About Herman » Interviews » White Bread and Buffalo Meat
White Bread and Buffalo Meat
By Tom Weaver
In his final interview, Herman Cohen recalls hardball negotiations with the Sioux Indians, charming his way into the good graces of U.S. Air Force brass and his affection and respect for Lon Chaney.
Tom Weaver: I thought Chaney was excellent in THE BUSHWHACKERS, playing an elderly, arthritic villain—and looking rather like the old sheriff he played in HIGH NOON .
Herman Cohen: What did you think of the cast I put together for THE BUSHWHACKERS? Names like Lawrence Tierney, Wayne Morris (he'd just left Warner Brothers), Dorothy Malone, John Ireland...for a cheap picture, it had a hell of a cast. And we signed a young guy who had never directed before, named Rod Amateau. A hell of a talent. Rod and a buddy of his [Tom Gries], a guy he was rooming with, wrote the script. They were very close friends at that time. For THE BUSHWHACKERS, we rented the Western Street from Warners, and we also used the Western Street at Columbia a couple days. We shot in and around town, we didn't go on location any further than the Western Streets.
Q: Why did Broder want to get into Westerns? Because it was just "the thing to do" at that time?
Herman: That's right. The first picture we did was TWO DOLLAR BETTOR [a 1951 movie about a compulsive racetrack gambler], and the only reason for that is that Jack Broder loved to go to the races [laughs], that's why we did it. We did BRIDE OF THE GORILLA because we thought, "Hey, let's do a horror picture. They always make money." At that time, Westerns also all made money. That's when these two young guys Rod Amateau and Tom Gries brought in their [BUSHWHACKERS] script, and Jack liked the script. Jack's 10-year-old son Bobby used to read it to him! Bobby Broder's a top agent now, by the way.
Q: And he's in THE BUSHWHACKERS, according to the credits.
Herman: I think a couple of Jack's kids were put in THE BUSHWHACKERS. Bobby was the oldest son. Jack would come in some mornings, when there was something that he had to make a decision about, and say to me, "Bobby told me last night that..." blah blah blah, "and here's what I've decided." Well, I had already called little Bobby the day before and said to him, "Look, tell your dad..."
Q: Oh, that's brilliant!
Herman: I used to take Bobby for ice cream sundaes and stuff, to get him on our side! I knew that he would tell his dad what to do, and his dad would do it. He was 11 or 12, maybe, at that time.
Q: On BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC, who made the decision to shoot in South Dakota?
Herman: While we were trying to determine where to shoot, we found out from talking to location people that MGM had just built a fort outside of Rapid City, S.D., for a movie. I called the Chamber of Commerce and found out that the fort was still standing. It needed some work but it was still there, right by the lake. I went there several times to check the locations before I made the deals. I flew up to South Dakota, oh, three or four times, to check the locations, to talk to the head of the Office of Indian Affairs—we also needed Indians for the picture, right? I met a couple of the chiefs, chiefs of the different segments of the Sioux tribe, because I had to make a deal with them. That was quite fascinating for me. (There wasn't a picture I made that I didn't learn something—my entire life in this business has been a learning process.) To make the deal, I had to go to a peace meeting, and I had to smoke a peace pipe, me and my assistant director Richard Dixon—oh, he was a wonderful guy, I used him in half a dozen pictures. What a sweetie he was.
