The local actor who may have gotten to know silver-screen icon Gregory Peck best when “I Walk the Line” was shot on location in Middle Tennessee in the fall of 1969 likely was Cookeville native Freddie McCloud, who played the part of a moonshiner’s son.
When the cast and crew departed the Volunteer State for several weeks of filming in California, Peck and his wife invited the boy and his mother to spend a weekend in their home.
McCloud 63, and treasurer for local Disabled American Veterans Chapter 117 in Putnam County, was 12 and a seventh-grader at Cookeville Junior High School when he was hired to be the stand-in for a young Nashville actor originally cast in the role of Buddy McCain.
“They came around looking for a stand-in, and they figured they would find somebody at the school, and they were right. The other boy and I could pass for twins. He was going to play the part and something happened, and I ended up getting it,” said McCloud, who had never acted but was up for the challenge.
“I was all for it or my mother would have never let me do it. It was quite an event. You never think something like that’s gonna happen to you. Almost every day I go by the area where I jumped on Gregory Peck’s back at the end of the movie. It just sticks with me. It was something else. Here I was, a little red-face, freckled kid in junior high, and they come by and say, ‘Yes, this guy will work.’ ”
He noted the cast and crew members “took over the Holiday Inn here. They leased it, and that’s where the whole group stayed. When we were on the set, the layout was amazing. They always had good food. It was quite an event. I did not miss my school work. I had a trailer that I was tutored in two hours a day.”
Youngster stayed in Peck home
A major concern before signing the dotted line was whether McCloud’s mom would allow him to travel to California to shoot scenes on location and at Columbia Studios, but she agreed to the deal.
“There are scenes in the movie with the swinging bridge and barn, and it was filmed in Oakland. Everybody around here says they seen it. Well, if you seen it, you seen it in Oakland,” recalled McCloud.
“From there we went to Hollywood and stayed at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel on the top floor. They would send a car to take me to the studio. It was just so unreal. All I was doing was playing my age and doing the things that you do at that age. They (agents) had me some other parts lined up in ‘Andy Griffith’ or something like that. Mom said, ‘Freddie, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Mama, I want to go home. I want to see my friends and see my family,’ and there we went (back to Cookeville).”
While in Los Angeles, McCloud and his mother were welcomed into the Peck household.
“We went to his house and spent a weekend with him, and he took me to a Major League Baseball game. At 12 I really didn’t think it was special. It was like, ‘OK, all right. I’m going different places,’ but it didn’t sink in.”
As for his remembrances of the renowned actor, he says, “Oh, my goodness, we loved him to death, Mom and I both. I’ve got pictures of Mom standing by him and me at the studio. He was very intense, always looking at his lines. He always had the script with him.”
About his other co-stars, human and canine, he said, “Tuesday Weld, she was pretty nose-stuck-up-in-the-air. Mom always talked about Peck but not Tuesday Weld. Ralph Meeker (who played his father) would come up behind me and rub me with his beard on the neck. He could play a mean piano and would sing periodically.
“The dog in the movie, a Rottweiler, was named Rot. If I went to the snack bar, they would send me with Rot. This dog was unreal. You could tell him to climb on the piano or sit on my shoulder and he would do it.”
Long career with Army, USPS
Once he completed what was to be his sole stint on the silver screen, McCloud returned to Cookeville Junior High where he admits he was overwhelmed with the attention he received.
“I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was cool,” he said. “Everyone was like ‘ooh.’ Some of the kids envied me and all the attention I was getting. I come back to school and there I was on the front page of the newspaper. It drug out there for the longest but slowly and surely I went about my life.”
As a freshman, McCloud went to high school in Baxter but then dropped out his sophomore year.
“I got to the point where I lost interest in school, and I knew I could make a lot of money working on the (dairy) farm. It was daylight to dark but that made me who I am today. I was smart enough to learn from the mistakes I made and know who I am and what I am today.”
At 19 he enlisted in the Army where he earned his GED. After 12 years of service he retired at Fort Knox in Vandenberg, Ky., as a sergeant first class and then worked for the U.S. Post Office in Louisville, Ky.
“I left Cookeville for around 37 years. I came back around 2003 to care for my mom who had Alzheimer’s,” said the veteran. “I love the outdoors and hunting and fishing. I ride my motorcycle every now and then and just enjoy life.”
Mementoes revive happy days
McCloud has several souvenirs from his cinematic experience including an artist’s illustration of him as Buddy that was autographed by the cast and crew. He says, “I can look at that and go back down memory lane. It has everybody’s signature and to look at that smile, you can tell I was a happy kid.”
