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James Best Interview

Actor James Best talks with Justin Bozung about his work with the great Sam Fuller.  An abridged version of this interview first appeared in the pages of Phantom Of The Movies’ Videoscope magazine in early 2014.

BOZUNG:  I just finished reading your book Best In Hollywood…I really loved it.   I enjoyed how it was written.  I found myself reading sections then going back and reading them again but aloud to my wife….

BEST:  Thanks.  What we did with the book…I dictated it to my friend Jim Clark.  He helped with it.  We talked for three days down in Florida where I was living at the time.   And everything in the book was something that I told him and I do have a tendency to just ramble on.  It took us three years to complete it, and my wife helped me to pick all of the photographs inside of it.   Over the years I became kind of a hoarder. I just have all of these photographs and articles all over the place.  I never threw anything away when it came to my career.  The reason I wrote it more or less is so I could give my grandchildren a little insight into my trials and tribulations as an actor.

BOZUNG:  I really loved what you did as an actor on The Dukes Of Hazzard.  I never realized exactly how much acting you were actually doing as that character of Roscoe when I would watch the show as a kid.   It wasn’t until years later when I saw you in films like VERBOTEN! and ROLLING THUNDER that I realized exactly how incredible what you did on the Dukes was…

BEST:  Well thanks.   Actually, The Dukes came to me when I was finishing up HOOPER with Burt Reynolds.  My agent had called me and told me about this new television series and after he had finished telling me about it I told him, “I don’t want to do anything about a gang.”   My agent said, “No, this is a good ol’ boy thing and they want to shoot the show in Conyers, Georgia.”    I have always loved the south and I had worked down in Conyers a couple years earlier when I produced a film for Burt Reynolds called GATOR (1976).   So my agent gave me the script and I read it and I told him, “This guy is a Sheriff but I won’t play him like an mean idiot.  I have too much respect for law enforcement and what they do”.   How I saw the character of Roscoe was that he was a a kid at heart like all of us.  I saw him as this twelve-year old kid who liked hot pursuit.   And then I remembered how I used to chase my kids around the house when they were very little.   I used to chase them around and say (in Roscoe’s voice):  “Geet! Geet! I’m gonna get you!”   So I went in to audition and the second I did that the producers almost fell off their chairs and they hired me on the spot.  That’s how that character was developed.

Most of what I did on The Dukes Of Hazzard was ad-libbed because the writers on the show were not from the south and they had no idea about the humor or any of the expressions  of the south either.  Sorrell Brooke was a total professional and great to work with.   He wasn’t from the south but he played the perfect straight man to Roscoe.  He had perfect timing and he was a very serious actor.  He spoke five languages actually.  The writers really didn’t like me because when they’d give me the script I’d tell them, “I’m not going to say this.”  At a certain point the scripts would come to me and they would say – Boss Hog and Roscoe ad-lib…  Sorrell went along with it because he knew that what we could do together would be much better than anything the writer’s could come up with.    There were times that they would try to write me out of a scene too and I had to sneak my way in.   There where times when I’d  have to pop my head into a doorway to talk to Sorrell just so I could be in a scene.   When I ad-libbed and it went over well, the writers would take credit for it and when it didn’t go over well they’d blame it on me.   They didn’t treat us very good at all on The Dukes.

BOZUNG:  In your early days as a contract player at Universal you be-friended Jimmy Stewart and got to watch him work on the set of HARVEY (1950).   What was that experience like?

BEST:  I started at Universal in 1949.  I had been an actor in New York and I was spotted in a show there and then offered a contract at the studio.  At Universal,  an actor could go and visit closed sets on the lot as long as you were under contract and I was a great admirer of Jimmy Stewart.  He is my greatest icon.  So I went down to the sound stage and I found a stool in the corner and I sat down to watch him work.   After a while he noticed me sitting there and he said (In Stewart’s voice):  “Young man, who are you?”  I told him my name and mentioned to him that I was under contract and that I was allowed to be there and that the reason why I was there was because I wanted to learn from the best.   He was flattered.  He said, “Get this man a chair.”  He sat me down next to him.    I was a theater actor and I had about 2-3 years of stage experience by that time.  I had toured Europe with Arthur Penn’s company.    Working on a film is much different than working on the stage.   I wanted to learn camera technique.  I wanted to learn how to work in front of the camera.   Working on the stage, the audience sees the entire stage whereas in a film you’re working in a six-by-six square.   

