I was recently fortunate enough to enjoy a telephone conversation with legendary spaghetti western leading man, Robert Woods during which we discussed his life,career and, specifically, his western films. This article was written as a result. I'd like to thank Robert for the generosity of his time and Salvatore Sebergandio for helping to bring us together.
I also spoke to both Robert and Marc Fiorini about the making of El Puro and you can read that article here.
How do you describe a career that encompasses some 50 films over 40 odd years which made you one of the most prolific American actors working in the golden age of Italian cinema? For Robert Woods the answer is simple. “I’ve never really had a career. I’ve always just put one foot in front of the other. I’ve gone on an adventure and that is basically what my life is. I didn’t know I had a career until I started drawing social security from Italy.”
It certainly has been some adventure. Raised on a Colorado ranch, Woods left home as a teenager and spent time in the Navy, in college and working as a singer and bit part actor before winding up in New York, still aged only 21, doing theatre and singing with a Drag performer in cabaret. An opportunity to do a film with Otto Preminger sparked him to go to Europe where he settled in Paris working in a dubbing studio, modelling for Pierre Cardin and doing plays at the American Theatre on the Quay D’Orsay. He never did get to make the Preminger film but it was whilst appearing in a Chekhov play in Paris that he was spotted by Spanish producer/director Alfonso Balcazar and offered a contract to make a western at his newly built studios in Barcelona, Esplugas City. Woods turned him down first off but when Balcazar returned with a contract for five movies he couldn’t resist and so began a love affair with European cinema that lasted 14 years and made Woods’ name synonymous with the spaghetti western.
The transition from theatre boards to western saddle was an easier one for Woods than for many actors as he was raised on a Colorado ranch and, as he puts it, “could ride, rope and fall off with ease”. But despite this familiarity with the setting, Woods’ ensuing performances in westerns are marked by the variety of roles he took and the differences of characters he portrayed. Indeed, more than any other prolific leading actor in the genre he continually changed the types he played: A conventional hero type here, a villain there. Now an Anglo-Saxon gunslinger, now a Mexican peon. Woods was always, above all, a risk taker and this became a pattern throughout his career. “I can’t stand playing the same part over again,” he explains. “Acting, from my viewpoint, is finding someone else in me”. This approach, along with an economic pragmatism (“I was advised early on to always take the part that paid the most money”) meant that Robert Woods never became synonymous with one particular image in the way that, say, Anthony Steffen did. With a Woods picture, you never know what you might get. His willingness to take risks led him, for example, to take the part of Pecos Martinez; one of the first, if not the first, Mexican gunslinger heroes in a spaghetti western. A part so against type for the six foot five American that they took to taping his eyelids up to try and make him look more Latino; An unpleasant process that he still remembers vividly. “Oh God do I remember those! It was uncomfortable but I was hoping I didn’t make it look uncomfortable.” Whatever the pain, it seemed to work. As My Name is Pecos became not only one of Woods’ most enduring performances but one of his bigger box office successes in Italy. A success which was almost scuppered by an original ending which saw the hero killed off. This was not an acceptable end for the cinema going public of Naples who first saw the film. Incensed, they ripped up the seats and started throwing them at the screen. The producers reacted rapidly, recut the ending to allow Pecos to survive and re-released it. Woods laughs at the memory of it now. “Welcome to Italy!”
Despite the success of this recut version Pecos was not the highest performing western he had at the box office. That honour goes to Seven Guns for the MacGregors, the film made by Papi and Colombo originally intended for Clint Eastwood but which Eastwood refused to make. Adam West, of Batman fame, was subsequently lined up but eventually it was offered to Woods and he grabbed it happily. Unfortunately, as in many of his films, no suitably convincing stuntman could be found to double for Woods’ tall frame. This led to him doing most of his own stunts and with the notoriously lax health and safety standards applied at the time, risks were always high. Accordingly, the inevitable happened and Seven Guns almost ended his career just as it was taking off. “That film damn near killed me.” He recalls. “We were doing the fight scene on the waterwheel and they put a stick in the water wheel to stop it. And I didn’t know they were going to do that. I just thought I was going to go over the top of the water wheel and jump on somebody’s back. I usually did my own stunts because there’s nobody as tall as I am. I’d try and let somebody else do it but it didn’t often look right. But anyway, they stopped the waterwheel and I flew off of it and landed on my spine on the wall of this well. Terrible pain for rest of the film. There was one scene we shot after where I had to hit the rump of the horse and land in the saddle. I missed the saddle but landed on its rump and slid over. It worked alright so they said ok, let’s keep it. It looks natural. Actually I was in agony and just couldn’t make the jump.” Anyone who has seen the film can’t help but remember a similarly close shave for Fernando Sancho, who almost lost his head on an iron bridge as he climbed up onto the roof of a moving railcar. It is somewhat alarming to think we could have lost two of the most prolific names from the spaghetti western genre in the course of one picture!
