OLD COWBOYS NEVER DIE
FILM FESTIVAL RETURNS TO ITS ROOTS WITH CELEBRATION OF CLASSIC TV WESTERNS
IN A STILL-ACTIVE career that so far has spanned more than half a century, actor John Saxon has traded kicks with Bruce Lee, arm-wrestled Marlon Brando, battled Freddy Krueger and smooched Sandra Dee. Bruce Lee left the biggest impression — of his foot. Saxon, 74, a guest at this year’s Memphis Film Festival, an annual celebration of classic cinema and vintage television, met the late martial arts action hero for the first time when he arrived in Hong Kong to begin shooting “Enter the Dragon” (1973), the movie that made Lee a superstar in the West as well as the East.
“I went to his home and he opened the door, and I walked in,” Saxon said. “I had done karate for several years before that, but I was no longer that much interested in karate. He said, ‘Let me see how you do your side kick,’ so I did it in the rather simple way that I had. He said, ‘Let me show you how I do it,’ and he handed me a shield to hold, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.’
“He was kind of putting me in my place. And he stood back, I would say a good 8 or 10 feet, and lunged and belted that shield and knocked me clear across the room and into a chair, which broke. He wasn’t concerned with my being hurt, but he said nobody had ever broken that chair before. Apparently he had done this many times. He was more concerned about the chair than me. He said, ‘That’s my favorite chair!’ ”
A Memphis tradition for almost 40 years, the Memphis Film Festival begins Thursday and continues through June 4 at the Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch.
Although the almost two dozen actors and actresses coming to town for the event have appeared in all types of films, this year’s festival is subtitled “A Gathering of Guns 3 — A TV Western Reunion,” signifying that the festival’s return to its rootin’-tootin’-sixgunshootin’ roots may be permanent.
The Memphis Film Festival traces its origins to the 1972 Western Film Festival, organized by cowboy-movie fans and held at The Peabody.
As the festival grew and became an annual event, it changed its name and eventually expanded its focus to “golden era” movies and TV in general.
Unfortunately, young people who watched reruns of “The Fly” on television weren’t necessarily motivated to come see star David Hedison in person. Declining attendance caused festival organizers to take a gamble. With the assistance of Boyd Magers of Albuquerque, publisher of the bimonthly newsletter Western Clippings, (visit westernclippings.com), the festival decided in 2009 to re-dedicate itself to the genre its organizers love best, the Western, with an emphasis on the heyday of the TV “oater,” from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.
As former festival guest Lash LaRue might have cracked, that was a whip-smart idea. Attendance boomed, and the festival has been revitalized. Hundreds of attendees are expected this year, from “all over the U.S. and Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and so on,” said longtime festival chairman Ray Nielsen.
“It has been a dramatic turnaround for us,” he said. “The most surprising thing has been the number of women we’ve been drawing lately. In the old days, it was mostly all men. Now, with these TV Western stars, our audience has almost become predominantly female, believe it or not.”
Apparently, women who weren’t addicted to the B-movie Westerns celebrated in the early days of the