Kenny & Linda Take a TV Gamble
Kenny Rogers and Linda Evans are in heat. Very intense heat. One hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit heat. They’re in Sedona, Ariz., 100 miles north and 3,420 feet up from Phoenix, to shoot a four-hour CBS miniseries sequel to The Gambler. Since the network’s 1980 production, starring Rogers and Bruce Boxleitner, boasted the highest ratings ever for a TV movie, wagering $6 million on a follow-up is penny-ante stuff.
Gambler II again centers on Rogers as Brady Hawkes, the character adapted from Kenny’s hit country tune (written by Don Schlitz). The locations—from Apacheland, Ariz, to Sonora, Calif.—are all on spectacular terrain: crazily chiseled red rock mesas, parched rolling valleys and brittle eruptions of scrub along deep-rutted trails. The sun is merciless; clouds stay away for weeks on end. Rogers, Evans, Boxleitner and the cast of good and bad guys all dress to keel over in scratchy wool period duds. The fun job belongs to caterer Phil Pantaleo on days when he’s spearing and tossing 70 pounds of glistening, marinated sirloin over a smoking, fiery barbecue pit for the 120 or so cotton mouths he has to feed. If there is a drug on the set to keep it all together, it’s ice water, and in Sonora, the engineer manning the 1891 oil-fueled train engine (2,000 degrees at 30 mph) was doing two gallons—before lunch.
That’s hot, but the real heat will come in November, during sweeps month, when CBS is counting on The Gambler II to blow away the competition. The Rogers-Evans team is hardly a long shot, since both ride the American mainstream like a pair of white-water rapids champs. But for the cast and crew, including a band of leathery rodeo hands, the seven-week location experience is the nitty-gritty.
For Rogers, 45 this month, the sequel makes unassailable sense. In addition to his near million-dollar fee (Evans reportedly gets $400,000), Rogers’ company produced Gambler II. For Kenny, the movie offers a rare taste of the good ole days. Leaning back on the frontier-town facade during a break in Sedona, Rogers says, “If I had any choice at all, everything I’d do would be a Western. They’re so unpretentious and fun. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable playing a doctor or an attorney or a psychotic. That requires an actor. I’m no Sir Laurence Olivier.”
In selecting the female lead, Rogers, his manager-producer Ken Kragen and director Dick (Gambler, Coward of the County) Lowry weren’t looking for Katharine Hepburn either, just a personality to match Kenny’s in appeal. Marianne Rogers, 38, his wife, provided the answer. Crunching a mouthful of ice cubes to cool off, Rogers explains, “She was the person who suggested Linda from the list of possibilities. Marianne [a Dynasty diehard] just said, ‘How can you not?’ ”
Notwithstanding her Krystle Carrington glamour showcase, Evans, 40, is at home on the range, having starred in The Big Valley TV series with Barbara Stanwyck some 20 years ago and in Tom Horn with Steve McQueen in 1980. Evans describes her character, Kate Muldoon, as “courageous, feisty, independent, a saloon singer-dancer, a bounty hunter and well rounded.” Her sharpshooting cowgirl teams up with Rogers and Boxleitner (of TV’s defunct Bring ‘Em Back Alive) to find Kenny’s kidnapped son. The role, says Linda, appealed to her for several reasons: “The combination of playing someone so different from Krystle, who is so introverted, plus the excitement of working with Kenny. I worked with Bruce on Bare Essence last year, and, gosh, I knew some of these wranglers and stuntmen back when we did Big Valley.’ ”
Linda arrived on location straight from a Love Boat cruise to China. “It was 100 degrees there and 113 in Arizona the first day. As soon as shooting began, they tried to hang me [the cliff-hanger between the two episodes]. I just jumped in for the fight scenes, rolling in this dirt with the guys under the horses.”
Evans, who can ride but had to be taught to quick draw, did much of the rough work herself. “It was absolutely ridiculous,” she says. “I had to come down over a mountain, ride horses through trees, jump onto rocks, over crevasses, creep down, crawl around, and do this huge shoot-out at night. I kept saying, ‘Why are they letting me do this? I’m nervous.’ I don’t think the Dynasty people know what I’m doing.”
Things just aren’t like that in Carrington country. “You forget, after so long on an elegant stage set, what dirt is like,” says Evans. “I have swallowed and breathed more dirt…I look pretty bad in this show most of the time. We have about two and a half hours of Linda Evans seriously sweating.”