He also kept his original script. But as for his reading habits today, he proclaimed, “I don’t read but one book now, the Holy Bible, and it’s amazing how much I’ve gotten out of it. I put God first before everything.”
Assessing his legacy from appearing in “I Walk the Line” a half century ago, he said, “It’s followed me. There’s no shaking it. I’m living right in the middle of my hometown now and everybody sees me and knows me from being in that movie.
“I was so blessed to have the opportunity to do it because I’m just an old country boy that loves my Bible belt where I’m living at, and I live accordingly. I was just blessed to get that part of life.”
Gainesboro natives reflect on film
Jackson County’s Katherine Anderson, 96, recalls that big day 51 years ago when Hollywood showed up on the Gainesboro town square.
“I got up one morning and walked to the front door and here come all these Ryder trucks, one right after another going towards town. I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ It took two or three weeks to film it,” said Anderson.
“The kids would ride the buses to high school, and they’d get off and walk to the square, so they had to turn schools out cause the kids wouldn’t go to school. I can remember Gregory Peck and seeing him and a man coming out of the jail and walking down the street to the courthouse. They were standing out on one side of courthouse steps, and it was supposed to be raining. They took a fire-truck hose and hooked it up to a hydrant and carried it upstairs in the courthouse and stuck it outside a window on the second or third floor and let it come down. That was how they made it rain.”
Anderson went to see the finished product, saying, “The way I remember it, I didn’t think it was much of a movie.”
Her daughter, Margaret Anderson Bailey, a teenager at the time, also remembers the hullabaloo centered on the production and how she turned down an offer of being an extra.
“We lived right on the main drag going into town. That morning it was truck after truck after truck, which was way unusual. That piqued everybody’s curiosity,” said Bailey, who was a high school junior. “All the schoolkids, I think the first day we may have slipped off from school and so for the next couple of days, school was dismissed.
“For small-town teenage girls and boys, it was quite an event. We were in awe and very impressed by everything. There was always a gaggle of kids watching. A couple of my girlfriends and I were standing around and someone with the film company asked if we wanted to be in the movie. ‘Like sure.’ What they wanted us to do was roll our hair up in pink sponge curlers and walk out of Wooten’s Drugs with an ice cream cone and our hair in our rollers like we would do on a normal day. I balked ’cause I didn’t think that was something we would do. One of my girlfriends got paid about $30.”
After dismissing the offer, Bailey recollects that she went upstairs in the courthouse and while watching the production began crying.
“The way I remember it, one of the producers came up and started talking to me. He was very kind to me. I made friends with one of the associate producers, and we wrote back and forth for about year.
“My granddaddy had a store on one corner of the square so I could hang out and watch everything. They set up a scene of Gregory Peck walking out of the courthouse and across the street and that was just fascinating to us. I was 16 years old. I remember thinking he, Peck, looked old.
“And I remember this big bank of lights on Halloween night, and a truckload of boys came through and egged the crew and lights, and the bank of lights fell over.”
When the movie was released a year later, Bailey said that everybody went to Cookeville to see the film at the Princess Theater. About the plot, she recalls, “I didn’t really get it.”
Mom’s role got clipped
Another Gainesboro native, Mike Brown, and his wife, Shelley, nowadays living in Texas, reminisced about those exciting days.
“Mike’s mother, Joy, went to the grocery on the square one morning,” said Shelley. “She stopped in there and had rollers in her hair, and they filmed her.”
Mike added, “Mom came home and said, ‘I’m gonna be in the movie.’ They cut her a check for a few dollars, but her scene was cut from the movie.
“I didn’t meet any of the stars,” said Mike. “I remember watching some of the filming one day and all they were doing was filming Gregory Peck going into the courthouse. People would get on the roof of the courthouse and were watching. My Aunt Katherine (Gailbreath) worked in the telephone office, and Charles Durning came up there and talked with them. I have a picture of my aunt standing there and talking with Gregory Peck.”
Sources for this story include: The Kingsport Times-News: Nov. 8, 1970; The Smithville Review: Oct. 16, 1969, Oct. 23, 1969; The Tennessean: Nov. 2, 1969, Oct. 13, 1970, July 30, 2000; The War Eagle Leader: Oct. 26, 2009; “Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography” by Gerald Molyneaux, 1995; “Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland,” compiled by Michael E. Birdwell and W. Calvin Dickinson, 2004; “John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin,” 1995.