Oscar “Budd” Boetticher was truly one of a kind, as both a film director and a man. He was a boxer and a bullfighter (becoming only the third white matador in history) before embarking upon a prosperous Hollywood career. In 1931, he landed a gig as horse trainer on Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. Two years later his knowledge of bullfighting would prove invaluable when working with Tyrone Power as technical advisor on the Rouben Mamoulian production Blood and Sand (1941). Boetticher and Mamoulian clashed, but the young prodigy learned a great deal about filmmaking from watching the veteran director. Soon the savvy Boetticher was working as an assistant director to legendary filmmakers George Stevens and King Vidor. He then used the skills he’d acquired from observing those directors – coupled with the teachings of his mentor, editor Barbara McLean – and took his rightful spot in the director’s chair in the mid-1940s. First he shot additional scenes for other directors’ films, but was soon helming his own pictures.

In 1951, Boetticher made his first important film with the semi-autobiographical The Bullfighter and the Lady. The film, produced by John Wayne, netted Boetticher an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay (co-written with Ray Nazarro). He continued working steadily, leaving a recognisable imprint on everything he touched. In the late 1950s, Boetticher began a six-film Western collaboration with actor Randolph Scott, producer Harry Joe Brown, and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. Those six films are known collectively as the “Ranown Cycle.” The first of the Ranown pictures, Seven Men from Now (1956), also produced by Wayne, is widely considered one of the greatest films the genre has ever produced.

Budd Boetticher

Seven Men from Now (1956)

In the 1960s, Boetticher walked away from Hollywood and began work on a documentary about famed matador Carlos Arruza. He would toil on the train-wreck of a production for the next seven years, watching tragedy upon tragedy unfold around him. The troubled shoot finally concluded in 1966 when an automobile accident claimed the lives of Arruza and several members of Boetticher’s crew. This took an immense toll on Boetticher’s personal life as his marriage ended badly and a nervous breakdown landed him in jail and, finally, a mental institution.

The following interview was conducted at Boetticher’s Ramona, California, home in 1999. Boetticher, age 83, had just undergone a double hip replacement. Despite this, he showed no signs of slowing down. He claimed to have four new screenplays and four books in the works at that time. He was still shopping a script he’d been showing around Hollywood for years entitled A Horse for Mr. Barnum, and he talked of remaking his screenplay Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), this time “doing it right.”

Boetticher died just two years later. Since his passing, he has become somewhat of a legend. His directorial efforts continue to garner attention and praise, and films and television shows like Kill Bill (2003) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) featured characters named after him.

Budd Boetticher

Interviewer Andy Rausch with Budd Boetticher, 1999

I saw a photograph of Orson Welles on the wall in your office…

This will interest you. I just got a call from Variety about a book they’re working on. They asked me if they could send me seven questions, would I answer them. I said, “Yeah, you’re going to get the straight answers.” Well, one of the questions they asked me was, “Who do you think is the most overrated celebrity in the history of motion pictures?” And I said Orson Welles. They said, “Orson Welles?” I said, “Yeah, I knew him very well, but come on.” They said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, of course his first picture, Citizen Kane (1941), was a good picture, but it doesn’t compare in any way to something like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston 1948) or Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) or The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973). The thing about Orson was, he could sell Orson Welles the way Duke Wayne sold Duke Wayne; nobody could do it better. But Orson never finished the last three pictures he started, and that cost a lot of people a lot of money.

That photograph you saw was taken in Spain. About a year ago, Mary and I went to Spain to be honored. We were talking to Pilar, the wife of the great matador Antonio Ordonez, and she said, “You know, there’s something I want you to see.” I was limping because I had just had an operation, and I was about ten yards behind Pilar and my wife. And there was this well, all covered with ivy, and she was explaining about this well. She said, “Isn’t that strange?” And to be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention because I was in pain. But I said, “Yeah, really.” We were walking back and Mary said, “You didn’t know about the well. You didn’t listen. You don’t listen to things.” So I said, “Well, what the hell was in the well?” And she said, “Orson Welles.” [Laughs.] His ashes were in the well! So I said, “Oh my God. Pilar, I didn’t understand. Will you excuse me for a moment? I’d like to go back to the well alone.”

So I walked back alone, and I said, “Orson, I didn’t really hear what was going on. If I had known, I would have been more respectful. And I’m sorry it didn’t work out with you and Rita [Hayworth]. I guess I’ll see you one of these days, but I’m really in no hurry.” And all of a sudden I realized I was really talking to that damned well!” [Laughs again.] But he’s in that well. Isn’t that wild?

