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.
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.
he's in The Bushwhackers, according to the credits.
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..."
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
were terrible to work with -- but Chaney liked them?
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!
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.
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.
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
WITH HERMAN COHEN
Tom Weaver is the author of I Was a Monster Movie Maker:
Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, Science
Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and
Filmmakers and many others available from McFarland