced to go on the lam with Johnny, Johnny’s wife, Carol (the “Killers Three” of the title), and the couple’s young son, whose dubbed lines manage to be even creepier than Roger’s moustache. What few laughs the film offers are entirely unintentional, the most obvious one being Clark’s numerous screen credits (in a special lowercase font, even). He even manages to sneak the word “bandstand” into the film’s dialogue, although that could just be a coincidence.
In spite of the dubious results, Killers Three didn’t blow up Haggard’s career — in either a good or bad way. He even acted again, playing the character of Duke in a 1975 TV version of Huckleberry Finn, starring Happy Days actors Ron Howard and Donny Most as Huck and Tom Sawyer, respectively. The following year, the country icon appeared in an episode of The Waltons.