"We're gathered here to say a few words about our friend Jim King. We called him Waxer. I'd just like to say that… he was a good surfer… and a really great guy. He had a nice cutback. He rode the nose real well. He was kind of screwed up the way he treated women, but he always got the one he wanted. So it doesn't matter anyway because he was a good guy all the way around. He'd always give people waves. Just give them a wave. He'd always stick up for his friends in a fight. He wasn't worth a damn but he was always right in there. I don't ever remember a big day that Waxer wouldn't go out and ride with his friends. Old Waxer was our friend. He was a little part of us. And we're gonna miss him."
Darrell Fetty appeared in two John Milius classics: "Big Wednesday" (as Jim "Waxer" King) and "The Wind and the Lion", acted in many other films and TV shows, and is a musician, screenwriter, and producer.
When did you decide to go from music into acting?
I was always singing when I was growing up. At about four years old, I got my first role in a church play with my parents -- I played their kid. I even remember my first line, "Mom, do I have to wear a tie?" From then on, I did every school play I could. I started piano lessons in the third grade, so I could play for the church choir as a substitute accompanist. My Dad was a gospel singer, so I played for gospel quartets, too.
At thirteen or fourteen, I got into rock & roll and put different bands together. I started making some money at it in college. My guitarist friend Yancey Burns and I formed "The Satisfied Minds." We got an agent from Ashland, Kentucky who booked us around a four state area -- dance clubs, fraternity parties, high school proms, etc. It was the late 1960s, and there was a great, bustling music scene. We released one single on Plato Records, which was kind of a local hit. After that, we did a few concerts, opening for some name acts when they came to the Huntington, WV area. I continued to perform in college plays at that time as well.
After graduation from Marshall University, I packed up everything I had (including a tent to sleep in at campgrounds along the way) into my rusted-out Oldsmobile and drove out to Los Angeles with my girlfriend, Carolyne McCoy (descendent of the famous feuding families -- her mother was a Hatfield, her father a McCoy). We later got married in L.A.
Since neither of us had ever done much traveling, our intention was to see some of the country before turning around and driving back to New York, where a couple of my Marshall classmates, future Academy Award and Emmy nominee Brad Dourif and future Emmy nominee Conchata Farrell, were already in the Circle In the Square acting troupe. But in L.A. we ran out of money and had to get jobs. I got into the mailroom at American International Pictures, the infamous B Movie Company that was making biker movies, Vincent Price horror flicks, and "Blaxploitation." A.I.P. was a real education. I learned about the movie biz from the ground up. I worked my way into the Story Department, reading scripts and writing coverage (reviews and recommendations). In my off time I took acting classes and went on every open audition I heard about, landing roles in plays and in USC & UCLA student films.
To make extra money, I played in a rock band, "Pacific Ocean", which included another future Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. Those experiences are chronicled in a memoir written by our drummer Steven "Rusty" Johnson called Walk Don't Run from Kalisti Publishing.
My first TV role was as "Tough Kid Number One" on the then-popular high school drama ROOM 222. From then on I began acting regularly on television but also kept my Story Analyst job at A.I.P. It was a perfect gig because I could take the screenplays and books home to write the coverage at night, leaving my days free for auditions and acting jobs.
My music and acting came together when I got the lead in a series pilot for CBS called "Friends" (years before the more famous TV FRIENDS). I played a rock star and even brought my old "Satisfied Minds" partner Yancey Burns out to L.A. to play the guitarist in my TV band.
When that show wasn't picked up, I decided to write a screenplay based on my "Satisfied Minds" experiences that depicted a real rock scene; the one I'd lived in West Virginia. After reading so many screenplays, I figured mine could be better, something I'd want to see. After I talked about it with Yancey and Carolyne, the three of us started writing together. We called it "A Runaway American Dream," and it would star me in the role based on my own life. Several producers and studios expressed interest, but every deal broke down because they all wanted a bigger star in the lead. I stubbornly put my "Dream" back on the shelf.
How did you meet writer/director John Milius?
When one day I found out his secretary had quit, I recommended my wife Carolyne. Whenever I was on TV, she would push John to watch me. One night John was hanging out with his USC buddy George Lucas, who wanted to see how much a new TV show called HAPPY DAYS had ripped off his (partly autobiographical) feature AMERICAN GRAFITTI. They turned on the TV and there I was guest starring as gang leader "Frankie Malina."
The next day John cast me in THE WIND AND THE LION in the role of a hotheaded American Ambassador he'd originally written for Richard Dreyfuss. You'll notice my character's name is "Richard Dreighton". Dreyfuss wasn't available, so within a few weeks I was flying off to location in Spain.
THE WIND AND THE LION
Where were your scenes in "The Wind and the Lion" filmed (especially curious about the palace locations)?
