Evil Roy Slade By David MacGregor. In the months and years leading up to the year 2000, there appeared any number of lists that sought to define the best films and best television programs of the 20th century...
In the months and years leading up to the year 2000, there appeared any number of lists that sought to define the best films and best television programs of the 20th century. Lost in all the hoopla was the bastard child of both of these mediums-the “made-for-television-movie.” This type of film is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, and it traces its lineage back to the 1960s when movies that were considered too poor to be theatrically released began to pop up on television. They drew in reasonably favorable ratings, so it wasn’t long before Aaron Spelling and Universal began to produce films specifically for the television market. These were roughly the equivalent of what were termed “B-pictures” in earlier decades; that is, low-budget productions designed to be part of a double-feature alongside more glossy and expensive feature films. Occasionally, there were made-for-TV movies that attracted a little bit of attention; for example, Brian’s Song (1970), The Girl Most Likely To (1973), and Duel (1971), which was directed by Steven Spielberg (and even released theatrically overseas). But for the most part, made-for-TV movies have been resolutely ignored, and they certainly weren’t going to get any attention in all of the end of the millennium polls and rankings.
While that might seem exclusionary and unfair, the reason for this is quite simple. Everyone knows that, by and large, made-for-television-movies are the lowest artistic life form imaginable. Currently alternating between “disease of the week” and “abusive husband gets his just desserts” themes, it is common knowledge that made-for-television-movies are only marginally more interesting than filling up the black space between commercials with static or religious programming. This has led to an attitude in which these films are consumed and then discarded like so much trash. In most cases, this is a justly deserved fate, but as it happens, there is one made-for-television-movie that stands head and shoulders and torso and pelvic area above the rest. This colossus of the genre, this paragon, this shining star in the fetid effluvia that is prime time television, is a film called Evil Roy Slade.
Not quite a cult film, it might best be described as “sub-cult” in status. The film serves as a kind of touchstone, a secret sign that only a select few in our society possess. When you meet someone who has seen the film, and when that mutual knowledge is made evident, an instant bond is formed that transcends such mundane things as gender, age, race, or religion. As a child, it was the favorite film of one of the goofiest kids in my neighborhood. When I got to high school, I was surprised one day to hear my learned and studious French teacher announce, “There is a film on television tonight that I think some of you should watch. It’s called Evil Roy Slade.”
Produced by Universal for NBC in 1972, it was reputedly a pilot for a television show called “Who’s the Sheriff?” The basic idea of the show was that the villains would be the regular cast, and each week a new sheriff would appear, only to be dispatched by the bad guys in some fashion, thus necessitating the arrival of a new sheriff the next week. In a sense, this would have been an ideal program for the time, because as the Vietnam War dragged on, America seemed to have a greater and greater appetite for stories and characters that were essentially anti-heroic in nature. Movies like Dirty Harry (1971) and The Godfather (1972) gave the public heroes who were not quite as pure as the driven snow, and well-established heroes were only considered viable if they were reinvented in some fashion. For example, in the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1969) it was intimated that the great detective was gay, and in the novel (and subsequent film) The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), Holmes was portrayed as a paranoid drug addict. This anti-heroic trend was apparent outside the arts and entertainment industry as well. In 1970, Jim Bouton published Ball Four (ISBN: 0020306652), a baseball diary in which he revealed what went on behind the scenes in baseball, including the boozing, the womanizing, and the somewhat bizarre practical jokes (such as defecating on birthday cakes). The baseball establishment was appalled, but the public loved seeing iconic figures like Mickey Mantle being revealed as all too human. In short, anti-heroes were the order of the day, and Evil Roy Slade personified that trend.
The film stars The “Addams Family”’s John Astin as the title character. His supporting cast includes Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Pamela Austin, Dom DeLuise, Henry Gibson, Dick Shawn, and Edie Adams, with bit parts being taken by the likes of John Ritter, Penny Marshall, Ed Begley Jr., and Pat Morita. Now, there are some people who will read through this cast list and swoon at the idea of so much talent in one made-for-TV film. Then again, as the comedic stylings of performers like Milton Berle and Dom DeLuise aren’t for everyone, many folks might consider this a film well worth missing. That would be a mistake. Consider it a phenomenon along the line of Jerry Lewis films. Either you consider Jerry Lewis to be an under-appreciated genius or an embarrassment to humanity. If he doesn’t happen to be your cup of tea, the thought of watching Jerry twitch his way through a “comedy” probably fills you with a kind of unspeakable dread. However, seeing him in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is a revelation indeed, because his performance in that film is nothing like anything else he has done. The same principle applies here to Milton Berle and company. Unlikely as it may sound to those of a skeptical turn of mind, the cast in this film turn in impressive performances all around.
