He looks like a spooked calf about to face the rope at his first rodeo. Levi L. Knebel may have his feet in the Big Apple, but his mind is back home in Dunkerton, Iowa. Hauling feed seems a darn sight preferable to squeezing into a monkey suit, swallowing that fancy big-city cooking and squinting through the strobes that greet his appearance at the opening of the prestigious New York Film Festival. “I ain’t used to all the people and no grass,” says Levi, 18, who finds Manhattan almost as difficult an adjustment as accepting the fact that he is co-starring with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard in the festival’s opener, Country, the saga of a farm family facing foreclosure.
Last October Levi was just a typical high school senior when he heard that Lange and Shepard were coming to town to make a movie about farmers. He figured he might get a job driving some of the farm equipment. “Instead the movie people asked if I had a picture,” Levi reports. “So I went to the Kmart, put 75 cents in the booth and had my picture taken.”
Within a week, Levi, without even a tad of acting experience or ambition, also had the pivotal role of Lange and Shepard’s son, Carlisle. The stars praised his naturalness, but Jane Knebel, Levi’s mom, thought he might have something else in his favor. “Levi looks more like Sam Shepard than he does his own father,” she says. “It’s that dishwater-light-brown hair and that same lankiness.”
The Knebel family, including Levi’s father, Bill, and sisters, Lisa, 17, and Sara Jo, 9, were thrilled over Levi’s luck. As ever Levi was laconic. “He’s like that all the time—all action, no talk,” says his mom. The carrot for Levi was a chance for a $9,000 Ford Ranger truck, the wheels of his dreams. “He only took the role to buy that truck,” says Lange, who also served as Country’s co-producer. “We paid him every week and we were afraid that when he had enough money for the truck, he wouldn’t show up anymore.”
Lange needn’t have worried. Levi had grown to admire his boss. “She didn’t look like a ritzy person,” he says. “She got out in the mud and dirt and she didn’t bitch about nothin’.” Of the much publicized offscreen love affair between Lange and Shepard, Levi is typically informative. “She and Sam,” he says, “—pretty close.”
He is slightly more effusive on the subject of Shepard, the reclusive actor and playwright. “Me and him got along real good,” says Levi. “We talked about trucks.” The two played pool and went trapshooting together and insisted on sending the stuntmen home when it came time to film their father-son fight scene. Levi’s blue-green eyes fairly glow at the memory: “Sam throws open the barn door, pushes me into some sheep, then picks me up and throws me again.” Numerous takes were required. The last one landed Levi at the local chiropractor’s office. “Sam kicked me with his boots right in the butt,” he says, grinning. After shooting, “Sam gave me a hunting knife, and I gave him an Amish hat,” says Levi. “Sam’s like a regular person, except maybe richer.”
Levi’s attachment to Shepard and Lange made the trip to New York for Country’s premiere even more enticing. The Disney Studios, which produced the film, put up Levi and his mom at the Plaza Hotel. But there was a hitch. When they arrived, their three-room suite had been reserved by Walter Mondale, who was in N.Y. for a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. So the Iowans had to cool their heels in another room for several hours until the Mondale suite was free. When they did see their new spread, they almost fell over. “This is bigger than our house,” marveled Jane Knebel. The $13 room-service tab for Levi’s breakfast juice and eggs nearly floored her. “I could make breakfast for a week for $13 back home.”
This evening’s banquet has Levi squirming. “I’m real nervous,” he admits. A lover of pizza and his mother’s tacos, he sniffs at the terrine de poisson (“What is that fish thing?”) and picks at his dessert (“Who has brandy on their ice cream? Geez”).
In the limo on the way to the theater with actor Wilford Brimley, who plays his crusty granddad in Country, Levi learns firsthand how to deal with newfound stardom. “Son,” says Brimley, “when you walk through those lights and cameras, just keep looking at your feet. Those people will swarm over you like flies on a dung pile.”
At the party following the premiere, Levi seems shell-shocked. The crowd hovers around the glamour couple, while Shepard keeps ducking questions that don’t concern hunting and Lange, the daughter of a Minnesota traveling salesman, holds forth on the plight of the modern farmer. Few of the guests bother to interrogate Jane Knebel and her son, who know more about that subject simply because it has been a part of their lives for as long as either of them can remember. Though the Knebels live in a three-bedroom ranch house in Dunkerton (pop. 800), they lease six acres of grazing land around town. “We don’t raise anything we can’t eat,” says Jane, who says that every Iowa farm family has to have two incomes if they want the extras that crops won’t provide. Jane has a part-time job as a classroom supervisor and her husband is an ironworker when jobs are available. “We’ve almost had to face foreclosure on the house,” she says. “When people get laid off, there is no money for payments. It happens all the time where we live.”
Back at the Plaza, Jane and Levi are getting ready for the trip home. Levi sprawls on the bed puffing a cigarette and watching a rerun of Laverne & Shirley. Jane confides that he tried to take a walk in Central Park yesterday, but came right back. “He said people were trying to sell him weird cigarettes,” she explains. Levi is clearly eager to be gone. “I’d get too fat and lazy here,” he says.
Home in Dunkerton, the new star finally begins to enjoy his success. In the garage sits his Ford Ranger, with four-wheel drive, stripes on the side and a $350 stereo. Since last December Levi has put 20,000 miles on it. His idea of a hot date is to “just drive around.”
On graduating from Dunkerton Community School last May, Levi decided he wasn’t interested in college. He’d like to drive a truck for a living but doesn’t think his father would like that. His mother says Levi is scrupulous about helping on the farm and “his only fault is that he doesn’t pick up after himself.” He might like to try some more acting, but he isn’t taking anything for granted. With Country a hit and Levi winning raves, he has signed up with a manager in New York, but so far no takers. Levi isn’t losing any sleep over it. “I’m just sitting around washing my truck and shooting frogs,” says Levi. “I never expected anything. If it comes, it comes. If it don’t, it don’t.”