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A working title of the film was Law and Order. After the company's opening credit, a map of Texas appears on the screen and the camera zooms in to an area of the map showing the "Rio Pecos." The map is followed by a written statement, claiming that the Pecos River marked the boundaries of law and order at the turn of the century, beyond which there were "only bad men and rattlesnakes." The second of two cards reads: "Maybe this isn't the way it was...it's the way it should have been." Although the online copyright record lists Coleytown Productions, Inc., as the claimant, the opening credits contains a 1972 copyright statement reading: "Coleytown Productions, Inc., and The First Artists Production Company, Ltd. and National General Pictures Corporation."
The opening sequence begins with Paul Newman's before the title credit. Preceded by the statement "Guest Stars in Alphabetical Order," eight of the stars' opening credits appear one at a time, without character names, except for the last card, which reads, "And Ava Gardner as Lily Langtry." Except for Gardner and Roddy McDowall (Frank Gass), the eight actors appeared in only one episode of "Roy Bean's" life. Gardner's image is shown throughout the film in photographs, until the final sequence, showing the character's visit to the museum. McDowall's character appears significantly throughout the last half of the film. Also appearing in a cameo role, portraying "Grizzly Adams," is director John Huston.
Seven actors, who are presented as "co-starring" in the film, are listed together on the next card. The list ends with "and participation by Michael Sarrazin." Sarrazin appears only in a photograph as "Rose Bean's" aviator husband. Following Sarrazin's name is a credit reading, "introducing Victoria Principal." The film marked Principal's feature film debut. The ending credits, which appear in a different order and omit Sarrazin, provide each character's name.
A black-and-white photo montage depicts the "marshals" arresting several outlaws. As the song "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" is heard on the soundtrack, a film montage shows Roy Bean, "Marie Elena" and the bear picnicking. Occasionally, black-and-white photographs turn into color shots, introducing a scene. The film contains instances of fantasy, such as the killing of outlaw "Bad Bob," whose gunshot wound leaves a hole through his body large enough to see through. Onscreen and offscreen narration, often used to bridge time gaps in the story, is supplied by characters "Reverend LaSalle," "Sam Dodd," "Frank Gass" and "Tector Crites," portrayed by Anthony Perkins, Tab Hunter, McDowall and Ned Beatty, respectively. Often, the narrations are spoken directly into the camera addressing the audience and occasionally reporting information from beyond the grave.
Although, according to studio production notes, Huston did not commit to an accurate portrayal of Roy Bean's life, many of the events in the film are based on actual incidents or on the legends and myths that surround him. The real-life Bean (ca. 1825-1903) was born in Kentucky and, at the age of fifteen, followed his older brothers west. After many adventures, he settled in Texas with his much younger Mexican wife and had several children. Unlike the film, in which Bean declared himself judge, he was appointed, and later elected to the position of Justice of the Peace and served in various districts between 1882 and 1902. Bean kept a saloon in Vinegaroon and, later, Langtry.
Although the town of Langtry was named for a railroad man, Bean, a teller of tall tales, claimed it was named for the Jersey-born British actress, Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), with whom he was infatuated. In the film, Langtry's first name is spelled as "Lily" in the onscreen credits for Ava Gardner. As shown in the film, Bean hung Langtry's picture behind his bar and named his saloon, "The Jersey Lilly," a misspelling of Langtry's nickname, which was derived from her place of birth, Jersey in the Channel Islands. According to modern sources, there is a legend that the sign painter mistakenly added the second "L" in Lilly.
From the saloon, which doubled as a courthouse, Bean dispensed an arbitrary kind of justice. As there was no jail, criminals were punished with fines, which Bean kept for himself, and he is said to have shortchanged his saloon customers and fined them for the amount if they complained. Despite his reputation for hanging, modern sources state that the real Bean May never have hanged anyone. As depicted in the film, a man was brought before him for killing a Chinese worker, but unlike the film, Bean acquitted the man because his law book, an 1879 Revised Statutes of Texas to which he often referred, did not specifically mention "Chinamen." Adjacent to his saloon Bean kept a menagerie of animals, including a beer-drinking black bear, which was chained to the porch and to whom some offenders were tied just out of its reach. In 1898, The Jersey Lilly burned down, but Bean replaced it with a smaller building, which is now a Texas landmark and museum.
Bean's exploits, real and fabricated, which were written about in newspapers and dime novels, brought him fame within his own lifetime. As shown in the film, Bean corresponded with Langtry, although they never met. He did see her perform in A Wife's Peril in San Antonio, but did not try to meet her. In 1903, Bean died in his sleep after a drinking binge. Several months after his death, the actress stopped in Langtry to meet Bean and, similar to what is portrayed in the film, was at some point given one of his guns, which she bequeathed to the Jersey Museum in Great Britain. Although Bean had the reputation of a "rascal," history has credited him with bringing law and order to an otherwise lawless area and he is part of the legends and lore of the Great American West.
In August 1971, a Daily Variety news item reported that actor Paul Newman was developing a project, titled Law and Order, which was written by John Milius. The news item stated that the production company would either be Coleytown Productions, Inc., First Artists Productions or Newman-Foreman Company, Inc., all of which Newman partly owned. According to August 1971 Variety and Daily Variety news items, Mike Medavoy served as agent for the film. August 1971 Variety and Daily Variety news items also stated that Richard Lederer originally worked on the project with Milius, although his contribution to the final film has not been confirmed.
According to Filmfacts, the film was shot entirely in the vicinity of Tucson, AZ. Most of the filming, according to the studio production notes, occurred in Happy Valley, forty miles east of Tucson. According to studio production notes, the main set of the town was changed "almost daily" to depict how the town grew, adding buildings and, eventually, oil rigs. According to the Variety review, the cost of the fire sequence brought the project $1,000,000 over budget. Although some Hollywood Reporter production charts list Jessica Tandy in the cast, she did not appear in the final film. Modern sources add Mark Headley (Billy the Kid), Rusty Lee (Tuba player) and Duncan Inches to the cast.
A January 1973 Daily Variety news item reported that The Dick Cavett Show aired a tribute to the movie industry on January 22, 1973, which honored Newman, Huston, producer John Foreman and the film. The Los Angeles Times review praised The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean as "one of the best of the current cycle of so-called `revisionist' westerns." The song "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. As reported in February 1973 Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and Variety news items, the distribution company National General Pictures filed suit against General Cinema Corp., after the latter terminated an exclusive run engagement at the Crest Theater in Westwood one month before the film's March 14, 1973 general Los Angeles release. The outcome of this suit has not been determined.
In 1940, Walter Brennan portrayed Judge Roy Bean in the United Artists production The Westerner (see below), starring Gary Cooper, which was directed by William Wyler and featured Lillian Bond as Lillie Langtry. In 1956, a television series, Judge Roy Bean, starred Edgar Buchanan in the title role. In 1995, Ned Beatty, who portrayed "Tector Crites," was cast as Roy Bean in Streets of Laredo, a television mini-series airing on CBS that was based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. The character of Lillie Langtry has appeared in several films and television episodes, most notably two British mini-series in which Francesca Annis portrayed the actress, the 1978 Lillie and the 1975 Edward the King. The real Lillie Langtry appeared in one film, Famous Players' 1913 two-reeler, His Neighbor's Wife, which was directed by Edwin S. Porter. John "Grizzly" Adams (1812-1860) was an actual fur trapper, whose training of bears for zoos and private collectors made him an American legend. His story has been fictionalized on television and in several movies, the first of which was the 1974 feature film The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, which starred Dan Haggerty in the title role and was directed by Richard Friedenberg.