It wasn’t severe injury, however, that led to Woods declining the offer to appear in the film’s sequel, Seven Brides for the MacGregors. The threat of another severe injury was nothing to him compared with the prospect of doing another shoot with a particular co-star. Woods explains, “Well the leading lady was the producer’s girlfriend and I couldn’t work with her. I mean she spent a whole day learning how to shoot a gun while we all waited around. So I said this is the last film I’m doing with Agata Flori. So when he offered me the sequel I said no. I tried not to tell him why but the real reason was I just didn’t like working with this woman.” I suggested to Woods that this was a pity but he laughed. “Yeah, but the other one didn’t make as much money, so I’m pleased.”
Woods’ sense of humour and self deprecating manner is an endearing feature and leads him, in my opinion, to be a harsher critic of his own work than he should be. When we spoke of Black Jack, another risk taking role where his character is, in Woods own words, “A real nasty son of a bitch at the end” he expressed unhappiness with how his performance turned out.
“Man, I’m not pleased with the end of that. At all! This guy needs to underplay and the director said no, no give it all you got. Less isn’t more in Italy. More is more”
The Challenge of McKenna, where Woods plays the villain opposite John Ireland also gets a good natured dig by the star. “I’m playing the Mexican method actor in that one” he laughs. Whatever his approach, the performance was a good one and gave Woods the chance to work with an old pal, John Ireland.
“John and I became lifelong friends. We made 3 pictures together. I did the heavy in one of his, he did the heavy in two of mine. We remained friends until he died and he and Henry Fonda were probably two of my closest friends in the world. (Woods met Fonda while making Battle of the Bulge in 1965) Fonda used to bring Jason Robards over to my house. It was a wonderful experience for me. To have people I’d idolised and looked up to to just show up on your doorstep and say 'Hi' was wonderful.”
It was such friendships and the collaborative spirit of film making which Woods remembers most fondly of his fourteen odd years working in European films. A collaborative spirit and openness he found lacking in the U.S. industry when he returned home in 1978.
“That was the lovely thing about working in Europe which we don’t have in America. It’s very pedantic and separated. You don’t talk to people if they’re extras. In an Italian film everyone collaborates. Now some of the ideas suck but some of the ideas coming out of an average guy working on the set can be pretty good. So we continued to do that. And when you left a film it was like leaving your family by the time you finished because everyone on the set was involved. It was wonderful, really wonderful. The collaborative spirit of the golden age of cinema in Italy you can not beat. That’s the major reason I stayed so long.”
We can all be grateful he did stay, as Robert Woods’ body of work remains one of the most varied and interesting in the spaghetti western genre. It includes some of the most pleasing and memorable films ever made during the period, as well as some not so memorable. But as Woods says himself, “I made a lot of films; some good, some bad. When you make that many you have to take the rough with the smooth.” There were certainly some rough, but the smooth firmly outweigh them in my opinion. Films such as El Puro, My Name is Pecos, Seven Guns For the MacGregors, Machine Gun Killers, Black Jack and Challenge of McKenna more than make up for any lesser efforts and can stand proudly alongside anything produced in their time. And Woods’ performances in these films, alongside his willingness to take the chances he did in making them stand as a fitting tribute to a long and fascinating career. A career that was honoured at the Venice Film Festival in 2007 when a newly digitised print of El Puro was screened and Woods was flown over to attend. Amazingly, he almost didn’t go, mistakenly thinking “Who remembers me?” The standing ovation and flattering introduction he received put those doubts to rights and made him realise for the first time that there was still a following in Europe and more waiting for him there than just some social security payments.
--Phil H 15:13, 19 July 2009 (UTC)