So how would you assess Welles as a director?

Well, he was a great director. But I don’t think he was George Stevens… But you know, he was like Duke. Duke played Duke better than anybody else in the world, and when he played Admiral Farragut he was a pain in the neck. Welles had such a great personality. He knew exactly what he was doing with War of the Worlds. And he sold Orson better than anybody else, but then he didn’t do anything else. I think it’s seen as being proper today for young people today to know that Orson Welles was a genius. The truth is, he wasn’t. We didn’t have any geniuses.

Who do you consider your influences?

I didn’t have any influences. The way I learned how to make pictures was from watching my bad movies! [Laughs.] And I’d say, “Oh, good God, don’t ever do that again!” Sometimes I said, “That’s pretty good.” But we didn’t have schools where we learned how to cut and all this stuff. Most of my movies that were good ones, I either did myself or I knew that it could be done.

I don’t make movies where Clint Eastwood walks down to put out the dynamite because he knows he’s the leading man. And I don’t make pictures where Burt Reynolds is walking down the street and they’re shooting at him with machine guns, and he doesn’t get hit. I wasn’t influenced by anybody.

You once said a director must be prepared to be a “doctor, a lawyer, an intimate friend, and a priest.” What did you mean by that?

Actors are a pain in the neck, and you do have to be the nurse and the doctor and the psychiatrist. You have to take care of these guys. What I do, and will continue to do if I ever direct again, is to not rehearse them. I have never rehearsed a day, and never will. I think if you rehearse actors to death, they’re tired by the time you start the picture. You have to give an actor the opportunity to give you what he wants to do. Then you say, “This is very good, but don’t do this and that.” That’s what you want.

Today, the director, someone like Robert Towne, says, “Cut!” and then they have a meeting. I did one day on Tequila Sunrise (1988) for Robert, whom I love, and they would have a meeting! Ten people! And someone would say, “What do you think we should do now?” And somebody else would say, “Let’s get a close-up of Michelle Pfeiffer.” And then another voice would say, “My wife doesn’t like Michelle Pfeiffer.” And I thought, what are we doing here? Let’s get the hell out of Hollywood!

Budd Boetticher

Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel, 1970)

A few minutes ago you alluded to Two Mules for Sister Sara, which you wrote the original screenplay for. Don Siegel made some changes…

Changes? It was horrible! Don Siegel was a dear, dear friend of mine. But at the premiere, which was at the Pantages Theater, I was sitting with Ron Ely, the actor. And Clint, who is now a very dear friend of mine… When we saw that picture, I said, “The stupidest S.O.B. in the theater was the leading man. Couldn’t he smell her breath?” When he threw the dynamite and then walked down, I said, “Jesus Christ!” And Ron said, “We ought to get up and hit those two guys behind us. I said, “You hit Clint, and I’ll hit Don.”

Well, Don called me the day after the premiere and said, “Thanks for not walking out of the theater last night.” I said, “Don, how could you make a piece of crap like that?” And he said, “It’s a wonderful thing to wake up in the morning and know there’s a check in the mail.” And there was dead silence. Finally he said, “I’m talking to the wrong guy, aren’t I?” I said, “You sure as hell are. It’s better to wake up in the morning and not be ashamed of what you see in the mirror.”

And Don was getting older. Now I’m ten or twenty years older than he was then, and I would never do that.

I’ll tell you an interesting story… We walked into a meeting at Warner Bros. a couple of years ago with Clint, who is a great director himself. Play Misty for Me (1971) is about as good as you can get. We walked into the office of the vice president, Bill Gerber. It was me, Burt Kennedy, and Clint. He said, “We really love your screenplay A Horse for Mr. Barnum, and we’d love to have you back here.” I thought, no you wouldn’t, because I’m a director and they don’t have many of those. And he said, “But there is one thing that isn’t a request, it’s a demand. We want Arnold Schwarzenegger to play your leading cowboy.” We just got up and walked out. He’s a good guy, but he’s not going to play Randolph Scott.

And now they’re wanting to remake Seven Men from Now with Schwarzenegger in the Randolph Scott role.

The first thing I said when I heard the news was, “I wish they’d play the two films as a double feature, then you’ll see who’s good and who’s bad.” I can’t imagine Paul Schrader directing this, and I’ve never heard anybody say anything that wasn’t nice about Schwarzenegger, but that’s just ridiculous. That was a great script. That was my first picture with Burt Kennedy, and he was the best Western writer ever.

