Veteran character actor L.Q. Jones will be the first to tell you that it takes luck – not talent – to launch a career in Hollywood. For him, it was a lot of luck – with a little help from Fess Parker, an old convertible Model T, a primitive hand-drawn map to Warner Bros., a distracted security guard and one blonde wearing “the tightest sweater you’ve ever seen” – that contributed to his big break.
On paper, that sounds like the rough plotline of a Quentin Tarantino film. But for L.Q. Jones, it was the beginning of a fascinating journey – one that saw the final days of the studio era and the beginnings of a new medium called television. It was during the former he would meet a young director, who upon their first meeting bragged that he was going to be big: “yeah right,” Jones thought at the time. Of course, that director’s name was Sam Peckinpah and we all know now that he was right.
Jones was in the right place at the right time – a common theme throughout his life or perhaps in his case, a certain level of destiny went into it, too. And while “luck” may have been what kickstarted his near six-decade career, it’s not what has sustained it.
At 91, he’s amassed a resume that includes hundreds of films and television appearances and in the process has acted alongside some of the industry’s best: Joel McCrea, William Holden, Jason Robards, Anthony Hopkins and Robert DeNiro. That should also be an indication how long he has been at it.
For me, luck also played a role in how I recently tracked him down. Brief backstory: I had met him once years earlier at a celebrity rodeo that brought a bunch of western character actors together for a panel discussion. Me being 16 at the time, only knew who he was in theory and as a result had never fully gotten over my squandered opportunity to talk to one of the best about a bygone era that I now love.
When I spoke with him, I found him to be exactly what you would imagine: extremely personable, with a dry wit that, believe it or not, makes him more charming in real life than on screen. As our phone conversation ensued, we got the formalities out of the way quickly.
“Don’t call me Mr. Jones,” he said. “I feel like you’re trying to get money out of me.”
And with that, he and I were off on a near two-hour discussion about the early days of his career, his affiliation with Sam Peckinpah and his brief venture as a director (“It’s too much work,” he would later say about it.)
“It was by accident that [Fess Parker] got into it and on purpose that I did.”
Jones – who was born Justice Ellis McQueen in Beaumont, Texas – first came to Hollywood at the encouragement of his old college roommate, Fess Parker. During their time at the University of Texas in Austin, Parker had been tasked drive around character actor Adolphe Menjou, who was in town for a performance.
“When we were at school, Fess had a Model T convertible that was just one of the most beautiful things in the world and he kept it up in such shape that it was always running super and looked great… [the university] asked Fess if he could pick [Menjou] up in the car and drive him around for the couple of days he was in Austin.”
Parker must have made an impression. Menjou encouraged him to move to Los Angeles and even told him to look him up once he got there. Again, it was “just one of those lucky things that came out right,” Jones said.
While Parker moved west to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, Jones moved to Nicaragua to run a ranch. About a year later, when Parker was being considered for a role in the film “Battle Cry,” he called up his old friend, who was back in the States for Christmas.
“He said there’s a part in it you’d be perfect for and I said ‘oh yeah, you bet…’ so, I went back to Nicaragua and a few months later, Fess sent me a copy of a book called ‘Battle Cry’ and it was for the part of L.Q. Jones. So I said that he was right, so I came up.”
From there, Jones met up with Parker and his roommates and the group immediately began plotting on how to get the aspiring actor a meeting with Warner Bros. – even going as far to draw him a map to the studio on a piece of paper taken from a freshly-laundered shirt.
“And they’re doing it with a giggle because it’s not going to work but ‘what the hell,’ they thought they’d give it a shot.”
Still, he recognizes the serendipity – or pure luck – of just how it all played out.
“Don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s talent – it’s luck that gets you started in the business. And mine kicked in right the instant I started walking up to the gate because I followed the directions on the map and I finally found it. And now I’m walking up to the gate and at that time, they had one guard at the bungalow, and he would check you both in and out. I’m walking up and he’s coming over to check with me and see who I might have an appointment with, if I don’t have an appointment I’m not getting by, and just when I got to him, a little blonde with the tightest blouse you’ve ever seen in your life walked out. Guess where his eyes were? And he punched me on through and I went in.”
Not only did he get past the front gate, he went from speaking with a producer to coming face to face with the film’s director, Raoul Walsh.
What he encountered was a “partially bald man, who was chewing on the end of a dirty handkerchief, while the other end is stuck in the hole where his eye should be… he looks at me, I look at him and we stared at each other for a good 10 minutes. I wasn’t about to say anything and Raoul said ‘can you say a lot of words’ and I said ‘oh hell yes’ and he said ‘fine give him a test.’”