Anyway, here we are in this huge teepee, the chief's teepee, sitting on fur pelts and what have you, talking about how many young braves we needed, and who could ride horses, and this and that and what have you. And they passed the peace pipe along. Then the chief said, "Me want $5000 a day." Well, BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC was a cheap budget picture! MGM had ruined these guys by paying 'em a lot of money. So I got pissed off. I got up, and I wiped my lips from the pipe, and I said, "For $5000 a day, I'LL be the chief!" [Laughs] I turned to Dick and I said, "Dickie. Come on. Let's get the hell out of here." And we start walking away. Well, as we walked away, the tribal council came out of the teepee, running after us, bowing to me: "If you don't make a deal, we get a new chief!" They all wanted to be in the film! I walked away. Got in my car and left. (I thought I was gonna get an arrow in my back as I was leaving!) Next morning, oh God, it's like six-thirty, seven o'clock, I hear, "woo woo woo woo, woo woo woo woo, woo woo woo woo," tom toms going and what have you, outside of the Alex Johnson Hotel. The phone rings and it's Dickie, my assistant, and he says, "Herm, look out the window, look out the window." I say, "What? What?" He said, "The chief and his tribe are here to make peace with you!" See, the Sioux tribe had all kinds of different tribes-within-the-tribe, and these guys I had met with didn't want me to go someplace else, they wanted to make peace with me. They came up to the hotel and they brought me a magnificent pair of cowboy boots—I don't know where they stole 'em and how they got my size, I never did find out. And I did make peace with 'em. I can't remember what I paid the chief who I put in charge—I think it was five hundred a day, not five thousand a day.
Q: And the chief who asked for the $5,000 a day—was he "out" at that point?
Herman: No, no—he was the main dancer in front of the hotel! We kept him as the chief, and he got $500 a day or something like that. He was like the wrangler, he was the one who got the [Indians] we needed. Each day, Dick Dixon would tell him, "Tomorrow we need 12 braves," or "We need six women," or "We need five kids"—and he would get 'em. For the Indian village in the movie, we got the land, and then the Indians all came with their teepees—they brought their teepees and everything from where they were. They put the village together, and that's where they lived. In the morning, food had to be delivered to them. We made a deal with a bakery in Rapid City and they each got a loaf of white bread...they got a hunk of buffalo meat...and a quart of milk. That was their breakfast. However, one morning, I got a call that the Indians were packing their teepees, they were leaving. "Leaving?" "Yes. The bread truck didn't show up!" So I woke up Dick Dixon and we dashed to the bakery—they were late in baking the white bread, and they didn't have a driver for the truck. So I ended up driving the bread out to the location, in the truck, with Dick, to stop them from leaving!
Q: And where did you get the actors and extras who played all the English soldiers, and the German Hessians?
Herman: I went up there scouting locations and they had an Air Force base, Rapid City Air Force Base. I knew I needed extras—we couldn't bring 'em from Hollywood, this was a budget picture! So I called the commanding officer, who was Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth, and went to meet him. We became instant friends. General Ellsworth said, "You can have whatever you want." For instance, water was at a premium, so he sent out the Air Force water trucks for my whole company. And, of course, that's where I got the army for the Brits as well as the Hessians. Ellsworth and his wonderful wife and two daughters, we all became good friends and we'd have dinner in their home on the base. He told me not to touch his daughters—and not to let Lex Barker get NEAR 'em [laughs]!
Then there's something I shouldn't tell you but I will: On weekends, if I had to get to L.A., he'd have an Air Force jet take me back! With Dick Dixon, and with Ellsworth's wife, who wanted to go shopping in Beverly Hills, and Lex Barker—whoever wanted to get back to LA for the weekend. This could never be done by a president, but if you were the commanding general of a base, you were the king. You didn't requisition anything, you just did what you wanted to do [laughs]! Especially if you were in a base like in Rapid City, SD! He was so happy that I would hire his people, 'cause they were so bored—there was nothing f**kin' to do there. And we hired several hundred of his people. To determine which of his guys we were going to give speaking parts to, we had interviews at the Service Club on the base. I remember this one Saturday morning, I was going there with my staff to interview whoever would show up. Since it was the weekend, we doubted that anyone would be there. Well, as we drove close to the Service Club, there were guys standing around the block! They all wanted to get in the film. After all, Rapid City, SD, there was nothing to do there, except go to Mount Rushmore. And how many times can you see it? A short time later [March 1953], General Ellsworth was on board a plane that hit a mountain in the Azores, and that's when he was died. And after he was killed, they renamed the base after him, to the Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Q: I know Lon Chaney was a great outdoorsman—how did he enjoy going to South Dakota and making Chief Pontiac?
