Brett Halsey Interview
Brett Halsey's career in cinema is a long and fascinating one. Over the past 50 years he has worked on Hollywood pictures of both large and small budget, had his own TV show, lived and worked in places as diverse as Canada, Germany, The United States, Costa Rica and, of course Italy. He worked in many film genres including Horror, Comedy, Eurospy and Swashbucklers but he will be best remembered by members of this site for his series of Spaghetti Westerns made between 1966 and 1970 in which his Django lookalike features made him a perfect face for the genre. Working with directors as diverse as Alberto Cardone and Mario Bava, Halsey's Westerns still stand up well. So it was with genuine pleasure that I called him at his Los Angeles home to talk to him about his films, his career and his memories of working in Italy during the height of the Golden Age.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
My gratitude is extended to Brett for being so generous with his time.
PH: Your career has spanned some key eras in cinema. Starting in the later stages of the old Hollywood studio system, the rise of TV and then of course the golden age of Italian commercial cinema. It has been quite a life and your timing was impeccable to be involved in some very interesting stuff and work with some very interesting people.
BH: Yes. You know, when I went to Rome, while I was there I had the feeling I was living in a time of history you know. And I thought one day I’ll write a book about all this. Which eventually I did.
PH: When you began in Hollywood you started at the Universal Talent School at the end of the old studio era. (Right) How did that operate? And what did that entail for you?
BH: Well it was pretty much run like a regular school. It was a five and a half day week and we had report cards and classes. There was dancing, fencing, diction, Shakespeare, horse back riding. As well as acting in films. Mainly small roles but we kind of earned our way a little bit.
PH: And did you find as the years went on that that was a solid grounding for you?
BH: Oh absolutely. Because we had the best teachers. Top cinematographers and actors and so on.
PH: And you had some interesting class mates during those years.
BH: Yeah. David Jannsen, Clint Eastwood, John Saxon. In later years I was talking to one of the heads of casting there and he told me that our class at Universal was something of an oddity because most of the male members as well as many of the female members of the class actually made it and were successful. Because in those days they rarely expected more than 1 in a hundred to stay in the business but we had over 70% make good careers.
PH: So what took you to Italy?
BH: Well I was doing a TV series at Fox called Follow the Sun and I got a call from an Italian director called Riccardo Freda asking me to do film with him but I couldn’t go because of the series. But then the series was cancelled and I got a call from him asking me again. So I went over and did it, a film called Seven Swords for the King. Then I came back to the States and made another picture but got an offer to go back to Italy and make three more films with the same company. So I went back and all of a sudden the three films became five and I wound up staying.
PH: And what were your first impressions of working in Italy? A very different place to work than what you had been used to in Hollywood?
BH: Oh yeah. Being a Hollywood trained actor, I had very different expectations. One thing was the stuntmen were not that experienced so we were often called in to do our own stunts in a way I wouldn’t have done at home. That could be a little scary at times.
PH: And working in different languages on the set. How did you find that?
BH: On my first film there were five actors all speaking their own language. And that was a challenge because to understand anything I had to learn everyone’s lines. Or I would count. Keeping track of who spoke when. “First he talks then she talks then he talks then it’s my turn” you know. But generally when an actor is talking to you he looks at you so that helps.
PH: And I understand that these films were often shot silent and dubbed later due to all the languages being spoken and different markets anyway right?
BH: Right. Sometimes they would record a cue track and I would note down what I had said to make it easier when doing the loop.
PH: So, in reading John Murray’s book about you and other things it seems like the time that you were in Italy during the 60s was a very special time.
BH: It was a wonderful time. And I had some great times with some wonderful friends. There was quite a large ex-pat community and we had a lot of parties you know, with guys like Gordon Scott and Richard Harrison.
PH: You made a lot of films covering most genres during your time in Europe. Your first film you mention was a swashbuckler and you went on to make spy movies and horror. But of course I’d like to ask you most about your westerns. Your first western was Kill Johnny Ringo in 1966 and it was quite a traditional style western compared to some others being made in Italy at around that time. What are your memories of making that film?
BH: Well, when they came to me with the script I thought the script was awful. Originally it was a courtroom drama. But who the hell cares about a western courtroom drama. But they offered me a good deal co producing so we rewrote as much action as possible and went with it. But what I remember most from that picture was getting my head cracked open by a young actor when we were filming a scene in the jail. He was supposed to come up behind me and hit me with his gun. It was a young actor from the National Acting School and while we were rehearsing I noticed he didn’t know how to hit me properly. So I showed him and I showed him but I didn’t trust him. So I grabbed him and said listen, if you hit me for real I’ll kill you. Well as it happened he did hit me and I went down but instead of playing the scene he started yelling “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me!” So it was ‘shoot is over’ and I had to go to the hospital and wound up with a dozen or so stitches in the back of my head and had to keep my hat on for the rest of the picture.
PH: Well it was a good hat. So at least you got the best value out of it. I saw the film recently and it still stands up but is a more traditional style than some others being shot around that time and certainly more traditional than the next western you did, Today it’s Me, Tomorrow You, which is a much darker and moodier piece altogether.
BH: Yes, and written by Dario Argento which was unusual I think for a western. And he was on set a lot. And directed by Tonino Cervi who was really more of a producer than a director. In fact I don’t know of anything else he directed. But he was a pretty good director although that wasn’t his interest.
