Earl Owensby We’re Gonna Shoot a Bunch of People, Gonna Wreck Some Cars, Gon’ Crash a Plane, Gonna Whatever-Whatever By Mike Malloy. When you think of maverick outsider tough-guy ’70s cinematic success stories – and who doesn’t, on a constant basis? – you may be tempted to put Tom Laughlin on the top of your list...
When you think of maverick outsider tough-guy ’70s cinematic success stories – and who doesn’t, on a constant basis? – you may be tempted to put Tom Laughlin on the top of your list. But, prior to making his breakout 1971 film, Billy Jack, Laughlin had already logged hours of screen time as a working Los Angeles-based film and television actor. He knew the system, even if he used that knowledge primarily to step outside it.
And there were legitimate outsiders who came, seemingly from out of nowhere, to make a surprise hit, like H.B. Halicki with 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds. But they didn’t sustain full-time, lifelong careers in cinema.
Perhaps the figure who best embodies both maverick filmmaking and a sustained show business career is North Carolina’s Earl Owensby, a colorful-talking iconoclast with an impressive knack for getting things accomplished on his own terms.
Owensby had no connections to filmmaking in 1973 when he caught a showing of Walking Tall, the fact-based Southern actioner that made a folk hero out of its protagonist, Sheriff Buford Pusser. At the time, Owensby was doing work that often gets oversimplified in the press as "tool sales" when; in fact, Owensby describes it as doing "the torque equipment for the Polaris sub, Nike Zeus and Sparrow III" and providing machinery for the man-made fiber industry, among other things.
That viewing of Walking Tall proved to be motivational, spurring Owensby to produce and star in a Southern revenger entitled Challenge, which was released the next year, in 1974. The film was successful enough that it transformed what could have been a one-off vanity project into what ultimately became a multi-decade film career for Owensby. He quickly phased out the tools and built a movie studio in Shelby, NC.
(It’s easy to read the above paragraph without absorbing the full implications. But try to envision all the ramifications that had to occur for a middle-aged North Carolina man to successfully transform himself from tool salesman to working studio head, movie producer and film star within the space of a year.)
After Challenge, Earl spent the bulk of the 1970s producing – and starring in – low-budget action and tough-guy films: The Brass Ring (1975), Death Driver (1977), Dark Sunday (1976) and Seabo (1978).
At the end of the decade, he broadened his horizon with his first horror film (Wolfman, 1979) and some music movies (Lady Grey and Living Legend, both 1980). In the mid-’80s, he jumped onto the 3-D revival bandwagon with such films as Tales of the Third Dimension, Hyperspace and The Great Balloon Chase (all 1984).
In the late 1980s, Owensby bought a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Gaffney, South Carolina. Once converted, it became the underwater sets for films like James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989).
Around this same time, legendary Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis also built a film studio in North Carolina. But De Laurentiis came and went in a few years. Earl Owensby still has open, functioning studio facilities in Shelby at the time of this writing.
It’s clear that movie business is not booming for Earl in the way that it was back when he used to drop ’70s baddies with shotgun blasts. The Shelby Star reported in 2013 that EO Studios had to fend off foreclosure by catching up on back property taxes owed. But Owensby’s website still cites Wolfman 2, Back to Buckstone Mountain and Stars in my Crown as "current projects."
The following is a 2006 phone interview with Mr. Owensby, one in which your writer struggled to have a personality half as big as his.
Mike Malloy:I’ve seen the Earl Owensby: The Man...The Myth (1997) documentary and you credit Walking Tall with causing you to want to take up a film career. Was Billy Jack an influence too?
Earl Owensby: Nope never was. I didn’t like Tom Laughlin, to be honest with you.
MM:But you used references to Billy Jack on the lobby cards I’ve seen for Challenge.
EO: That was [distributor] Cinemation Industry that used that as one of their things. I don’t know; I don’t distribute, so whoever does that, they just do it. Long as they paid for it, didn’t matter.
MM:You’re a multi-million dollar tool salesman in the Carolinas, and you decide to get into motion pictures. What’s the very first step that you take towards a film career?
EO: Get a script.
MM:Even before starting a production company or anything? How did you go about that?
