Starrine Katharine Ross
It was always pleasant to do a show at Twentieth Century Fox Studios in the 1970s. Most people who arrived at the studio for the first time were very impressed when entering the main lot on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. They had to pass through the colossal, awe-inspiring, 19th Century New York Square, constructed for the 1969 Barbra Streisand musical extravaganza, Hello, Dolly! The Dolly! set designers had taken the entire front access to the studio – a vast area that included the studio’s executive building, the outside walls of several mammoth sound stages, a spacious parking lot, a lofty knoll, plus the studio entrance gate itself, and turned it into what could have doubled for Disneyland – it was a breathtaking display. But unlike those other people, what intrigued me to no end about Fox was the fact the studio had been built on 176 acres of land that had once been the ranch of legendary Western movie star, Tom Mix.
Like Metro Goldwyn Mayer in Culver City a short distance away, Twentieth Century Fox Studios looked and felt like Old Hollywood – Old Glamorous Hollywood. The only other motion picture studios to even come close were Warner Bros. in Burbank; and Paramount, with its main lot located on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood proper. Paramount’s DeMille Gate had been immortalized in the movie, Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson; and an overhead shot of the Warner Bros. Studios, with its numerous sound stages and enormous back lot, could be seen at the beginning of every Warner Bros. television show. Other studio lots like Columbia, Desilu (the old RKO), and Goldwyn, were smaller and not as grandiose as Fox and MGM; though Universal Studios, just over the hill in the San Fernando Valley, may have been comparable to MGM and Fox in years past, during the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, when I was working as a costumer in the business, Universal had the reputation for being a “factory,” turning out film product in the same way Detroit turns out automobiles – by assembly line.
This time it began when I got a call from the head of the wardrobe department at Fox asking if I was available to do a Movie of the Week. I was between jobs, so I said yes before I even knew what the story was about. Earlier that year (1976), I had costumed a Western – Quinn Martin’s “The Deputies,” released to television as “Law of the Land”. I had worked with some very familiar Western stars – Jim Davis, Glen Corbett, and Andrew Prine. As it turned out, this new show I was about to begin for Fox was to be a spin-off of their extremely successful, money-making theatrical motion picture, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid;” only the follow-up would be minus Paul Newman and Robert Redford. That was because both Newman’s and Redford’s characters had been killed off in the movie. That left only one of the original stars to top-line the sequel – the beautiful and elegant, Katharne Ross, who had played the part of The Sundance Kid’s girlfriend – Etta Place. I wouldn’t be in charge of costuming Katharine personally; that would be taken care of by my co-worker, Maddie Sylos, the women’s costumer. My job would be to outfit the men – and there would be a lot of them.
The script for the television movie of the week, The Sundance Woman, begins shortly after the feature movie’s violent ending. Etta Place is still on the run. She’s working quietly as a store clerk in an establishment run by an older couple, Dave and Mattie Riley. The Pinkerton Detective Agency – in the form of celebrated lawman, Charles Siringo – is hot on her trail. When Etta is nearly captured, it’s the older couple who help her escape into the night. As a reprisal, Dave Riley is arrested then incarcerated in the local jail by Charley Siringo. Now it’s up to Etta to help Dave Riley break out; and she does so by teaming up with Mexican revolutionary bandit, Pancho Villa, and his loyal followers – an exciting premise, a wonderful period in history, and a magnificent backdrop for an action-packed, Western Movie.
The women’s costumer, Maddie, already had Katharine to work with, so she would be busy until the other female parts were cast. My preparation began as usual. Before anything, a costumer needs to know how the story breaks down into days and nights – that’s because most people change their clothes, or some part of their outfit, daily. Also, there are some wardrobe changes that take place at night (think overcoat; dress suit, different hat, etc.). A costumer also need to know who each individual character is, their backgrounds and personalities as represented in the script; plus, the producers’ and director’s ideas and input on how they envision the look of the actors’ costumes. This is all done way before casting begins, through production meetings and one on one discussion. So by the time the wardrobe people get the actors for a fitting, we have pulled enough pieces of wardrobe to offer not only the actors, but the director, and the producer(s), any number of choices.