When I watched Stewart work on the set of HARVEY it didn’t seem like he was doing much.  But when I would go to watch the dailies the next day he would just explode off the movie screen with energy and talent.  I was so impressed.  Every performance I’ve given over the years was influenced by Jimmy Stewart.  I learned so much from him.  I also got to watch Brando shoot THE MEN (1950) and I also worked with Abbott & Costello too.  I learned about comedy from them.   Being under contract at Universal was a wonderful training ground for the couple of years that I was there.    Then I shacked up with the wrong woman and the studio booted me out and I was blackballed for a year.  The only person that would hire me was Gene Autry and when I hooked up with him he had five different series going at once so I got to work quite a bit.

BOZUNG:  How did VERBOTEN! (1959) come to you?   

BEST:   I had gotten a call to go over and meet with Sammy Fuller about VERBOTEN!   I had never met Mr. Fuller before but I was a great admirer of his work.  He was a true rebel in Hollywood.  When he would direct he would yell action and fire off a .45 with a live round into the air.    He was  wild man and he was a hero.  He had gotten a silver star in the war from pulling guys off of Omaha Beach.   The guy was all man.  He didn’t back down either. It didn’t matter if Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer told him to do something, he was always going to do it his way.   He was a genius.  His movie THE STEEL HELMET (1951) should’ve won an Academy Award the year it came out but because it was a “B” picture, it didn’t have a chance.   So I was very flattered that he wanted to meet me.    So I went over to his office to meet him and I walked in and his secretary greeted me.   She said, “Mr. Fuller, James Best is here.”  I could hear him say, “Send him in.”   

I walked in and he was sitting in the corner of the room with a typewriter.  I could see that he had tape on the ends of his fingers.   He typed so much that his fingers were calloused.   I walked into his office and he didn’t even look up from his typewriter at me.   After a minute, he ripped the paper out of his typewriter, walked over to me, handed it to me and said “Read this!”    I read it and he said, “My wife and my secretary think you’re a good actor.”  I said, “I am a good actor.”  (laughing)     He asked me if I had ever been in the service.  I told him that I was in the air core.  He said, “Oh Christ! You guys killed more of my men than the damn Germans.”   I said, “I didn’t kill any of your men.”   I went on to tell him that after the war was over that I was in the military police and I told him about fighting the Werewolf Gangs in Germany and he was very interested in that.    Girls started to come into his office and he asked me to read with them.   I  read with one girl after another for well over an hour.  I must have read with about 10-15 girls.   Finally I said, “Mr. Fuller, I don’t mean to be rude but I came over to see you about getting a part in your movie.”  He said, “Oh Hell…you had the part when you walked in the door.”  (Laughing)

BOZUNG:  You worked with Sam Fuller again after VERBOTEN! too…

BEST:  Right.  Later on, I worked with Sammy again on a film called SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963).   I used to go over to Sammy’s house and we would drink vodka.  He would never let you see him get drunk.   I would go over there and he was always writing the script for THE BIG RED ONE (1980).  That was his real labor of love.   He would read me scenes from it and ask my opinion about them.   Once I went over to see him and I said, “I’ve got a great idea for a movie.”   I can’t repeat the language he used, but in so many words he said, “I don’t wanna hear your damn idea!  I’ve got enough ideas of my own.”  He then said, “If you have an idea for a movie, put it down on paper.”  I learned a lesson that day because after that, any time I ever had an idea for a movie I wrote it down.

BOZUNG:  Given the storyline of VERBOTEN! and then your own personal life experiences in WWII, do you think that Fuller’s script for the film was based on your experiences as told to him?

BEST:  No, but I think my own experiences were the reason why I got that part.   I had told him about the problems I had over there.   I had dealt with those Werewolf Gangs in Germany post war while I was in the military police.   Those gangs were basically “Hitler Youth”.  They were tough kids that were taught to kill you.  When Hilter took Berlin, those Hitler Youth kids would try to defend Berlin against Russian tanks rolling in on bicycles with bazookas.     We had quite a few run-ins with those Werewolf Gangs.   While you were over there…Three cigarettes would get you a night with a German woman.  They were the barter over there, they were like gold.  That whole thing wasn’t my temperament though.  I was over there but I was a peace loving guy.   I didn’t let anyone screw with me but I didn’t go looking for trouble neither.   It wasn’t fun to be over there.  There were guys that really enjoyed strapping on a gun and killing someone.  That wasn’t me.  That’s not in my make-up.

