Tales of Another Lone Ranger

Casey St. Charnez - June 18, 2013

"The opening on July 3rd, recalls a time over three decades ago when the whole town was similarly Ranger-crazy."

In my archives (three filing cabinets and a bunch of U-Haul boxes), there is a collection of memorabilia associated with the 1981 Universal movie “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

It was, in its time, one of the most expensive and large-profile productions ever shot in New Mexico. You see a lot of Abiquiu and Chama (as well as Moab and Monument Valley), even in the truncated final cut.

As the film beat guy for the Santa Fe New Mexican, I covered its making for the paper and reviewed the premiere for an early incarnation of Pasatiempo. Nearly a third of a century later, I’ve still got a tattered press kit with cast bios, inflated statistics, and a number of black-and-white 8x10 stills, all in a cardboard saddlebag emblazoned with the logo. Alongside it is a genuine silver bullet in a leather pouch, producer Jack Wrather’s gift to a select few involved in the production. How I got one I can not recall.

The advent of some 300 press junketeers on Santa Fe this week, in preparation for the new Disney version of the tale, opening July 3rd, recalls a time over three decades ago when the whole town was similarly Ranger-crazy.

The sheer scale of the $18 million production (perhaps $125 million in today’s dollars) made it quite visible to everybody in town. So were the staggering logistics, the disheartening rumors roiling out from a troubled set, and, most of all, the nighttime shenanigans of its stellars, which made local headlines.

Director William A. Fraker, a respected cinematographer, had helmed a couple of lower-budget films, including the well-regarded “Monte Walsh” (1970), but he was not at all at home on this range. Newspapers reported that on the first night of shooting, he had assembled a cast of 400, but managed to get only one master set-up. He was already behind.

Meanwhile, Jack Wrather, who owned both the “Lone Ranger” and “Lassie” brands, was the subject of considerable gossip. Two years before, he and his wife, former child star Bonita Granville, had paid $3 million for the “Lone Ranger” rights. Wrather was no walk in the park, though. He came into town with a poor rep, having just served a court order onto iconic Clayton Moore, the TV’s Lone Ranger, preventing the now elderly actor from making personal appearances wearing his mask. By the time the movie wrapped, I’d heard it said he had racked up so many legal problems around town that he was banned from setting foot in the state ever again, lest he be arrested for this or that.

Whether or not that is true, I do know for a fact that star Klinton Spilsbury (who??) made the front pages because of his bad bar misbehavior. Supposedly, he slapped a waitress at one saloon, got roaring and belligerently drunk at another, and got into verbal confrontations that led to his being on the losing end of liquor-fueled fisticuffs. Any other such star would have been fired—but not Spilsbury, whose father, it was said, had invested in the movie as a star-making vehicle for his 6’5” wannabe actor son.     

Worse yet, when the film debuted the following May 25, 1981, it was clear Spilsbury’s voice had been dubbed, and, indeed, actor James Keach (Jesse James in The Long Riders, 1980) fessed up that he had re-voiced the role, since Spilsbury’s delivery was a vapid mumble. (In the near future, the Golden Raspberry Awards would give him two Razzies, for Worst Actor, and Worst New Star). Further, although Fraker had shot enough footage for a two-hour epic, only 98 minutes made it to the screen, with a lot of unusable celluloid on the cutting-room floor.

And although the invitation-only Lensic premiere drew the usual insiders’ ovation each time a familiar local face or site appeared, so was there derisive laughter throughout, as the packed house witnessed the v-e-r-y slow explosion of a cinematic bomb.

The movie performed somewhat well at the box-office that opening weekend, grossing about $3 million. Universal asserted the movie was performing quite well, and even mentioned the possibility of mounting a sequel using the unused scenes as the basis of another script. But, ultimately, the U.S. gross mounted to only 2/3 of its cost, and that was the end of that.

Some of the principals involved came out unscatched. Christopher Lloyd, as villainous Butch Cavendish, survived his ill-advised saddle foray to become beloved Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” (1985). Michael Horse,--with his unlikely heritage of Yaqui, Mescalero, Zuni, and Swedish--made a solid, credible Tonto. He returned to the state in 1982 for the indie Western “The Avenging.” He still acts, and is also an accomplished Southwestern artist and author. Jason Robards’ turn as Wild Bill Hickok didn’t impair his career after all. And it’s always pleasant to see Santa Fe artist Ted Flicker riding full gallop as Buffalo Bill Cody leading the climactic charge on Cavendish’s fort.

Nevertheless, that aforementioned archive still has my slightly censored morning-after critique, as well as a hard-copy printout of the original writeup. By examining both documents, I see that Pasatiempo printed my final line as “It stinks.” What I’d actually said was, “It sucks.”

Will history repeat itself? We shall see July 9th…