So Long, Governor Movie—The Passing of David Cargo

Casey St. Charnez - July 8, 2013

"For it was he who mandated the nation’s very first state film commission in 1968..."

New Mexico Governor David Cargo, David Dortort, Motion Picture Commission Chairman Lou Gasperini, Mayor of Albuquerque Pete Domenici, David Dortort Archive, Autry Library, Autry National Center; T2004-74-5.

Bummed to read about David Cargo’s death at 84 on July 5th.

As expected, the media are packed with kudos enumerating his many accomplishments. Here are some of them. His two terms as governor were models of accessibility and transparency. He was a major advocate for literacy, committed to building rural libraries. Always a champion of the little guy, he established the state’s first Human Rights Commission. He generously mentored promising young politicos. He was virulently anti-corruption. And he liked movies.

His nickname “Lonesome Dave”—derived from his unique political campaign style of driving town to town all by himself—was fairly ironic, thrust upon a most amiable fellow who was a friend to practically everyone—excluding the Legislature—but certainly including the burgeoning New Mexico film industry.

For it was he who mandated the nation’s very first state film commission in 1968, an innovative attempt to lure productions away from Los Angeles to the scenic Land of Enchantment.

Truth be told, Colorado was scrambling simultaneously to set up its own governmental office to assist studio location scouts. But because of Dave Cargo’s impetus, we got there ahead of our northerly competitor.

New Mexico was no unknown quantity to moviemakers. As is well-known—or at least well-documented—the Thomas Edison studio was here in the Territory shooting shorts as early as 1897, 15 years before statehood. Over the decades, such notable motion pictures as “Redskin” (1928), “The Texas Rangers” (1936), “Four Faces West” (1947), “Ace in the Hole” (1950), and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) utilized our outdoors as their backdrops.

In 1969, however, Warner Bros. made it official, becoming the first Hollywood studio to ask a governmentally sanctioned film bureau to help it make a movie. Locations, permits, extras, all made available with as little red tape as possible.

It was a Western called “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys.” Directed by veteran Burt Kennedy, the lightly comic take on genre expectations had aging marshal Robert Mitchum chasing lifelong outlaw adversary George Kennedy. It also featured a supporting player new to the screen: Gov. David Cargo.

The Michigan-born Republican—at 37 one of the youngest governors ever elected—was a natural on the set. The camera was amused by him. And vice versa.

He was uncredited as a 19th century newspaper reporter in “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys,” which was made during his administration. He played “Himself” in Ted Flicker’s hilarious sex comedy “Up in the Cellar” (1970) and enacted a NM State Trooper in “Bunny O’Hare” (1971). Even after leaving office, though, he still made screen appearances, including “The Gatling Gun” (1973) as an Army corporal.  

When I visited Santa Fe in 1976 preparing for a move and maybe a movie here, I enjoyed a Bull Ring lunch with former Gov. Cargo and Larry Hamm, the then-director of the Film Office. Their enthusiasm for the successful program was contagious, and I was sold. (At the time, there were only 26 state film offices. Now there are hundreds, all led by New Mexico’s example, and exemplified by Cargo, its head cheerleader.)

I saw him fitfully over the years, never again one-to-one and usually at this function or that fundraiser. He was an Albuquerque attorney. I was a Santa Fe writer. Not much in common there.

But we did meet one last time in 1998, while I was on a book-signing tour for the Film Office’s omnibus 100 Years of Filmmaking in New Mexico, a hard-cover celebration of the hundreds of movies shot around here. Executive editor Mikelle Cosandaey and editor Jon Bowman had arranged an event one afternoon in the Governor’s Gallery in the Roundhouse.  

And there he was, trademark big smile standing out in the crowd. “Hey, Casey!” he beamed, extending his hand. I couldn’t believe he remembered me. “Hey yourself,” I replied. “Great to see you. Nobody belongs here more than you do.”

“Well, thank you,” he said. “It’s nice to have been a small part of it.”

“You the man,” I kidded him, with a gentle poke to his lapel.

“Yes,” he said. “I am.”