My friend, J, just sent me an essay in The New York Times about spaghetti Westerns. Why, you might wonder, would I be interested in two-day-stubble cowboys who are mad all the time. It’s obvious: I have personal ties to the genre. My neighbor, Tom, is a spaghetti Western cowboy and has the movie to prove it: The Hills Run Red.
One day, I was in front of my house, pruning my boxwood, when he mentioned that he’d been on the big screen in his derring-do days. In no time, I had a stack of old movies in my arms. Late-night viewing ensued. I pried a bit more and then slapped together a column about his wondrous life. He is a gentler Clint. A stride instead of a swagger.
It’s amazing what you can find out about people if you listen. I just discovered that my son’s guidance counselor was a baseball star in college. He almost made it to the bigs. Almost is great. Almost is worthy of a column. Got to give him a call.
By the way, Hills is available online. Buy it. Now. Then grab a long-neck and get lost. A perfect way to escape from a worrisome world.
A few years ago, I was talking with my neighbor, Tom, and our conversation turned to the topic of movies. It was Oscar season, and Tom and I were discussing his picks. I think he mentioned Clint Eastwood for best actor — or maybe best director. I’m fuzzy on the details.
What I do remember is that Tom seemed to know a lot about the movie industry. He knew about producers, directors, screenwriters, and those actors from long ago with square shoulders and slicked back hair and ruggedly handsome looks that could snare a dame for the night.
I think he mentioned the name Robert Mitchum. I’m pretty sure he called him Bob.
One thing led to another and before you know it, I had a stack of old movies in my arms that all had one actor in common: Tom, better known on the big screen as Thomas Hunter.
If you’re a movie buff, you’ve probably heard of spaghetti Westerns, Italian-made films that emerged in the 1960s and were shot in cheap places that resembled the American Southwest, primarily Spain and Italy.
One of the films Tom gave me was The Hills Run Red, produced by the Italian filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis. I watched it that night after my sons went to bed. It had all the ingredients of the genre: covered wagons racing past the mesquite; dark-eyed women with luscious black hair; a tuneful score by the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone; gunfights; dustups; bad guys, and heroes. Tom was the good guy — and the star.
It’s easy to forget that someone lived a life before you met them. Maybe the mother tending to two toddlers on the playground tried a case before the Supreme Court. The old man walking his sway-backed mutt might’ve stormed the beaches of Normandy. The tailor could have been a high school track star. Everyone has something that makes him or her unique.
Up until that late-night viewing of Hills, I thought of Tom as my kindly neighbor who always tipped his cap and waved and who liked to take daily walks down the boulevard and play tennis with his wife.
Now I was seeing him in another light, as a spry man with a chiseled face and piercing blue eyes and a two-day stubble that he didn’t seem to give a hoot about because he was out to get the lousy good-for-nothing that killed his kid. I was seeing him as a spaghetti Western cowboy.
“It’s Tom!” I shouted to myself when he appeared on my TV, all sweaty-faced with a red kerchief tied around his neck and a soiled cowboy hat with a three-pinch crease perched on his head. I couldn’t help but smile; how many people have movie stars for neighbors.
By the end of the week, I was something of an expert on the filmography of Thomas Hunter. His movies were too irresistible not to watch. More sidewalk chats ensued, and I soon came to discover that Tom, uh, Thomas, was pecking away on his computer day and night writing a book, Memoirs of a Spaghetti Cowboy: Tales of Oddball Luck and Derring-Do. He gave me a copy to read.
He began with his idyllic childhood in Savannah, Georgia, where one Sunday morning, while still wearing his sweetpea nightie, he walked barefoot three blocks to the Savannah River to sail his toy boat.
From there, he charged through life like a wild Appaloosa. He graduated from the Universityof Virginia and found work as a model in New York, where, on a whim, he auditioned for Uta Hagen’s acting class. He eventually landed a two-month contract job on the Blake Edwards film, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?
At the end of the shoot, he figured his movie career might be over. But one day he was rushing down a hallway at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills and bumped head-on into the diminutive De Laurentiis. The call came a few days later: Do you want to star in Mr. De Laurentiis’s first Western? Geez, said Tom.
That role in Hills as the vengeful Jerry Brewster led to 17 more movies, among them:
Death Walks in Laredo, another De Laurentiis film, this one about three half brothers who inherit a secret goldmine from their philandering father. Tom played Whity Selby, the brother with the smoking four-barreled colt.
Battle of the Commandos, a war film about a tough Army colonel (Jack Palance) who leads a group of ex-convicts on a mission to destroy German cannons. Most memorable scene: Tom (Captain Burke) gnawing on a cigar butt while dismantling a mine.
Anzio, a film based on the 1944 Allied assault on a small Italian port in World War II. Tom is Private Andy, who, sadly, takes a bullet in the neck far too early in the film. Mitchum plays a news correspondent.
And don’t forget The Amsterdam Story, X-312 Flight to Hell, Escape from KGB, and The Cassandra Crossing, which starred Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and O.J. Simpson, who got acting lessons from Tom for a week.
TV was kind to Tom too. He had guest appearances on Flipper, Hawk, and Gunsmoke, where he played a prostitute’s son.
In his free time, Tom wrote scripts: The Human Factor, a thriller starring George Kennedy, and The Final Countdown, a sci-fi flick with Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen, shot aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier.
Then there was that spooky sci-fi book he wrote about the end of civilization, Softly Walks the Beast, which I wouldn’t recommend reading on a dark and stormy night when you’re alone in the house and the only thing you can hear, besides the purring cat, is the dead branch of a silver maple tapping against your pane.
Along the way, Tom met the famous and near-famous. Do tell, I said one day.
Jack Palance liked to warm up with pushups, the one-arm type. “The idea is to get your energy up,” Tom said. “After all that sitting around in Spain’s hot weather, waiting for the next scene to be filmed, you get listless. I’d do pushups while he did them. Same number.”
Martin Sheen was friendly. He told Tom he liked his Countdown script and wanted to star in the movie. “I remember bouncing 7-year-old Charlie Sheen on my knee, doing my best ‘Trot, trot to Boston’ routine,” Tom said.
Tom sat next to Ava Gardner during Cassandra: “In her 50s, still beautiful, still warm.’’
Robert Mitchum had a “great swagger” and always looked stoned, even when he wasn’t. During Anzio, Tom shared a trailer with the then-fledgling Italian film actor Gian Carlo Giannini — yes, that one.
“Mitchum had a bad hangover and refused to work, playing cards in his trailer instead,” Tom said. “The director comes over and asks us to work, and we have to pass by Mitchum’s trailer. Mitchum gives us the finger for being ‘scabs.’ Gian Carlo and I answer with the ‘up yours’ Italian arm salute.”
Finally, there was Clint, another spaghetti cowboy. He took Tom and Burt Reynolds (“incredibly athletic”) out to dinner one night in Rome. At a wild party later, Clint and Tom watched as an Italian actor slashed a German actor’s face with broken glass.
“Blood went everywhere,” Tom said. “Clint and I are sipping our beers when he turns to me and says, ‘Cut. Print.’ Very cool, this guy. Never ruffled.”
Now we have another cool guy in our midst. Maybe you’ve seen him. He’s that lanky baddie walking the boulevard.