My mom, even though raised in the Midwest, was a huge fan of Westerns and had a deep fondness for the world to the west of Detroit. As a boy, I'd doodle little flip book animations in the corners of her Zane Grey books. The author had written more than fifty Westerns, but I only knew him as the guy who wrote books that I used to draw cartoons.
Michiganders had a long-standing tradition of heading south to Florida when weather got bad or the holidays were upon us. My mother broke that tradition. She didn't want to go south – she wanted to go west.
"This Christmas, let's go to Phoenix instead," she offered.
The family looked at her in unison. "Phoenix ... Arizona?" we asked.
"Do they even have Christmas in Arizona?"
The takeaway from our "Western" holiday wasn't about fake snow being blown on entire neighborhoods to replicate the season – it was about staring at the vast, empty expanses outside my airplane window on the way to Phoenix. I was transfixed by large areas of desert that still didn't have any roads.
How is that even possible? I'd ask myself.
It wasn't like I grew up in a really crowded area, but there were always people around. My neighbors, while not packed in tenement-style, were everywhere. Every road – and most were paved – had cars on it, any time of day. Humanity was a constant.
The only respite, and one that I really took to, was property my parents bought outside of Gladwin, Michigan. At 160 acres, it was a quarter-mile square of woods, meadows and bogs – classic Michigan terrain. My mother designed and oversaw a small but fully functional cabin on a bluff overlooking the lower acreage. Many a weekend was spent at this wonderful getaway.
When my parents divorced in 1980, the property was sold as part of the settlement. This turn of events haunts me to this day. When Mom and Dad split, I was still struggling to complete Evil Dead and didn't have a pot to piss in monetarily, so I had to watch, helplessly, while my personal slice of paradise slipped away. That harrowing experience planted a seed that would grow twenty years later.
Post-divorce, Mom moved west to start a new life. She remarried, a rancher, and they migrated from one piece of western property to another. Whenever I wanted to see Mom, I'd make my way to wherever she lived at the time – Sequim, Washington; Nevada City, California or Humbug, Oregon. I loved seeing the new places she found and it really cemented my idea that the West was different – in almost every way.
The first time I saw the Milky Way was out west, while working on Sundown: A Vampire in Retreat in Moab, Utah. I was astounded. It was real. I felt like I was starting to reconnect a little bit with the natural world. While making that movie, I explored the Utah outback at every opportunity when I wasn't working.
It was the first time in my entire existence, while at the Navajo National Monument, when the only sound I could hear was the crunch of gravel under my feet on a remote trail. A crow passed by across the canyon and I could hear its wings flap, so distant was any traffic or ambient, human-created noise. Solitude was something I began to crave.
When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting more seriously, I threw myself into a sea of humanity. Los Angeles has been described many ways: The City of Angels, The Big Orange, La-La Land. I call it the City of Sloppy Seconds.
Ironies abound – the guy with the fancy sports car can't get it over 45 miles per hour because of all the traffic; the "health nut" unknowingly sucks the equivalent of half a pack of Camels in particulate matter every day; the "Mellow" Californian doesn't exist – not in Los Angeles anyway.
About ten years into my L.A. "residency," I was returning from a trip with Ida – my wife and co-conspirator for twenty-five years – late in the afternoon. Through the airplane window, we could see the unmistakable pale orange band of smog blanketing the city. This wasn't "marine layer" or anything atmospheric – this was pure, big-city smog. Ida and I glanced at each other. I extended my right hand.
"Let's make a deal to get out of here in five years."
She took my hand and shook it firmly. "Deal."
To assuage her that we wouldn't starve if we moved out to the boonies somewhere, I drew up a "where did I work in 1997?" chart. It turned out that 70 percent of my movie or TV work took place outside of Los Angeles. With better rebate deals being offered by New Zealand, Canada, Bulgaria and others, film production left California at an alarming rate.
Only 30 percent of my work was in Los Angeles? Why was I still here?
Our five-year escape plan came to fruition within a year.
GO NORTHWEST, YOUNG MAN!
By this time, my mother lived in Ashland, Oregon, and she dabbled in real estate. Mom was an early "flipper." She loved buying places for cash, fixing them up and selling them whenever she and her new husband, Bob, got bored.
In an exploratory phase, Ida and I were looking for a house that wasn't in a standard neighborhood or even a small town – we wanted a place that was farther out, ideally with land.
Oregon seemed like as nice a place as any. It encompassed anything from high desert to mountainous forest to desolate coastline. Oregon was on the same coast as Los Angeles, so the whole time zone thing would be the same – and there was a two-hour direct flight from Medford to Los Angeles once a day.
This could work.
I asked Mom to fax me some real estate listings and a few of them seemed promising. Ida and I headed north.
