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Budd Boetticher, 85; Film Director Made Classic Westerns in the 1950s

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Budd Boetticher, a maverick Hollywood director whose Westerns starring Randolph Scott in the 1950s are considered classics of the genre, has died. He was 85.

The Chicago-born Boetticher, a onetime professional matador whose fascination with bullfighting served as his entre to filmmaking in the ‘40s, died of multiple organ failure Thursday at his home near Ramona in San Diego County.

Boetticher is considered by many film historians to be one of the five or six finest directors of Westerns, a reputation based on six of the seven modestly budgeted films he made with Scott from 1956 to 1960: “Seven Men From Now,” “The Tall T,” “Decision at Sundown,” “Buchanon Rides Alone,” “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station.”

Spare but poetic tales of honor and vengeance, which Boetticher called “morality plays,” the films starred Scott as the strong-willed mythic hero pitted against equally strong-willed villains.

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Boetticher received his first major acclaim as a director for the 1951 film “Bullfighter and the Lady,” a drama starring Robert Stack as a brash young American who convinces a legendary Mexican matador to teach him to be a bullfighter.

Based on Boetticher’s experiences in Mexico as a young man, the film earned him an Academy Award nomination for best story.

Boetticher had many fans among his fellow directors. Sam Peckinpah claimed to have watched “Bullfighter and the Lady” 10 times. And Sergio Leone, director of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” once spotted Boetticher at a film festival in Milan and cried out, “Budd! I stole everything from you.”

“He really was a legendary figure and a major talent,” said Kevin Thomas, a longtime film writer for The Times. “He worked on B budgets, but he was a class-A talent of the first order.”

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A rugged, dynamic man known for his wit and candor, Boetticher was a colorful raconteur, who relished telling stories of his drinking, carousing, Hollywood battles and other adventures.

“Budd cast a larger than life shadow,” said Thomas, who knew Boetticher for 35 years. “His life was more colorful and adventuresome than many of the heroes of his own films.”

Oscar Boetticher Jr. was born on July 29, 1916, in Chicago and raised in Evansville, Ind., where his wealthy father was co-owner of a major hardware concern.

Boetticher attended Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., and Ohio State University, where he boxed and played football.

Injured playing football in his junior year, he decided to take off for a year to recuperate.

His plan to go on an extended sea cruise with a college friend landed him in Mexico City, where he saw his first bullfight. Afterward, he was offered a chance to learn the matador’s art.

After being trained by the two leading matadors in Mexico, he fought bulls for more than a year. But when his mother read a story about the young American bullfighter in a Chicago newspaper, she sought advice on getting her son away from what she considered a “socially unacceptable” profession by calling movie producer Hal Roach, a family friend.

So during the off-season, Boetticher landed in Hollywood, where he used his bullfighting expertise to serve as technical advisor on director Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of “Blood and Sand,” starring Tyrone Power.

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Remaining in Hollywood, where he quickly rose through the ranks, Boetticher got his first directing chance at Columbia Studios in 1944.

“When [studio head] Harry Cohn asked me if I could direct, I lied,” he recalled. “Ten pictures later I nearly could.”

After six years of directing low-budget thrillers and crime films he found success with “Bullfighter and the Lady.”

“Budd was circa the great Hollywood heroes like [director] William Wellman, who was in the Lafayette Escadrille [during World War I],” Stack, who remained one of Boetticher’s closest friends, said Friday.

Before filming a scene in the bullring, Stack recalled, Boetticher told him, “Remember, I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do.”

But once he was in the ring, Stack remembered thinking to himself, “What am I doing here? [He] is a bullfighter; I’m an actor.”

After “Bullfighter and the Lady,” Boetticher returned to more standard fare, including “The Cimarron Kid” with Audie Murphy, “City Beneath the Sea” with Anthony Quinn and “The Man From the Alamo” with Glenn Ford.

Then, in 1956, he began his association with Scott in their series of Westerns. Future director Burt Kennedy wrote four of the seven films, whose notable villains included Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, Claude Akins and James Coburn.

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“They’re really remarkable films,” said Dennis Bartok, head programmer for American Cinematheque in Hollywood.

In a genre known for its starkness and simplicity, he said, Boetticher and his collaborators reduced the Western form “to the most essential brush strokes.”

“It’s a combination of quiet poetry, gallows humor, bitter violence and these really surprisingly dynamic and even attractive villains,” Bartok said.

“They were, in a way, variations on a single theme of this very moral, almost anachronistic, lone hero, who was on a very bitter, vengeful quest in a lot of the films and by the end of the films has in a way rediscovered a sense of hope or a promise of a new love or a new life.”

In 1960, after making a gangster picture, “Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond,” Boetticher left Hollywood for Mexico to resume work on a documentary he had begun filming in 1958 on the comeback of his longtime friend, the legendary bullfighter Carlos Arruza.

But in Mexico over the next seven years, Boetticher’s labor of love turned into a personal disaster.

His brief marriage to actress Debra Paget came to an end, he went bankrupt making his documentary, spent a week in a mental institution after a drinking binge, was thrown into prison for a week for not paying his hotel bill, and nearly died of pneumonia.

And, tragically, in 1966, his friend Arruza and some of the members of his film crew were killed in an automobile accident.

Boetticher’s 73-minute documentary, “Arruza,” premiered in a Tijuana movie theater in 1971, and though critically acclaimed it never saw wide release.

Boetticher wrote “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” a 1970 Don Siegel Western starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. And in partnership with Audie Murphy as producer, he directed his last feature film, “A Time for Dying,” a 1971 Western.

In the mid-1970s, Boetticher and his wife, Mary, moved to San Diego County, where for many years they bred Portuguese Lusitanos and Spanish Andalusians and put on demonstrations of bullfighting on horseback at a nearby equestrian center.

Boetticher wrote several scripts and wanted to continue directing, “but only on his own terms,” said Thomas.

And not everyone in Hollywood was a fan of Boetticher.

“He generally did not draw neutral responses from other people, and people who owe him quite a bit in this town really don’t like him because he was totally fearless,” said Thomas. “He just looked you in the eye and told you the truth according to the way he saw it.”

A 1991 winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Career Achievement Award, Boetticher was frequently honored at film festivals around the world.

Boetticher, in failing health, made his last public appearance over the Labor Day weekend at Cinecon, the convention of the Society of Cinephiles, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, where a UCLA-restored version of his masterpiece “Seven Men From Now” was screened to a rousing reception.

In addition to his wife, Boetticher is survived by his brother, Henry Boetticher of Los Angeles; and daughters, Georgia Shambara of Simi Valley and Helen Hale of Maui, Hawaii.

The American Cinematheque will hold a celebration of Boetticher’s work early next year.

Los Angeles Times


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