A bona fide "Girdler veteran," Hugh Smith's performances in Billy's movies earn high marks from b-movie fans. Hugh contributed heavily to Bill's early films, both on camera and behind the scenes.
In addition to his appearances in Three on a Meathook, Zebra Killer, and Lee Jones' Invasion of the Girl Snatchers, Hugh says he was a full partner at Mid America Pictures until a falling out with Billy inspired Hugh to tackle Hollywood by himself. There, Hugh penned a number of screenplays including The Student Body, Moonshine County Express, Night Creature, and the Ross Hagen classic The Glove. Hugh and Billy eventually mended their friendship and aimed to work together again. Their reconciliation occurred a few weeks before Bill's death.
A writer, editor, and teacher, Hugh Smith now resides in Seattle. He recently returned from a teaching stint at Kyungpook National University in Korea. He's also written a novel which will hopefully see publication in the near future. Hugh found William Girdler.com a few weeks ago and I've gleefully fired questions at him ever since.
WG.com: First, tell me a little about yourself. What were you doing before you worked on the Girdler movies?
Hugh Smith: I was acting and directing in theater. Following grad school I taught a year of high school English in Missouri, then joined the cast of "The Legend of Daniel Boone" (a summer outdoor theater pageant) at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where I first met Jim Pickett, who played Boone. After that summer I moved to Louisville with my then-wife and worked as a bartender and, eventually, night manager at Cunningham's restaurant. When the next summer came around, I quit my job at Cunningham's and went back to acting and directing. I played a few roles and directed Julius Caesar for Douglas Ramey's Shakespeare in the Park that summer.
Late that summer Jim Pickett, who had also moved to Louisville, told me about Studio One, where he had been doing some work. We remained friends for many years. I suppose you know that Jim died of AIDS several years ago. It might interest you to know that Jim was making a name for himself as a playwright in Los Angeles before he died. Several of his plays were produced professionally. Anyway, Jim introduced me to Billy, who decided I would be suitable for that meaningless bed scene at the beginning of Meathook. Bill liked the way I delivered one or two of the lines, and Pickett had persuaded him that I was okay.
What was your first impression of Billy?
Billy and I liked each other from the start. My first impressions of Bill: cherubic, curly-headed, big infectious smile, chipmunk cheeks, short like me, quite a bit younger than me, enjoying his status as the center of possibilities for Studio One, a strange combination of congeniality and distance. Busy.
How would you characterize your working relationship with Billy during the early years?
Bill found me interesting enough (and useful enough) to throw me bits of income producing work during the Studio One period, for which I was very grateful. I did just about anything that was available to do, just for the opportunity to gain experience in film work. You may have heard the old Hollywood joke about the guy whose job it was at the circus to follow elephants around, shoveling up their manure. When someone asked him why he didn't quit such work, he replied, "What? And leave show business?" So I worked as a gofer on a Fry Meats commercial starring Don Meredith (interesting anecdote about that, if you want to hear it) and helped with a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial.
OK, tell me the Fry Meats/ Don Meredith story …
The Don Meredith story goes like this: Some ad agency had hired Studio One to do a Fry Meats commercial starring Don Meredith, who you may remember was something of a major celebrity in those days. I can't remember if he was hosting Monday Night Football at the time, but he had a name and image that would sell processed meats. Very likeable guy, too, just as you might imagine. Nothing pretentious about him at all. The, uh, creative people at the agency had this, uh, really terrific idea of having Don lie down inside a hotdog bun, deliver some lines, then, uh, turn into a HOTDOG! The Asmans, I believe, had built the giant hotdog. Well, this was a surprise to old Don. No one had pitched him this idea and it wasn't in his contract and he had to leave for New Orleans in a couple of hours for another shoot. "Hotdog? You want to turn me into a HOTDOG! You know, boys, I do have one or two fans out there. This is a joke, right? Okay, look, it ain't no use tryin' to shit an old shitter." And other words to that effect. The "creative" suits fell all over themselves laughing at themselves and groveling before Don. The giant hotdog was never used, and because it wasn't used, whoever made it didn't get paid for it. End of story.
You have a small yet rather fortuitous role in "Three on a Meathook" (you get to squirm around in bed with a naked girl), and you also worked behind the scenes. What was the shoot like?
She wasn't entirely naked! That scene was filmed at Studio One, and there was a rather breathless sense of danger about it. It evolved that the lady was doing this against her mother and boyfriend's serious objections, and there was some question whether they might actually barge onto the set and yank her out of bed. I found out later that John Asman, the sound recorder, had his boom mike set to pick up the things we two were mumbling to each other under the covers between takes. I hope he destroyed those. It was method acting of a particularly thrilling sort. I wasn't on the set for much of the remainder of Meathook, so I can't give you much detail about that. I was behind the scenes only in a gofer capacity.
("I've got to get to class." Wav audio clip from Three on a Meathook: 28 KB.)
That bedroom character, by the way, was meant to show up in subsequent scenes, but my character was cut for some reason, and Bill seemed to be satisfied to leave that opening scene in, as it gave the film a certain titillating tackiness regardless of story value. Besides, he shot so little film on that project that he needed every piece of footage to get anything like a 90-minute feature.
Where did you first see "Meathook?" What was your reaction?
Bill screened it for a bunch of us. Can't remember where, but in Louisville. I hadn't developed the sort of sensibility that allows one to view something like Meathook ironically, so I was appalled. I felt sorry for Jim, though I give him credit for trying really hard. One mitigating factor that tempered my sense of dismay was that I knew how quickly and cheaply the thing had been made. I'm quite sure it didn't cost more than $25,000 before editing and lab costs. Also, I was aware of where Bill was headed with feature films. He was going to outdo the Roger Corman movies with shock and schlock, and do it much cheaper. When Bill and I took Meathook to Hollywood to drum up interest in the new company I formed with him (Mid-America Pictures), Bill's logic failed, I'm sad to say. If you go to Hollywood intending to wow producers with how cheaply you can make a movie, they have a tendency to only offer you opportunities to make other 25-thousand-dollar movies.