BOZUNG:   You got your start in acting while you were over there in Germany in the military police too, right?

BEST:  That’s right.  I met a girl over there that was touring with one of the solider shows.   I wanted to date her and when I asked her out she said, “You should come to see the show.”  I told her, “I don’t want to see no damn show.”  She said, “If you don’t come and see the show then I won’t go out with you.”   She was a good looking little heifer.  I went to see the show and afterward I went backstage and there were all of these guys backstage changing back into their G.I. uniforms.   I said to her, “What the hell are you those guys doing?   Those guys are traveling with you pretty girls and staying in the finest hotels like officers?”   She said, “That’s right.”   I knew that I was in the wrong outfit.   I was getting shot at every night.   I went to my Commanding Officer and told him that I didn’t want to go home in a body bag and that I was going to audition for this touring company. 

  So I did that,  got transferred, and ended up in Arthur Penn’s touring company and eventually made my way to New York City and ended up on Broadway.

BOZUNG:   There’s that incredible scene in VERBOTEN! with your character speaking to the townspeople about the food shortage while he’s standing on the back of that Jeep…

BEST:  Sammy Fuller was always balls-to-the-wall.    He had his camera up on a platform and he was shooting down into the crowd of those angry German guys.    Sammy’s direction was, “I want you to jump off the back of the Jeep into that crowd of angry guys. There’s going to be a fist fight and they’re going to beat you up. Then they’ll scatter when the military police come.”   So he called action and I jumped into the middle of those guys and the fists started flying.   He yelled cut and I said, “Sammy what the hell is going on ?  I’m getting the hell beaten outta me!”   They were really hitting me. I found out afterward that he had told them to jump on me and really hit me.    One of them busted my lip.  I busted my nose.   He said, “Let’s do it again!”  I looked at him, “Sammy what was wrong with that one?”  He said, “Don’t give me any back talk just get in there and do it again!”  (Laughing)   So we did the scene again.  I jumped into the crowd and I started swinging and I put three guys down on the ground.  Sammy started screaming at me, “Lay down you son-of-a-bitch! Lay down!”  (Laughing)    Sammy loved reality.  I loved the man, I really did. (Laughing)

There was another scene that came at the beginning of VERBOTEN  The scene where that German is shooting at me and I use the body of my friend as a sandbag.  The scene started out where I’m walking down the street and I hear a sound and I shoot into a storefront.   My father was a gunsmith, so growing up I learned about guns and other weapons.   When I was handed the gun for the scene I noticed that the gun had real ammo in it.  I said to Sammy, “I think there’s been a mistake.  This gun has really ammo in it.”  He said, “Yeah, I wanna see the real thing.”   I prayed that there wasn’t some poor guy standing on the backside of those sets during that scene.   I remember Sammy got a notice from the head of the studio once asking him not to shoot his .45 on the lot because they were worried that he was going to kill one of the electricians up in the rafters on the soundstage.   He never did stop. (Laughing)

BOZUNG:  The war stories in your book are incredible.   You arrested that war criminal, got stabbed in the neck, ect…As an actor it must have seemed a bit like art imitating life in a sense with the character you played in Fuller’s VERBOTEN!.    Did you need to find that character in any way inside of yourself?

BEST:   It’s going to sound conceited but I never have any trouble finding a character.  I feel like I’ve experienced ten mens’ lifetimes and I’m always drawing on that.  Jimmy Stewart was like that.  I’m not trying to put myself on the same level as Stewart or any other actor of his caliber but it’s great when you can draw upon your own past experiences.   Also with a violent experience…You never forget something like that either.     Some people who experienced the war don’t like to talk about it, but they should.  Audie Murphy was one of my best friends and it took him a couple years of knowing him before he would talk to me about his war experiences.    It’s really important for WWII veterans to tell their stories because they need to be documented.   I recently read something that said that a thousand WWII veterans pass away every day.  

