Oct. 12 marks the 50th anniversary of a curious piece of cinema called “I Walk the Line”, which was first screened by the public during its world premiere at the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Nashville.
The cast included Academy Award winners Gregory Peck and Estelle Parsons and featured Tuesday Weld, Ralph Meeker, Charles Durning, Nashville country music journalist Bill Littleton and 12-year-old Cookevillian Freddie McCloud.
Shot on location across six counties in the Cumberland Plateau: Jackson, DeKalb, Overton, Fentress, Smith and White; as well as in Hollywood and Colusa County, Calif., the movie was a joint venture by Peck’s Atticus Productions, director John Frankenheimer, executive producer Richard Lewis and Columbia Pictures.
Most of the Tennessee scenes, filmed across four weeks in October and November 1969, were shot in Gainesboro and in the vicinity of Center Hill Lake and Dam, while the cast and crew were headquartered at the Cookeville Holiday Inn.
The movie was based on Tennessee writer Madison Jones’ Southern Gothic tale, “An Exile,” also was the project’s working title before it went through two names changes, from “September Country” to “I Walk the Line.” The studio went with the latter after Johnny Cash re-recorded his 1956 hit, his first No. 1 song, along with a batch of new tunes for the movie soundtrack that was released on the Columbia Records label.
The soundtrack proved to be a sore point with Peck (“It should have been bluegrass all the way, just fiddles and guitar,” he said) but not nearly so much as his frustration over the final cut of the film.
The tragedy centers on a middle-aged, rural county sheriff who flips head over heels for a moonshiner’s luscious 19-year-old daughter. His fantasy is to spirit her away to California or Canada but the feeling is not mutual. In the end the lawman fares none too well.
The film opens with the sheriff (Peck) staring pensively across the still waters of Center Hill Lake. As the voice of Johnny Cash warbles the title track, the officer drives his patrol car across the top of the dam and continues through the Upper Cumberland countryside.
The peace officer motors around the Gainesboro town square, and we spy the faces of the townspeople. After passing a junkyard of rusting vehicles, the lawman gives chase to a boy motorist who loses control of his pickup truck and veers off the road. The lad jumps out and flees though a cornfield, and the sheriff confronts the youth’s older sister (Weld), tucked in the cab of the truck.
The two chat, she smiles a lot, and then he gets the vehicle back on the road and lets her go without a ticket. Later, her whiskey-making father (Meeker) quickly sets up the sheriff by sending his girl into town one night where she purposely bumps into the lawman alone in the courthouse. He buys her a Dr Pepper and shows her the sights of the courtroom. She then asks him for a ride home: “You wouldn’t be going that way, would you?”
Once he’s swallowed the bait, the sheriff confronts the moonshiner, alerting him that he needs to be careful as a federal agent is on the prowl. The grinning mountain moonlighter informs him, “We got arrangements, you hear.”
In a wistful scene after trysting in an abandoned house, the sheriff tells the girl, “You see the lake over there? That was our place.” She responds, “You mean they took it?” He answers, “They took us from it.”
Things fall apart for everyone involved after the moonshiner kills snooping deputy Hunnicutt, played by late character actor great Durning. In the final moments (spoiler alert), Peck gets in a tussle with Meeker and his two boys. The fight comes to a grisly halt when Weld plunges a hay hook into the sheriff’s chest. As the clan makes a getaway in their pick-up, the camera goes in for a close-up on the lawman, kneeling in the middle of the road clutching his bloody wound, and we behold a bewildered look frozen on his face.
Incidentally, Peck was 53 and Weld 26 when the cameras began rolling.
Unlikely role for leading man
Among the taglines Columbia Pictures publicity department generated to prompt the public to buy tickets for this film were the following:
Sheriff Tawes walks the line between duty and desire, between law and violence, between honor and shame.
Every man walks the line between right and wrong. One day Sheriff Tawes crossed over.
The Tennessee hills run red with violence the day the sheriff walked away from the law.
Such descriptions were not those fans would have expected to find about a character played by Peck, whose prominent role was that of lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Finch was named the greatest hero in the history of American movies in 2003).
In early October 1969, Nashville Tennessean motion picture editor Harry Haun spent part of a day on the set with Peck and his cohorts. The action captured Peck driving his patrol car into Center Hill Lake (his stunt double, Buddy Van Horn, actually performed the feat).