For his screentest with Walsh – a veteran director whom Jones says kept Warner Bros. alive for probably 10 years – screenwriter Burt Kennedy, who was a friend of Parker’s, rewrote the dialog. Not only did he end up getting the part, he also got a newly-acquired stage name in the process – L.Q. Jones.
Still the studio had its doubts, fearing the inexperienced Jones would get on location and not be able to deliver his lines. But for whatever reason, the veteran director stuck his neck out for Jones – an actor he’d just met, who’d never even had a speaking part on film.
“God knows why he ever said it, but Raoul said, ‘if the kid doesn’t do the part, you can get another director’ and that was the end of that,” Jones said.
In his first two days in Hollywood, Justice Ellis McQueen – soon to be L.Q. Jones – had landed himself a role in a major studio film.
“The luck keeps going on…”
Jones soon found himself on location for “Battle Cry.” He’d nailed his screentest, thanks in part to screenwriter Burt Kennedy, who’d written the material for his audition – but Kennedy had one request: for Jones not to reveal to anyone that he’d written the part.
“Don’t tell anyone I wrote that scene, you tell them you wrote it yourself because I could really get in a bunch of trouble if people know that.”
Once they got on set, Walsh told him he didn’t like the scene the way it was written and asked his young actor to rewrite it since he’d written the initial test scene. Knowing that he had no other choice, Jones went home that night and wrote it.
“What am I going to do? We got three people in the landing craft that have won Academy Awards and he took my writing, which I did that night, printed it up and handed it out to them in the morning and said ‘the kid didn’t like the way the scene was written, he did it for us again,’” Jones said. “And that’s the way I got my first scene and he loved it. And as we went along, the luck kept kicking in. The Old Man was just smiling on me.”
“Battle Cry” ended up being a success for Jones in more ways than one. After the film wrapped, Walsh recommended him to other directors and producers, which naturally opened more doors for him. By the end of his second year in Hollywood, Jones said he’d made 15 or 20 movies – but for him, it came at a marginal cost.
“I think that [Walsh’s influence] hurt me in the long run because everything was so easy to me, I didn’t learn to fight that hard. Luckily, I didn’t have to,” he said.
For his second film, “An Annapolis Story” (1955), he found himself working with director Don Siegel, who would of course go on to direct Clint Eastwood in such film as “Dirty Harry,” “Two Mules for Sister Sarah” and “Escape from Alcatraz.” One of the crew members helping Siegel on the film – and billed as a dialog coach – was Sam Peckinpah.
“Sam said, ‘look kid, I like what you do I’m gonna be big in this biz and we’ll work together again. I said, ‘oh yeah sure, you bet’ that was the last I’d heard of him until I got a call from a guy for ‘Ride the High Country’ and it was Peckinpah and so I was in like Flynn.”
“You gotta be crazy to work with Sam…”
Jones made his first of several films with Peckinpah with 1962’s “Ride the High Country.” It’s a sprawling film, headed by Western veterans Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, and featured actors who would become a part of the director’s usual cast of characters: Jones, Warren Oates and R.G. Armstrong.
“Most people after one show give it up and can’t take it anymore. I did 13 deals with Sam so you can see where it puts me. You gotta be a nut but I liked him because he is so good at what he does. He’s going to make you look good. He can’t help it and a lot of people think it was easy for Sam, but it wasn’t easy for Sam.”
Peckinpah injected more than just life into the dying genre – he gave it an identity in ways that no one had really done since John Ford made “Stagecoach.” But Jones says it was Peckinpah’s astute attention to detail that made him so great. If you fired a gun on screen, you had to look the part. You had to feel the kick from the weapon and sell it. Otherwise, it doesn’t work and lacks authenticity.
His next project with Peckinpah, “Major Dundee,” was plagued with problems from the get-go and solidified the director’s difficult reputation in Hollywood.
For a major fight scene, the crew built a large structure several feet high in the water and placed it on dolly track so Peckinpah could ride back and forth to cover the shot. During one take, Jones said he, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates found another way to get the shot that Peckinpah hadn’t told them they could do – evoking the director’s notorious ire.
“When [Peckinpah] finally called for a cut, we started back and he called us every name in the book. I’m telling you would make a sailor blush. He just went ape and I got serious by the time I got to that structure and Sam was still going on and again, it’s like eight or 10 feet above the water level. I ride up, I can’t get at him so I stand up on my horse and start climbing up the ladder so I can beat his brains out and I told Peckinpah he ‘didn’t have enough talent to direct me to the men’s room’ and we became good friends after that. Because if you back off from Sam, he’ll kill you. You’ve got to push him the whole way.”