Costumers have to concern themselves with the extras (background actors) as well. For this particular show, there were citizens of a turn-of-the-century south-western town; a large band of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary soldiers and camp followers; numerous Mexican Army troops (Federalies); plus other incidental non-speaking bit parts. When I was satisfied I’d done all of the above, I started pulling every piece of period Mexican wardrobe I could find from the storage racks in the Fox Wardrobe department. I also put in a call to a contact I had at Western Costume Company (a Hollywood wardrobe rental house) – that would set them in motion. My contact was kind of like the foremen, and he assigned an in-house costumer to help me on Western’s end who would start pulling pieces of period clothing for the fittings I would eventually be doing at Western. My co-worker, Maddie, also had a woman costumer at Western put on the payroll who served the same purpose for the ladies.
During preparation on most movies for television, and even on some major features, the producers and the casting people (these are the non-set workers) never seem to get it together. They just don’t seem to recognize the fact that the rest of the company is closing in on a predetermined start date; and on that targeted day, filming will commence – no matter what. So, at least in the wardrobe end of the business, after all of our other preparation has been done, and we’re ready to start fitting the actors, it’s not unusual to find there have been no parts cast at all. What we do in that case, is to sit around and bitch about the casting department; lament on how uninterested the producers are to our dilemma; and – at least back then – I bit my nails and smoked a lot.
Then it finally happened – with about two or three days left before the start of principal photography, I got my first call from the casting department. All they did was let me know some minor character had been signed. I immediately called the guy and got his sizes, and knowing perfectly well I wouldn’t have to fit him personally, I called our show’s costumer at Western Costume and had him put up an outfit based on the information the actor had given me. Later on, other actor’s names began to trickle in. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, I got a big one. It was Pancho Villa. Casting told me an actor by the name of Hector Elizondo had been cast as Villa, and that he and his agent were on their way down to the wardrobe department at that very moment so I could fit him. Even though that’s not how it’s usually done, I was still very excited that one of the main parts had finally been cast. I ran out of my office and stopped. I scanned the street that would them to the wardrobe department. Within moments, I saw two men round a corner and move directly toward me – a bald-headed man about my size, and a tall, good-looking fellow. I had never met, and to my knowledge, never seen, Hector Elizondo, but I sure recognized an actor of star quality when I saw one. I waited until the two of them got closer then I approached and stuck out my hand to the tall, good-looking guy. “It’s really nice to meet you, Mr. Elizondo. I’m your wardrobe man.” The guy pulled his hand away, showing some embarrassment – for me it turned out. He cleared his throat. Then, indicating the bald-headed man beside him, he spoke, “This other gentleman is Mr. Elizondo,” he smiled. Then he continued: “I’m just the agent.”
Hector Elizondo made one hell of a Pancho Villa – wearing his toupee, of course – and I finally did recognize him after he wore it on the first day of shooting. As for fitting Hector, I wasn’t able to find the proper costume at Fox, so I set a date to meet him at Western Costume, when I would also be outfitting several of the other leading actors.
Charles Siringo was cast with Steve Forrest in the part. Dave and Mattie Riley were played by Michael Constantine and Katherine Helmond. Other members of the cast were the beautiful Columbia Pictures star, Stella Stevens, who played Etta’s best friend; Hector Elias as Fierro, Pancho Villa’s right hand man; Redmond Gleeson, as an American member of Villa’s gang; Warren Berlenger as the local sheriff; Lucille Benson; and Jorge Ceverra, Jr.
Earlier, back when we were pulling costumes and waiting for actors to fit, Maddie and I were asked to view a previous sequel to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid;” another MOW that starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Etta Place. It was titled, “Mrs. Sundance,” and had one of my favorites, L.Q. Jones, playing Charlie Siringo. It was a nice gesture on the producers’ part, but there was absolutely nothing in that film we could use as costume research for our show. I suddenly had an idea, and suggested to director, Lee Phillips, that maybe we should take a look at “Viva Zapata,” a Fox film starring Marlin Brando, made in the 1950s. The “Viva Zapata” story was centered around the Mexican Revolution, and I was sure it would be of great importance for, not only our department, but for everyone involved. The producer set up a screening and we all learned a great deal about the period from watching Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn, portray on the big screen what we were about to depict for the small one. There is an interesting note here in that our executive producer, Stanley Hough, was married to Jean Peters at that time; and she did pay a visit to the set several times while we were filming. We were also required to watch Fox’s 1939 Western epic, “Jesse James,” which starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. There is a scene in that movie where Jesse (Powers) is being chased by a posse of men and the only way to escape them is to ride his horse off a very high cliff and into the water below. This was a stunt that, in reality, killed the horse; so believe me, it’s a fantastic bit of stunt-work to see. Our producer’s idea was to dress Katharine Ross (as Etta Place) in wardrobe identical to that worn by Tyrone Power then use that piece of film to depict Etta in her desperate escape from the Pinkertons.
