A recent visit to Deer Lodge brought back memories of my first and last brush with Hollywood.
It was early July 1980 and I was the Anaconda Bureau reporter for the Montana Standard in Butte. I had heard there was a movie being filmed at the old prison in Deer Lodge, barely 25 miles from Anaconda, so I made arrangements to drive over and visit the set.
I don’t remember why, but I ended up spending the previous night in Butte. It must have been a special occasion: maybe one of the Standard reporters in Butte found $10 under a couch cushion.
Memories of what we did that night are dim, but I do recall eating breakfast at the M&M after the bars closed and waking up with a serious hangover. I left Butte later than planned and headed down I-90 in my 1955 Volkswagen Beetle.
Less than a mile from Butte, the gas pedal suddenly lost all tension and the Bug sputtered to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
I have never known the first thing about cars or anything mechanical, but those early Beetles were so simple that you could actually look at the engine sometimes and figure out what was wrong. Also, I might have been carrying my copy of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” possibly the first “idiot’s guide” ever published.
However it was, I ascertained that my accelerator cable had snapped, and I found the little lever where it was attached to the engine. I was lucky enough to have a pair of hockey skates in the car, so I removed the laces from both skates and tied them together.
Then, after pulling the broken cable out, I tied one end of the laces to the lever and ran the laces around the side of the car and through the driver’s side vent window. That allowed me to work the accelerator by hand. It even allowed me, by wrapping the laces around the steering wheel and putting my hand over them, to create the world’s first VW Bug with cruise control.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself when I reached Deer Lodge.
The old prison had been shut down only a year earlier. I don’t know how Deer Lodge managed to land a movie gig for the prison so quickly, but the old stone and brick fortress looked just like a Hollywood prison was supposed to look.
The star of the movie was James Woods, in the role of “Fast Walking,” a prison guard. Tim McIntire played the part of his cousin, Wasco Weed. I was there in the role of a small-town hung-over reporter, and both gentlemen were kind to me.
I was given a tour of the prison by prop master Domenic Belmonte. He told me that being alone in the prison some mornings, “there’s nobody here, but you can almost hear the voices.” I didn’t hear voices but I felt plenty of bad vibes. I don’t suppose a prison ever sheds those.
There wasn’t a whole lot happening that day, though, so I went back a couple of weeks later to watch some of the actual filming. It was a hot day in mid-July and mostly what I did was interview a bunch of extras. They were convicts for the day, throwing horseshoes, playing checkers or just stretched out on the grass of the big prison yard.
Most of them were getting four bucks an hour and they were bored stiff. A retired miner by the name of Adam Younker told me, “I’d rather be fishing than doing this. It’s no big thing for me. As far as myself, publicity don’t mean nothing.”
Another fellow, Ray Johnson, came all the way from Helena to pretend to be a prisoner. “To be honest,” he said, “I’m in it for the buck. There ain’t no money in Helena.”
I was there for most of the day and watched the filming of what must have amounted to about a minute of screen time. Some guy was being moved from his cell to solitary confinement, or something like that, and somebody was supposed to kill the guy in transit.
It took an hour or more to set up the scene, with lots of extras milling around, and it was filmed five or six times, as I recall. The stars must have been as bored as the extras.
I never did see the movie. I remember hearing at the time, though I couldn’t confirm it through internet sleuthing, that when the movie came out it was so bad that the director filmed a few more sex scenes, slapped them into the movie and sent it directly to video.
I was never on a movie set again, and I can say that with no regrets. Come to think of it, I never again tried my hand at car repair, either. I’ve also managed to stay out of prison, which is something.