Glory Bound: In Memory of David Carradine

By Nick Dawson | June 5, 2009
David Carradine David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory

FilmInFocus’ Nick Dawson pays tribute to the late David Carradine, who tragically died yesterday, and runs two extracts from his book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel recounting the actor’s role in Ashby’s Bound for Glory.

In 2004, I had lunch with the late David Carradine as part of my research for the book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel. Carradine, of course, had one of his great screen roles working under Ashby when he played Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory (1976). Carradine, as I discovered at our meal, was the epitome of cool in real life as well as on the big screen. He had a natural presence, undeniably macho but also understated. He had a great sense of humor, didn’t take himself too seriously, and was a master raconteur. Though he was a prolific actor who seldom took a day off, he was still generous and approachable, and would always return your calls.

A few months ago, I was organizing a Hal Ashby tribute event at the Sarasota Film Festival. I called David, who remembered our conversation almost five years back and said he would love to attend the tribute. Then a problem arose: the event was right in between two acting jobs, and the movie he was working on was behind schedule, making it almost impossible for him to attend. Though there was nothing in it for him except paying tribute to the man he once said was the greatest director he’d ever worked with, Carradine did his best to find a way to make it work with his schedule. Ultimately, despite everybody’s efforts, he was sadly still unable to come, but had shown himself to be a true stand-up guy.

To mark his passing, we are running below two extracts from Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel which recount Carradine’s involvement in Bound for Glory. The first details how Carradine first was chosen to be the lead in the big screen adaptation of folk legend Woody Guthrie’s memoir:

David Carradine, then best known for the Kung Fu television series, heard about Bound for Glory from Barbara Seagull Hershey, his ex-wife, and immediately called his manager to get an audition. Ashby initially laughed at the idea, but when Carradine’s manager insisted, “David is Woody Guthrie!” and explained he had long coveted the role, he gave him a chance. “Hal didn’t want me,” says Carradine, “but I went in and knocked him flat.” Carradine turned up with his guitar and played songs and told stories and jokes for the whole afternoon.

Much as Ashby liked Carradine, he looked nothing like Guthrie and was far too tall. “He told me that if I were six years younger and six inches shorter, he would hire me right on the spot,” Carradine recalls of his second meeting with Ashby. “I told him I’d do the part with my knees bent.” Six weeks after their first meeting, Ashby had offered the role to Richard Dreyfuss, but Dreyfuss had asked for more money; and the folk singer Tim Buckley, whom director Henry Jaglom had suggested to Ashby, had tragically died of a drug overdose. So Ashby called in Carradine and had Haskell Wexler shoot a screen test. Ashby had moved from Appian Way (after the house had become too full of editing equipment) out to Malibu Colony and now lived with [his girlfriend Mimi] Machu and Sean, her ten-year-old son by Sonny Bono, right on the beach. Carradine also lived in Malibu and used to run along the beach past Ashby’s house every day, refusing to let Ashby forget him. “One time he leaned out the window and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come in and say hello?’” Carradine recalls. “I hung out with him a lot as a result, and I realized, ‘If I just keep running past Hal’s house, I’ll get the part.’” Ashby later recalled it was Warren Beatty who pointed out that Carradine had “the right ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude” that he was looking for. Ashby knew that he was not making a documentary, that nobody would look like Guthrie and be able to act and sing, and that Carradine having the spirit of Woody Guthrie was more than enough.

Medavoy and the other UA brass were far from convinced as Carradine was a television actor with a reputation for being difficult to work with and not the big name they were hoping for. Out of respect for Ashby, they agreed to at least look at Carradine’s screen test; as [screenwriter Robert] Getchell puts it, they “came to jeer and stayed to cheer.” Apparently, after only thirty seconds of the test, Ashby’s decision to cast Carradine was fully endorsed.

Carradine and Hal Ashby during production

Carradine and Hal Ashby during production

In the second extract from Being Hal Ashby,we follow Carradine as he takes on his biggest screen role so far:

Despite his reputation for being difficult, Carradine was on his best behavior during Bound for Glory and later called Ashby the best director he had ever worked with. Still reeling from his recent breakup with Barbara Hershey, at the start of filming he was, by his own account, “virtually suicidal” but felt that he “should finish this great film before . . . [doing] anything about it, and then see.” His moods were unpredictable, and he could go from being charming and talkative to being nonverbal for days on end. Ashby knew that Carradine related to Woody enough not to need too much guidance but still found ways to support his actor. “Hal would be right beside the camera,” says Carradine, “and I used to actually play my dialogue to him rather than to whoever I was talking to because I’d get this feedback from him. Hal’s basic element in his directing was that he would watch while you were working and seemed to be looking at you like you were an absolutely phenomenal actor, like ‘God, that’s so great.’ And that made you feel like it was, and it moved you up a notch.”

To make him feel fully included in the filmmaking process, Ashby invited Carradine to watch the rushes with him every day. On top of the large amount of film Ashby was shooting, there was, Carradine says, “all this extra footage that Haskell would shoot every day because he’d go out and shoot with his own camera and shoot trains going by and migrant workers and stuff like that, and there was lots of it.” With 6 a.m. starts most days, Carradine decided one night that he’d had enough and was getting up to go when he heard Ashby’s voice behind him gently say, “Oh, givin’ up, are you?” “So I sat through just about three hours of dailies every night for nineteen weeks,” says Carradine, “and saw every foot of film that was shot.”

Only once, when some migrant workers marched past, did Carradine play to his rebellious image. “David started marching with them,” Ashby recalled. “By the time we found him, he was two miles away; and he had held up shooting for three hours.” [Producer Robert F.] Blumofe was angry with Carradine, whose stunt had cost them time and money.

“Aw, come on,” Carradine said. “It’s what Woody would have done.”

Blumofe let a smile creep across his face because it was exactly what Guthrie would have done. Many of Guthrie’s living relatives, including his first two wives, Mary and Marjorie, and most of his children, visited the set during filming and expressed their approval of how the film was being made. Carradine, whom they had felt was unusual casting, received the ultimate compliment when Guthrie’s son Joady declared, “He’s got Woody’s vibes.”

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