EO: Very carefully. Just decided to get in the movie business and build a studio. And if you gon’ build cars, you know you have to have a prototype. Don’t matter if it’s General Motors. (...) And that’s what we did. We had to make a movie. I chose to make the one called Challenge, which fell under the genre of "man’s wife gets killed and he has to go after revenge." (...)
MM:I heard you pursued actor David Janssen until...
EO: Yeah, I couldn’t afford Mr. Janssen. He wanted too much. Abbey Greshler, who I later got to know, was his agent. And oh man, they was talking to somebody in North Carolina, and about the third time he called me "baby" I hung up on him. I ain’t nobody’s damn baby. Maybe I should be; I don’t know.
MM:Do you remember what kind of sum he was commanding at that time?
EO: $500,000. That’s what they asked for.
MM:Did you look anywhere else for a lead?
EO: Nope. He was the only one that I was interested in.
MM:What ended up being the budget of Challenge?
EO: I don’t remember. It was around $500,000 ’time I got through with it. It got its money back and made a profit. So I wasn’t concerned about it.
MM:Everybody considers Earl Owensby to be this big Southern drive-in phenomena, but did your films play outside the Southern drive-in circuit?
EO: Yeah. That would be very true. "Did they play outside the southern drive-in circuit?" – which is a bunch of bullshit anyway, but that’s okay. They did play drive-ins, but so did a lot of other stuff. So did everything. And they played... Well, my first movie, I opened in 80 theaters in North and South Carolina, and they made a lot of money. Then I sold it to Cinemation, or released it to ’em. They played it all over the world. I’m in 137 countries the last time we added it up. (...) What you saw in The Man...The Myth is probably pretty accurate ’cause ain’t no use in lying to nobody about nothin’, I don’t feel like. That don’t buy me nothin’ anyhow.
MM:Cinemation’s Jerry Gross came to you?
EO: Yep. Came to me, and Coca-Cola was putting up the money, I understand. Back then there was what’s called tax shelters, and they came to me and wanted to buy. They bought The Klansman (1974) too, which was O.J. Simpson’s first movie, I understand.
MM:The martial artist that you have in Challenge, who is that?
EO: An idiot by the name of Dave Adams, you can put that down there, it’d be fine. I don’t know him. Anyway, he was local, and he was supposed to be "kung-fu karate." (...)
MM:You drive a Pantera in the two Challenge films, and you have a Corvette in Challenge – some pretty fancy sports cars. Were those cars your production leased, or were they your personal cars?
EO: Well, I’ve owned Five Panteras. Five. I like the Pantera. I had a black one, a white one, two yellow ones and a red one. The red one I wrecked at Charlotte Motor Speedway when we were doing some updates on Brass Ring.
MM: How did you hire directors for your movies?
EO: Interviewed who I thought would have a vision of what we were trying to put on the screen, and that’s how we got ’em.
MM:Were they Southeastern?
EO: Mostly local. Only ones we used out of California is when Jim Cameron obviously made The Abyss with us. That’s Cameron’s picture. We do movies for the majors, and whoever they send as the director and their main cast, that’s who we work with. We do the "below the line" – that’s what we call "below the line." And we’ll build the sets, and we’ll have the soundstages and we’ll do all that stuff.
MM:Did you ever have an itch to direct back then? The director credits on your movies – none of those are pseudonyms for Earl Owensby, are they?
EO: I directed on Tales of the Third Dimension1984), one segment. We had four directors; I happened to be one of them. I directed the last movie I did, called The Story of Jesus Christ. I directed/produced/wrote and made, which was like six or seven months ago. Sometimes [another director] will say, "Oh, we’ll correct it in editing." Uh-uh. If you don’t shoot it, you don’t correct it in editing. You know, you have to sometimes go back and shoot what we call "tie in," but that’s just technical stuff. That’s not artistic at all.
MM:It’s nice to have the luxury of a studio to do the re-shoots.
EO: You could shoot in a motel room if you had to. It doesn’t matter. Just makin’ a movie.
MM:On the first film, what was the biggest lesson you learned as an actor or producer?