The heat generated on the set is solar, not sexual. “I personally feel very uncomfortable doing love scenes,” Rogers admits. “So many marriages in Hollywood break up because of leading men and ladies. That must be a tremendous temptation. The bottom line, in order for it to look believable, is there’s got to be stimulation and motivation. That’s potentially destructive at home.” He shakes his cup, knocks back the ice cubes and goes on crunching, emphatic, well reasoned.
“I’ve been married three times before and more than anything else in the world I want this one to work out. It’s just not fair to put it in jeopardy. Besides,” he shrugs, “I’m sure Linda Evans didn’t do this movie just so she could be in a romantic situation with me.”
Rogers is no celluloid virgin though, having playfully romanced the stunning Erin Gray in Six Pack. Nothing was said at home, he recalls. “But I saw Marianne was in serious discomfort over that film.” This time around Kenny wasn’t taking any chances. Love scenes were ruled out. “I’m crazy about Linda,” says Marianne, but as for Linda’s kissing Kenny, “I might not have liked seeing it afterwards.”
To all this fretting over screen romances Boxleitner, 33, who is a hardcore devotee of Indian and Western lore and an art collector, adds some helpful historical perspective: “This is a traditional Western we’re doing here, anyway. The guys don’t kiss the girls. They kiss their horses.”
The majestic vistas around Sedona have inspired Hollywood’s romance with the Old West since the Silent Era. “There’ve been 58 Westerns (Broken Arrow, Comanche Territory) done in the area,” says Sedonan Bob Bradshaw, 65, a scenic photographer. In 1971 Bradshaw had the Western-town set used in Gambler II built on his 130-acre spread. But it was never used for features, only TV ads. “Some New Yorkers put up the money, I put up the land,” says Bradshaw, an extra in his own backyard. “We were to split the profit, but there never was any.” Even with a $500-a-day location fee, it’ll be a long time coming. “The script calls this place Jubilee,” he says. “I call it Bitter Creek. Westerns went down the tubes. They keep sayin’ they’re coming back. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
To help viewers believe what they see, production supervisor F.A. Miller selects each prop for authenticity—from the locomotive coach interiors and 1880s stoves to small sacks of flour tossed in a fight scene. Miller even hires “doubles” for the cast’s horses in case the star’s nag pulls up lame. “Kenny Rogers wants the look and feel of this film exactly right,” says Miller, “and we stretch the budget to do it.”
Johnny Crawford is one of many in the cast and crew with rich experience in the genre. From 1958 to 1963, aged 11 to 16, he played the son of Chuck Connors in The Rifleman. “I grew up immersed in the Old West,” says Crawford, who plays a good guy in Gambler II. “I heard all the stories from the Silent Era and love every minute of it.” He got so caught up he went on the rodeo circuit, learned calf and trick roping, steer wrestling and bronc riding. In his key Gambler II scene he has to wheel around and, almost without looking, hook the foot of a Mexican baddie and tie him up like a rodeo calf. Crawford roped his man on nearly every try.
Everyone over 30 seems to have at least one John Wayne story or one link to Gunsmoke. Ken Swofford, a rotund, jocular good guy in Gambler II, recalls his favorite of some 15 Gunsmokes. “I kept this retarded kid in a cage and poked him with a stick. Real sick stuff.”
If the gang of Western hands helped smooth production, Rogers’ canny way of instinctively making script changes did not. Says lanky Oklahoman director Dick Lowry, “Kenny’s especially good, once he’s in costume, at feeling out the scene for changes. It’s a little disconcerting and not the fastest way to go.” But hardly obstructionist. “I spent 45 days filming Smokey and the Bandit III for 90 minutes of film, and we’ll do this in 39 for 190 minutes. And I’m makin’ a better film.” One actor who would agree, Bad Guy Paul Koslo, survived Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate—the $40 million Western mega-dud. “The script was gospel,” he reports. “We spent three weeks once on one-eighth of a page—and no dialogue, either. Here, they’re tearing up pages all the time, continuously trying new things. Everyone pitches in.”
