Ever see a 6’5″ hand grenade walking and fingering the pin? That’s Max Baer, the sitcom lout (Jethro on Beverly Hillbillies) turned moviemaker (Macon County Line). Worst of all, success hasn’t mellowed Max at 38. It just makes him meaner, which is to say able to maintain his premiums on the $2 million indemnity policy he bought in 1975 just in case he opted to punch out “at least eight SOBs in this town who have it coming.” Well, watch out, Hollywood Eight. Baer (the son of ex-heavyweight boxing champ Max Sr.) has caught white lightning again with another redneck movie. His current Ode to Billy Joe, based on Bobbie Gentry’s ballad about the Tallahatchie Bridge tragedy, has spread like swamp fever, grossing $15 million in a mere eight weeks.
“A lot of people want to be a Sam Goodguy,” Max drawls. “Not me. I was poor, then rich, then poor again and then rich again. I know who my friends are, and I know who are my enemies. If I ever get a chance to screw my enemies—baby, they can count on it.” Much of his fury is a flashback from his post-Hillbillies comedown. Earning $200,000 per when the series ended in 1971, Max watched his bank balance wither partly because of a bitter divorce. The marriage to Hollywood extra Joanna Hill, he snorts, ran “eight wonderful minutes and three years of sheer hell.”
In the meantime, Max was himself cast for only $6,000 worth of roles in three years. (Not even Hillbillies paterfamilias Buddy Ebsen, who went on to Barnaby Jones, helped out, and Baer smarts, “I’d have thought he’d know what it was like to be typecast.”) “I took up directing because I don’t take orders well,” he admits. Even in 1975, after he produced, co-wrote and co-starred in his first film, Macon County Line—a $237,000 flyer that collected an astounding $35 million—Max found that his investors “didn’t want to press their luck” on his next project. “I received a total, across-the-board turndown.”
Max has always been “very determined and stubborn,” says his mother, who lives in Sacramento and frets that her boy is ulcer material. She raised him a Catholic (his late father boxed with a Star of David on his trunks to build box-office at Madison Square Garden). Junior earned a business degree and an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Santa Clara, but failed trying to follow his dad into the ring. He got his nose broken in his first fight, and quit half a dozen bouts later. Instead, Baer became a TV contract player with Warner Bros., appearing mostly as corpses (though in a 1960 Hawaiian Eye segment he was the thug who tried to kidnap an heiress played by then-starlet Mary Tyler Moore). In 1962 came Hillbillies.
Today Baer reigns over a 12-room Benedict Canyon house with tennis court; pool; orange, lemon and avocado groves, and even a private waterfall. The only live-in regular is a houseboy. Max has decided, “Marriage and divorce in California is a license to steal. From now on, I’ll live with women if I want to, and if I want kids I’ll adopt them—without a wife.”
His new turn-on is investment, though he jokes, with Jethro subtlety: “I always thought entrepreneur was a venereal disease.” Right now he’s into L.A. apartments, a shopping center near Palm Springs, Indiana real estate and 19 Denny’s Restaurant franchises. Not that Baer’s leaving the creative film world—his next will be a Women’s Army Corps comedy about eight girls “doing the same thing guys do,” tastefully titled W.A.C.-Off. He still dreams of making a bio flick about his dad, though Max regrets, “I’m too old to play him now.”
Baer relishes his position as what he calls “the only really independent producer in Hollywood,” conveniently overlooking Tom (Billy Jack) Laughlin. “I make movies with my own money and with nobody looking over my shoulder,” he blusters. “If my movies had failed, they wouldn’t have to look far to find someone to put the blame on. But since they succeed, I guess they’d better come to me.” Even mighty MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman made an overture when Billy Joe proved that Macon County Line wasn’t a fluke. The bigger they come the harder they fall, gloats Max. “They have two ways of doing things: my way and my way.”