In describing the storyline, Haun wrote that Peck plays “a rotting-away rural sheriff who is driven to tragedy by conflicts he can’t comprehend. He flees from an unhappy marriage for the easy favors of a young girl from a moonshining family. These personal complications cause him to compromise his professional responsibilities, leading to murder and more tragedy.”
Haun queried the leading man about the off-kilter role and Peck told him, “Gregory Peck is one of the last people I think of in choosing a film. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a paper or magazine and find one of your guys saying, ‘Well, here’s another Peck performance — strong, stoic, stony-faced.’ You like to hang labels on an actor. It’s just an easy way of journalism. But I don’t think of myself as a stereotype. I am aware that I’m cast mostly as a heroic character, but that has to do with the way I’m built. If I’d been 5-4 and ugly, I might have had a greater range of roles.”
Once the film was edited and released, Peck was no happy camper about the results. And no wonder, as some movie critics opined “I Walk the Line” to be one of his worst. However, in recent times the movie has been rediscovered and has gained a reputation as an excellent post-modern film noir.
The leading man later said about the movie and its music, “What audiences saw was not the picture we set out to do. John Frankenheimer, the director, left immediately after it was finished to do a picture with Omar Sharif in Europe. The studio people eliminated the prologue and epilogue which gave some sense to the story. They had Johnny Cash write songs, which simply reiterated the action on screen. Every time I see Frankenheimer he says, ‘I owe you one.’ ”
Peck dissed final cut
A long-time fan of this film, at some time in the mid-1990s I stumbled across a batch of photographs that the Tennessean photographer had taken on the set in 1969. Several of the images depicted Peck in a wetsuit, and it was obvious he had been diving beneath the waters of Center Hill Lake. I found this unusual because there were no scenes remotely similar to this in the movie.
I wrote Peck a letter asking about it. He responded in a short note: ‘“I Walk the Line’ would have been a better picture with the wetsuit scenes left in. They defined my character. Editors have hearts of stone.” He also described the director in three words that I will not use.
At this point I should mention that director Frankenheimer’s top choice for the lawman was Gene Hackman, but Columbia Pictures was adamant that Peck fill the role.
In his 1995 book, “John Frankenheimer: A Conversation,” the filmmaker admitted that the character was not a conventional Peck role. “The audience just wouldn’t accept him in that part. And the sadness was that we had a bunch of very good actors in the movies,” lamented Frankenheimer.
“An Exile” author Madison Jones echoed similar sentiments in a 2009 interview with Ben Bartley of the War Eagle Leader. “[Peck] didn’t really fit the role,” said Jones. “He didn’t really fit any role unless he is playing himself.”
Jones, like Peck, seems to have been disappointed that the movie reviews were not better. He, too, had heard that Frankenheimer left the job of editing the film to someone else while he went to Europe to make another movie. “Peck himself said there was a good movie lying on the cutting room floor,” said Jones.
Nashville writer played deputy
Going back to the underwater scenes, which, much to Peck’s dismay, were chopped from the film, I had a conversation in the early 2000s with Bill Littleton, now deceased, a longtime Nashville freelance writer and musician, who played the part of Deputy Pollard in the movie. He told me that final film version was different from what was written in the original script.
He recalled that the opening scene revealed Peck swimming in Center Hill Lake, diving to the bottom of the lake and going through a submerged farmhouse.
“That was the touchstone of the rest of the story,” said Littleton. “His family home had been inundated with this big lake. They shot a couple of different endings, and what was in the original script was not in the final movie. I wasn’t there when they shot the final conclusion, but in one version he dies in the lake.”
Littleton earned his walk-on role as a deputy but also was a friend of the casting director.
He told me, “I read in the paper where they were going to do this movie with Gregory Peck. I trucked off there, and I read two different parts. She called me back in three days, and I went over and read for John Frankenheimer. I read and he just grinned real big and said, ‘You got it.’
“I had my hand on the doorknob, and he said, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, come back here,’ and he took the assistant director into another room and came back and told me, ‘You have a wonderful accent. Greg Peck has not spent very much time in this part of the country since ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Could you spend a little time with him next week?’ ”
The South Carolina native could not refuse the offer and served as Peck’s dialect coach. He explained that Peck basically just listened to him talk. A nice job if you can get it.
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.
‘I WALK THE LINE’
To view a 12-minute documentary about the production of “I Walk the Line,” shot in the fall of 1969 in the Upper Cumberland region, go online to youtube.com.