August 7th, 2008
December 2, 2007
Billy Blue Walks Out
This article is reprinted in it’s entirety
from Australian TV Week
May 9, 1970. The subject matter, quotes, and opinions are those of the original writers and editors.
Mark Slade stormed his way into High Chaparral. “James Dean is alive,” he roared at the producer who had kept him waiting. Today, two years later, he has left the series no less dramatically. “I may be doing a Pernell Roberts,” he said quietly. “I could have sacrificed my whole career…but I felt it was much more important to follow this through. I feel I’m still young enough to gamble.”
In a major upheaval that recalls Pernell Roberts’ stormy divorce from Bonanza, Mark has ridden out of its sister Western in a clash of wills over his movie-making ambitions. There may also be further repercussions for High Chaparral. One German network is reportedly about to drop the Western in protest and at least two other members of the cast are deeply upset by the producers’ tough stand.
Mark’s dramatic walk-out came after creator and executive producer David Dortort denied him a three week leave from High Chaparral to film Better Times Are Coming, a “now” Western he has created with writer William Lansford, later this year.
“It all happened in 10 days,” Mark recalled. “The first indication I had was when someone on Dortort’s office staff asked, “Would you go as far as giving up Billy Blue for your movie? Then a few days later I was accepting the Bambi Award and not a word was said. Dortort was beside me all smiles and he shook my hand. Next day the whole thing blew apart. Dortort didn’t even have the guts to come to me and tell me personally. He had an underling do that…Bitter? I’m only bitter about the way it was done. I guess I’m rather naïve. I think the best of everyone. Now I look back at the show and… well, I’m just going to put all my energies into the movie.”
Mark’s mood was more one of quiet disillusionment than anger. Despite obvious disappointment at the cast’s general reaction to his exit, he talked of it without rancor and carefully avoided any mention of Leif Erickson although, according to a reliable source, there is a wide rift between the two men. It is understood to have stemmed from the collapse of plans for Leif to play a sheriff in the movie, although the source said Mark had deliberately removed himself from any negotiations because of their High Chaparral relationship.
“Nothing that happened really surprised me.” Mark mused over the events that led to his shock departure. “The surprising thing is how cold it becomes. You really find out who your friends are. Cam (Mitchell) and Linda (Cristal), and she’s very upset, are the only ones I heard from. Oh, Hank (Darrow) called and cleared his conscience. A couple of others, not those in the lead roles, called, but that wasn’t until a couple of weeks later. Cam and I have had our blow-ups with each other, it has been an uncle-nephew relationship with us. But Cam tried for two days to reach me – my wife, Melinda and I just got out of the house when it happened. Finally he rang me at midnight to be sure of catching me. Cam talked to me on the phone till three in the morning.”
The High Chaparral role, however, is not the only sacrifice Mark is making for Better Times are Coming, in which he and Gary Lockwood star as two losers, unable to win in any society, who team up in Texas at the turn of the century. Not only is he risking his career, but as a married man with a pre-school child, his financial security, and he frankly admits the decision to quit was as much his as his wife’s. “I don’t know if I would have done it myself,” he said. “My wife felt I was getting tied, typed, into Billy Blue. By the time the series ended people would take me at face value as an actor. In a series you get pretty used to security. I was thinking of delaying the movie at one stage, but planning was too far advanced, and the question was answered for me… I think my wife saw something like this coming up. Melinda and I have saved our money – we’ve always kept our horns in…What if they asked me to return? I would probably go back, but not until we’ve finished the movie. I am now completely committed to it.”
Better Times Are Coming, which begins shooting late this month in Mexico, already represents a triumph over great odds for both Mark and Bill Landsford. “When my partner and I get together we say it’s our own project, and we aren’t going to give it away to anyone,” Mark said. Bill is making just as many sacrifices as I am, believe me. He has turned down about $25,000 in potential earnings to work on the movie and it’s been harder for him than me. He has a wife and two kids. I’ve lent him some money to help him through this period. Financially, he’s starting to get into shape”
The pair, who have formed Friends and Partners Productions to produce the film, first tried to interest a major studio in their original screenplay, and Mark is frankly disgusted at their indifference. Despite their Hollywood setbacks, they refused to give up the project, eventually winning the backing of a group of Mexican film makers.
Mark makes no secret that it is a shoe-string production, eventually expected to cost $500,000, less than the cost of two High Chaparral episodes. But their conviction that “we have a good product” is shared by everyone involved, including Gary Lockwood, Slim Pickens, and Joanna Moore who are all appearing on an “act now, pay later basis.”
“We don’t have any fancy offices, ours is the nearest telephone booth,” Mark said. “We don’t have any business managers, we use our own attorneys. Now comes the big test. We’ve had indications that if this goes right we will have financing for our next one.”
Later a visitor asked if the title, Better Times Are Coming, had a personal significance. “It didn’t,” Mark Slade grinned slowly. “But it sure does now.”