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For the better part of his career, Burt Lancaster was an especially robust physical specimen. John Wayne may have seemed like he could crush you with a calloused thumb, but Lancaster, who was also an accomplished acrobat, had the build of a world-class athlete. It must have been difficult for such a performer to finally admit that he was getting old, but Lancaster did just that in Valdez Is Coming (1971), a densely plotted Western that's brimming over with vibrant performances. The script's rather antiquated moralizing -- remember, hip "movie brats" had already begun to seize control of Hollywood by 1971 -- can't hide the fact that this is a first-rate crew of actors wringing every bit of emotion they can out of what was fast becoming an extinct genre.
Lancaster stars as Bob Valdez, an aging, scrupulously honest Mexican-American Marshall who's coerced into killing a black man who's falsely accused of murder. In a symbolic move worthy of a Sergio Leone character, Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), the wealthy rancher who manipulated Valdez, ties a cross on Valdez's back and leaves him to wander the desert, hoping he'll die out there. Valdez escapes this situation, however, then kidnaps Tanner's mistress (Susan Clark) and seeks bloody revenge. You better stay focused while you watch this - there are enough twists and turns for three less-ambitious movies.
In 1967, when producer Ira Steiner acquired the rights to Elmore Leonard's novel, Valdez Is Coming, he immediately sent a copy to Lancaster. Lancaster was so impressed with Leonard's storyline, he agreed to co-produce the picture with Steiner. Lancaster initially intended to play the evil Tanner, with Marlon Brando playing Valdez. Sydney Pollack was set to direct, and David Rayfiel began work on the script. But that would all change.
Lancaster put the project on hold in November of 1968, in order to appear in George Seaton's blockbuster, Airport (1970). When he returned to Valdez, his original collaborators were no longer available. This time, Lancaster opted to play Valdez, and recruited Roland Kibbee to re-write the part to fit him. (In a nutty twist, Rayfiel would end up receiving co-screenwriting credit, even though he insisted that nothing he wrote appeared on the screen!) Lancaster's boldest move, however, was the hiring of Ed Sherin to helm the picture. Sherin had never directed a film before, but he had received raves for his staging of The Great White Hope on Broadway. In Gary Fishgall's biography of Lancaster, Against Type, Susan Clark suggests that Lancaster hired Sherin "because he wanted a fresh look," and that he wanted to see "how a big Broadway director would deal with actors and who he would choose." This, as much as anything Lancaster did as producer, is how Valdez Is Coming wound up containing so many superior performances. Richard Jordan, Jon Cypher, and Hector Elizondo all made their debuts in the film, with Cypher winning the plumb role of Frank Tanner.
In Fishgall's book, Cypher notes that Lancaster, who had recently appeared in three pictures that tanked at the box office, wasn't even sure if he could scrounge up $6 million to finance Valdez Is Coming. "My sense of Burt," he says, "was that he was a fallen king...he had stumbled, and there was a certain sadness about him." Still, Lancaster was open enough to give the young actor important tips on the differences between performing on stage and on the screen. "I think it was very generous of him to take me under his wing like that," he said.
It wasn't all roses, however. "I love him," Lancaster said of Sherin during filming, "but as in all good love affairs, there is an element of hate too." Sherin took it even a step further, saying "We often had arguments on the top floor of the Grand Hotel in Almeria where the whole hotel shook...they were head-to-head arguments, and at some points I thought he was going to lift me up and throw me out the window." Lancaster may have been displaying a little bit of a paunch by this point, but it was important for Sherin to note that he still had those biceps.
Producer: Ira Steiner
Director: Edwin Sherin
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee, David Rayfiel (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard)
Cinematography: Gabor Pogany
Editor: James T. Heckert
Music: Charles Gross
Art Design: Jose Maria Tapiador, Jose Maria Alarcon
Special Effects: Chuck Gaspar, Linc Kibbee
Set Design: Rafael Salazar
Stunts: Allan Wyatt
Costume Design: Lewis Brown
Makeup: Mariano Garcia Rey, Alberto Gutierrez
Principal Cast: Burt Lancaster (Bob Valdez), Susan Clark (Gay Erin), Jon Cypher (Frank Tanner), Barton Heyman (El Segundo), Richard Jordan (R.L. Davis), Frank Silvera (Diego), Hector Elizondo (Mexican Rider), Phil Brown (Malson), Ralph Brown (Beaudry), Juanita Penaloza (Apache Woman), Lex Monson (Rincon), Roberta Haynes (Polly), Maria Montez (Anita), Marta Tuch (Rosa), Jose Garcia (Carlos).
by Paul Tatara