Cast & Crew
R. G. Armstrong
After serving almost ten years in a rodeo prison for passing a bad check and hitting a sheriff, J. W. Coop finally gains his release. At the door, Warden Morgan, who wants J. W. to remain on his championship rodeo team, warns him to watch his behavior on the outside. J. W. heads for his hometown in Texas, and at his rundown family home discovers that his mother has lost her mind. Believing that J. W. is still young and his father still alive, she treats him with gentle affection. After leaving her some money and briefly stopping by the abandoned rodeo grounds where years earlier he learned his trade, J. W. takes his father's jalopy to a gas station to repair it. There, he sees his old friend Hector, whose brother Chico has risen to wealth as the owner of a taco stand franchise. J. W. contemplates how his town, and the whole country, has become more commercial during his time in prison. When the car is fixed, J. W. heads to the nearest rodeo, where the sheriff he hit ten years earlier watches him carefully. He wins his event and moves on, stopping at a topless bar where he is mesmerized by the stripper's dancing. As he drives on, a motorcycle policeman issues a ticket for the exhaust pouring out of his tailpipe. Although the dimwitted officer believes J. W. will meet him the next morning in municipal court, J. W. abandons the car, takes his saddle and hitchhikes. His first ride is with a pig farmer who complains about hippies and unions, but later confesses that he earned his farming stake as a high-paid unionized machinist. Next, a garrulous diesel driver picks him up and, after lamenting about the Communists and radicals, reveals that his union pays him well enough to afford a sailboat. The driver drops J. W. at the side of the road across from fellow hitchhiker Bean, a young hippie. She attempts to talk to him, and although he initially disdains her and her ilk, when she is picked up, he abandons his route and hops in the truck with the pretty, engaging girl. Along the road, she schools him on the health benefits of soybeans and the attitudes of her generation. When they both stop off at the Woodlake rodeo, J. W. bids Bean goodbye and chats with his old friend, African-American cowboy Myrtis Dightman. After winning several events, J. W. heads to a local bar with Myrtis, whose appearance causes a stir among the racist patrons. In the bathroom, the two cowboys fend off several attackers, then flee before the sheriff can investigate. The next day, Bean finds J. W. and they spend the day together, sharing stories about their pasts. They sleep side-by-side in a field, but the next morning J. W. sends the girl off unceremoniously. He bumps into Big Marge, one of the rough rodeo regulars from his past, who wraps him in a bear hug and drags him into the trailer where the rest of his friends reside. They fill in J. W. about the changed nature of the rodeo world, where big business presides and the young riders now "bail out," or jump off the bucking bulls and broncos, before they can get hurt, amassing points to earn the most money. The hottest new star is "Hot Pistol" Billy Hawkins, who flies his private plane to multiple rodeos a day to rack up as many points as possible so he can score a big payday in the national finals. J. W. scorns this abandonment of old-school ideals and enters the Woodlake rodeo alongside Billy, who sends messages to his broker from the back of a bronco. After Billy wins the events handily, everyone celebrates at a party held by oil-rich buffoon Billy Sol Gibbs. Later, J. W. joins Bean in the field where she sleeps, and at her urging, makes love to her. They spend the next months together traveling the rodeo circuit. J. W. hopes to vie with Billy at the nationals but cannot compete with Billy's ability to attend so many rodeos per day. The affection between J.W. and Bean grows deeper, and as he begins to earn winnings, he rapturously provides them with hotel rooms and dandified clothes. One day, he purchases a battered plane and teaches himself to fly, hoping to follow Billy directly. The first time he beats the younger man, Marge plans a celebration, but J. W. calls home first and learns that his mother has died. Returning briefly to bury her, he recalls his father's death at the local oil refinery. Shaking off his grief, he returns to the circuit, now a star with adoring fans. In their hotel suite, J. W. describes for Bean the ranch he hopes to buy, not noticing that the trappings and accumulation of wealth do not interest her. Soon after, J. W. proposes to Bean, stating that he cannot succeed without her. Demurring that he needs nothing but his own continuing faith in himself, Bean despairs that they want different lives. He is unsurprised but despondent when she leaves him just weeks before the nationals. In the finals, J. W. has a slight lead over Billy when he breaks his leg riding a bull. Afterward, he plans to re-enter the competition, despite the risk to his injured leg, feeling that he has waited ten years for a victory and that coming in second is tantamount to coming in last. Marge urges him to take his winnings and leave, stating that his heartbreak is no excuse for stupidity and that Billy has already dominated all of the events. However, J. W. insists on entering the final event by attempting to stay on the bull reputed to be the toughest ever to ride. To the delight of the crowd, he rides well, holding on to the bull despite his injured leg. When he dismounts, however, the bull charges, goring and trampling him. The critically wounded J. W. is dragged to the side of the arena, clutching his old championship belt.
