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The First Gangster

Slackmaster director Richard Linklater returns to his Texas roots with an intriguing cast to tell the story of outlaw Willis Newton and his gang of brothers.

June 29, 1997|Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday is the film critic for the Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Ol' Willis would most likely think it fitting.

"The Newton Boys," Richard Linklater's filmed adaptation of the life and times of Willis Newton and his three brothers, the most successful larcenists in American history, had been plagued all spring by record rains, punishing hail, hip-deep mud and even a tornado that took 27 lives just a few miles from the film's set in Bartlett, Texas.

And the bad news isn't over: on this, the last night of filming, in Bartlett, just three days after the deadly twister forced the crew to take cover in two bank vaults, the air is tinged with the familiar gelid green of impending disaster and the warning has been sounded again. This time, the front looks to be headed straight for Bartlett.

Crew members, who have been shooting nights all week, have warily watched and listened to weather reports, holding the film's cast in Austin until the all-clear sounded around 8 p.m. "I looked at the TV, and of all places, now it's in the town we're shooting in," says a weary Dwight Yoakam, one of the film's stars, during a turnaround between scenes. "We called the production office and they said, 'Don't go yet.' No kidding."

Los Angeles Times Sunday July 6, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 79 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Newton Boys"--Actor Charles Gunning appeared in a photograph last Sunday with Matthew McConaughey and Dwight Yoakam. A caption misidentified Gunning. Also, the film is a production of 20th Century Fox, not Fox 2000 as reported.

The millennial weather would suit Willis Newton, a hardscrabble son of the Texas plains who, having grown up in the cotton farming town of Uvalde, Tex., had an instinctive understanding of nature and its cruel vicissitudes. When he turned to robbing banks for a living, the safes, vaults and guards he confronted were like any other force of nature to be conquered through wile and will and brute strength. Willis, played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey (who was also born in Uvalde), had been robbing banks and trains for five years before calling his older brother, Jess (Ethan Hawke), and younger brothers Doc (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich), to join him.

For four years, the Newton Boys barnstormed Texas, the Midwest and Canada, robbing 80 banks and six trains, by their own lights garnering more money than the James Brothers, the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy and all the other big outlaws put together. They snagged $3 million alone in their most famous heist, the robbery of a mail train in Rondout, Ill., in 1924. And they never fired a fatal shot.

Tonight, downtown Bartlett--a former railroad terminus built at the turn of the century about 55 miles north of Austin--is standing in for Hondo, Tex., where the Newton Boys pulled off a daring two-bank job in one night. According to the oral history of Willis and Joe Newton, a cold norther' was blowing in Hondo that night. And indeed, the week's storms have resulted in an unseasonably cool breeze that makes the huge Ridder fan blowing potato flakes all but unnecessary.

Bartlett's stately downtown buildings have had their facades rebuilt to bring them into 1921, the year of the Hondo robberies, and cotton batting has been placed on window ledges to simulate snow. Yoakam, who plays Brent Glasscock, the explosives expert who "taught Willis everything he knew," jumps up and down and blows on his hands; Hawke, who has grown a dapper mustache for his role, shivers convincingly.

The five lead actors, all dressed in period cotton twill trousers and suspenders, gather in a circle around Linklater, who wears his uniform of denim cutoffs, black sneakers and a Panavision T-shirt, and proceed to block the scene--the second one they have filmed as a group.

McConaughey will pretend to shimmy down a telephone pole--having just cut the wires, a Newton trademark--and share with his brothers his idea to hit two banks at once. His head jutting forward with single-minded purpose, McConaughey is the picture of what made Willis not only the most successful criminal of his era, but one who embodied America's quintessential traits: charismatic, industrious and convinced that the banks, insurance companies and the government were just as criminal as he was.

It's Willis, Linklater says, who drew him to the Newton Boys' story in the first place.

"I immediately identified with him," he explains during a 1 a.m. lunch break in his trailer. "That's why I'm so fascinated with him, because I see parts of myself in him. Someone who will manipulate everyone around him to get what he wants, and do it in a charming way. I mean, what's a film director?"

Willis was also a fascinating transitional figure. "The four-second pitch for 4-year-olds and studio executives is that this is the film that takes place after the last Western and before the first gangster picture," says co-screenwriter Clark Walker, who is married to Linklater's producer, Anne Walker-McBay. "Our story is about Willis Newton, the first gangster, the American to change the American dream from the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer to respect through a million dollars."

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