Wild and Crazy in New Hollywood

I have always loved movies. They do more than just fire my imagination and feed my fantasies. Movies stir me to take action. I’ve mined them for heroes and stories to shape my identity. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre prompted me to move to Mexico; I idolized Alan Ladd so much, I filled the empty space in the middle of my name with his; and A Yank at Oxford inspired a lifelong love of Great Britain.

But I didn’t just want to watch movies. I wanted to make them. In 1970, Mitch Lifton — a friend I had gotten to know through my pals in San Francisco — had earned a reputation directing plays at the Bay Area’s famous Actors Workshop and wanted to get into the movie business. He sent me stories and scripts in London from time to time, hoping I would like one and front enough money to find someone in the industry who would underwrite it. I thought The Hired Hand, a Western he had optioned, might work.

Coco Brown, my poker buddy at Elaine’s, joined. His father had made scores of movies, including dozens of Westerns. I sent the book to Henry Fonda — cold — with an old-fashioned letter of introduction using the names of friends who were known to him, including Coco’s dad. I had never met Fonda, but he had always struck me as a class act. Besides, it was a Western — and who else, besides John Wayne, would I send it to but the man who had played a gunfighter more times than I could count? He got back to me within a week, saying that he liked it. He felt he was too old for the lead, though. He thought his son, Peter, would be just right for the part.

Young Fonda was hot at the time. Just a year earlier, he and countercultural soulmate and actor Dennis Hopper had recently released their psychedelic blockbuster, Easy Rider. Universal’s bosses never grasped the movie’s appeal — from its perpetual drug use to its groundbreaking soundtrack featuring sixties icons Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, and the Band — but they understood the bottom line: a gross of over $40 million for a film that cost about $400,000. They rewarded each of the two stars $1 million to make whatever movie he wanted next. Peter liked The Hired Hand and was ready to ride.

His producer, Bill Hayward, asked me to meet him in New York to work out an agreement. He was not quite thirty years old and loved fun almost as much as I did. We hit it off right away.

At Hayward’s suggestion, I went to Santa Monica to meet Peter. His home commanded a godlike view of the ocean across a vast beach. As I approached the house, I saw a stream of beautiful young women coming in and out. A few almost had clothes on. I spotted Peter inside, sitting in a big hot tub and smoking dope. This was hardly a surprise. The rumor was that all of the drug use seen on-screen in Easy Rider, from marijuana to LSD, was real. He invited me to jump in. I did. The girls didn’t seem to mind.

Peter told me he loved New Hollywood but hated Old Hollywood. I asked him what he disliked about it. He said something like “They all have mansions in Santa Monica and lots of naked girls running back and forth. And they’re always drinking.”

I said, “I think I get it. The difference is that the Old Hollywood drinks a lot of booze, but the New Hollywood smokes a lot of dope.”

I made it clear to Hayward and Peter that I wanted to actually help produce the movie, and immediately pitched in to scout for a location in Mexico. My friend Candice Bergen, the stunning model turned actress who was the daughter of legendary ventriloquist and comedian Edgar Bergen, had just finished shooting Soldier Blue near San Miguel de Allende, a Mexican town I knew very well. I hoped their set might still be there so we could use it and save some money.

Hayward and his girlfriend offered to take the daylong drive with me from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende to take a look. We set out by car one morning with Humberto Reygosa, who worked for me in the area. It got cold in the high country, so I took extra sweaters, but I brought hardly any money.

Once there, we saw the set had been dismantled. I thought the location might still work. Bill didn’t agree. We went to a bar to discuss. After a while, Bill and his girlfriend said they were going out for a bit. An hour or two later, I wondered where they could be. Reygosa and I walked down to the center of town to find them. No such luck.

I knew the town intimately from my mining days — every bartender, every bar. I entered a favorite one and ordered a whiskey. As I held the glass up to my mouth, it came to me where Bill might be. I told the barman I would be back and asked him to hold my drink for me.

I hurried to the jail. Hayward was a tall, blondish, good-looking guy, so I asked the jailer if he had a big gringo there. He pointed us to the holding cell. We found Bill there, completely naked, fighting a whole bunch of Mexicans who were locked up with him.

They might have killed him. The jailer shrugged again until I gave him some money to move Bill to a solitary cell. I handed him a sweater to cover himself and asked him what had happened. It turns out that Bill and his girlfriend were so horny, they couldn’t wait to get to their hotel room and just starting going at it in a somewhat isolated public place in the center of town — where, naturally, people had heard them and complained, leading the police to arrest both of them with their clothes strewn on the ground around them.

I found his girlfriend in the women’s prison, also naked. She wasn’t in good shape. She was locked up with a woman charged with murdering her two children. The rest of my money got her moved to a cell by herself, and I gave her a couple of sweaters.

The police had already taken all the cash the two lovers had, except Hayward’s roll of German marks, which they thought was play money. We didn’t have enough pesos or dollars to bribe the jailers to release them, so Bill and his girlfriend were stuck in jail overnight, albeit safely in their separate solitary cells.

I had to figure out my next move. I asked Reygosa to go to Guanajuato, the state capital, and ask the governor to get my friends out of jail. The next morning, the governor — who had a high regard for me and my business in the area — called the jailer and told him to let Hayward and his girlfriend go.

We eventually found a place to shoot, in the curiously named town of Cuba, New Mexico. When the shooting moved back to Hollywood, I wanted to get involved as an actor, just for the hell of it. Peter said I should be a cowboy. I grew a dark beard, found some old boots, and got me a ten-gallon hat and scuffed it up.

My first scene didn’t work out very well. I was supposed to walk a horse over to the saloon. The horse didn’t like me, and it kept stomping on my foot. I looked like a greenhorn. That’s why they cut it.

I did a lot better in my other scene. My role called for me to play poker and drink beer with three other guys in the saloon. I was terrific. I should have been; I had been rehearsing the part for years.

Most of the crew who made The Hired Hand preferred pot over booze. The film floated to the theaters in August 1971 on a cloud of weed smoke. It opened to mixed reviews. If you were sober, it seemed slow and boring. Time found it “pointless, virtually plotless, and all but motionless.” Others liked it a great deal. I told people that if you watched it while stoned, you’d like it — because you’d lose your sense of time, and it wouldn’t seem all that bad. Everything would seem elevated. All the actors certainly were.

The only payment I received for the film was the twenty dollars per diem the Actors Guild required I be paid for three days of drinking beer and playing poker on camera at the saloon — which is pretty good work, if you can get it.

What I did want was a formal credit, and Bill Hayward made sure I got it. That August I got to see “Executive Producer Stanley A. Weiss” right there in black and white in Variety. Bill was a good egg. It made me sad years later to learn that he had taken his own life. I prefer instead to remember him as the young hippie daring enough to make love to his gorgeous girlfriend in the middle of a rough Mexican town — a Hollywood-worthy story if there ever was one.

Stanley A. Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades. His memoir, “Being Dead is Bad for Business,” from which this article is adapted, will be published by Disruption Books in February, 2017.