R. G. Armstrong
Majorie Durant Dye
Mary Robin Redd
Charles W. Knapp
Clyde "cisco" Maye
Nashville Marimba Band
Philip L. Parslow
Philip L. Parslow
The story that grows from this premise is as direct and plain-spoken as J.W. himself. In a sense, it's hardly a story at all just a series of incidents and episodes that director-producer-cowriter Robertson has arranged along a simple narrative line. After leaving prison he visits his crazy old mother, runs into some friends from bygone years, and gets hold of a broken-down car that might hold up long enough for him to enter a few rodeos. Unfortunately, the car turns out to be as uncooperative as the calves he wrestles in the rodeo ring, and when he gets a traffic ticket for emitting too much pollution, it's easier to ditch the vehicle than figure out what the cop is talking about concern about pollution is one of the many things that didn't exist before J.W. went to jail.
Hitchhiking is the same as ever, though, and while he's thumbing rides J.W. meets a hippie girl named Bean who takes a liking to him. Soon they're a couple, and Bean stands by her man as he starts a long, hard return to the heights of the rodeo circuit. Here too J.W. finds a lot of changes he needs to understand and adjust to fast. Ten years ago, guys competed in rodeos for love of the sport, and if you made a living while you were at it, that was icing on the cake. Now everyone thinks about money, money, money, which means scrambling for high scores and nailing down any endorsement deal that moves.
The most successful member of the new breed is Billy Hawkins, a gifted young cowboy who's bought a private plane so he can zoom to more rodeos, contend in more events, and pile up more dollars than his earthbound counterparts. He's basically just a whippersnapper, but his competitors can't help admiring the talent, audacity, and sheer energy that's made him famous. Billy is the man J.W. has to beat, and before long the two are in a neck-in-neck race for top honors. Adjusting to the new style of high-speed competition, J.W. starts earning and acting like a star buying his own plane, growing a bushy mustache, staying in hotel rooms that make up in bad taste what they lack in homey comfort. Can he keep up this pace forever? What if he gets sick, injured, or exhausted? Will the loyal Bean stay by his side or realize that hippies aren't supposed to live this kind of life?
Summarized this way, J.W. Coop sounds like a fast-moving adventure, and many of the rodeo scenes do provide intensive bursts of action you won't forget in a hurry the sight of an average-sized man riding a humongous bull that is not happy about the situation is riveting by any standard, and in slow motion it's even more amazing. Yet the most striking thing about the picture is its focus on character, atmosphere, and mood rather than dramatic events and pulse-pounding suspense. Robertson's faith in the importance and authenticity of his subject recalls the Italian neorealist doctrine that the best way to make powerful cinema is to put the real, everyday world onto the screen with as few distractions and diversions as possible. It would be a stretch to compare Robertson with Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica, but you could almost call J.W. Coop a neorealist film, or maybe a neo-neorealist film. It has that kind of unforced honesty and conviction.
J.W. Coop was released in 1972, when Hollywood was still affected by the explosion of new styles and approaches that started in the late 1960s, producing the innovations and experiments of Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and other adventurous auteurs. J.W. Coop doesn't wear its boldness on its sleeve, but it definitely marches to its own drummer, and it's hard to imagine Robertson getting it made in any other period. This is especially true of the ending, which is so dramatically unexpected and cinematically stunning that any present-day studio would throw the script out the window before taking such an enormous narrative risk.
Robertson spent two years writing J.W. Coop, interviewing rodeo riders as part of his research, and then shot it on locations across the United States including McAlester State Prison in Oklahoma, which holds the real-life event billed as the world's largest rodeo behind prison walls in a quick thirty-five days. The airplane material must have been particularly easy for him, since he's a lifelong amateur pilot. He claimed that he created the screenplay himself and used just isolated bits of dialogue by two writers he hired, but the Writers Guild felt otherwise, ruling that Gary Cartwright and Edwin Shrake should also receive screen credit, which they do.