EO: Well, the education on what not to do [came with] the second movie, because since the first one did so well, we just threw together The Brass Ring (AKA Frank Challenge: Manhunter). And that was not a smart move, although it sold. It didn’t do as well as Challenge, but we moved from that. We moved on up the line. It’s very important who you hire as a director. (...) Even on Challenge, I went through three people before I finally got the director. One guy, every time you turn around, he’d show up with three assistants; they were all women. And I didn’t need them on the payroll. And we ended up with [only] one woman, as a script supervisor, on Challenge. And I think they kind of thought maybe I was "strange." I just didn’t want to get into a situation where a guy brings his three girlfriends, and his mind ain’t on [the movie]. We worked about 14 hours a day, six days a week. Don’t work on Sunday, if I can help it. And I’ve always helped it for the last number of years. So that’s where we are. That’s the whole deal. I’m not a Tom Laughlin, I’m not a Clint Eastwood, I’m not a Burt Reynolds. I know some of these people, but it’s not what I do. (...) I’ve been in major magazines – Penthouse, Playboy, Esquire, GQ – the whole schmear. But if you’re not selling something... I’ve been on "60 Minutes" twice, and had a positive program on "60 Minutes." But it all gets down to business. The bottom line: I’ve never claimed to be anything but a salesman. That’s the truth. I am a salesman. I’ve been a salesman for a long time. That’s the way I approach it. I don’t do art movies, because I’m not into that; I wouldn’t understand [how to sell them]. People make ’em all the time, people do ’em and people sell ’em, I’m assuming.
MM: The Brass Ring is just an alternate title for Frank Challenge: Manhunter?
EO: Yeah. (...) Whoever picks it up and does the distribution and pays their money up front, I don’t care what they call it. Long as it’s not X-rated, you know.
MM:Tell me about the success of Challenge, if you would.
EO: (...) When I got the records back, after [Cinemation] went bankrupt and I got the movie back, I learned about [foreign sales], and that’s when I started catering to the foreign market, because that was my best bet. Foreign markets like my movies for one reason, and it’s not because I’m whatever. It’s because in action-adventure, dialogue ain’t gonna mean a whole lot. We’re gonna shoot a bunch of people, gonna wreck some cars, gon’ crash a plane, gonna whatever, whatever. (...) And that’s what we were able to literally survive on for a long time.
MM:Are you able to quantify for me the success of Challenge?
EO: No. I ain’t gon’ give you nothing on Challenge except it was over with and done, and [Cinemation] went bankrupt, and I had to go get my movie back. That’s all I can qualify. Or hell, say it wasn’t a hit, went in the hole, didn’t make no money, lost it all. I don’t care. Doesn’t matter.
MM:That’s obviously not the case because you did film after film after film.
EO: (...) I own 20 DVD titles. They’re all mine. They’re all copyrighted to me. And I have the masters, and we have DVDs and we sell them all over the world too. But that wasn’t available back when you’re talking. (...) Hell, I’m gon’ make a movie to just play drive-ins? Forget it. ’Cause number one: you gon’ have a helluva time collecting from anybody, if you’re not a major. (...) You caught me at the right time. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.
MM:Hey, I’m glad. So you were a little disappointed with Frank Challenge: Manhunter– is that why you never played the character again?
EO: Didn’t need to play the character again, because I wasn’t trying to create a franchise as they do now. (...) I just wanted to make something that I could sell. And I did. It was harder to sell Frank Challenge: Manhunter than it was my next picture, which was called Death Driver, which was just basically a comedy of a good ol’ boy. They had motor rodeos – Chip Woods and that kinda stuff. And this story was about an ol’ boy that won some time ago and wanted to come back, and that was the whole story. It had a good music track to it, had a good comedic overtone to it and sold real quick.
MM:Yeah. That film tied in with the Smokey and the Bandit (1977) -type of cinema of the time.MM:The moody, almost silent
EO: Yeah. It was one of them good ol’ boy type things. He caught his wife running around on him, and that was it. Those things happen.
