Kris Kristofferson has worked with a laundry list of brand name directors—Martin Scorsese, John Sayles and Tim Burton to mention a few—but his relationship, both professional and personal, with Sam Peckinpah tops them all. Not only did the hard drinking duo make three films together, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy and the misunderstood classic Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, but in tribute to the director Kris also wrote and recorded two songs, One for the Money and Sam’s Song (Ask Any Working Girl).
Peckinpah, known as one of Hollywood’s most hardheaded directors—at his funeral Robert Culp said what was surprising is not that Peckinpah only made fourteen movies, but that given the way he worked, that he was able to make any at all—returned the compliment, saying, “I like Kris because he writes poetry and he’s a fucking good man.”
The actor and director clicked, Kristofferson says, because they had self destructiveness in common. “Sam was an artist like I thought artists were. He was self destructive and the most important thing in his life was what he was creating. Unfortunately a lot of people who are built that way burn out.
Feeding the legend of Peckinpah’s prodigious intake of booze was a gag photo taken on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid showing the director laid out on a stretcher being fed whiskey through an IV bottle as cast members carried him.
“I don’t think his art came from his self destructiveness, that’s what destroyed his art. I don’t think you have to be self destructive to be a great artist. Some of us just have so many inhibitions going into it that to free ourselves we need to hit ourselves in the head with a hammer. Fortunately I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Peckinpah’s legendary battles with actors and studios may have been his undoing. “He was an artist and he was his own worst enemy,” says Kristofferson. “His work and it came first in front of everything else. I had the feeling it was burning out his energy at the end. He was spending so much time arguing with MGM, you know, that Pat Garrett suffered for it and they took it away from him. They stole it.”
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the story of former desperado turned lawman, Pat Garrett (James Coburn), and his quest to hunt down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kristofferson, age 36 playing a character of 21), was typical of the troubled productions that plagued Peckinpah’s career. But despite the turmoil, Peckinpah, who usually ruled his sets with a firm (although frequently drunken) hand, showed the singer-turned-actor respect, permitting him to change the script.
It happened during a scene where Billy the Kid blasts Deputy Bob Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong) with a shotgun loaded with 16 silver dimes. After the shot Billy the Kid wryly says, “Keep the change, Bob!”
“That was an adlib,” says Kristofferson. “I’m not sure Sam wanted that to happen but he recognized immediately when something was coming out more honest than the other.”
Later, in a scripted moment, Billy adds a second punch line to the macabre joke. When confronted by a man looking to be reimbursed for the horse Billy stole after shooting the Deputy the outlaw says, “There’s a buck-sixty in old Bob if you can dig it out.”
“I don’t think [Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid] was one of his best,” says Kristofferson, citing The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs as the director’s masterpieces, but he relished the experience anyway, as did Peckinpah. “Working with Kris on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was one of the great experiences of my life,” he said.