My palace scenes were at the Alcazar in Seville. Originally a Moorish fortress, after Ferdinand II conquered Spain in 1248, the Alcazar was renovated as the palace for the Kings of Castille. Seville was a beautiful location. The polo match was in an Alcazar courtyard. That's legendary stuntman Terry Leonard crashing the bikes in the beginning of my scene there. Terry did practically all the stunts in the movie.
How long did it take to shoot the carriage scene (after stepping on the man with the pillow on his back)?
The men playing the slaves pulling the carriage were U.S. Marines stationed in Spain. They were good guys and great sports about doing that scene. They were in some military sequences as well. In fact, because those scenes were so authentic, even though it's a period movie, the Marine Corps still uses some of the footage in training films.
That memorable shot of the front of the train (in the palace): Was this a part of a real train?
Were those lions scary?
One of the most beautiful shots is where you, Geoffrey Lewis, Roy Jenson and Steve Kanaly are framed against that picture ("World at war"… "World War"… "Now that would be something to go out on"): How many takes for this?
After the movie was released, I had an actor friend remark that he thought that was my best scene. Since I had no lines in that scene, I thought it was kind of a dubious compliment -- but he said because of how I listened and reacted, he thought I was the focus of the scene -- that my character was planning something important -- he could see Dreighton's inner life, his political aspirations and future schemes… or maybe it was just a passive/aggressive dig and my friend was jerking me around. If I was really doing all that and pulling focus from what it was supposed to be about, I screwed up the scene!
How much did you witness of the MARINE INVASION scene?
The shot of the American Naval fleet in the harbor was one of the few matte shots (special effects) in the film. There was also a scene in which a number of cardboard human cutouts were planted in the crowd of extras to make it seem more like even larger masses of people.
Remember, this was all before CGI, so otherwise the movie was all real people and real locations.
You appeared in two very different kinds of John Milius films: "The Wind and the Lion" and "Big Wednesday"… Did John's style differ on each?
On all his movies John pays close attention to details and authenticity because of his vast knowledge and respect for history. I would say the script was followed more exactly on THE WIND AND THE LION than on BIG WEDNESDAY, which, within specific contexts, allowed somewhat for a more improvisational style. That coming-of-age/surfing story epitomized much of John's personal experience when he was growing up, so it was a major passion for him. He had a lot of fun chronicling (with fellow surfer and co-writer Denny Aaberg) that era for the ages.
How much do you and your "Big Wednesday" character "Waxer" have in common?
"Waxer" pretty much steals the scene at Bear's wedding… Did you improvise the line "Boss Wedding"?
"Waxer" wears a green army jacket… Was this yours or was it provided for the character?
How long did it take for the entire PARTY SCENE to be shot?
During the party when you growl at Patti D'Arbanville and try biting her -- was this adlibbed?
The scene in BEAR'S surfboard shop… What did they put on your face?
The DRAFT SCENE… How long did this take to shoot and do you have any particular memories of it?
When Frank McCrae, playing the draft sergeant, screams at "Waxer"… Was this as scary as it looked?
Was there a wrap party?
Did anyone ever recognize you and/or recite any "Waxer" dialog?
Was the movie a hit upon release?
The movie has gained a large and dedicated cult following throughout the years: did you find that it got more popular with age?
Give us a few words about the following actors/actresses:
GARY BUSEY: To get ready for the film, we both worked out with Vince Gironda, the late, great "Iron Guru" and bodybuilder to the stars. I had already been at Vince's Gym awhile, but when an overweight Gary came in, he really pushed himself to get in amazing shape in just a short amount of time. He literally transformed himself. Vince said to me, "Fetty, you're a distance runner -- but Busey's a champion." Gary's a great actor, who's had his troubles over the years, but he's had a wonderful career and always pushed himself to his full "championship" potential… I didn't appreciate it at the time, but Vince's comment rang true for me as well. Today I pride myself on "going the distance" during my long and varied career.
JAN-MICHAEL VINCENT: Cool, confident, and easy-to-like. A former farm boy who handled stardom at that time with a kind of hippie-ish nonchalance and humility. It's ironic how, in his later years, his real life sort of paralleled his BIG WEDNESDAY character arc. I heard that he now raises horses in Mississippi, so I guess he's back to his down-home roots.
WILLIAM KATT: Just a wonderful guy, a solid actor, and probably the most mature of all of us. He grew up in show biz. His real-life mother Barbara Hale (from the TV series Perry Mason) portrayed his mother in BIG WEDNESDAY. And Billy's actor father was Bill Williams, a Western film star.
LEE PURCELL: A lovely person and fine actress.
REB BROWN: Sincere and enthusiastic. A sweet man who was the perfect choice for the CAPTAIN AMERICA role he played later on.
SAM MELVILLE: One of my best friends and like a big brother to me. We lived close to each other in Laurel Canyon, and after the movie was over formed a rock band with our wives, Yancey, Marc Singer (BEASTMASTER) and Marc's wife Hau Nani Min. We played a number of gigs around town, including a celebrity stint at the famed "Palamino Club." It was a shock and a terrible loss when Sam passed away, much too young.