Oregon in the fall is grand – it's a mix of still-warm days, breezy sunshine and fall colors. The day we accompanied Mom to see the Applegate Valley property was the kind of day real estate agents pray for: sunny, crisp with the slightest of breezes to remind us that it was fall. This particular piece of property was situated on a hill with spectacular south-facing views of the Siskiyou Mountains.
The setting was very appealing, but the ownership map told me everything I needed to know – our property was surrounded on three sides by land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM – more on them later) and our mountainous view was also either BLM or National Forest Service land.
A mountain range with no lights on it. Where do I sign up?
I immediately turned into a lousy house negotiator because I instantly wanted the place.
"Ida, you know when you buy a house, you're supposed to pretend that you're not really that interested?"
"Well, I don't care. I want to buy this place. I want to whip out a check right now to hold it."
Ida was a little stunned. "Really?"
We put a check in the owner's hand as a deposit and bought the place. Just like that, Ida and I were done with Los Angeles. Our new life in the wilderness had begun!CHAPTER 2
JACK OF ONE SEASON
The irony of being a working actor was that I was so busy globetrotting that I barely got to spend any time in my new home. In 1998, I made a deal to appear in ten episodes of Hercules and Xena and direct two of them.
I regard the Hercules and Xena time period as a blast because of the creative nature of it. Rob Tapert and the other producers trusted us, and because it was syndicated we didn't have the overbearing infrastructure of a studio with endless, nitpicky notes. Alas, Hercules and Xena ran their course after six seasons each.
After almost a decade in the Land of the Long White Cloud, Rob Tapert had cultivated not only an impressive episodic TV machine but also an important reputation in syndicated television. When the Warrior Princess made her exit, an hour-long hole was left in the schedule and Universal Studios (and Rob) had every intention of filling that slot. They were looking for another action-y set of shows to replace swords and sandals, ideally without pause. For better or for worse, the next two shows came together very quickly.
BACK-TO-BACK ACTION HACK
When a show like Hercules or Xena airs for five or six years, it is eventually going to lose viewership – that's just a fact of TV life. When viewership declines, the studio can't command the number-one time slot anymore or get the highest advertising rates. Shows then get moved to less desirable slots. Therefore, some replacement shows started their run in "downgraded" slots – the harbinger of cancellation, in my opinion. Such was the case with Jack of All Trades and Cleopatra: 2525.
Nevertheless, the producers still wanted to continue the successful pairing of a "guy show" with a "girl show," so they developed Jack and Cleopatra, two half-hour action comedies, dubbed the "Back-to-Back Action Pack." It was a very rare, very strange combo that Rob somehow managed to sell to the syndicators.
Because we were no strangers to the Auckland setup, Rob tapped both myself and Josh Becker to help participate in the two shows. Mine was Jack of All Trades, a period piece about America's first international spy. I was intrigued by the concept. The story took place in 1801 and was set the West Indies, where the United States had sent a spy to keep an eye on Napoléon (ultimately played by the great two foot eight Vern Troyer).
Jack was basically what Zorro – one of my favorite characters as a kid – would be like if he had been played by comedian Bob Hope. The approach of the material was very much my sensibility. I like borderline vaudeville humor. I enjoyed making fun of Thomas Jefferson, kings and rich people in general.
The model Rob had in mind was Hogan's Heroes. To Rob, the series should be confined to just one French-controlled Caribbean island and focus only on the ongoing conflict between the heroes and the island's goofy commandant. At the time, Josh and I objected to the rule that the show was never to leave the island of Pulau-Pulau and we tried to convince Rob that the show should take place along the Barbary Coast instead.
From 1801 to 1805, the United States engaged in the First Barbary War against four North African states, targeting the predatory pirates that captured American ships and held their crews hostage. One of the earliest deployments of the U.S. Marine Corps was to the Barbary Coast and the opening lines of the "Marines' Hymn" (not to mention the chorus of Joe LoDuca's Jack of All Trades theme song) pays homage to this Barbary baptism: "From the Halls of Montezuma / To the shores of Tripoli ..."
Beyond the battles between marines and pirates, the region was rich with possibilities – sultans, princes, Dutch captains, tribal intrigues – which could have provided a sweeping, colorful canvas for a series. Alas, Rob shot it down. In this case, I think his production team feared the multiple sets and large cast that our "angle" might demand.
While I feel the show was therefore doomed to claustrophobia, we at least tapped into the era by incorporating real historical characters such as Thomas Jefferson, Napoléon, Ben Franklin and Blackbeard (even though the latter two were technically dead by 1801).
