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When Bad Gets Good

Mike Downey

September 10, 2000|Mike Downey

The thing about Bernard "Barnyard" Mattox is, he never counted on becoming a big Hollywood movie star. Even once he began working for the likes of John Ford and Steven Spielberg, or co-starring in four of Clint Eastwood's pictures and such, it wasn't as if old Barnyard ever expected to have his film work featured in a festival, or to get the red-carpet superstar treatment someday.

It was gratifying enough to do what Hollywood's legends and bit players alike had done-- change your name, rue good scenes landing on a cutting- room floor, get that first big break, narrowly miss that bigger break, then look back with pride eventually at some pretty darn fine credits.

This would leave but one matter to be resolved. One unknown. That was whether history would forgive--or if Barnyard could get past it himself--his one career scar, having starred in "The Worst Movie Ever Made."

You do 50-odd films and 300-odd TV shows, but all that some people seem to remember is the oddest of them all, the worst director who assembled the worst cast with the worst props and the worst script and the worst budget and proceeded to make the worst piece of celluloid you ever saw.

But who knows? Maybe some night you'll glance up at a marquee, and it'll announce that "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is back by popular demand, starring Gregory Walcott--and that's you. Except this time, when the screen reads The End, the people in the audience aren't looking for tomatoes to throw or leaving up the aisles in droves, sorry they sat through this sorry spectacle.

They're on their feet, applauding.

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He was 21 and fresh from the Army when he bye-y'alled his genteel North Carolina hometown and hit the highway with his thumb out. Fit and clean-cut, he carried a tennis racket while hitchhiking, to cut a more trustworthy figure for passing motorists.

Having been a high school football player and a soldier, Barnyard--his gridiron nickname--had gotten bitten by an acting bug. He checked into a YMCA in California and enrolled in a school of drama, the GI Bill paying his way.

Little by little, he began finding work. For an actor, that's the cue to pick a name out of a hat and yield your own.

"Just about everybody then changed his name," Walcott says over lunch in the San Fernando Valley, where he's lived since 1956. "It's my one great regret. If I had it to do again, that's the one thing I wouldn't do."

Or perhaps one of two, keeping in mind a certain science-fiction film.

The first movie Gregory Walcott did was a Western. It was 1951, and his hometown's cinema made a nice fuss. It placed a blown-up photo of Walcott next to the box office. Richard Widmark in "Red Skies of Montana" got the marquee, but beneath it hung a banner of equal size: "Co-Starring Bernard 'Barnyard' Mattox, of Wilson, N.C."

To this very theater Walcott once brought a date, to be suitably impressed at a premiere in his honor, only to find to his great embarrassment that his best scenes had been cut.

But other opportunities came along, on screen and off. They ranged from trying in vain to teach a Southern dialect to David Niven to running into Ava Gardner and letting her know they hailed from the same hometown.

Walcott found fairly steady work. He did bits in war films like "Mister Roberts," "Battle Cry" and "The Outsider." He tested to be Tarzan and played lots of cops and cowboys. A 24-year-old Spielberg, doing his first theatrical film, cast Walcott as a police officer in "Sugarland Express." Eastwood used him often, usually as a foe. When union-organizing Sally Field got dragged off by the sheriff in "Norma Rae," he was the sheriff.

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Back in 1959, though, an acquaintance had staked a nobody named Edward D. Wood Jr. to make a movie. The friend asked Walcott how he would like to be in a film with Bela Lugosi.

"But Bela's dead," Walcott said.

Drawbacks like this didn't faze Ed Wood. He used a home movie of Lugosi and an impersonator. He used nonunion crews and borrowed equipment. Walcott agreed as a favor, not even telling his agent, but regretted it instantly and for years thereafter. Virtually every reference guide labels "Plan 9 From Outer Space" the worst movie ever made.

Its star, though, has made peace with it. "I didn't want to be remembered for that," Walcott, 72, says good-naturedly. "But it's better to be remembered for something than for nothing, don't you think?"

Yes, especially because later this month, Wilson, N.C., is hosting a two-day Gregory Walcott Film Festival. Nine members of Walcott's family will make the trip, and one of the weekend's featured attractions will be "Plan 9." He and his son, Todd Mattox, will even conduct an audience Q&A after the screening.

"So I guess I owe Ed Wood an apology after all these years," Walcott says, tipping an imaginary cap. "Thanks, Ed."

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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