Herman: He spent all his time with the Indians, he was with the Indians all the time. He was playing Chief Pontiac, and he wanted to "get the feel of the Indians and their lives"—he didn't want to live in a suite at the Hotel Alex Johnson in town, where we all were. So we built a big teepee for him, and he lived out there with the Indians. And he put himself in his role. He took Chief Pontiac seriously. And he did not drink during Pontiac, by the way.
Q: Once you started making the movie, what were the Indians like to work with?
Herman: Terrible. 'Cause they would drink like crazy every night. There were two or three of 'em killed during the course of the shooting—killed at the Indian village, their deaths had nothing to do with us. We hired Indian deputy sheriffs to [maintain order] at the village, because the Indian men would get drunk at night and fight and this and that. We'd been told by the government Indian office that we better have security, because of the alcoholic problem with the Indians. We also needed deputy sheriffs to keep the Indians there—otherwise, somebody we established in the movie today, tomorrow they're gone! Another thing I recall—the young teenagers who we used as braves, they were quite Americanized, and they resented being called Indians! When someone would say, "You five Indians over there..."—they didn't like that at all. They felt they were Americans, and that we were looking down on them.
Q: They were terrible to work with—but Chaney liked them?
Herman: Oh, yeah, he liked them. Lon was into history, the history of the Indians—he knew the history of Fort Detroit. By the way, that's one of the reasons why Jack Broder liked the script—he was from Detroit, and this was [set at] Fort Detroit. And some of the story was true. The involvement of the German Hessian troops was true. Spreading small pox on blankets to kill the Indians—that's true too. And of course there really was a Chief Pontiac. That's where the Pontiac cars came from—do you remember Pontiac cars? If you look at that Indian head, it looks just like Lon Chaney! [Laughs] No, seriously!
Q: And, again, Chaney was good in the picture, wasn't he?
Herman: Lon loved the part. He thought he was Chief Pontiac! In his speeches that he gave to his people before they went to war, he had tears in his eyes. Here is this two-bit movie we're making, and here's Lon Chaney with tears in his eyes doing his scenes. He thought he WAS the f**kin' Indian chief! He ate their food, by the way—the loaf of bread, the hunk of buffalo meat and the quart of milk.
Q: And when you think back on Lon Chaney—what lasting memories?
Herman: He was a nice guy. He had problems. His father was a big silent star...and he was living off his dad's name. He was a good actor. I mean, he did OF MICE AND MEN, and he thought he was going to be a big star after that. We had a couple conversations, when he would be drinking and talking about Hollywood and everything else. He was unhappy because of his career—his career went no place outside of Universal [his Universal horror films] and a couple others. He was a damn good actor, but nobody gave him the credit. So he wasn't a very happy man.
Q: Did you hang out with him much?
Herman: Not much, no. Don't forget, I was in my early twenties, I wasn't gonna hang around Lon Chaney. And Lon Chaney wasn't gonna hang around us. And he never did. He did his job, and that was it. That's the way he was. And when we were in Rapid City, he was with the Indians all the time. He just loved the area. We had a tough time even getting him into town, for production meetings and what have you. He loved it out there in the Indian village. He was an outdoorsman. He was always an outdoorsman. He went fishing, and he went hunting, and he went here and there. He became friends with some of the Indians. He could have been f**king some of the squaws, I don't know [laughs], but he was always with the Indians! Lon Chaney should have been, and could have been, a hell of a top actor. He could have been a big star. But because of his father, and because of what he had to live up to, everybody wanted him for horror pictures. That's why he loved the part of Chief Pontiac, it was something different. That's why, the minute I offered him the job, he took it. And he was a nice man. A big, big bruiser—and a nice, gentle guy. I always find that, the bigger the guy is, the nicer they are. It's the little short scrappy one that wants to start trouble! Lon, he was just a nice guy.
Tom Weaver is an award-winning author and film historian who has written numerous articles and books on classic horror and science fiction movies and their creators. This interview originally appeared on The Astounding B-Monster web site and has been reprinted with the permission of the author.