HOLLYWOOD VETERAN PENS BLACK HORSE WESTERNS
A version of this interview was conducted by Keith Chapman and first appeared on Keith's site, Black Horse Extra.
Publisher Robert Hale Ltd had the 2007-2008 strike by the Writers Guild of America to thank for bringing it a number of excellent Black Horse Western novels from Hollywood veteran Steve Hayes. Steve is a Briton who went to Hollywood shortly after World War II. He has written westerns for years -- either for the big screen (Escort West) or for television (How The West Was Won mini-series, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Westerner, Men to Match My Mountains, The Seekers mini-series, etc). When the screenwriters stopped work, Steve dug out an unused screenplay.
He says, "I got pissed with the goddamn WGA strike, sat down and rewrote it as a novel and emailed Hale to say who I was, and would they like to see the book? John Hale said yes. He bought it without changing a word. That never happens in Hollywood, pal, it's the land of collaborative writing. Hale then bought the next two books I wrote in between doing my memoirs. So 2008 was a hectic but rewarding year."
Steve's BHW westerns started with Gun for Revenge. "The books that follow GFR deal with hero Gabe, a woman named Ingrid, and her almost feral teenage daughter, Raven. And, of course, the horse, Brandy. I considered introducing them in the first novel. But then I decided I wanted to concentrate on and fully establish Gabe. The characters that seem vague or come and go was deliberate. I tried to make them appear like a backdrop -- a visual aide to what Gabe is going through rather than bother with who and why. I am quite a good artist and painter, though seldom do it any more, and I've tried to treat characters like central figures in a painting. Don't distract from them with too much going on around them."
Again, the stallion charged and again the buzzards scattered and then returned for their meal. With each charge the horse grew weaker. Finally, it stopped charging and stood protectively by the man, flanks heaving, too exhausted to move. The buzzards formed a circle around man and horse, and patiently began their death watch ...
Gun for Revenge has a long and interesting history. Steve says, "Originally, it was going to be a two-part episode on Gunsmoke, then I expanded it for a short-lived mini-series called Men To Match My Mountains (I'd already written an episode for them), and when that show went down the tubes, I told the story to Borden Chase. He was a famous western writer for magazines and films like Red River. He loved it and wanted to co-write it with me for Universal and James Stewart, whom he knew well from the movie The Man From Laramie. But Stewart wasn't available and Borden got hung up with Viva Gringo, made into a great movie called Vera Cruz with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. So I put it on the back-burner and wrote two shows with Ron Bishop for How the West Was Won (The Enemy and The Gunfighter). I then got a call from William Bowers, whom I'd known for years. Bill wrote one of the best western movies, The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck. I agreed to co-write the project with Bill, but he hit the sauce pretty good and though we started off well, I couldn't keep him sober ... and so and so on ... "
Steve is a great raconteur and goes on to tell us about other famous western writers he has known and worked with, including James Webb, Leo Gordon ... and Louis L'Amour!
"I was friends with Louis L'Amour before he wrote Hondo, and was considered a short story writer who wrote about the sea and sailing ships and skippers, as well as a few westerns. He wrote, as you know, A Gift From Cochise which later became Hondo. I will add that Louis got immense help from the screenwriter James Edward Grant who actually changed the hero's name to Hondo and created the role of Sam the dog, et cetera. But once he got going, Louis never looked back.
"Louis was a good guy who twice a day came into a very famous coffee shop, Googie's, that was located next to Schwab's on Sunset near the start of the Sunset Strip. I was an actor-writer then who managed Googie's. Thanks to the large number of famous movie stars and celebrities -- Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Rod Steiger, Bob Middleton, Rory Calhoun -- it was the hit place to go in the early '50s. Louis lived in a building nearby called the Andalucia Apartments which I and my first wife, Gloria, lived in previously. Later, after his marriage, Louis lived there with his wife Kathy, to whom I still talk occasionally.
"Louis and I hit it off because we both shoot from the hip and don't weasel out when it comes time to keep our word. Also, I introduced Louis to Ava Gardner, whom I'd dated for a while in 1949, and Louis was nuts about her. Join the long line, buddy, I told him.
Who had shot him? Did he have a wife or a family? Was he, as Raven had said, an outlaw? Was he on the run from a posse? If he were, it would explain why he'd been shot. And most importantly, she wondered, why did she have a strange feeling about him, a feeling that told her he would become a vital part of her and Raven’s lives?
"I've recently had published a two-volume memoir, called Googie's, Coffee Shop to the Stars, that includes some very rare photos, including a great picture of Louis before he hit it big. Published by BearManor Media, it's available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and several Hollywood bookstores like Skylight Books. It deals with my early years in Hollywood (1949-59). During those years I was friends with almost every major star and knew Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Jayne Mansfield intimately. I was also buddies with Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn.
