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Sam Peckinpah

director and writer of films known for their violence

Sam Peckinpah

David Samuel Peckinpah was born in Fresno, California, on February 21, 1925. Born into a family descended from pioneer settlers, Peckinpah was from an early age fascinated with the "Wild West" and often skipped school to play "cowboy" with his brother on their maternal grandfather's ranch. His frequent truancy, combined with alcohol use and bouts of violence, led to his being sent to a military school for his senior year, after which he enlisted in the Marine Corps. In 1945 his batallion was sent to China, where it was assigned to the task of disarming Japanese soldiers and civilians and sending them home. He left China at the end of 1946 without ever seeing combat.

Entering Fresno State College upon his discharge, Peckinpah began his studies as a history major, but became interested in drama after meeting Marie Selland, whom he married in 1947. After earning his Bachelor of Arts in Drama in 1948, Peckinpah entered the University of Southern California, from which he received his Master's degree in 1952. After a stint as the director and producer in residence at Huntington Park Civic Theatre in California, he worked as a propman and stagehand at KLAC-TV in Los Angeles. From 1951 to 1953 he worked as an assistant editor at CBS.

Peckinpah first gained industry recognition as a scriptwriter for western series, contributing to "Gunsmoke," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Broken Arrow," "Tales of Wells Fargo," and "Zane Grey Theatre," to name but a few. In 1958, he wrote a script for "Gunsmoke" that was rejected due to content. He sold a rewritten version of that script to "Zane Grey Theatre," and the episode received so much popular response that the network turned into the series "The Rifleman." Peckinpah directed four episodes of the series, but left after the first year. During this time, he also created the series "The Westerner," starring Brian Keith. He acted as producer of the series, contributed to the script of every episode, and directed five episodes. Although it was critically praised, the series was cancelled after 13 episodes because the network thought the content was too "gritty."

Peckinpah's television work led to him being hired as director of the Western film Deadly Companion, starring Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara. Released in 1961, the movie was almost completely ignored by both critics and the public.

When hired to direct Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah was given the right to make whatever changes to the script he deemed necessary, a right he had been denied during filming of Deadly Companion. Starring aging Western stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in their final major screen roles, the film initially went unnoticed in the United States but was an enormous success in Europe, winning the Grand Prix at the Belgium International Film Festival, the Paris critics’ award, and the Silver Leaf award in Sweden. The European accolades led to many American critics also praising the film, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer never marketed the film in the United States and it remained unseen by the vast majority of movie goers.

Peckinpah's first big-budget film was Major Dundee (1965), for which he was hired as director after star Charlton Heston recommended him. Filming began without a completed screenplay, and Peckinpah chose several remote locations in Mexico, causing the film to go heavily over budget. Peckinpah also reportedly drank heavily during the filming, and was frequently abusive towards actors and crew members. At one point, Peckinpah's mean streak and abusiveness so enraged Heston that the normally even-tempered star threatened to run the director through with his cavalry saber if he did not show more courtesy to the cast.However, when the studio later considered replacing Peckinpah, it was Heston who came to Peckinpah's defense, going so far as to offer to return his salary to help offset any overages. The studio accepted, and Heston wound up doing the film for free. Shooting ended 15 days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget. eckinpah was not allowed any supervision over final editing, and the version that Columbia Pictures ultimately released had been cut by almost a third and what remained had been so reworked that it bore little resemblance to Peckinpah's version. The film was trashed by critics and public alike, and Peckinpah was not afraid to let everyone know that the studio had ruined what should have been a big hit.

Peckinpah was suppsed to direct The Cincinnati Kid (1965), but was fired and replaced by Norman Jewison only four days into filming. Now blackballed by the film industry, he was, nevertheless, hired to direct an adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's novel Noon Wine for television. Peckinpah's script was enthusiastically endorsed by Porter, and the project became an hour-long presentation for "ABC Stage 67." The film was a critical hit, and Peckinpah was nominated by the Writers Guild for Best Television Adaptation and the Directors Guild of America for Best Television Direction.

The success of Noon Wine led Warner Brothers to hire Peckinpah to direct The Wild Bunch, starring William Holden, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Unhappy with what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time, Peckinpah set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period, but the crude men attempting to survive the era; he succeeded. Released in 1969, The Wild Bunch was quickly denounced by many critics for being the most graphically violent Western ever made, if not one of the most violent movies ever made to that time. Despite the violence, the film was a commercial success, and earned Peckinpah has only Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Screenplay.

Peckinpah defied all audience expectations with the release of The Ballad of Cable Hogue, starring Jason Robards, in 1970. Although it was a Western, it featured very little violence, and could almost have been considered a comedy. Peckinpah did, however, still manage to rankle the feathers of crew members, actors, and producers during filming, and to go over budget by $3 million. Considered "too warm and fuzzy" by Warner Brothers, the movie was not publicized and went largely ignored by critics and public alike.

Once again "on the outs" with Hollywood, Peckinpah was forced to go to England for his next directing job. Straw Dogs (1971), starring Dustin Hoffman as a timid mathematician who became a killer, would be one of his darkest and most psychologically disturbing films. The movie deeply divided critics, some of whom praised its artistry and its confrontation of human savagery, while others attacked it as a celebration of violence, with special criticial emphasis on a complicated and lengthy rape scene.

Peckinpah returned to the United States to direct Junior Bonner (1972). Promoted as a Steve McQueen action vehicle, Peckinpah took the job because he did not want to be known only for violent movies. Reviews were mixed and the film performed poorly at the box office, however, and Peckinpah lamented "I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it."

Peckinpah and McQueen teamed up again for The Getaway (1972), a crime thriller full of explosions, car chases and intense shootouts. The film became Peckinpah's biggest financial success to date, earning more than $25 million at the box office, and remains one of his most popular.

The Getaway proved to be Peckinpah's last truly successful movie. Neither Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) nor Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) did well at the box office. The Killer Elite (1975) did reasonably well at the box office, but has always been considered one of Peckinpah's weakest efforts. The World War II epic Cross of Iron (1977) was a huge hit in Europe, but fared poorly in the United States. By the time he made the “trucking” film, Convoy (1978), his health and working reputation were shattered. Despite being a very different kind of "Peckinpah movie," Convoy ended up being the most financially successful movies of his career, racking up $46.5 million in box office sales. Unemployed for the next several years, Peckinpah's final film was The Osterman Weekend (1983).

Already in poor health when shooting began on The Osterman Weekend, Peckinpah's years of alcohol and drug abuse finally caught up with him on December 28, 1984, when he died of a heart attack in an Inglewood, California, hospital.

Peckinpah and Marie Selland had four children before divorcing in 1960. In 1965, he married Begoņa Palacios, with whom he had one child before divorcing in 1967. He married Joey Gould in 1972, but that marriage ended in divorce the following year.


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This page was last updated on 09/25/2018.