Behind the Lines with DR: The Handshake with Sam Peckinpah

I can recall only three times in my life when I’ve felt weak in the knees. One was on my wedding day. I’d made my walk to the front of the church. Then, as I turned and gazed back across all those over-dressed guests stacked in the pews of Boston’s Old South Church, I saw my wife-to-be (aka the War Department) at the end of a conga-line of bridesmaids. She was out of sight to pretty much everybody but me, hopping up in the air and tossing waves. A private laugh came over me. And my knees became weak.

getaway_sam_peckinpah_bOne of the two other times was when Broadway Joe Namath shook my hand, encouraging me to call him “Joe.” I’d never been a Jets fan. And Lord knows I’d clasped all kinds of famous hands. But when Broadway Joe stuck out his paw to introduce himself, that weird feeling hit me again. Knees. Weak.

But the first time I’d felt weak-kneed remains the most memorable.

I’d heard the term “weak in the knees” my whole adolescent life. It was a cliché I felt was best reserved for describing prepubescent girls in the face of meeting a teen idol. I had an uncle who used to call the feeling “oatmeal knees,” which I admit had a more manly sound. He’d used the term to explain the feeling expressed by WWII sailors antipating a sunrise attack by the Japanese air force.

Whatever, I’d say. I sincerely doubted I’d ever find myself on a Navy carrier, facing down a squadron of attacking zeroes. But I also doubted that I’d ever have a chance to meet Sam Peckinpah.

When I was movie-grubbing teen, I’d heard of the maverick film director. I might’ve even caught an edited scene or two from one of his movies on broadcast TV. But before I’d ever seen one of Peckinpah’s films from start to finish, I’d been graced with a copy of the script to his most famous picture, The Wild Bunch. The screenplay penned by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah was handed to me by a family friend who’d worked on a biography with the director. I remember the script being slid across our kitchen table and into my stubby fingers like it was some sacred text. I’d never held any kind of screenplay before. So my first foray into the screenwriter’s art was that old, dog-eared shooting script. And I must’ve read it five times in hopes of divining its cinematic secrets.

In my remaining high school years, I became a big Sam Peckinpah fan. Catching up on all his pictures when they’d land at my local revival theater. Studying his groundbreaking editorial style of inter-cutting a variety of slow-motion speeds into his high-octane action scenes. Falling in love with the Peckinpah thematics of men seeking one last hurrah in a progressive world that had passed them by. What followed was college and film school at the University of Southern California. In my small class of fellow movie geeks, I was quickly known as the Peckinpah dude, obnoxiously quoting esoteric dialogue from Pat Garret and Billy the Kid or the rarely screened Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. 

One perk of film school was the sponsorship of so many screenings. Filmmakers new and old would often make appearances with early cuts of their work. I recall Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro unspooling the yet-to-be-released Raging Bull and then sticking around for a Q and A with the students. There were also the retrospectives. A weeklong festival celebrating a single filmmaker, climaxing with screening of a favorite work followed by some kind of meet and greet.

It was the final eve of a Don Siegel fest. The last film Mr. Siegel chose to screen was The Beguiled, a dark Civil War suspense-drama featuring his favorite star, Clint Eastwood. The campus theater was packed with students and guests. Shortly after the lights came up, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood took the stage and conducted a relaxed question and answer session. Many of the actors who’d worked with the director over his career were also in attendance, roasting the old director with their own stories. I recall it was during Andy Robinson’s turn (the actor who famously played the oft-mimicked psycho in Dirty Harry) that some of my film school compadres began whispering then nudging me to look back and to the right.

“Yo Doug,” said one of my peers, “Isn’t that Sam Peckinpah?”

I craned my neck, tried to widen my pupils in order to make the correct call. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that the white hair of the man seated one row from the rear belonged to my favorite auteur.

“Yeah, that’s him,” I nodded.

Then came the teasing.

“Well go talk to him,” said a fellow student.

“You’re like his biggest fan,” teased another.

“C’mon,” said somebody in front of me. “You’re the biggest Peckinpah geek around. Let’s see you go up there and tell him so.”

“Not during the program,” I said, seeking a reason to delay. “Maybe after.”

Then came a brief, unscheduled intermission because of an electronic demon that was dogging the sound system. While the tech crew scrambled to fix the problem, I no longer had an excuse to avoid telling Sam Peckinpah what a stupid fan I was. I slipped from my seat and climbed the steps to the rear of the theater. All the while, I could feel the eyes of my classmates staring me down as if to see if I would follow through on some kind of dare.

When I reached Sam Peckinpah’s row, he was five seats deep and surrounded by a crowd of grad students from the critical studies department. Not quite the optimal situation for a hello and pleased to meecha and let me fawn all over your genius. Still, I looked past the four bodies between myself and the director and spoke.

“Mr. Peckinpah?” I asked, loud enough to attract the attention of everybody in the section.

The movie director, who I’d recalled hearing was in poor health, swiveled his head in my direction.

“Sir? I just wanted to tell you what a big fan I am,” I said. “And that The Wild Bunch was the first screenplay I ever read.”

“You read that lousy script?” said the director. “I’m not sure Warner Brothers ever read that script.”

The director’s line got a laugh.

“Where the hell’d you get it?” he continued.

“Jim Silk,” I said. “He’s a family friend.”

“Not my best writing,” said the director in a moment of humility.

“I thought it was amazing,” I said.

“Well let me shake the hand of the young man who read a crappy old script he didn’t have to.”

With that, Sam Peckinpah attempted to stand. I say “attempted” because as he wobbled to his feet, I realized that he was in far more feeble shape than I’d imagined. He was only 59, for God’s sake. After a career of battling with both studios and producers, he was clearly in the final stages of a throw-down with his own mortality. His attendance at the retrospective was to show his respect for Don Siegel, who’d given the young director his start in television.

“Please,” I said. “Don’t get up. I just wanted to say—”

“Nope,” he interrupted.  “I’m gonna shake your hand, young man.”

This is precisely where I felt it. In my knees. A gooey feeling. As if the ligaments connecting femur to tibia were no stronger than molten string cheese.

With help from the grad students flanking him the legend rose to his feet. The pair of attendees nearest me cleared their seats, allowing me to slide closer and accept Sam Peckinpah’s hand. The director’s strength was weak. But he kept his grip on me while asking me if I’d learned anything in film school.

“Remember,” said the maverick, placing his free hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. Make the movies you wanna make.”

By then, the sound problem had been remedied and the program was about to resume. I thanked Mr. Peckinpah for the advice and hustled back to my seat. My socially retarded compatriots were full of backslaps and envy. And while Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel continued with their tales of masculinity in moviemaking, I kept flashing back to the mushy feeling in my knees when the dying legend insisted on getting vertical to shake this film student’s sweaty hand.

I’ve since had countless other brushes with greatness. I’ve pressed flesh, broken bread, and worked alongside both the famous and infamous. But none—and I’m talking not a single one—made such a distinct and empowering impression as Sam Peckinpah. My moment with him had lasted barely a minute. But for me? It has lasted a lifetime.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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