BOZUNG:   I really don’t know how your generation that fought in WWII managed to survive through it and it’s psychological aftermath…

BEST:   You could have done it too.   You didn’t do it for your country.   You fought to survive really.   That’s the only reason you did it, or to protect your buddy.   When you went into a dangerous situation or into a shoot-out, you went in because you were ordered to or because your buddy was going in.  You didn’t think that you were going in for your country.  You didn’t  think that what you were doing was going to bring peace.   You also always thought that you were never going to get hurt either.  It was a very strange thing.

BOZUNG:   It must have been surreal for you in a sense because of the fact that you did so many war movies in your career…THE NAKED & THE DEAD (1958) and FIRST TO FIGHT (1967) for example…

BEST:   Yeah, it does seem like a movie when you think back on it.   You think to yourself, “My God,  did I really do that?  Am I still capable of doing something like that today?”    I remember talking to Audie Murphy about his movie TO HELL AND BACK (1955).  That was his life story and he didn’t want to make that movie.    He didn’t want to re-live that situation and that was tough on him because they replayed the stuff that he had experienced.   For me, it was a bit different because with something like FIRST TO FIGHT, I never experienced that type of combat.     As an actor over the years,  I’ve had a reputation in Hollywood that died very well on screen.   I’ve always been proud of that.   Even when I was a kid when we would play Cowboys and Indians I would mimic how people would die in the movies.  I’ve been killed so many times on screen.   We have a composite reel of just my death scenes in movies.  My wife made it for me. It has twenty plus scenes of me dying on camera in it.  It’s great because she edited it all together and at the end of it she has that scene from the Twilight Zone [The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank; 1962] that I did where I sit up in that coffin. (Laughing)

BOZUNG:  Can we talk about THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)?

BEST:  Sure.  We’ve just made a sequel called RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS (2012).   The first SHREWS movie I made for Sammy Fuller.  He had a friend named Ray Kellogg.  He was a special effects man and one of the best.   Sammy called me up and said, “Jimmy I need you to do me a favor.  I have a friend named Ray Kellogg who’s shooting a picture down in Texas. They don’t have any money but they have Ingrid Goude.”  I said sign me up.   Also the producer on SHREWS was Ken Curtis.  Ken was the actor who played “Festus” on Gunsmoke and I had worked with him on that show.   So I went down to Texas. Sidney Lumet’s father, Baruch Lumet was in the movie too.   They shot the movie for less than $100,000 dollars but it looks like it was shot for fifteen cents.   We had to paint the sets even.   If you watch the movie there are scenes were everyone is walking sideways and we did that because if we didn’t we would’ve gotten paint on our clothes.    When it came out it was voted the worst movie of the year.   But over the fifty years since I did it, SHREWS has become a cult film and people always ask me about it no matter where I go all over the world.  

BOZUNG:  I love the Shrew monsters in the film!

BEST:   Yeah,  when it came time to shoot the Shrews they put fur coats on some dogs…laughing

BOZUNG:  But how did you get the dogs in the shrew costumes to chase you in the movie?

BEST:  They couldn’t figure out how to do that at first.   I told them that they should use raccoons.  So they put some raccoons in a cage and set them out and when the dogs were let loose they took on to the scent of the raccoons and went running.

BOZUNG:   The best scene in SHREWS is the big escape to the ocean where everyone gets underneath those barrels and walks with the barrels over their heads.

BEST:  Laughing...Those barrels were heavy.   You had to be a Hercules to have that thing over your head and then hunch down and walk down to that beach.   It was funny because we could only walk a couple feet at a time then we’d all have to stop and take a break. Then we’d get up again a few minutes later and go a couple more feet…laughing

BOZUNG:  The film has a charm to it today, but back when it was released and voted the worst movie of the year…Did you ever feel any level of embarrassment to have been in it?

BEST:  Not really.  I was working so much during that time doing television that I didn’t really care if it was good or bad but only that the check didn’t bounce.   I did it as a favor to Sammy Fuller and I really didn’t think that it would be seen.   Now I’m very proud to have been a part of it.

BOZUNG:  What made you want to revisit SHREWS and the character all these years later with the new SHREWS film?