Meanwhile, Josh had pitched Rob Tumithak of the Corridors, based on a 1932 Lovecraft-inspired public domain story. Set in an uninhabitable future occupied by spider-aliens, humankind had to burrow underground progressively deeper to survive. Ultimately, they had been underground for thousands of years and there were completely different civilizations on each layer.
Like the story, the series would center on Tumithak, one guy who sees the light from way up top and thinks, Hmmm, what's up there? Josh's Tumithak of the Corridors would have been this guy's journey to the surface of the Earth, with each season being a new layer with a whole new civilization. Finally, as a possible end of the series, he'd emerge onto the surface through a manhole in Manhattan and get promptly flattened by a taxicab.
Rob was intrigued, but he wasn't sold. He needed a "girl" show. As series development is known to do, each component of the original concept was individually removed, reworked and replaced until only morsels of the original concept remained. In went Tumithak of the Corridors; out came Cleopatra 2525 – a series about a stripper who goes in for a boob job and wakes up in the twenty-sixth century.
Somehow, a subterranean serial about survival got mixed up with the true story of an actress friend of mine who got a botched boob job in Canada, and became one of the most ridiculous concepts ever recorded.
In spite of all common sense or creative logic, "Hogan's Heroes of the West Indies" was produced along with "Boob Job of the Corridors." Thus, this odd, Back-to-Back Action Pack premiered with a roaring sigh on the shitty time slot left by a waning warrior princess.
CO-EXEC OF ALL TRADES
If I was going to be the star of a TV show again, I wanted it to be under the right circumstances. The big kahuna Rob Tapert, a pal for decades now, trusted me and I always enjoyed the kind of "creative lenience" on the shows he produced in New Zealand. One of the other big men on campus was Eric Gruendemann, a veteran of Herc and Xena and someone who had been tolerating me since my "temp sound" days on Darkman. Eric was a completely sane producer – a rare delight – so I knew that working with him wasn't really going to feel like work.
Part of my deal was that I was also a coexecutive producer, which meant I wasn't powerful enough to stand up against the studio, but I had almost enough power to make a costume designer do what I said. The title gave me a voice that people had to pretend to listen to and it allowed me to work with more impunity.
I had much more control on Jack than I did on The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., where I was just an actor for hire on somebody else's show. Carlton Cuse was a very strong show runner and we rarely disagreed with any dialogue on Brisco because it was good writing. Jack was always a more creative environment for me and we would improvise and collaborate until everyone was happy.
One sequence in particular had never been fully realized by the time we shot it, so we had no choice but to make it up on the spot. That day, we improvised every gag, every bit, every heel in the eye, every ass slap. As co-exec, I was free to shoot from the hip without having to call the studio for permission, and creatively that's exactly where I wanted to be.
ROB IS ROBBED!
Rob Tapert had spent the latter part of the 1990s cultivating his "backlot," refining its infrastructure and amassing an impressive library of sets, props, costumes and creatures. The now-seasoned crew had become specialists in the production of adventure entertainment. Then something happened that decimated Rob's resources and left his studio in much worse shape than it should have been ...
Orcs invaded New Zealand!
Peter Jackson started production on the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1999, promptly engulfing and employing every able-bodied specialist in the production of adventure entertainment. Seemingly, every armorer, best boy, focus puller and four-foot-tall stand-in responded to Jackson's muster, including the effects team at Weta Workshop and Ngila Dickson, costume designer of the trilogy (and Academy Award winner).
The masked alias of my "Batman of the West Indies" character was the Daring Dragoon. A dragoon was a member of the mounted cavalry – an imposing soldier, laying waste upon his impressive steed. Yeah, nice to want – our beleaguered crew couldn't find a proper horse because The Fellowship of the Ring happened to prominently feature nine "Black Riders." As a result, every black or dark brown horse in New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea had been acquired by Jackson – who paid as much as a quarter-million dollars for the most photogenic equine. All we could manage for the Daring Dragoon was a bony nag I sarcastically nicknamed Lightning.
My ass still hurts.
People ask me all the time what I think about the Lord of the Rings movies. My response is always the same: "I hate 'em."
"But, Bruce, these are Academy Award–winning, billion-dollar-box-office movies!" fans would breathlessly explain.
"I wouldn't know," I would clarify. "I've never seen them."
"Then how could you hate them?" the crestfallen fans would ask.
"Because Peter Jackson stole our whole Kiwi crew."
Jack's brash character needed a vocal, headstrong counterpart to keep him in check. This came in the form of the British spy Emilia Rothschild, played by New Zealand actress Angela Dotchin. As with many in the Kiwi talent pool, Ange cut her teeth in the New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street, then graduated to appear in one or two episodes of Young Hercules and Xena. In fact, we both appeared in the Xena episode "Tsunami," during which I saved Ange's life – as she put it.