A summer spent ranging around the Alabama Hills each day would be paradise for a lot of eleven year old boys. For Bill Wellman, son of film director William A. Wellman, the summer he spent on location in Lone Pine his father filmed Yellow Sky stands out as one of those great times in his youth."I was so interested in so many things. I would talk to the wranglers and the actors and the grips and I thought it was all terrific! I was interested in everything and there was always something going on for a kid." Bill's eyes twinkled as he remembered that summer in 1948, when after school was out, he came up to room with his father.Because Yellow Sky was shot during the summer, instead of just a few days, Bill got to spend most of two months here. "They started shooting on May 26th in Death Valley. I came up right after that. I don't remember being in Death Valley but I was here in Lone Pine the whole time."We spoke over lunch in the Totem Café in Lone Pine before the Cowboys in the Canyon dinner and concert. Bill has very fond memories of the rocks, the hot days on the set and the stars who were working here.."Everybody treated me well. I mean I was the director's son. Nobody was going to treat me badly." Bill grinned as he ate his salad. "Mostly they didn't pay any attention to me. They had work to do.
"William Wellman Jr. has had a long career as actor and producer. In Lone Pine that summer, he wasn't learning the trade, he was just a kid having adventures and looking for fun. As an actor he has a long and diverse filmography, cutting his teeth on westerns but also appearing in science fiction and war films as well. He has had many television appearances including Deep Space Nine, The Practice, Jag and Alias. He worked in Lone Pine on two Have Gun, Will Travel episodes "The Golden Toad" and "The Posse." He produced a documentary about his father called Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick and has a contract now to write a book about his father's early life in film tentatively called First Best Picture: William A. Wellman and the Making of Wings.However, it was his experiences as a young man that we focused on during our talk. Lone Pine was not his father's first location he had visited. Altogether he visited twenty-two while growing up. The family had only visited Director Wellman all together a few times. "I was never asked to be in one of my father's films, yet my brothers and sisters worked in them."Perhaps that explains why Bill was always trying to get into them. "I tried to sneak into his films. Then all of a sudden it became a passion of mine. Actually the first time I tried it was on This Man's Navy in 1945 with Wallace Beery. They were doing this scene where the Japanese soldiers were coming through the jungle and there was this tall grass."You know, I bet I could get behind them as they rehearsed withouit anyone knowing it. So I followed behind Beery but I was too short and the grass was too tall and you couldn't see me. I'm there."The game was a frustrating one for the young man. "The next time tried was Gallant Journey in 1947 and I am in it but I cannot see myself. There is a sequence where there is an earthquake and they have a hundred extras running through this field. I just went there running with them. But I look too much like the rest of them, as there are adults and children all running.
"Bill was not one to give up easily. "I just thought I wanted to do it. I got frustrated because I could never really see myself. So when Yellow Sky came around, I was there everyday watching them shoot scenes. I thought where I could go. I finally figured it out. It was the sequence where Gregory Peck and Ann Baxter are fighting in the corral. I got up in the barn and there is a hayloft up there. I kept sticking my head out of the hay covering me up. I was up there a long time because they shot a whole lot of coverage on that scene..""If you watch that sequence, you see the barn and the hayloft in the background, but again I didn't poke my head out far enough. They shot it in the daylight. I really thought I was going to be in that one, but I wasn't either."Bill roomed with his father at the Dow Hotel. He explained that you came off the road and went around back to where his and his father's room was and Richard Widmark's. "I forget where Gregory Peck's room was. But I remember Widmark was there because he paid me the most attention. He used to take me out for milkshakes after shooting because he didn't go ands hang around the bars like the other guys did. He was looking for some other diversion."Clearly, Bill has a very warm spot in his heart for Richard Widmark. "Richard Widmark was a terrific guy and when I did the documentary (Wild Bill), we reiterated all these stories and I thanked him for all the milkshakes he bought me on location in Lone Pine. I found out early as an actor that the guys who were the