There’s no way to hustle through an intricately choreographed punch-out from one end of Jubilee to the other. Each separate clinch or heave is “covered” from two or three angles; each “coverage” requires a separate lighting setup and several takes. It means a lot of groveling in choking red dirt. Director Lowry platoons either Rogers and his nemesis (Mitch Ryan) or their respective doubles like a football coach. Kenny’s double, Dave Cass, takes Rogers’ heavier blows and is the one who will go through the window pane of “candy glass” or the wooden door, or go flying into the bench of pitchers and buckets. Still, Rogers hauls his weight with the round houses and the groaning. So well, in fact, that his nephew, Bradley, 4, begins bawling at the sight of Uncle Kenny getting mock-pummeled. Roy Rogers (Kenny’s brother and no relation to Trigger’s rider) brings the boy over so Kenny can reassure him. “See?” he says, wiping the tears away. “We’re only playing.” But Rogers assures Lowry he can fall on his back, plant his feet in a bad guy’s ribs and kick him into the air. When he succeeds, all the cast, crew and onlookers cheer. Says Rogers, “That’s half the fun. Actually Dave gets the real rough stuff. I get the glory.” The Bad Guy walks over to one woman who is particularly relieved the stunt is over. “Mrs. Rogers,” he says to Lucille, Kenny’s fast-witted 77-year-old mom, “you know, I’m really not that bad a guy. It’s just the role.” Lucille Rogers, who is dressed in costume like her sister Bill Smith, says, “You know, I’m glad to hear you say that because I’m playing a role too. I’m not really this old. It’s just makeup.”
When Rogers says, “This is like time off for me, out here,” he means it. It’s as close to a vacation as his life would seem to allow. “My band loves it when I do a film. It’s a break from music.” Not only are family members everywhere—mother, aunt, brothers, nephews, wife and baby son—but Kenny carts along his hobbies, tennis and photography. He sets up makeshift darkrooms in his hotel suites, where he does his own color and black and white prints.
He has hired his tennis coach, part-time actor Kelly Yunkerman, to play a young gambler in the film and to be available for seven daily sets of doubles in the triple-digit heat. “We’re No. 1 in Sedona,” he boasts.
On the July 4th weekend Rogers choppered to Vegas for two shows in one night (collecting up to $125,000) to keep the pipes in form. He rarely stops. His first LP under a new RCA contract, reported to be worth $20 million, is due out this fall. It is a gloriously lush, bold departure for Kenny, a collection of Barry Gibb songs harmonized by the Bee Gees and the Gatlin Brothers. The album will be preceded by the release next week of a single—a first-time duet with Dolly Parton called Islands in the Stream, destined for the top of the charts. An HBO special follows in October, then an oldies collection. “It’s a manager’s dream,” says the ever-exuberant Ken Kragen. “We’re going out of ’83 steamin’.”
Winded after spending a whole day working out one complex fight scene, Rogers admits he’s going to be cutting back soon, “gearing down” as he calls it. He wants to unload his three L.A. homes—Malibu, Bel Air and the near $20-million Dino De Laurentiis estate in Beverly Hills—and get away from it all on his 1,100-acre ranch near Marianne’s hometown of Athens, Ga. There he will just cool out after his colossal ascent to the throne of country-pop. Most of all, he wants that to be the place for son Christopher, 1, to grow up. He bought the De Laurentiis home in 1981, then relished the creative sinking of another $5 million into it for renovations. When the house was done, though, “It was just another place to sleep and eat.” He’s never moved in.
It’s tempting to laugh off his claim that “the happiest times Marianne and I had were in the beginning—’74, 75—when we had nothing except so much time together. Later I felt I had an obligation over the years to say to her, ‘I’ll give you all I can.’ ” He’s done that beyond both their dreams. But something is wanting. “Money satisfies your needs,” Rogers explains. “First, a car, a home. Then your wants—a boat, maybe a plane. Then your wants become collections. Then comes the corporate stuff.” The small companies set up to employ friends and family. He won’t specify. The payroll swell became “a liability” and has provoked a sudden urge to streamline, dismantle—”in the least negative way for the people” who live off his craft. Rogers’ time is so rationed he complains he can’t even commit to a social dinner a week ahead. “For eight years my life has been controlled by obligation.”
Now he is betting that he can control it himself. At stake is his nice-guy image, but this new, emphatic Kenny doesn’t care. He won’t gamble with his marriage, Kenny says. He’ll go on singing, but he won’t live as a tourist attraction. “I have tried all my life not to offend anyone,” he says, “but there comes a time when you have to offend to protect.”