Dark Sunday (1976) was made around this time too.EO:
Oh yeah. Death Driver
was my second picture [after Challenge
]. And a matter of fact, a young director that I hired for Death Driver
– a young man from Atlanta, Georgia named Jimmy Huston, who is a very talented young man – he did Death Driver
, Dark Sunday
and Buckstone County Prison
]. Buckstone County Prison
, at that time, became my number-one money maker, so to speak. And Film Ventures picked it up and distributed. I had a helluva time collecting from ’em. And then they sold it – or leased it – to HBO, who showed it several times. And then I finally got all that back. Had David Allen Coe in it – and Ed Parker, who was Elvis’s bodyguard and Kenpo Karate World Champion. He became a dear friend of mine. He’s dead now. Sunset Carson and Don "Red" Barry – both dead now. You know, it was just an unusual movie. And I guess you can compare Cool Hand Luke
(1967), the Paul Newman movie. Chain gang, you know, and the whole prison deal. It just worked. It worked for us.
MM:I like what you do with your voice in that.
EO: He lowered his voice. Yeah, I understand. But it did well. It did well for us, and then we moved on. And on Dark Sunday, I had a problem with the rating board because they rated it X. It had no nudity. It had only bullet hits, as Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969) did. I didn’t accept that, and we had a problem with it. So the Vice President of the rating deal was Dick Heffner, and he finally – from the Los Angeles airport – dropped the X and gave it an R. And I appealed the R and went to New York for that appeal. A whole bunch of bullshit on it. [Dark Sunday] came out the same time Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) did, Eastwood’s movie. Eastwood’s movie got a PG at the time, and he’d shot people, you know. So, I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. And finally we released it unrated and it did real well. I don’t care about that nine people go to a room in Beverly Hills and say, "Well this is too violent; we’ll have to give it an X." I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me what they rate anything anymore. You don’t have to do that.
MM:Did you end up making any changes to Dark Sunday?
EO: The film? Not one frame. No, I did not. I did not. Nothing. Didn’t change anything. What was I gon’ do? Go in there and chop it up and take out the bullet hits? Do like they used to do – just do a long fade in to the next scene? That’s bullshit. Anyway, that’s okay. I made it, and it’s still available, and people still buy it. So, you know, that’s it.
MM:I’ve seen your name in the credits as a stuntman. What are some of the memorable stunts that you performed?
EO: Well, I came off of a building in Rottweiler (1987). I wrecked several cars. I rode on top of a balloon – one mile up, ten miles out – on a hot air balloon for a movie. I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of my own stunts. I mean if they’re mine, I do ’em. If they’re somebody else’s, hell, let somebody else do ’em. That’s all I do. That ain’t no big deal. That’s just PR, publicity. It ain’t no big deal. I mean it really isn’t. If you want to wreck a car, just grab the other side of the safety belt. I drove a car into a burning house in Death Driver – grabbed that safety belt in the passenger’s seat and pull yourself to the floor when you go in, and when you raise up you coming out of it. It ain’t really nothing to it. People play on that stuff. That’s a bunch of bull. (...) Now watch me go out and make a movie next week and get killed doing a stunt.
MM:Aw, don’t say that. Now you’ve said repeatedly that you view it as a business. But you were already in the business of selling tools. You have to view filmmaking as more fun. Do you enjoy acting?
EO: Not really. Maybe it started out as being a fun thing, but it didn’t end up that way. I mean it takes a lot of time. If I’m in a movie... I made one about our Sheriff up here called Rutherford County Line (1987), and Universal picked it up, and I didn’t give ’em all the rights to everything. But then Fox, which I do business with, wanted to do a Movie of the Week and change the name to Damon’s Law because Rutherford County Line sounded too Southern. Well, hell, it is Southern. And it was a true story. We followed the history of a county sheriff whose brother and two law enforcement officers were assassinated. We did that, and it still does good, does real good. It’s called Damon’s Law. And I got some real good critic reviews on that particular part, so I guess I must have done a pretty good job of recreating the sheriff. Of course I grew up in this area, and he was the sheriff in this area, so I knew how to. I wasn’t trying to mimic him. I just wanted to bring it to where he was not a buffoon. It was not "Dukes of Hazzard;" it was a serious story about a man’s brother got killed, and his whole thing. So, I don’t know, we did good with it. I ain’t gon’ make no sequel to it, and the sheriff’s dead now too. He died, oh maybe six months ago.
MM:And with that, you got to do a film similar to the one that influenced you, Walking Tall (1973).
EO: Yeah. The thing that got me in Walking Tall – the Joe Don Baker one, not the sequels; they did two more of ’em.
MM:Yeah. By the way, I’ve interviewed Bo Svenson, the star of those other two.