John Wayne produced two of your pictures

The best ones.

What was Wayne like to work with?

A bastard. I never worked with Duke as an actor. I was supposed to direct The Comancheros (Michael Curtiz, 1961), but I didn’t want to work with him. I’d have quit or they’d have fired me the first day. I’m probably the only one in the world who ever pushed him. I was a boxer, and he couldn’t have hit me in ten years in the ring with boxing gloves on. But if he’d have gotten me in a street fight he’d have killed me. You know, we really argued about things. I didn’t like a lot of the things he did. We didn’t get along, but we loved each other. It’s like John Ford. I’ve many times said, “Anyone who knows me knows how much I loved John Ford, but anyone who really knows me knows how much I hated his guts.”

Budd Boetticher

Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (Rouben Mamoulian, 1941)

You worked with Tyrone Power as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand. What was it like working with Power?

Tyrone Power was great, but Rouben Mamoulian was just awful! He had a bell beside him and when he rang it twice, I’d have to come and stand in front of him. He would ask me questions about bullfighting. Well, bullfighting is like Catholicism – it’s a religion! There’s a right way to do, and if it’s not that then it’s wrong. And he never did anything right. Like the sash that Tyrone Power had that was sixteen feet long. He told us he wanted Tyrone to die with El Greco colors. If you die, you don’t die in a church with a beautiful crucifix there; you die in a freezing hospital. But that’s not what he wanted. Rouben Mamoulian wanted to win the Academy Award for color, which he did.

When I married Mary, I told her there was only one person in the world that I truly ever hated, and that was Rouben Mamoulian. He was just a horrible, horrible man. So the first week we were married we went out for dinner. This was thirty years after Blood and Sand. And as we walked out, here came Rouben Mamoulian with about six sycophants bowing before him. He looked at me and he said, “People, people, this is my Buddy Boetticher! He is a great, great, great director, and I started him!” And I turned to Mary and said, “Mary, I want you to meet my dear friend, Rouben Mamoulian!” [Laughs.] How phony can you get? The years went by and I thought he was great. After all, he loved what I did, so he must be a nice guy.

You worked with Woody Strode several times. Because Strode often played characters that were stereotypical, I think his contributions to the advancement of Blacks in the film industry have been overlooked. How important do you feel his work was in this context?

Well, I think he was great. He was such a terrific athlete. But if you knew Woody, you didn’t know what color he was. I grew up in Indiana, where the word “nigger” was fashionable, and I never understood that. The only person who ever beat me in the hundred-yard dash happened to be Jesse Owens, and I never knew what his color was. The people around me didn’t feel that way. The Mason-Dixon Line was not just Kentucky. It was terrible in those days, and the two people I loved the most were Woody and Sidney Poitier. Woody was a dear friend, and we never discussed black and white. He was in every picture I could put him in. I never knew he was contributing because I never saw him that way.

Budd Boetticher

Red Ball Express (1952)

When we made Red Ball Express (1952), I would go down to where the blacks ate in West Virginia to have dinner with Sidney. One day after we’d been there for a while I said, “Sidney, everybody talks about this and you’re one of my dear, dear friends, so I want to ask you a question: has it hurt your career being black?” He said, “Budd, before you came along I never made anything without a bone in my nose.” Isn’t that a great line?

In the late 1960s, some critics accused filmmaker Sergio Leone of ripping off your style. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s a great compliment. We were going to France, where we were being honored. I hadn’t paid any attention to what they were doing, just what they were doing for me, which was great. And I said, “Oh, my God. Guess who the top judge is?” My wife said, “Who?” I said, “Sergio Leone!” She said, “So?” I said, “They wrote the same things about Sam Peckinpah – that he stole everything from me. He’s gonna hate my guts the way Sam did.” She didn’t think so, but I said, “I know these guys. If you see a short, fat little guy who looks like Sergio Leone, you tell me and we’ll get the hell out of there.” So we were walking up the steps to our hotel, and down came Leone. I was halfway up the steps, so there was nothing to do but face him. And he looked at me and said, “Buddy, darling, I stole everything from you!” [Laughs.] Of course he didn’t, not that I know of. You look at his pictures and then mine and I don’t know where they get that idea. I hope it’s because they’re all good!

We became very close friends from that stairway meeting on. We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day for five straight days. He said, “Are you gonna make A Horse for Mr. Barnum in Spain?” I said yes, and he said, “I’d really love to produce it. If I produce and you direct, everyone in the world will see it.” I said, “Do me one favor, my dear friend—stay off the set.” He laughed because he knew what I thought of producers. I think he felt the same way.