BEST:  Money...laughing    You can’t argue with success whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.   There had been a script going around for a few years but no one liked it so we just forgot about it.  Then I met Steve Latshaw who has directed some horror movies and he wanted to direct me in something so we started working on the script back and forth over email.   We did that until we were happy with it.   I have a production company now and we have all of the finest equipment.   So we shot the new SHREWS movie with the Red camera and we got a great group of professional actors to come in that includes Bruce Davison and some of the cast members from The Dukes Of Hazard.   We just had a ball shooting it.   We could always hear the crew laughing while we were shooting, and when you can do that you know that you have something special.  I did that on The Dukes Of Hazzard too. I always try to make the crew members laugh.  

BOZUNG:  Years later after SHREWS you got to work with Jerry Lewis a couple times.  What was that like?

BEST:   Well, I had been a fan of Jerry Lewis before I had worked with him.  I was a big fan before I had met him.  I first met him at Paramount when I visited the set of THE LADIES’ MAN (1961) to watch him work.  I got called to do an episode of Ben Casey (1964) with Vince Edwards.   I didn’t want to work with Vince Edwards.  Edwards wasn’t professional.  He was a jerk.  He wouldn’t read off camera for you and he was always on the phone with his horse racing bookie.   I told my agent that I didn’t want to do it.  Then my agent told me that Jerry Lewis was going to star in the episode and  direct it.   I wanted to be a part of it.   So I went over to Jerry’s office at Paramount and I said, “My name is James Best….”  He stopped me and said, “I know who you are.  You’re a good actor. I like your work.”   Out of left field he said to me, “Say something nice about me…”  That took me by surprise.  I told him, “To be honest Mr. Lewis I’m a big fan and I’ve seen every film you’ve ever done.   But in a lot of your humor I see  pain behind it.”  He looked  at me like I had hit him across the mouth.   I said, “Well, it looks like I blew this interview.”  He said, “No you didn’t.  You’ve got the job.  We’ll talk later.”   I always thought that Jerry was like Charlie Chaplin.  He was always mistreated or misunderstood as the character that he played in his movies.   When I got to know Jerry better later on, I saw that he was carrying a lot of baggage.    He was one of the most talented people that I’ve ever worked with in my life.  He was brilliant at slapstick.  He could do it all.   I was very flattered to have had the opportunity to work with him on Ben Casey and then after that in his movie THREE ON A COUCH (1966).

We became friends.  We used to go out on his boat and party.   I remember I told him once that I had never seen him live on the stage.  He told me that he was going to play Vegas and he invited me to see him.  He got me a suite.  He got me tickets right in the front row.  I didn’t sit in the front row because I wanted to watch him prepare for the show.   I wanted to watch him put on his make-up.  His dressing room was like a reception room.  He had all of these actors and fans of his coming through and talking to him before the show.    I remember there was this one guy that was standing outside of his dressing room and he looked like he was going crazy.  I went into see Jerry and I said, “Jerry, there is a guy outside and he’s having a real fit.”  Jerry laughed and he invited the guy into meet me and that was Charlie Challis.   I became a huge fan of Charlie Challis after that.  

He had wanted me to be in THE FAMILY JEWELS (1965) with him.   I had studied Karate for many years.  So when he got started on THE FAMILY JEWELS he had written a scene with a Karate guy in it and he wanted me to play that part.   I couldn’t do it though because I had signed on to do FIRECREEK (1968) with Jimmy Stewart.   I remember he called me about it.  I said, “I can’t do it Jerry.”   It pissed him off.   He got really mad at me, but he got over it eventually.   We did that funny Karate scene in THREE ON A COUCH where his character tries to break that board with his hand.

BOZUNG:   I’m a huge fan of FIRECREEK.   Was that something that they called you in for or was that character “Drew” in the film someone who you had to audition to get?   

BEST:    I had worked with Jimmy Stewart on SHENANDOAH (1965) and he had quite a bit of say about who was cast in one of his films.   My agent of course got me the job but I’m sure that Stewart saw my name on a casting list and then told them that he wanted me.

BOZUNG:   I love that “Drew” character.  It’s a very dark character for you.  How did you find such a dark character?

BEST:   Laughing…I’m not sure.   From the dark side of my personality I guess.  There was a scene that was cut out that was even darker than any of the others.  My character was playing with a child and I pull out my gun and show it to the child.   Some of the scene is still in the movie today but they cut a section of it out where I say, “This gun will blow your head off!”  I really enjoyed playing that part in FIRECREEK because you always love playing a part that’s the complete opposite of who you actually are as a person.  That’s the fun of acting.