Evil Roy Slade was penned by Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall and directed by Jerry Paris. If those names sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re the same trio who were responsible for the first episode of “The Odd Couple”, and Garry Marshall and Jerry Paris would go on to collaborate on “Happy Days” as well. It is worth noting that Jerry Paris is one of the most prolific directors in television/movie history, yet he is practically unknown. After several years as an actor in both film and television, he moved behind the cameras in the early 1960s, directing such programs as “The Joey Bishop Show”, “ The Dick Van Dyke Show” (for which he won an Emmy), “The Munsters”, “Here’s Lucy”, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. He directed more episodes of “The Odd Couple” than anyone else, then really hit his stride with “Happy Days”, directing 237 of the show’s 255 total episodes! This is in addition to his feature film work, which included Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1967), Viva Max! (1969), and later in his career, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986). The third Police Academy film was the final project that Paris completed, as he died in 1986.
As you might expect given his television background, Paris’s directorial style is fairly straightforward: focusing on the story and the characters rather than chiaroscuro lighting and other directorial smoke and mirrors designed to catch the eye of film cognoscenti. Paris tends to use a lot of medium shots and close-ups to draw us into the lives of the characters, and he favors opening scenes with close-ups, then zooming out to reveal a more traditional kind of establishing shot. The direction is intended to be unobtrusive, but there are still a number of clever visual touches, especially in the first few minutes of Evil Roy Slade.
The film opens with a shot of a band of Apaches circling the remains of a stagecoach that lies in smoldering ruins. The passengers are all dead (and in those pre-Dances with Wolves days, Indians were still considered capable of the odd social misstep or wholesale carnage), except for a crying infant. The film is given a pseudo-documentary feel through the narration of Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres”, was Gene Autry’s sidekick in many Westerns and whose Western twang-verging on a yodel-can be heard in a number of animated films. Buttram’s voiceover explains that Indians had been known to raise children as their own, but the Indians take one look at this child and vamoose. The same goes for some wolves that show up, then hightail it after one sniff of the mewling infant. This is the genesis of Evil Roy Slade, who grows up to be “the meanest man in the whole West.” Surely, one the most memorable shots in cinematic history is that of John Astin, clad only in a diaper and clutching a teddy bear, kicking cacti as he walks through scrubby underbrush, scowling in every direction, and shaking his fist at the sky.
We next see Slade as a kind of reincarnation of Richard Boone’s cowboy hero Paladin (from the television show “Have Gun Will Travel”), as he stalks along a street in a Western town. Like Paladin, Slade is dressed from head to toe in black, but unlike the noble Paladin, Evil Roy shoots at the feet of a man on crutches, pops a child’s balloon with his cigar, throws a lady’s shawl to the ground so that he won’t have to step in the mud, and rips a man’s shirt off his back to polish his boots. What takes the edge off his various cruel deeds is the sheer joy that Evil Roy takes in all of these activities, along with his boisterous laugh. Similarly, when he robs a train, he doesn’t just take the money (which would be bad), he also steals the train’s whistle because “he likes the toot-toot sound” (which makes it okay). In part, the charm of the character lies in his childlike simplicity and directness. When he robs a bank, he walks up to a teller and simply says, “Gimme money.” When he is smitten by one of the customers in the bank, he asks for her address, and, as she jots it down on a bill, he announces with pride to those cowering around him, “She can write!”
It is this customer, Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin), with whom Slade falls in love, and the feeling is more than reciprocal, thanks largely to Evil Roy’s kissing prowess. Betsy is a veritable Barbie Doll come to life, and she is determined to set Evil Roy on the right path, even as Nelson L. Stool (Mickey Rooney), the President of Western Express, is determined to see Slade hang. Stool, incidentally, is well known for his “stubby index finger,” which he “wore down tapping out messages on my telegraph key.” Pushing the ridiculous even further, Stool sings a little ditty about his stubby index finger as his incompetent nephew Clifford (Henry Gibson) hums tunefully along.
In classic heroic fashion (think Samson or Robin Hood), Evil Roy is eventually betrayed by the woman he loves, although she claims to have done it for his own good. This is the only betrayal that Slade seems to resent in the film, because aside from Betsy, he actively encourages his gang to betray him when it’s in their own best interest, and he is proud to learn that his former mistress betrayed him as well. Sentenced to hang, Slade seems resigned to his fate until he finds out that Betsy still loves him and regrets what she has done. After that, it is merely a matter of time before Slade escapes. While still in jail, he amuses himself by driving a priest (John Ritter) mad with his confession, and watches with an approving smile on his lips as a souvenir salesman (Jerry Paris in a cameo role) stands in front of a crowd and demonstrates a “genuine Evil Roy Slade hanging doll...fully equipped with a head that comes right off!” When Slade does escape, he hooks up once again with Betsy, and she renews her efforts to reform Evil Roy.