I’m going to name several actors you worked with. As I do, I’d like you to comment on each of them.

Okay.

Randolph Scott.

Absolutely the best. Not the best actor, but one of the best actors. If everyone in the world would teach their kids to be just a little bit like Randolph Scott, we’d have a better world. He was the greatest gentleman I ever met.

Lee Van Cleef.

Lee drank a lot. He did a bit for me in Ride Lonesome (1959), and if you look at his tongue in that close-up, it’s white. He didn’t know where he was half the time, but I liked him. He was like Richard Boone; he had a hell of a talent but he was bent on destroying himself.

The next person on my list actually is Richard Boone.

I love Richard Boone. The studio didn’t want me to use Richard Boone, and I’d never met him. The studio head at the time said, “Budd, you don’t want to use that fella from Medic. He doesn’t have any sense of humor.” He said, “I know you’re gonna get your way, but would you meet with him and then decide which way you’re gonna go?” So I called Richard Boone and he said, “I loved Seven Men from Now,” and I said, “Good. You’re gonna have the same part. You’re gonna play second lead to Randolph Scott. Could you come in today and talk to me?” He said he thought maybe his wife had cancer – thankfully she didn’t – and he was going to be out of town for several days. He said, “Is there a problem?” I said, “Well, the head of the studio thinks you don’t have a sense of humor.” He said, “Well, you’ve got to admit, those heart operations are pretty damned funny.” And I said, “Sold. Come on in for wardrobe.” [Laughs.] I signed him without meeting him. He had sense of humor enough for me.

Look at all the guys in those Randolph Scott pictures. We started them all – Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Parnell Roberts, James Coburn, Craig Stevens, Claude Aikens… You see, Randy would recognize talent and would say to me, “Budd, who’s that skinny fella in the red underwear?” I said, “James Coburn.” He said, “Let’s write some more dialogue for him. I like him.” And we ad-libbed that wonderful scene in Ride Lonesome where he says, “I like you, Witt.” I sent that to John Sturgis, and that’s how he got The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Randy always wanted these guys to succeed. Now if Duke had a young man upstaging him, he wouldn’t be in the picture very long.

How about Audie Murphy?

He was a great guy. We were very dear friends. Audie didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything wrong. But he was a gambler. He was always in debt. Well, he came and visited me when I was sick in the hospital in Mexico. He said, “How much do you owe the hospital?” I said, “Maybe $5,000.” So he said, “I’m going to go to the track, and then I’ll come back and see you.” And he came back with a cashier’s check for $5,500. He said, “Does that cover what you owe?” I said, “Yeah, but I won’t take this.” And he said, “Well, it’s a cashier’s check, so tear it up if you want, I’ll be out $5000.”

He later called me one morning and he said, “Everything is in order. I’ve had it. I owe too much money. I’ve got my .45 here and I’m gonna kill myself.” I had about one second to do what I did. I said, “You miserable son of a bitch. Go ahead and pull the trigger. What a great thing to do to all the kids. You’re really something special.” And he didn’t do it.

One day he came down to the office. He had a pistol on the table and a glass of wine, and again, he never drank. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Budd, I won $200,000 at the track.” I said, “Great!” And he said, “And then I lost it. And I lost another $250,000.” It was just terrible. He came to me and we made A Time for Dying (1969), which wasn’t supposed to be seen. It was supposed to be a write-off for the people who financed it. And they made their money back. Audie got his money and got out of trouble. He did me a favor, and I did him a favor in return. I really loved the guy.

What was Lee Marvin like to work with?

He was great. He was a character. He had the idea of the hooker’s garter that he wore on his arm, which was really something. See, what Burt and I did for the first time in motion picture history, we made the bad guy a really nice guy.

There was another thing that happened in the picture that very few critics got; I always figured if you were a gunslinger and you got off your horse to urinate, you practiced drawing your gun. You had to stay alive that way. So nobody ever showed anybody practicing. So I had Lee practice throughout the whole shoot, so he would be really quick. And when Randy shot Lee in that picture, it was the first time the hero sat down after shooting the bad guy and said, “Man, I’m sorry he had to go.”

Lee was just great.

Budd Boetticher

Sidney Poitier in Red Ball Express

Tell me about working with Sidney Poitier.