"I lived at Flynn's house as his guest for a while in 1950 and became well-known as his watchdog when he went out and got falling-down drunk. The book also deals with my experience in Cuba in 1958 when I knew Ernest Hemingway and ended up fighting for Castro in the Revolution. Both volumes have sold well and I'm delighted with the reviews."
Steve has written and co-written in many genres. "One of my best efforts was a sci-fi movie with Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, called Time After Time."
He has also written other books. The Third Invention -- How the Bow and Arrow Extended Mankind is selling on Amazon as a rare book. "In the late '50s and through the '60s, I was a world-class target archer and hunter."
And he once wrote a mystery-political thriller called The Osprey Dilemma (Dell/Delacourt). "It did fairly well, criticism-wise, but I irritated one gal producer at Universal who wanted to buy it and then change the ending. (I'm still pissed that Bob Redford had the balls to change the ending of that brilliant book The Horse Whisperer). When I wouldn't do it, she had Lili Zanuck offer to option the book -- but I found out by happenstance that the two knew each other and just in time turned them down.
"I can recall Lili saying how she didn't understand why I didn't want to change the ending: 'It's just a movie.' I said because if I'd wanted it changed I would have never written it that way in the beginning. 'God,' she snapped, 'you're my worst freaking nightmare -- a goddamn writer with money!'
'This ain't about coffee, Mrs Bjorkman. It's 'bout the blood on the floor of your barn.’ 'I already told you about that, Sheriff. Remember? I said I knew the man had been shot -- ' 'So you let him change shirts in your barn?' ‘I'm a widow,' Ingrid said indignantly. 'Where would you have him do it -- in my bedroom, perhaps?'
"Fortunately, I have done very well financially and garnered a certain degree of respect in the industry as a screenwriter, as well as a writer/producer of several successful offshore TV series: Acapulco H.E.A.T, Tarzan and Conan, which you may have seen."
Steve began writing in 1957. "I had a writer friend, or mentor, called Herb Nicholls. He wrote screenplays and short stories. I had no knowledge of writing, or grammar having left school at 15, and being more interested in sports. Also, because of my looks, I was keyed into becoming a movie star more than thinking about writing. Herb had one remark he hammered into my head: 'Show me, don’t tell me.' Took me years to eliminate the 'telling' parts from my writing, and then I went into TV and movie writing where it's all showing, so I never had much chance to tell a story or take a moment to wander from the thrust of the story.
"TV, especially, is grim because you have only a certain number of pages to work within. You have to make every word or scene not just count, but be irreplaceable, or it will be cut. Herb chose some writers for me to read. Stephen Crane and Hemingway were two, and I remember reading Crane's The Open Boat and A Farewell To Arms -- Hem's best book in my opinion -- and for the first time realizing what Herb meant. Kipling was another great 'show me' advocate -- and in later years, I think Cormac McCarthy does a good job at it, despite his Faulknerish lack of punctuation."
One of Steve's favourite stories is Shane " ... because of the brilliant way Jack Schaefer hardly told us anything about Shane. Leaving him vague and mysterious was mind-boggling when you consider how everyone else always goes to great lengths to describe the hero's past. I don’t know if Jack realized how unique and smart that was -- but it was. And thank God George Stevens, the movie's director, kept faithfully to the book.
"Having written many mini-series I've learned that viewers -- my readers -- will accept what is placed before them so long as it keeps their interest. In the early days when I wrote for TV it was like writing miniature plays. Playhouse 90, Lux Video Theater -- I mean, the men and women involved were truly craftsmen. It was brilliant writing done by great writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Woody Allen and Rod Serling. But later it all became very commercial and the great writers gradually returned to theatre.
"As for being financially successful in an ever-diminishing writing world, one has to suck up one's pride and keep in mind at all times that just because you're talented doesn't mean someone less talented won't change your work -- despite the fact that the work is lessened in quality and creativity with heavy-handed control.
"I wrote a great two-hour script for How The West Was Won. Co-writer Ron Bishop only worked on dialogue -- at which, by the way, he was by far the best of anyone I've ever known. The script was called The Gunfighter. John Mantley, the producer, loved it but asked his story editor, Cal Clements, to trim it a little. Cal, a nice guy but not a great writer, flattened out both character and dialogue to an extent John didn't like the script any more. He considered dumping it. Writers still get paid in these circumstances, but I protested vehemently -- something people in my industry are not accustomed to, and complained to the WGA.