BOZUNG:   FIRECREEK has an amazing cast!   Gary Lockwood, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Elam, Inger Stevens and Henry Fonda….What was it like working with Henry Fonda?

BEST:   It was fantastic.   Henry Fonda was a fantastic actor as Henry Fonda.   He always played himself.   John Wayne did that too.     ON GOLDEN POND (1981) was one of Henry Fonda’s finest performances and he was a shoe-in for the Academy Award.  But he didn’t have to reach for that character. He could’ve played that character standing on his head.   He had that same type of difficult relationship with his own daughter Jane Fonda.  

BOZUNG:  How about Jack Elam?

BEST:   I had worked with Jack Elam several times before FIRECREEK.   He was a gambler.  I can remember we were driving out to a location once and we saw two birds on a telephone wire and he said, “I’ll bet you $100 dollars that the bird on the right takes off first.”   He would bet on anything.  I said, “I’m not going to do that.”  He said, “OK, you pick the bird then!”   We used to play dollar poker on the set.  Elam made more money gambling around the world than he did acting in movies.   We used to play liars poker and I used to tease him that no one could beat him at poker because no one could tell what he was going to do because of his glass eye.  Henry Fonda worked for free on FIRECREEK because during the shooting of FIRECREEK Jack Elam took all of his money playing cards.

After we finished shooting FIRECREEK…Henry Fonda invited the cast of the movie to his home for a little party.  I was very excited to go.  A lot of people don’t know that Henry Fonda was a great artist.   So I drove out to his house and there was valet parking, the cars were stacked up all over.  I went in and it was a who’s who of Hollywood there.   I saw Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, Elia Kazan, and Barbara Stanwyck.  I was very intimidated because I was the least known person there.    Jimmy Stewart was there too.  I was sitting in the corner of the room watching all of these big name movie stars and Stewart was talking to someone, and I can’t remember now who he was talking to but I heard him say, “Jim’s here.  Let me go and talk to Jim.”   And Jimmy Stewart walked away from all of these big movie stars to come and talk to me.   That just thrilled the heck outta me.

BOZUNG:   In FIRECREEK….I love that scene with you at the Irish wake…Was that a difficult scene to do?   Your stare is intense….

BEST:  Right.  Yeah it was.   Because there was a fire going…The fire would dry my eyes out and it was very hard to sit still for so long.   It was very cold out too that night and I got pneumonia after we did that scene.

BOZUNG:   That tension and chemistry that you share with Gary Lockwood in FIRECREEK is really dazzling too.   That big fight scene that the two of you have is really wonderful.   Did the two of you rehearse or block that out at all?

BEST:  Well, you really can’t rehearse something like that out.     That drowning scene was just done with us both just physically struggling with each other.   Working with Gary was wonderful.   FIRECREEK was one of the best experiences in my life.

BOZUNG:   In your book Best In Hollywood, you said that the time you worked with Jimmy Stewart on SHENANDOAH was the best time of your career.  What was it about working with Stewart on SHENANDOAH that sets it above working with Stewart on a film like FIRECREEK?

BEST:  Well, SHENANDOAH was just a better picture.  FIRECREEK was kind of a re-hash of HIGH NOON (1952).   The story lines are very similar.   Stewart really gave a Academy Award performance in SHENANDOAH in my opinion and it was not a easy film to make.   I had a lot to do in SHENANDOAH.   I had to do all of that swimming and I rescued that kid from prison.  Then of course, the combat stuff was very dangerous to do.   They had impregnated the ground with explosives.   You had to be careful where you walked.   We had real bayonets too.   You couldn’t have rubber bayonets.  It was very dangerous.   When my character in SHENANDOAH is shot and I fall…If you watch the film you’ll notice that when I fall, my head is facing away from the camera and I did on purpose so after my character was shot I could see the rest of the action going on in that scene…laughing   Those combat scenes were something else.

BOZUNG:  How did ROLLING THUNDER (1977) come to you?   

