Richard Crenna: An Old Hand at Reining Them in Gently


Richard Crenna saddles up for the role of an aging cowboy in “By Dawn’s Early Light,” a movie premiering Sunday on the Showtime cable network.

Crenna, 73, plays Ben Maxwell, who initially welcomes teenage grandson Mike (Chris Olivero) with open arms when the young man is sent by his parents to visit Ben for six weeks in the wilds of Colorado.

Unfortunately, Mike is a surly, spoiled kid from Los Angeles who tunes out authority. Mike’s arrogant attitude rubs the good-natured Ben the wrong way, so he decides his grandson has to leave on his terms, making the 800-mile journey back to Los Angeles with his grandfather on horseback.

The Emmy Award-winning Crenna began his career on such radio shows as “Date With Judy” and segued to TV in the ‘50s in such TV comedies as “Our Miss Brooks” and “The Real McCoys,” co-starring with Walter Brennan. He’s appeared in countless TV movies and in such features as “The Sand Pebbles,” “Wait Until Dark,” “The Flamingo Kid,” “Body Heat” and the three “Rambo” movies. Crenna also appears occasionally as Tyne Daly’s love interest on the CBS series “Judging Amy.”


Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, “By Dawn’s Early Light’ also stars David Carradine and Stella Stevens. Crenna recently chatted about the project from his home in the San Fernando Valley.

Question: Ben Maxwell is such a great character--he really lives by the code of the cowboy.

Answer: It was an homage to Walter Brennan. I was tempted just to go into Walter Brennan from time to time [going into a perfect impression of Brennan], “Listen, boy. Get on the horse and get over there.” Then I thought, “No. I better not do that. I’ll wait to do that in two or three years.”

It was an interesting project in the fact that we started it long ago, in the fall of 1999. We had been working out and riding horses. It’s something I do before I go into any western. I learned [riding a horse] is not like a bicycle. Your behind does not remember the way it felt four years ago. If you don’t ride all the time, you get a lot of aches and pains.


First rehearsal of the first shot of the picture, I play a scene which is no longer in the picture--I walk across this bullpen with longhorn steers and I [talk with] with Stella Stevens. In the middle of rehearsal, I climbed on the top of this fence which was about 5 feet tall. I turned and hooked my toe on the top rail of the fence and down I went.

Q: How badly were you injured?

A: I just hit the ground so hard. I tore my right Achilles tendon, I tore my rotator cuff, my hamstring. They took me off to the hospital with my smiling “the show must go on” attitude. Arthur said, “I’ll shoot around you until you get back.”

One day later, they came to me and said, “We’re shutting the picture down. We are not going to shoot this. We are shooting this because you are in it and we are not going to make the picture without you.” I think it was one of the nicest compliments ever paid to me as an actor because usually there is a guy on the next plane and he is there to start the next morning wearing your clothes.

Q: How long did it take for you to recover?

A: I had to go have surgery and rehabilitation. It was seven or eight months and everybody [in the cast] came back and most of the crew came back. It was like meeting up with an old summer stock company because we had gone through the period riding horses, roping and drinking beer in the bars. We got to know each other pretty well--coming back almost made the picture better, in a sense. We really felt a warm feeling toward it and obviously, I felt a very warm feeling toward Showtime.

Q: Were you nervous getting back in the saddle after the accident?

A: I was a little tentative. I was thinking, “How am I going to feel once I get on this animal again?” I have done a lot of westerns . . . and usually, I get the doggiest horse in the picture for whatever reason. The damn thing won’t run. It won’t do anything. I had the most marvelous animal [for this movie]. I was afraid I was going to lose it when we went back to do the picture, but he was available again. He makes you look good. This one was a real quarter horse, a real roping horse. They move by touch and feel, so you hardly have to rein them. You just lean and they go in the right direction.


Q: Did you bring your life experience of being a father and grandfather to this part?

A: I don’t think there is any question about it. What appealed to me was the love story between the two--the love story between the grandson and the grandfather. I am from the Norman Rockwell generation, where there were such things as politeness and responsible behavior and some regard for your elders. Unfortunately, it is one of the things we are losing in today’s modern civilization. I would like to say to a lot of young people, “Come on, appreciate your life.”

I think so many people really give up on kids and don’t give them the benefit of the doubt or give them the benefit of some of the so-called wisdom of their elders.

I have a very close family. . . . Every Sunday the whole family gathers. We have the family dinner and everybody comes and sits and we play games and talk and play with the kids. That is something I regret is a custom that is unknown to so many families.


* “By Dawn’s Early Light” airs Sunday night at 8 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).