Randy Quaid Arrested, ’70s Cinema Forgotten

Late in the evening of 24 September, while I was battling the onset of the flu and conducting online research for my next Deconstruction Zone column, I couldn’t help but notice that the news wire services were abuzz with the latest fodder for celebrity gossip; in fact, I believe the story was a trending topic at Twitter for about 20 minutes.

It seems that actor Randy Quaid and his wife Evi had been arrested in the desolate West Texas town of Marfa, home of 2,100 citizens, the dusty landscape, founded as a railroad stop in 1883, of the epic motion pictures Giant and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

In the sand-blasted terrain dotted by oil fields that is Marfa, Randy and Evi were taken down by the local constables for a felony warrant issued against them by the Santa Barbara County, California, District Attorney’s Office for burglary, defrauding an innkeeper (skipping out on your hotel bill basically), and conspiracy, all to the tune of $10,000.

Talk about your Bonnie and Clyde moment: the flat dust fields of Texas, the territory of so many bleak and Godforsaken cinematic journeys, on a lonely country road with grit in their teeth, Randy and his former fashion model wife, dragged out of their vehicle after a routine stop, handcuffed, and taken into custody for their offense until the Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez could drive Quaid to a bank to post $20,000 bond to release himself and Evi.

The whole event screams of a Peter Bogdanovich scenario – Randy appeared in Bogdanovich’s classics, The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – and the cineaste in Quaid must have enjoyed the irony.

Randy is quite the cinephile. I should know.

From late 1980 until 1986, when Quaid moved to New York City to become a cast member of Saturday Night Live, the Texas-born actor and I were close friends and working partners.

Shortly after the production of the 1980 western The Long Riders – Randy appeared in the film as Clell Miller and I was the research consultant on the picture – he hired me to write the screenplay adaptation of a William Hjortsberg novel that he had optioned, Alp (1971), an odd and quirky comedic work about a pair of Swiss brothers, Max and Felix Henkers, who own a tourist resort, and their ongoing dispute about the exploitation of their father’s frozen corpse (he was a world renowned mountain climber) clinging lifeless to a rope on the side of a treacherous, ice-covered mountain.

Randy and I worked on that screenplay for years; twice I moved into apartments on Riverside Drive and Moorpark Avenue in the L.A. suburb of North Hollywood so that work – and Randy’s film education – could continue.

The man ate, lived, and breathed cinema. He whisked me off to film festivals at all of the Los Angeles revival houses and art galleries. I endured an Abel Gance festival, learned to appreciate Sergei Eisenstein and Arthur Penn, chuckled over the self-conscious camera work in Blade Runner, ruminated over Brando’s quirky performance in The Missouri Breaks (which Quaid also appeared in) over coffee after a screening at the NuArt Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Randy wanted to be a filmmaker. He was serious about it. But then something happened in the late 80s. He divorced his first wife Ella, the mother of his daughter Amanda Marie, married a former fashion model, and became a stock player in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, Independence Day (1996), and even swooped so low as to play Cappy von Trapment in the box office bomb live-action version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000.

The movies cited above — which the exception of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which I inserted as a personal low for such a fine actor but, hey, maybe he had bills to pay — were the titles referenced by the wire services in their write-ups of the Quaid arrest on Thursday, along with his supporting role in Brokeback Mountain — which is sort of heartbreaking, when you think about it.

Quaid is an actor who appeared in so many seminal Hollywood classics of the 1970s — Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in 1973) and Bound for Glory, Alan Parker’s harrowing Midnight Express (1978) and the aforementioned Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? — and then went on to a second career in television, cast in roles that he always dreamed of playing: Steinbeck’s man-child Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1981), Mitch in the TV adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and a Golden Globe-winning performance as U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in LBJ: The Early Years (1987).

But the news wire services reference instead National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

When I interviewed Reed Martin, author of The Reel Truth, about iconoclastic ’70s filmmaker Hal Ashby for my September Deconstruction Zone column for PopMatters, the film scholar isolated Quaid’s performance as the doomed Navy seaman Larry Meadows in Ashby’s The Last Detail – starring Jack Nicholson and the late Otis Wilson as the shore patrol officers assigned to escort a young Petty Officer to the brig for the theft of a candy bar – as a major component of what made the picture work, aside from a brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne based on the debut novel by Darryl Ponicsan, and a major influence on future generations of film actors. That text was excised for purposes of length but I present it to you here unedited as I crawl back into bed to nurse the dreaded influenza:

Ashby’s The Last Detail is worth revisiting or renting for those who haven’t seen it – because it sort of gives audiences a clear vision of what Randall Patrick MacMurphy’s life might have been like had he not fallen asleep at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He would have almost certainly gone outraging and tearing up the town as his character Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky does in The Last Detail.

In fact, the central goal of the two characters is the same: to show a young guy who is down on his luck and facing imprisonment, a good time as only a Nicholson character can. In Cuckoo’s Nest Nicholson’s character wanted to save Brad Dourif’s Billy Bibbit and in The Last Detail it’s Randy Quaid’s young seaman Larry Meadows who is heading off to prison. What kind of shocks many Gen-X and Gen-Y moviegoers is realizing that Randy Quaid was once a young man because they have probably only see him play a dozen dads and uncles in the last twenty years.

Patton Oswalt in Big Fan resembles Quaid’s performance as Larry Meadows in a lot of ways, which gives audiences today an idea of how many years of terrific performances they can expect of him in the future that he is no doubt going to inhabit so convincingly.