J.W. Coop features many nonprofessional actors, especially in the scenes filmed at real rodeos with cooperation from the Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the Washington Post reported that about sixty percent of the performers were appearing on screen for the first time. Except for Geraldine Page, who plays J.W.'s mother, the professional actors worked for minimal fees to keep the budget down. Page, who overacts as usual, didn't merit the special treatment, and Marjorie Durant Dye spoils a few scenes as a loud-mouthed rodeo woman, but most of the cast is excellent. Standouts include Cristina Ferrare as Bean and Dennis Reiners as Billy Hawkins, as well as Robertson himself, who is utterly convincing in the dramatic scenes and does some of his own bull riding too. This was clearly a labor of love for him, and his meticulous care makes the movie shine from beginning to end.
Director: Cliff Robertson
Producer: Cliff Robertson
Screenplay: Cliff Robertson, Gary Cartwright, Edwin Shrake
Cinematographer: Frank Stanley
Film Editing: Alex Beaton
Music: Don Randi, Louie Shelton
With: Cliff Robertson (J. W. Coop), Geraldine Page (Mama), Cristina Ferrare (Bean), R.G. Armstrong (Jim Sawyer), R.L. Armstrong (Tooter Watson), John Crawford (Rancher), Marjorie Durant Dye (Big Marge), Paul Harper (Warden Morgan), Bruce Kirby (Diesel Driver), Mary-Robin Redd (Bonnie May)
by David Sterritt
The film's working titles were J. W. Rode Hard and Hung Up Wet, J. W. and J. W. Cooper. The opening credits include the following written statement: "Robertson & Associates acknowledge with deep gratitude the help and cooperation of the Rodeo Cowboys Association and its entire membership." In addition, a list of acknowledgments thanks the various rodeos at which some of the footage was filmed, including Angels Camp, Forum of Inglewood, Madison Square Garden and the McAlister State Prison in Oklahoma. The closing credits also thank several companies, including Marco's restaurant of Los Angeles, Robertson Aircraft Corporation and the Palomino and Chequers Clubs. Philip L. Parslow's credit reads: "Assistant director and unit production manager." During a sequence depicting "J. W. Coop's" attendance on the rodeo circuit, Robertson used a four-way split screen, and the final sequence is silent.
Robertson stated in an October 1971 Daily Variety interview that he worked on the screenplay for two years, after which three studios bid on it. The New York Times review reported that Robertson tape-recorded rodeo riders as research for the screenplay. Army Archerd wrote in a June 1971 column that while Columbia financed the film, Robertson provided the completion bond. The article also stated that the actors, except for Geraldine Page, worked for scale. The film depicts a real-life rodeo prison, a penitentiary in which most of the inmates and workers are rodeo performers. Many reviews noted that the footage shot at real rodeos featured many actors who were non-professionals. "About 60 per cent of the faces in the film had never faced a camera before," according to the Washington Post review, and Robertson did some of the bull riding himself. Filmfacts stated that the production took only thirty-five days and cost $736,000. The picture was shot entirely on location in California, Oklahoma, Texas and New York, as noted in contemporary sources. According to the Box Office review, the role of "Big Marge" was written specifically for Marjorie Durant Dye, who was related to Robertson's then-wife, actress Dina Merrill.
An October 1971 Daily Variety article on the production raised some controversy when Robertson stated that he did not use a unit publicist on JW Coop in order to protect the cast and crew from interruption. In response, Publicist's Guild of America president Henri Bollinger wrote a letter of protest to Daily Variety, which Robertson responded to on November 4, 1971, asserting that he had high respect for publicists but could not have afforded one for JW Coop.
In a December 1971 Hollywood Reporter article, Robertson discussed a dispute he had with co-writers Gary Cartwright and Edwin Shrake (the latter identified as "Bob" in the December 1971 article and as "Bud" in a 1974 Daily Variety news item). After a Writers Guild arbitration ordered Robertson to share equal billing with the writers, he appealed the decision, but the appeal was denied. In the article, Robertson declared that he had hired the writers to write a screenplay from his original idea, but after several drafts, fired them, using only a few "isolated bits" of their dialogue. He called the final film "wholly his creation." In June 1973, as noted in a December 1974 Daily Variety news item, Cartwright and Shrake sued Robertson and Robertson & Associates for $100,000 for monies due them and damages. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
JW Coop was generally well reviewed, with Robertson earning praise for producing, directing, writing and starring in the picture. Although the film was rated PG upon its release, the rating was changed to PG-13 in 1996 when it was released on video. JW Coop marked the third and last film made by Robertson's production company. Although The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was shot before JW Coop, it was released later in 1972.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States on Video July 9, 1996
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States on Video July 9, 1996