powered by AFI
In a 1985 interview with Patrick Milligan, director Martin Ritt was asked to list his favorites of the films he'd directed up to that point in his career. Hud (1963), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979) were hardly surprising inclusions, since those pictures were all critical successes that were nominated for Academy Awards. But at the end of his list, Ritt said, "...and a little picture called Casey's Shadow (1978)."
Casey's Shadow, a quiet character study that stars Walter Matthau as a Louisiana race horse trainer named Lloyd Bourdelle, wasn't panned by critics when it was originally released, but no one was predicting Oscar® glory, and it didn't set the box office on fire. But its simple charms and laid back wit make it an immediately likeable "little picture," that deserved its director's fatherly pride.
Matthau's character is a lazy, beer-drinking trainer of quarter horses whose wife has left him to raise three kids on the family's dilapidated ranch. Lloyd's prospects are suddenly on the upswing, however, when he trains a superlative colt that was being raised by his son, Casey (Michael Hershewe.) Unfortunately, Casey injures the colt by racing it before it's ready to run at top speed, and Lloyd has some soul-searching to do before deciding whether he should enter the horse in the Big Race that he's always wanted to win.
One senses, as the third act of the picture unfolds, that one of the mitigating factors in bringing Casey's Shadow to the big screen was the success of Rocky (1976), which sired its fair share of sports-related underdog movies after its unexpected box office bonanza and Best Picture win at the Oscars®.
Casey's Shadow is based on an April 29, 1974 article in The New Yorker by John McPhee, who received a story credit on the picture, although Carol Sobieski's script is actually inspired by just a few elements of McPhee's article. Ritt also encouraged his actors to improvise before the cameras, as he did on many of his pictures, so the screenwriting credit on Casey's Shadow is even less accurate than it is on most Hollywood productions. (The film's title, by the way, was a stroke a good luck, since other titles Ritt considered were A Horse of a Different Color and, even more inconceivable, The Coon-Ass Colt.)
Ritt, who never wasted much time when he was shooting, filmed Casey's Shadow in a relatively swift 51 days, for the most part in the Riudoso, New Mexico area. In addition, Ritt was careful not to over-work Matthau during the production because the actor was recovering from a recent heart attack.
Matthau's poor health may also account for the miniscule amount of preparation he put into the role of Lloyd Bourdelle - he once claimed in an interview that all he did was listen to Cajun music in order to perfect Lloyd's Creole accent! The idea of being around horses was nothing new to Matthau, though. It was well known in movie circles that he was a chronic gambler who had spent more than his fair share of time and money - at the race tracks. He'd been preparing for that part of the story for most of his adult life.
Director: Martin Ritt
Executive Producer: Michael Levee
Producer: Ray Stark
Screenplay: Carol Sobieski (based on a story by John McPhee)
Cinematographer: John A. Alonzo
Editor: Sidney Levin
Music: Patrick Williams
Production Design: Robert Luthardt
Set Decoration: Charles Pierce
Costume Design: Moss Mabry
Cast: Walter Matthau (Lloyd Bourdelle), Alexis Smith (Sarah Blue), Robert Webber (Mike Marsh), Murray Hamilton (Tom Patterson), Andrew A. Rubin (Buddy Bourdelle), Steve Burns (Randy Bourdelle), Susan Myers (Kelly Marsh), Michael Hershewe (Casey Bourdelle), Harry Caesar (Calvin Lebec), Whitt Bissell (Dr. Williamson).
by Paul Tatara