Carradine Paints His Way Into ‘The Moderns’ ’ Corner

Times Arts Editor

In Alan Rudolph’s “The Moderns,” which opens in mid-April, Keith Carradine plays a painter, one of the colony of American expatriates enjoying freedom and a shortage of money in the Paris of 1926. He pals around with a drunken and foolish Ernest Hemingway and does not impress Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

The poster for the film is one of several paintings Carradine did during the shooting and it is said to be selling briskly.

“I’d done some painting when I was younger and I wanted it to feel right in the film, so I asked David Blocker (the film’s co-producer) to send an easel and paints and canvases to my hotel room. After work I’d go back to the hotel and order room service and paint.”

The character’s own paintings don’t sell so he does the odd forgery to keep body and atelier together. Carradine did an adaptation of a Cezanne and Rudolph said, “Not bad.” The rest may not be art history but it has been a serendipitous pleasure for Carradine. Three of the paintings are glimpsed in the film.

Carradine and Rudolph met when Rudolph was assistant director on Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” They discussed what became Rudolph’s critically successful first feature “Welcome to L.A.,” which was also a critical success for Carradine.


“ ‘The Moderns’ was going to be our next feature after ‘Welcome to L.A.,’ ” Carradine said last week. “We’ve been involved with it for 12 years. Then we were going to do it after ‘Choose Me,’ then after ‘Trouble in Mind.’ But the financing kept falling through.”

The death of Jon Bradshaw, who co-authored the script with Rudolph and to whom “The Moderns” is dedicated, became the catalyst, Carradine said, which made the film possible.

Shooting in Paris was financially prohibitive, but in all events, the Paris the American expatriates knew in 1926 had changed beyond recognition. Montreal was significantly less dear and looked the part perfectly. Bradshaw’s widow, Carolyn Pfeiffer, is chief executive at Alive Films, which produced and is distributing the film, so that “The Moderns” became a labor of homage for everybody concerned.

Carradine, son of John, brother of Robert, half-brother of David, raised largely by grandparents in San Mateo while John was on the road, began acting at Ojai Valley School, in uncommon choices like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Aria de Capo” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” (“Wonderful teacher, named Junius Benham Close, who’s still a friend.”)

Despite family tradition--Carradine’s mother was also a performer who had met John in a Chicago production of “Chaillot"--Keith decided to attend Colorado State at Ft. Collins with dreams of being a forest ranger.

“I had this idyllic fantasy of sitting somewhere communing with nature and chatting with the bears.” The university has a fine forestry course, but it involved studying biology and other nonidyllic subjects. “I didn’t want to have to learn anything,” Carradine said with a self-mocking grin. He switched to theater arts but left after a semester.

He was cast in the Los Angeles production of “Hair.” “I did two weeks here; it was sort of like boot camp.” Then he transfered to the New York production and his acting career was launched.

“I’ve never read for a part I’ve gotten, and I’ve never gotten a part I read for,” Carradine said not long ago. On reflection, he amended that slightly. He interviewed with Robert Aldrich for “Emperor of the North Pole,” his third film, in 1973. “I read for him, and then did a screen test, and then waited six weeks before I heard.”

His second film, his first of note, was a small part in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for Altman. “He makes you so comfortable. He’s so reassuring. It’s dangerous for the young actor; you could get the idea all directors are like that.”

By the time Carradine came to do “Thieves Like Us” with Altman, he was wearing his hair at clavicle length as a token of independent spirit. Altman told him he would have to cut it for the part. Carradine started to object, mildly. “If that’s where your ego is, it’s in the wrong place,” Altman told him.

As a young actor, Carradine says, it was difficult having grown up as John Carradine’s son. He had acted with his father in a dinner theater production of “Tobacco Road” in Florida (stuffing his long hair under a wig).

“My father was so classically oriented, so Shakespearean, the image and the persona so strong that it took me a while to learn a style of acting that was not imitating my father. I played the king in ‘Beckett’ in college, and I wish I had a tape of it. You’d see a kid trying to imitate his dad.

“I spent my first couple of years in the business trying to shed myself of that image--trying to be me instead of someone else.”

Carradine also said recently that he’d never done a role just for the money, then amended that slightly. At the urging of Jean Boffety, the cinematographer on “Thieves Like Us,” Carradine in 1974 made a movie in Paris called “Antoine et Sebastien,” briefly seen on the college circuit in this country. To allow some more time in Europe he went to Rome for a film called “Run Run Joe!” which Times reviewer Kevin Thomas decided was as funny as a cracked skull and which Carradine winces to remember.

But it is true that he has kept busy doing generally small, low-budget but admirable films like “The Duellists,” “Pretty Baby” and the several Rudolphs. He avoided television for years until it began to tackle themes that commanded his attention.

His hair is still a short stubble from having his head shaved for a docudrama, “My Father, My Son,” airing in May and based on an admiral’s son, Elmo Zumwalt, who was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and is grievously ill with cancer. Carradine leaves for Lisbon in a few days to shoot a David Goodis thriller, “Street of No Return,” for director Sam Fuller. He has been fitted for a wig. It’s the actor’s life: too much hair or not enough.