most fun to be around were the heavies. It was the leading men that sometimes were the pains."That did not include Gregory Peck for whom Bill had the highest regard. "He was in a class by himself. He didn't poay much attention to me. He was a very professional guy, not the 'fraternity" type of guy. He treated everyone with respect, but he would keep a little more to himself."Ann Baxter was another matter entirely. "I had a crush on her. She was the only woman in the film and I thought she was just great. When I got around her, and she was sitting in the director's chair, she would sit me on her lap. She would give me a hug in the morning and I liked it."I remember she was married to John Hodiak, the actor, at the time and he came up to surprise her. I was sitting on her lap. Now I was eleven, not quite a kid, and I remember liking sitting on her lap." Bill smiled at the memory mischievously. "He came up and I jumped off her lap. I don't know quite why I did that. Like he was my rival. I don't know what was in my mind. I remember how strange it was that I felt jealousy or something like that. It was a feeling like I was doing something I shouldn't be doing, sitting on her lap. It was strange. I thought she was wonderful." Our small table was quiet for a moment and we moved on to other topics.Bill remembers a certain burro and baseball during those long hot summer days out in the rocks.Bill handed me the picture of him and a donkey. "There were a number of donkeys that they used. The one you see me with in the picture was real tame. He was my buddy and when I would come to the set in the morning I would bring him sugar to feed him. There was one that was wild. The wranglers all told me to stay away from him. The mule was dangerous; so I set about to tame that donkey and it took me most of the location. We were five or six weeks there."I tried to get closer and closer to this wild donkey.
I would spend a lot of time in the corral and I think he got used to me being in the corral. He wasn't afraid of me or concerned about me. I left him sugar and I made sure he watched me put the sugar cubes down and I would walk away."Eventually one day I fell asleep in the corral. I put my hat over my head and I fell asleep. All of a sudden the hat came off and I looked up into the hat being held in the mouth of this donkey. From then on I could pet him. The wranglers thought this was unbelievable."Bill said that in those days they would play baseball on Sundays. They had teams made up of crew. "My dad liked baseball so he made sure that some of the crew the production manager would hire could play baseball. There was a catcher who was in the group who had been a major league player. I don't remember his name. Sam Huff was a major league first baseman. He would throw the ball to me when things would get slow. On Sunday we would actually play games with local teams in Lone Pine."Bill obviously admires his dad and his work as a director. He described what makes a 'Wellman picture.' "There is always at least one dog, animals, kids, rain. With a gunfight you are on the outside. There are probably scenes where you don't see the actors' faces talking. Henry Fonda's mouth in The Ox-Bow Incident for instance." There was a time early in Wellman's career where the studio didn't want the director's name to be known. "They were kept in the background. My dad left the contract system and from 1935 made deals to make pictures here and there. He took Public Enemy to Zanuck who was producing half the pictures at Warner Brothers. Father pushed that and Zanuck said 'OK.' It was his project."Bill obviously admires his dad and his work as a director. He described what makes a 'Wellman picture.' "There is always at least one dog, animals, kids, rain. With a gunfight you are on the outside. There are probably scenes where you don't see the actors' faces talking. Henry Fonda's mouth in The Ox-Bow Incident for instance." There was a time early in Wellman's career where the studio didn't want the director's name to be known. "They were kept in the background. My dad left the contract system and from 1935 made deals to make pictures here and there. He took Public Enemy to Zanuck who was producing half the pictures at Warner Brothers. Father pushed that and Zanuck said 'OK.' It was his project."Of Yellow Sky, Bill stated, "My father liked the picture very much." Of Lone Pine that summer Bill told me, "God I just loved it. I had so much fun on location! I would climb on the rocks. I was never bored."Note: Bill Wellman has promised several items for the William A. Wellman/ Yellow Sky exhibit in the museum including his father's director's chair, his father personal script with his personal notations and three dozen photos of the locations from the family's collection. It will be a rich and interesting exhibit of one of our best Lone Pine film and America's best directors!