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Some contemporary sources refer to the film as The Skin Game, although the onscreen credits list the title without the initial article. As the film opens, immediately after the Warner Bros. logo, a title card reading "Missouri, 1857" appears, followed by the opening credits, which roll over a sequence in which James Garner approaches the small town of Dirty Shame on horseback, leading Lou Gossett, who is on foot, by a tether.
According to information in news items, in 1964, Universal Pictures bought Richard Alan Simmons' original story "Skin Game." From 1966 through 1969, Hollywood trade papers reported that the screenplay was being written by Peter Stone, and co-produced by Stone with Harry Keller. In early 1970, Burt Kennedy was announced as the film's director, and according to a April 28, 1970 Daily Variety news item, Warner Bros. had acquired the property and planned to produce the picture with Garner's Cherokee Company. As a Warner Bros. press release noted, the venture marked the first time that Garner had returned to work on the Warner Bros. lot in more than ten years.
In the late 1950s, Garner had been under contract to the studio, which produced the successful television series Maverick, which starred Garner and launched his film career. Skin Game became part of a production deal between Warner Bros. and Garner that included a projected television series in which he would star. The series, titled Nichols, ran on the NBC television network from September 1971-August 1972. Executive producer Meta Rosenberg had, for many years prior to becoming a producer, been Garner's agent.
According to Warner Bros. press releases and news items, in March 1971, director Paul Bogart was replaced by Gordon Douglas for approximately two to three weeks after Bogart contracted hepatitis. Prior to the film's release, Stone, who did not receive screen credit, requested that his name be taken off the credits because, as he stated later in a letter to the editor of New York magazine, "I no longer consider it based upon my screenplay...[it] was rewritten by a second writer who did not receive credit, on orders of the star-who is also the film's producer-thereby altering the theme, the plot and, most important, the characters." The letter was written in response to the review of the film by New York's film critic, Judith Crist, who noted in her review that Stone had written the screenplay under the pseudonym Pierre Marton [which Stone had previously used for his contribution to the 1966 film Arabesque] and criticized his work. Stone took exception to the criticism and accused Crist of blaming his work on the film, instead of those he thought responsible. According to Filmfacts, the "second writer" to whom Stone referred in his letter was possibly John L. Goddard, who was credited as a contributing writer in studio production files.
As depicted in the film, in 1857, citizens of the Kansas Territory were embroiled in the issue of whether the territory should enter the Union as a Free State or a Slave State. Although Kansas eventually was admitted as a Free State, for many years, both before and after its admission, it became known as "Bleeding Kansas" because it was the site of violent clashes between those supporting and opposing slavery. Militant abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), who is portrayed by Royal Dano in the film, led or authorized many raids throughout Kansas in the 1850s, some of which resulted in the deaths. Brown has been portrayed in many other films. For additional information about him, please consult the entry above for the 1940 Warner Bros. film Santa Fe Trail.
As reported in an undated, but contemporary, Hollywood Reporter news item found in the production file on the film in the AMPAS Library, Elbert T. Hudson, president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP, sent letters to Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), as well as to Warner Bros. executive producer Paul Heller and Cherokee executive producer Harry Keller to protest the "painting down" of white stuntmen for Gossett. The term referred to a practice of using makeup to make white performers appear black. No additional news items about the protest have been located.
According to publicity materials on the film, Skin Game was heralded by Warner Bros. as their 1,500th motion picture. A 90-minute television movie entitled Sidekicks, directed by Burt Kennedy and based on the movie Skin Game, was broadcast in March 1974, starring Larry Hagman as "Quince Drew" and Gossett (by then known as Louis Gossett, Jr.), who revived his role as "Jason O'Rourke." Unlike the feature film, the television movie was set after the Civil War. According to a March 21, 1974 Hollywood Reporter news item, the television movie was intended as a pilot for a proposed series; however, the series was not made.