EO: You did? I talked to him out in California one time. He was trying to put together another Walking Tall deal when I talked to him. But Brian Dennehey did a good job on that TV [movie. A Real American Hero, 1978] where he played Buford Pusser at one time, a Movie of the Week. And then Svenson come in and played him in a series, short-lived series. But it doesn’t matter. All that stuff is water under the bridge. But, what I guess got me in Walking Tall was the fact – he was in the hospital, Pusser was – and he told a little boy "stick." And the little boy went home and got the 2x4, or whatever it was, and brought it back down the hallway and gave it to him. That was a heavy-duty dramatic scene – one that may, or may not have happened. I met Buford, by the way, later on at a golf tournament. We were there, I don’t play golf, but I went. The Shriner’s had one and wanted me to come sign autographs. I did. But anyway, Buford was there too. But that [movie] just kind of got me. Walking Tall was the one that really... well, it was made in McMinnville, Tennessee. Southern story, Southern town. And so I said, "Well maybe I can do that." And I did.
MM:Did that previous tool business overlap at all with your filmmaking business? Or did you make a clean break of it?
EO: No. It overlapped. I built 12 companies. You just build it to a certain point and move on if it’s not something you enjoy. If it’s profitable you can move on pretty easily; somebody will want it. But no, a little bit of it overlapped, but then the film business became the major thing. You can only do so much. Then I bought a nuclear plant – abandoned nuclear plant, a construction site – and made five movies. I made The Abyss there and Florida Straits (1987) for HBO and Probe (1988) for Universal/ABC. I did five movies there, and then I got out of it because after The Abyss I think I’d learned my lesson. That was a little bit heavy duty. Took almost a year to make that movie.
MM:And I remember from the documentary that a lawsuit ensued.
EO: Yeah. They didn’t pay me when they left. But they did pay me, they finally did. And they were gon’ have to try it in Gaffney, South Carolina instead of L.A. So, sometimes they do that. Wasn’t Jim Cameron. Was 20th Century Fox. They funded it and said, "Oh, that wasn’t our movie, because it was shot non-union." Well, it was. Every check I had was written by Fox. They was the ones that paid me. And then they left owing me a considerable amount of money. And if you don’t go after it, you never get it. Of course, they take the attitude, "Well come to L.A., and we’ll try it." They got 80 lawyers. I was able to get it moved to Gaffney, South Carolina for the trial, and [they] said, "Well, we’ll probably spending more money fighting this than we would just to pay our bill." And they paid. That was it. That’s what happened.
MM:You say that acting ceased to be fun at some point. Did you ever consider hiring other actors for some of the lead roles you played?
EO: (...) I had someone else hired to do Chain Gang (1984), and then that didn’t work because the people who wanted to buy it, wasn’t gon’ buy it unless I was in it. So I made Chain Gang, and I’m in it. But they paid for it. (...) I’m in the middle of developing one now called Wolfman 2: The Return. I ain’t gon’ be in it. I don’t care who’s in it, but I ain’t. I should say "I’m not," right? I’m talking to a writer. Anyway, I don’t plan on being in Wolfman 2: The Return. I’m making the sequel to the Wolfman I made, and I’m only doing it because Benicio Del Toro is doing The Wolfman, the remake of Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man, and that’s fine. There’s a lot of "wolfmen-lycanthrope-man wolf-whatever you want to call ’em" movies, and this one just happened to fit in, to be one that we can sell. And somebody will be in it. I haven’t finished the script yet – working on the story – but when it’s done, somebody will play the wolfman. I don’t know who. You can get actors that "used to be" – that think they still are – to work cheaper than they used to because once you get through with whatever [makes you a star] and you’re not that magic number anymore, and they still want to act. And that’s good.
MM:Were you ever offered an outside role, from Hollywood or anything besides an EO Studios movie?
EO: I’ve got offers from a lot of people wanting me to be in movies, and I don’t do it.
MM:Do you like to have control over your performance?
EO: No. I’ve got a company to run, I’ve got everything, and I don’t care about being in somebody’s movie. (...)
MM:Back in the ’70s, what was your relationship with Hollywood? Did you ever have an office out there?
EO: Nope. Never did. Still don’t.