BEST:    ROLLING THUNDER was just a job for me.   I didn’t really want to do it.   I turned it down quite a few times.   Once I heard that William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones were going to be involved I decided that I would do it.  I really respected those guys as actors.   I just didn’t want to play that character and say all of those dirty words.   The producer said, “Well, that’s the character.”  I had already committed to do another film around this time so I told the producers that if they wanted me to play this character that I would have to have a specific start and stop date for shooting because I had to do this other picture.   They agreed.   So I went down to Texas and my time came and went.  The director of ROLLING THUNDER [John Flynn] was having martial problems and that slowed down the shoot.   My time came and went and I had to leave.  I couldn’t stay down in Texas any longer.  When you watch ROLLING THUNDER you’ll see me in those scenes where I’m that very bad guy but in the long shots they had to dress up another guy up to look like me to shoot those.   

BOZUNG:   That scene with the cigarette lighter in ROLLING THUNDER is so incredible and intense…How did you find that intensity?

BEST:     It wasn’t really that difficult.  You read the script and if it says you’re supposed to be mean, you play it mean.   That character was very easy for me to play.  I wanted him to be a sweaty Texan.  So I used a Texas accent, and  I put ice cubes under my cowboy hat so when they melted and dripped down it would look like I was this greasy killer that was constantly sweating.    

BOZUNG:   The calmness and the quietness of your character adds so much to that character…

BEST:   That makes you deadly.   I’ve gotten into quite a few fights in my own life and the guy that’s always the quiet one is the one that is the most dangerous.  You don’t worry about the loudmouth.  You hit the guy that isn’t talking first because he’ll usually have a knife.

BOZUNG:    You mentioned that you didn’t like the language of the character a moment ago…But did you have any reservations about playing that big scene at the end during the shoot-out where you had to be in bed with that women as you’re shot to death?

BEST:    Not really.  I had gotten comfortable with the girl, I talked to her before to make sure that she was comfortable with the nudity.   It didn’t bother me though.   The shotgun scene where my character was shot through the stomach was done with an air gun.    They shot a gel at me.  It’s really like a Jello. They put these little pieces of black paper inside of it and so when they shoot you those little pieces of paper stick to you and they look like bullet holes.   When they got ready to do it, I asked the guy who had prepared the effect if he had tested it out before.  He said, “Oh Yeah, it will be fine.”   I said, “OK, do me a favor and shoot that at yourself first to test the pressure.”  So he did it and it almost killed him.    So I told him, “Why don’t you turn the pressure down by half!”    

BOZUNG:   Last question about ROLLING THUNDER….Reading that script for the first time and then seeing the finished film…Did you see that film as some sort of statement on the Vietnam War itself?

BEST:    To be honest, I never really thought about that.   War is hell and whatever happens is never good. It’s never palatable.  If you bring a poor guy back and he’s honored with some silver dollars and then someone tries to steal those…That stuff is happening today yet.    I think ROLLING THUNDER was really about the brutality of one human being against another.

BOZUNG:  What about HOOPER (1978).  I’m a huge fan of your work on that film…How did that whole project come to fruition?

BEST:   I was co-producing THE END (1978) with Burt Reynolds.  I had done all of the re-writes on that script.   Burt and I were sitting in the editing room working and Hal Needham, the director of HOOPER called and said, “I’m having a hell of a time with the script for HOOPER.”   So Burt said, “I’m sitting next to one of the the best writers in Hollywood Jim Best…”   I had already known Hal Needham because he used to double for me back when I was under contract with Universal at the end of the ’40s.  Hal was a great stuntman before he was a director.  So I ended up doing all of the script re-writes on HOOPER.  I did all of it as a ghost writer.

I had written myself a hell of a part in HOOPER.  I played Burt’s best friend.   Just before we started to shoot Burt came to me and said, “Jimmy, I’ve got Brian Keith and I want him to be in the movie.   Would you mind if we split that part up a bit so we can have Brian in the film?”   Burt owed Brian a favor because Brian used to let Burt use his condo in Hawaii.   I told him that I didn’t mind because Burt and I were supposed to be friends.     So Burt gave Brian the best-half of my part and I was stuck with the rest.    Not only did I lose the best half of that part but I never got paid or got the credit for re-writing the screenplay for HOOPER.  Hal went to Burt on my behalf about that and he told Hal that that was the way that it was going to be.  That was the last time I worked with Burt Reynolds.