It had been decided that we’d shoot The Sundance Woman’s main exteriors at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona. Old Tucson had a wonderful Western Street set at that time, which had been constructed in 1940 for Columbia Pictures’ big budget feature, “Arizona,” starring Jean Arthur and William Holden. That part of the southwest made a perfect setting for our story; and the town, after being modernized slightly to resemble a small settlement of the early twentieth century – with antique automobiles chugging here and there – made a very believable bordertown for Pancho Villa’s gang to attack.
Principal photography began on June 24th, 1976, just one day after I finally got the chance to fit Steve Forest, Hector Elizondo, Hector Elias, and Redmond Gleeson at Western Costume Company. Other principal actors were outfitted that same afternoon at the studio – with the remainder still to be cast. We started shooting at the Fox Ranch out in Malibu Canyon with only a few of the main characters. For the first two days we shot some ride-bys, plus the exterior scenes that took place in and around Pancho Villa’s camp. The second day was very long, and the company finished that afternoon like they did in the old days of filming Westerns: by following the sunlight up the side of a mountain until there was no more daylight left to illuminate the actors.
One more day at the Fox ranch to finish up Villa’s camp and the cave exterior, then it was back to the studio to do the cave interior and the inside of Villa’s tent scenes. I had a set man working with me by then; a very good costumer by the name of Michael Long. Mike had worked with me on the Quinn Martin Western and had done a terrific job. It was Mike’s responsibility to stand by on the set. This allowed me to finish up several final fittings and load out our wardrobe truck so it could take off for Tucson a day before the company was scheduled to fly there. The rest of the week was spent filming railroad car interiors, plus the interiors of Stella Stevens’ Boarding House. Because there were no male characters working in those final scenes, I was allowed to leave Mike and Maddie on the set at the studio while I flew on to Tucson. Once there, I would have one whole day to set up a working wardrobe department. At that time Old Tucson had a wardrobe department of their own, so I had racks and bins available to me where I could store our show’s costumes. Plus, Fox let me hire a local wardrobe person on a day by day basis; that individual would start by helping me unload the wardrobe truck. I had done four Gunsmoke episodes at Old Tucson several years earlier, so I was somewhat familiar with their personnel and the way they operated.
I have this special saying: There’s nothing like Tucson in July. That came about because every single time I’ve ever worked at Old Tucson, it’s just happened to be in the month of July; and July is the monsoon season in southern Arizona. That means it rains like the bejesus every night then heats up to well over 115º during the day. Add high humidity to those triple digits and you get miserable, miserable and miserable. On the screen the Tucson scenery photographs spectacularly; but in the month of July, in person, Tucson sucks – unless you’re a snake, scorpion, or lizard.
We had a lot of pages to shoot in Old Tucson. Street scenes; interior jail scenes; riding scenes; train scenes. One of my favorites was the scene where Villa’s gang raids the town in order to distract the Pinkertons, so Etta can break her friend, Dave Riley (Michael Constantine), out of jail. More than likely you have seen the same sort of action in movies or on television; but until you’ve been there in person, you really don’t know what it feels like. I watched from behind the camera as that band of Hollywood and local stuntmen, led by several of our actors, rode into town, firing rifles and pistols, and I could definitely believe I was in Columbus, New Mexico, on the morning of March 9, 1916, when Villa and his gang crossed the international border and sacked that now-famous bordertown – burning an entire city block to the ground.
Another great time I had on the show was when the company trucked the Old Tucson period train locomotive, with all of its cars, out to a deserted stretch of track somewhere in the middle of the Sonora desert, and we shot the end of the picture. This is where Etta is about to be captured once again by Siringo (Steve Forest), and with the help of Dave Riley (Michael Constantine), they uncouple the car they are riding in, and coast back and away from the Pinkertons. All is well in the final scene with Etta and Villa riding off in different directions – perhaps hoping for a sequel to the sequel?
A large part of the fun and excitement while filming on location, are the goings-on of the cast and crew – after shooting, and on our one day off, which is Sunday. There are more parties going on inside the individual rooms and by poolside than you can count. There are fancy dinners out with new friends; secret love affairs; a lot of good old fashioned drinking (this was before drugs entered the picture); and humongous hangovers. In some ways, I miss those old days. In others, I’m just glad they’re only memories.