ROBERT ENGLUND: Did you know that Robert is the voice-over narrator for BIG WEDNESDAY? He had a mellow, reflective, quintessential surfer voice. He was the nicest guy and an amazingly versatile young character actor. No one could have anticipated that he'd reach his greatest fame as a horror movie icon: NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Freddy Krueger!
PATTI D'ARBANVILLE: The exact opposite of the cute and innocent girl she portrayed in our movie. A sophisticated and exotic creature at a very young age, Patti had been a Warhol girl, starred in a racy French film, and been immortalized in a Cat Stevens' song, "Lady D'Arbanville" before she was old enough to vote. She showed up on the set with a French husband, a lesbian girlfriend, and an ex-con, bank-robber boyfriend (once at the same time). Frankly, I was a little intimidated by wild child Patti, but we ended up becoming good friends. She later had a son with Don Johnson and has enjoyed a solid, continuing acting career.
JOHN MILIUS: A legendary talent and a true mentor for me. There's no one alive who can write like he can. However, because of his forceful, no-bullshit personality, many people in the business (studio execs, mostly) were afraid of him. Consequently, he was denied several key jobs and opportunities for breakout commercial success, which came more easily to some of his contemporaries and many of the young filmmakers he helped out early on. In recent years he co-created HBO's ROME series and has been writing and developing a number of different projects.
GEOFFREY LEWIS: Multi-talented. A great storyteller and musician as well as a terrific character actor. We stayed in touch for awhile after working together, but I haven't seen him in years. I know that four of his ten kids became actors, including the acclaimed Juliette Lewis.
STEVE KANALY: A great guy and a fine artist as well. He really had star quality, and John was one of the few directors at that time who knew how to use him (in Wind & The Lion and as Pretty Boy Floyd in Dillinger). Steve's had a nice career (most notably as Ray on Dynasty), but if this had been an earlier era, he'd a huge Errol Flynn type star.
In the eighties you wrote a lot of scripts… How did this come about?
That changed when I got the opportunity to become a writer/producer on staff for a TV show. NBC's VIPER required me to be there, as they say "Nine to Five" -- but usually much earlier… as well as much later -- for five days a week -- and usually weekends, too. So I had to stop going on auditions and taking acting jobs.
Although I missed acting, it was the right decision. I had re-married (model turned actress Joyce Ingalls) and had a growing family to support.
I stayed on VIPER for three more years after it became a syndicated series for UPN, then worked as a writer/producer on CBS' PENSACOLA -- WINGS OF GOLD and wrote multiple episodes for other shows (HERCULES, SILK STALKINGS, THE SENTINEL, 18 WHEELS OF JUSTICE, and WB's MUTANT X).
Basically, my acting career just sort of faded away because I was too busy writing and producing. Casting people forgot about me.
What's your connection with Steven Spielberg's "1941"?
Among other shows you appeared on "The Facts of Life"… What was your role in this?
Of all your "hats": music, acting, producing, and writing… Which did you find the most rewarding?
A writer needs to look inward, to reflect. You develop a kind of solitary discipline and self-reliance. But the best part is that you can create your own worlds. You can re-structure reality the way you'd like it to be.
Of course, a writer for hire has to answer to the people he works for -- but, still, there's a certain amount of creative freedom you don't have as an actor. And, when I became a producer, helping to run a show and being partly responsible for hundreds of jobs, I had to become a real grown-up.
Because so much research is involved on a plethora of subjects, writing also forces of you to continue to learn and grow as a person. Since becoming a full-time writer, I feel like I'm a better person -- certainly better educated and more well-rounded than I would have been had I chosen a different career path…although as my wife and kids will tell you, sometimes I still have a bit of growing up to do.
So acting and music are the most exciting, writing the most rewarding… and producing is just plain old hard work.
What are you up to these days?
Recently, I've been looking at coming out of acting retirement. Now that I'm no longer on a TV staff and my kids are grown, I have more time to pursue my first love. Last year, I did a stage play in which I portrayed famed billionaire Howard Hughes during his eccentric middle years, when he was just starting to become a total recluse. It felt good to be performing again, and you know what? I'm better than I used to be. Instead of losing chops from being out of it, I have a lot more layers to access as an actor. I do have a few young filmmaker friends who keep threatening to cast me in something, and I'd love to get back into it.
Maybe some director will do for me what Quentin Tarantino did for Pam Grier (who was a switchboard operator at A.I.P. right before I started in the mailroom) or my old friends Robert Forster (who I co-starred with in a movie called STUNTS) and David Carradine (who I used to play music with). In fact, I noticed in his 70s homage DEATH PROOF, Tarantino had that kickass Aussie stunt lady cite BIG WEDNESDAY as one of her favorite movies… which leads me to believe that he knows my work.
So, Quentin, if you want to resurrect another acting career and happen to write a cool new "Darrell Fetty part," I can make myself available!
Interview by: James M. Tate