Sidney? [Laughs.] He was the best! I found him in an off-Broadway show. They had told me there was a good Black actor in it. I went to see him and I just fell in love with him. I put him in the picture. He had a scene where he tells Jeff Chandler he wants a transfer. And I had Jeff say, “What’s the matter, you yellow, nigger?” I heard when it premiered in Atlanta that everyone looked around like they were appalled, like “How could they say such a thing?” And when they did it the first time, Jeff didn’t know how good Sidney was. Jeff looked at me and said, “I’ve never done this in my whole life. Excuse me. Cut. Can we do it again?” Sidney had just started acting and Jeff was like, “Wow, are you good!” He was wonderful, and still is wonderful. He’s just a great, great, great guy.

I usually like most of my actors a lot, and if you don’t then you’re really stupid because that’s how you make your living.

Tell me about Maureen O’Hara.

The best. I was in love with her. And the great thing about our marriage, Mary and I, is that when we go to these tributes, they always ask about some of these women. They always look at Mary, and I’ve told them a few times, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce my wife. And if you’d like to hear the stories about the ladies I’ve known, she knows them better than I do.” [Laughs.] Now when we’re in Europe, they want her up on the stage with me. No director has ever had that before. We just have a ball together.

But Maureen was just the greatest lady I ever worked with. The limousine would come at six o’clock and she would get in it and go home. She would be there at five minutes until eight every morning, and she knew everyone else’s lines and where to put the lights… She was fantastic.

What was Warren Oates like?

I didn’t like him at all. I thought he was an arrogant bastard.

Tell me about working with Glenn Ford.

Oh, Glenn was great. He was one of my very favorites, but he was very, very difficult for other directors.

You never had any trouble with him?

God no, but then I never had any trouble with any actors.

Budd Boetticher

Seminole (Budd Boetticher, 1953)

What was Rock Hudson like?

Rock, I loved! You know, I had no idea he was gay. And you know what? I didn’t care. And when I found out, I was in Paris trying to get him to come to one of our horse shows. Rock Hudson was just one of the nicest guys I ever worked with.

You appeared in the film Tequila Sunrise (1988). Have you considered doing anymore acting?

No. I had the best part that has ever been written for anybody in The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990), and it ended up not happening. The part was a bum who didn’t speak English and he becomes a multi-millionaire. It was just a great, great, great part. And they had a meeting and somebody said, “Isn’t it a shame that Randolph Scott isn’t with us anymore?” And somebody said, “Why don’t you call Budd Boetticher? Randy played Budd in seven straight pictures!” [Laughs.] But they never made the picture that way. Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans got into a disagreement with Robert Towne. So if I had a part as good as that one again, then yes, I’d make another movie.
Budd Boetticher

Budd Boetticher

Budd Boetticher

Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

Which of your films are you the proudest of?

Seven Men From Now is my favorite.

I loved working with Randolph Scott. Can I tell you a story about Westbound (1959)? Randy called me one day and he said, “I’ve got a confession to make.” I asked him what that was and he said, “I’ve got to do one more movie at Warner Bros.” I said, “You’re kidding?” And he said, “No, I can’t get out of it.” I said, “What’s it called?” And he said, “Westbound.” So I immediately went to Warner Bros. to talk to a producer there. I went in and I said, “I would like to direct Westbound.” He said, “We don’t have that kind of money.” I said, “I will pay you to let me do this. I want to make Westbound.” He said, “Have you read the script?” I said, “I don’t have to read the script. I want to do it.” He said, “May I ask why?” I said, “Yeah, I don’t want Warner Bros. to screw up my new star.” So I made the picture, and it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t one of my pictures.

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Never go to bed with your leading lady until the last night of the picture. That’s true! Don’t do that. Stay away from that stuff when you’re working or you’re going to end up with two directors on the set.

I don’t know what you learn in film school. I didn’t go to school. I think you learn from experience. Today, who is experienced enough to tell you how to make pictures? There’s nobody there. People in Europe have asked me, “Why are your pictures so different from everybody else’s?” I said, “Because everything on the screen is either something that I have actually done or it can be done. There’s nothing that’s phoney. You don’t blow up a building and the leading man’s the only one who escapes.”

When I got through with Blood and Sand as a technical director, I swore I would never have anybody sitting next to me where I say, “What do I do now?”

Do you know what they tried to hire me for? Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973). I didn’t know Karate. They begged me to do that picture and they said, “You’re a great action director.” But I said, “I don’t know Karate.” You just don’t do things you don’t know about.

 

Excerpts from this interview were originally published in Fifty Filmmakers: Conversations with Directors from Roger Avary to Steven Zaillian © 2008 Andrew J. Rausch. Contributing Editor Michael Dequina by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com.