MM:But the trades picked up on you and ran articles about you frequently.
EO: Oh yeah. I got a lot of articles written about me. Some good, some bad. If I’m battling somebody that don’t pay me. (...)
MM:You mentioned Wolfman. Were you tiring of straight action pictures, or were you following the horror trend at the time?
EO: A young man named Worth Keeter – who went on to California, and he did direct a lot of Movies of the Week and the "Power Rangers" things and all that – he wanted to do a movie. I said, "Well, we’ll gamble on one. Whatcha wanna make?" And he picked Wolfman. And I said, "Do I have to be in it?" And he said, "Well, yeah." I said, "Fine." So, gave him that shot and it ended up doing real well. I hated the movie, I didn’t like it that well, but he did it and then he went on to do other things. So no, we just picked one that would be easy to sell; I wasn’t following much. I always say about Wolfman: We started out to make a horror movie, made a horrible movie. That’s what we did, in my opinion. But people liked it and still buy it. So I ain’t gon’ worry about it.
MM:It’s very ambitious that with both Seabo – which was set in the ’50s – and Wolfman, you did period pieces on low budgets.
EO: Well, 1914 was Wolfman, and of course Seabo was, like I said, 1957. And a period piece we’re working on now is called Stars in my Crown, which takes place in the South, 1865. And it’s about a preacher, and it’s got a good theme to it and a good story to it. So it’s 1865. It’ll cost a little more ’cause you have to obviously construct at least part of a Southern town in that period, and all that. But that’s fine. That’s just what we do. If it wasn’t worth doing, we wouldn’t do it anyway. That’s just where it’s at. This Wolfman [sequel] that we’re doing is modern day. Whatever the day is today, that’s now, but we bring it from 1914 forward and that’s the story, and the curse is handed down, handed down, handed down – you know, that kinda theme, to tie in to the original. (...) Independent picture, and hopefully the budget will be low.
MM:The modern-day setting ought to help with that.
EO: Well, I think so. I think we’ll be all right with it, and we’ll just do it. (...) But I won’t crack the cameras until I know something gon’ happen with it.
MM:You don’t have a definite start date for it?
EO: No, I do not. I’m not in any hurry. I just got the two movies I’m trying to develop, and I’ve got other people coming wanting to do their movie, but they have to come and bring the money. And make sure you got it before we do it. Had a group in two weeks ago. They had this movie, they had that money. They didn’t have nothing. They thought we’ll move in, and we’ll get started, and I’ll love it so much I’ll finance it. No, I don’t do that either. (...) Everybody comes in, got a movie gon’ do $100 million without fail. If someone could predict that, just once, they’d have a job, but they wouldn’t need a job; they’d be rich. (...)
MM:They say that Seabo was, at the time, your biggest money maker. Did that also end up being the big financial champ of the entire 1970s for you?
EO: I would say Buckstone County would be the Number One of that. Then we come along with Living Legend1980), and it’s done real well – still does – and not because of myself and [Elvis Presley fiancée] Ginger Alden, necessarily. Roy Orbison did a soundtrack, and that’s not bad. He ain’t here no more either. But those things, you know, we just sell ’em. (...) We’re still here, and we do have eight sound stages, and we do have an office complex, 12,000 square feet. We do have a recording studio. We do have an 18-room motel. We do have what we have; it’s here. It’s the largest independent. See, Dino [De Laurentiis] built a studio in Wilmington, and Paine Webber raised him $210 million. He went broke, took him two years. And then Carolco [Pictures, of Rambo fame] took it over. They went broke. It’s at the end of an airport. See, Dino didn’t give a damn where it was in. Italians shoot [without sound], and they loop. They dub the language. He didn’t think anything about sound, just built it. Seven metal buildings at the end of an airport with a plane taking off every 15 minutes. And that’s fine; he did that, that’s him. He’s Dino De Laurentiis, he can do with the hell he wants to. (...) Screen Gems now owns it, but they ain’t doing nothing. They’re not doing anything, which is fine with me. I don’t care. They called me wanting me to buy the place. What I want with it? I don’t need it. Got rid of an abandoned nuclear plant ’cause I didn’t need it either. I do better with where I am, sitting in my little office and doing my thing. I really do. I just think I do better doing that, and whatever.
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