This pattern of behavior continued when Peckinpah made “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” an allegorical tale set against the backdrop of the dying West. Jason Robards plays Hogue, a prospector who’s been abandoned and left to die by his partners, played by Jones and Strother Martin. “Hogue” was a major shift for Peckinpah, who’d just directed “The Wild Bunch.” Part comedy, part love story, and part fable, the film had been given a tight budget from Warner Bros. and couldn’t catch a break.
Heavy rains put the film weeks behind schedule – so much so that the cast and crew racked up a $70,000 bar bill at their hotel. By this time, Peckinpah’s behavior had also become more erratic. So much so that Jones estimates he fired roughly 60 percent of his cast and crew during production. There was such heavy turnaround that they kept a limo on set to take people to and from the nearest airport.
Jones says he himself was fired five times in one day – and quit at least once. But Peckinpah had a system and for a time, it worked for him.
“For at least the first three days, Sam would have it so that nobody spoke to anybody else except him. Actors couldn’t stand the crew, the crew couldn’t stand the cooks, the cooks hated the chauffeurs. Everything. Sam maneuvered it and that’s the way it worked and then after the third day he would start putting it back together but with Peckinpah as the head man so now everybody is working the best they can to help Sam get the picture done. He did that fine because when he was a young man [because] he had plenty of strength. As he got older, he could take it apart, but he couldn’t put it back together again.”
This really became evident three years later on “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Years of hard living had taken a toll on Peckinpah’s health – so much so that Jones, who arrived on set several weeks into shooting, said he “looked like death warmed over.”
“Pat Garrett” is perhaps the last truly great film Peckinpah ever made and Jones played an integral role in one of the finest scenes of the director’s career.
After Garrett – James Coburn – has been enlisted to help take down William Bonney, he starts rounding up some of the old gang, including Black Harris, whom Jones plays. Garrett shows up at their hideout with Sheriff Baker and his wife – played by Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado – and a shoot out ensues. Baker is mortally wounded by Black Harris, who in turn is shot by Garrett. What transpires next is one of the most moving death scenes ever captured on film and shows the depth of both Pickens and Jurado under Peckinpah’s detailed direction.
“…. [it] was marvelous to watch [Pickens] do it. He really was good. So was Katy, she was excellent and Jimmy [Coburn] and myself, we just fed it and let them get started for what they were doing.”
“Pat Garrett” would be their last major collaboration before Peckinpah’s death in 1984 at age 59.
“I’d rather work than eat…”
As the 70s progressed, Jones continued acting in guest-starring roles on TV shows like “Gunsmoke,” “Kung Fu,” and “Charlie’s Angels” and had roles in minor films. Years earlier he’d acquired the rights to Harlan Ellison’s novella “A Boy and His Dog,” which he would write and direct. Released in 1975, the film has since become and cult classic and one of the finer examples on how to spin a post-apocalyptic yarn.
The film also marked one of the first major roles for a young Don Johnson and reunited him with his “Cable Hogue” co-star Jason Robards, who stepped in when the original actor cast in the role fell ill.
His next directing project came in 1980 with an episode of “The Incredible Hulk,” which starred his friend, Bill Bixby. The episode, titled “On the Line,” also allowed him to prove his directing chops by nabbing a daunting 28 pages in one take.
Jones acknowledges the guts it required to even attempt such a feat, saying it was a marvel to watch it work.
To cover the shot, he used a three-camera set up and gave each cameraman one page to work with. He continued the process until they got through it, with him standing behind them orchestrating the whole piece. It flowed much like a pavane – covering long shots, close ups, over the shoulder shots – Jones says they got everything.
After it was over and they’d nailed the take, Jones says all the actors stopped and applauded the crew.
“We did things that normally Peckinpah wouldn’t do but I planned them so thoroughly that [producers] couldn’t complain about the price. It just worked.”
Although Jones hasn’t made a film since 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” he insists he’s not retired – he just hasn’t found the right project yet. Jones says his agent keeps getting scripts but they’re not up to par, which isn’t surprising considering what Hollywood is churning out these days.
But he’s not ready to quit.
“I’m independently poor. I can do what I want to do so we keep looking and if something comes along, we’ll grab it.”
As to his career as a whole, his acting credits extend into the hundreds – a longevity to which many can only aspire. Out of all those film/TV show appearances, it seems impossible for him to have a favorite but that didn’t stop me from inquiring about it.
“The next one I shoot will be my favorite… I’ve been lucky to have a bunch of the good ones and been lucky to work with a lot of really talented people so it’s just great fun.”
It sure has been, L.Q. Thanks a million.