PH: It is an extraordinary film I think. Very atmospheric, and in rewatching it recently I was struck by your character, Bill Kiowa, who has a great sadness about him which you maintained beautifully through the whole film. Is that how you saw him? As having an inner sadness?
BH: Yeah, sadness and revenge go together. Of course revenge wasn’t an unusual plot device but it was effective.
PH: It worked very well and in a way the weather seemed to have an effect on the mood of the film. I don’t know if that was deliberate. Whether it was just a fortunate coincidence or whether it was planned to be shot with all that mud and mist and bare trees.
BH: No, I think it was just a fortunate coincidence. The producers would have preferred to shoot it in the summer because it’s easier. You know it was cold when we shot that. But I’m proud of that picture. I’m surprised they didn’t make a sequel to that because it did exceptionally well at the box office.
PH: I’d like to ask you about your co-star in that film. Tatsuya Nakadai.
BH: He was magnificent. You know he’d never ridden a horse before and he kept falling off time and time again but would just keep getting back on. He got injured but it never bothered him. And in the last scene when he was running through the forest there were roots and allsorts underfoot but he wouldn’t look down when he was running. So he would fall and fall but he always kept his eyes straight ahead. He was a wonderful actor to work with.
PH: He had a real look of intensity about him which suited the character perfectly. But it was an interesting casting decision to go with a Japanese actor as there is no mention of the character being Japanese.
BH: I think there must have been some sort of co production deal with Japan because he was a star over there. But I don’t know what the business side of things were on that.
PH: It certainly added a strange sort of twist to the thing. He’s wielding a machete but the soundtrack is obviously Asian in influence. And although he obviously looks Japanese it seems to be suggested that he may be Mexican.
BH: Yeah, his name was Mexican, El Fego I think. He was originally meant to be Mexican.
PH: Well it was a terrific film but one other thing surprises me and that is despite the fact that you’d been in Italy for some time by this point and had made a number of films under your own name you chose to use the name Montgomery Ford for this one. What was behind that?
BH: You know I’ve always regretted that. I really didn’t think the picture was going to do anything anyway and it was just a bit of joking around and then when the picture came out I was stunned because all of a sudden it was a big success and I was stuck with this name, Montgomery Ford, for a three picture deal. So I tried to kill him off but couldn’t. But I only made one more picture with that name and the third one I refused to do it. Because I had people call me from Hollywood saying “You’ve changed your name?” and I’d say “No! Jesus Christ how did you hear that?” Because it wasn’t supposed to be used outside of Italy anyway.
PH: So after Today It’s Me you went on to do another couple of westerns. And you made those with Alberto Cardone. Wrath of God and Kidnapping. How was Cardone to work with and what are your memories of those films?
BH: Wonderful. I just loved working with Cardone. He was great and a director who just made the best of what they gave him. I remember we had one fight scene in Wrath of God that he wanted a crane for but we couldn’t have one so he went round to the local fire station where he’d seen they had one of those extendable ladders and got the camera up on top of the ladder and that was his crane. I was really surprised that he never had a big career.
PH: Now you made your final western with Mario Bava; Roy Colt and Winchester Jack.
BH: That was a fun western. Bava loved comedy. I’d done a comedy with him before (Four Times That Night) And he was so inventive. Such an artist with his camera. And he was such a fun person. I never worked with him of course on his horror pictures but he loved to laugh and was just a pleasure to work with.
PH: But that was your last picture in Italy for a while. What made you go back to the states then?
BH: Well things were changing in Italy then. And my wife at the time (Heidi Bruhl) was offered a big job headlining a show in Vegas so I went with her and we decided to stay a while. I did a lot of Television work. And I didn’t go back until my first picture with Fulci.
PH: So that was in the 80s during something of a renaissance of European genre films. With people like Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci but I guess a very different time to be working there.
BH: Well yes it was quite different because the ex-pat era had pretty well folded. So when I went back to do the Spaghetti Horror pictures as we called them there weren’t many foreigners left and I was working more in the Italian industry than the international industry.
PH: And how was Fulci to work with? He has quite a reputation, and people’s opinions of him and his films are often divided. What was your experience of working with him and as a man?
BH: I got along very well with Fulci. We had a meeting of the minds you might say. Many people found him to be mean and difficult...loud. I can remember one day coming to work and I could hear him yelling and yelling and then he came to me and said “Oh hi Brett, how are you?” and I said “Fine” and the next minute he starts yelling again. And we did one picture together which I like a lot, Touch of Death, which started off as a normal horror picture and wound up being a very black comedy. He gave me a lot of leeway. I got along well with Fulci.
PH: You also did a couple of films with Jess Franco. How was that?
BH: I didn’t really have much to do with Franco. I just turned up to work but I never really got to know him. Nor him me.
PH: And now I know you are back in America and have done a lot of writing. You did some teaching in Costa Rica and so on. But what are you doing these days?
BH: At the moment I’m directing a play here in Los Angeles and I recently finished writing and directing a commercial which was the first time for me. And in the future it’s possible I might be coming to spend some time in London as my wife may be working at the Tate Britain for a while. So we will see.
--Phil H 21:24, 6 December 2009 (UTC)