In large part, the subversive quality of the film lies not only in the celebration of Slade’s “evil,” but in the results of Betsy’s scheme to turn Evil Roy into a law-abiding middle-class citizen. Imagining that she can change him with her true love, Betsy takes Slade to Boston and gets him a job as a salesman in her cousin Harry’s (Milton Berle) shoe store. With her eyes shining, she promises him stability, a home, and the opportunity to “pay taxes.” For Betsy’s sake, Slade tries to make a go of it, and the film makes the most of this “fish out of water” section of the film. Mistaking a surprise party for an ambush, Slade fills the cake and crockery with bullets. Misjudging the appropriate use of a shoehorn, Slade holds it to a customer’s neck and growls, “Get that shoe on!” At the behest of Betsy, he even goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Logan Delp (Dom DeLuise), where all of the inkblots remind Evil Roy of his gun. In fact, one of the things the film does best is subvert expectations, which is a key to a great deal of comedy, and this is particularly evident in the scenes with Dr. Delp. After attempting to feel the bumps on Evil Roy’s head, Dr. Delp explains that, “There’s a new science called phrenology.” The question Evil Roy will ask seems obvious enough, but we are pleasantly confounded when he asks instead, “What’s science mean?”
Were this a movie concerned with such niceties as “growth” and “character arc,” we might very well see some change in Slade due to the taming influence of Boston. But this is a comedy, and it’s also TV, so thankfully there is no effort made to redeem Evil Roy. Instead, when he is entrusted with taking the shoe store’s money to the bank, he ends up taking not only the shoe store money, but he robs the bank, then stops back at Betsy’s cousin’s house to steal the baby’s piggy bank as well. As Betsy tries to stop him, Slade declares, “I tried, Honey! I tried, but I just can’t do it! This straight life ain’t for me! It’s too boring!”
Back in the West, Nelson L. Stool contrives to bring the famous Marshall Bing Bell (Dick Shawn) out of retirement to help bring Slade to justice. Bell, dressed like a cowboy version of Liberace, is the precise opposite of Slade. Just as Slade is engaging because of his unrelenting evil, Bing Bell is repugnant because of his smug goodness. And just as Evil Roy seems to caricature Paladin as far as attire is concerned, many aspects of Bing Bell’s character serve as a nod to Paladin as well, for just like Paladin, Bing Bell resides in fancy digs in San Francisco with an obsequious Oriental servant (Pat Morita) who brings him messages from prospective clients. Like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Bell sings as he “lopes along” on his white horse, and he is irritatingly gracious to everyone he meets. In the cultural atmosphere of 1972, the image of the good cowboy is held up to ridicule, and Evil Roy’s smiling declaration that, “everyone turns on you sooner or later,” seems much more realistic.
With a shotgun hidden in his guitar, Bell arranges to marry Betsy Potter, knowing that this will lure Slade out of hiding. This duplicity on his part (he never really intended to marry Betsy) makes him even less sympathetic, and when Evil Roy and Bing meet in a final showdown, it is Evil Roy we are rooting for. And, keeping true to its blackly comedic tone, it is Bing Bell who is shot and killed as he tries to stop Slade from shooting Bell’s beloved guitar. Slade trades clothes with Betsy, and as the posse falls for the ruse, Slade rides off into the sunset, whooping and wearing Betsy’s wedding dress.
When it was first aired, and even now, part of the pleasure in watching the film arises from a “I can’t believe this ever got made” perspective. It is inventive, anarchic, wantonly anti-heroic, and it contains any number of lines that don’t pull back from the edge. When Slade and his gang are confronted with a group of lawmen piling out of a stagecoach, they are surprised to see midget lawmen popping out of suitcases sitting atop the coach. His men are alarmed, but Slade stays calm, telling them, “Aim for their tiny little hearts.” And again, when Slade is paying a visit to Betsy at her home, one of his men on lookout calls to him, “Rider coming, boss.” Slade replies, “Shoot ’em.” His lookout replies, “It’s a woman.” Slade relents only a little, saying, “Wound her.”
Mind you, there are occasions where the film tries too hard and the lines seem a little forced. Most of those occur when Evil Roy himself is not onscreen. Similarly, the joke of naming a character Nelson L. Stool is perhaps underscored a little too heavily in giving him a private train with “Number 2” written on the side. In addition, depending on your perspective, the film is insensitive towards midgets, and it is hardly a clarion call for feminism (“You’re the boss,” Betsy tells Slade). Finally, Slade seems to be overly concerned with what he terms “funny boys” throughout the picture. But when you consider that the film came out in a year in which prime time programming included “The Waltons”, “The Julie Andrews Hour”, “The Brady Bunch”, and “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour”, it was a breath of fresh air indeed.
The list of memorable comedic Westerns is a short one, perhaps not going much further than Cat Ballou(1965) and Blazing Saddles (1974). They have their good points, certainly, but the truth is, Evil Roy Slade belongs right up there with them. For years, the only way to see the film was to hope that some network would choose to broadcast it, an event that usually took place in the wee hours of the morning. However, as further evidence that all is not bleak and chaotic in the universe, Evil Roy Slade was released on video by Universal Home Video in 1998. Currently out of print, the best bet to secure a copy of this film is through Critics Choice video (www.ccvideo.com). Be forewarned though. There exists a shadowy group of individuals whose lives will only be complete once they have secured a copy of this film for their very own. Get yours while you still can.
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