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The idea for a film about Woody Guthrie, America's great folk singer, poet, and author, had been kicking around Hollywood for years. In fact, cinematographer Haskell Wexler had been a first choice to direct the film version of Guthrie's 1943 autobiography, Bound For Glory. He had known Guthrie personally from their merchant seamen days together. While researching the project, he even met with Woody's widow, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and others who had known the singer well. But eventually Wexler bowed out of the project because of an unsatisfactory script. It wasn't until Hal Ashby agreed to direct it that the project began to take shape. Wexler, who knew Ashby when the latter was an editor on In the Heat of the Night (1967), was hired back on the production of Bound For Glory (1976) as cinematographer. The next biggest challenge was the casting.
Woody Guthrie was a short, wiry man and the script focused on a period of his life (1936-1940) when he was in his early twenties. You would think those specific details would eliminate some of the contenders for the lead role but the list of possible actors approached or considered for the part was a mixture of the inspired and the improbable. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Robert DeNiro were all seriously considered. So were a lot of singers like Arlo Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Art Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, and Tim Buckley who was rumored to have an inside track on the role but died of a drug overdose two months prior to production. Bob Dylan, one of Woody's proteges, was sent a script but refused the part, offering to direct the film instead. Yet, no one could have foreseen that David Carradine, best known for the TV series, Kung Fu (1972-75), would eventually win the role after a second audition. Ashby later said of Carradine, "He had the right rural look and the musicianship. And he had a 'to...hell...with...you...attitude'. I wanted that attitude, but it did cause me some problems."
Due to the noncommercial nature of the film, Bound For Glory was a costly and risky venture for United Artists. Not only was it a directorial challenge (some scenes required the careful manipulation of 900 extras and 125 crew members), but the script also presented a portrait of Guthrie that wasn't romanticized. He was an unpredictable personality, often callously abandoning his wife and family for the road where he would champion the rights of the downtrodden masses. He also had a Messianic streak and could be seduced by the trappings of fame. It is this approach to Guthrie's character that makes Bound For Glory an untraditional biography in the Hollywood sense. It is also one of the most beautifully photographed films of the seventies and deservedly won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1976. It also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Costume Design.
Director: Hal Ashby
Producer: Robert F. Blumofe, Harold Leventhal, Jeffrey M. Sneller
Screenplay: Robert Getchell, based on the book by Woody Guthrie
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Editor: Pembroke J. Herring, Robert C. Jones
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: David Carradine (Woody Guthrie), Ronny Cox (Ozark Bule), Melinda Dillon (Mary/Memphis Sue), Gail Strickland (Pauline), John Lehne (Locke), Randy Quaid (Luther Johnson).
by Jeff Stafford