by Jon Zelazny
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at EightMillionStories.com on February 27, 2009
There’s an A.C. Lyles Building at the Paramount Pictures main lot, but you won’t find A.C. Lyles there; his office is on the fourth floor of the William S. Hart Building.
When I arrived for our interview, Mr. Lyles was chatting with some visitors in his outer office. He bid me into his main office, and asked his assistant Pam to put in a video… a short promo reel that opens with a six minute tribute by then-President Ronald Reagan, who warmly recalls his and Nancy’s many years of friendship with A.C. and his wife Martha, and congratulates A.C. on his fifty years at the studio. The President’s intro is followed by taped congratulations from President Carter, President Ford, and Vice President Bush, then assorted clips celebrating Mr. Lyles’ career.
He started in the movie business at the age of 10, as a page at the Paramount Theater in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida in 1928. After completing high school, he moved to Los Angeles and wrangled a job in the Paramount Studios mail room, rose up the studio ranks through the publicity department, and became a producer in the late 1950’s, specializing in low-budget Westerns. Most recently, he served as a consulting producer on the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood.
At age 90, A.C. Lyles remains a gentleman of immaculate appearance and courtly demeanor, and simply casting your eyes about the array of beautiful photographs lining the walls of his office is to experience an abridged history of all Hollywood.
A. C. Lyles: I’m sorry I’m a little late; I was on the phone for almost two hours with John Wayne’s birthplace.
Which is where?
Winterset, Iowa. It was a town of 5,000 people when he was born on May 23rd, 1907... and Winterset is still a town of 5,000 people, but the house where he was born is now a shrine. It’s only 500 square feet. I’m on the board there. We put up some signs along the highway that said, “Come See John Wayne’s Birthplace!” and last year some 20,000 people visited—four times the population of the town!
He made so many great pictures for us, including True Grit (1969), which he won the Academy Award for. After he won, he told me, “Why didn’t you tell me it would be this successful? I would’ve worn an eye patch twenty years ago!”
Are you generally thought of as a Western guy?
I think so. And I’m happy about that, because I love Westerns. And if you’re associated with one type of movie, people remember you for that. I think Westerns are the most moral story you can tell. It’s good against evil, with good always winning out, and in that framework you can have all the action you want; it’s justified in the end.
My association with Westerns goes all the way back to the series Rawhide, where Clint Eastwood started. There’s Clint there…
He indicates a photo of himself with Eastwood and James Cagney.
I’d like to go back even further. We’re currently sitting in the William S. Hart Building. I’ve read he was the greatest Hollywood Western star of the 1910’s and 20’s, which I guess makes him one of the few Paramount stars who was before your time?
No, I knew Bill Hart. His last feature was called Tumbleweeds (1925). Years later, Joel McCrea—who was so kind to me when I was an office boy—took me out to Newhall to meet him. And I was very surprised when I met him because he was a very cultured man. He had this wonderful voice; he’d been a Shakespearian actor. It was like when I met Charlie Chaplin—he was in a cashmere suit, had beautiful gray hair; a handsome guy… such a far cry from the Little Tramp. He knew I was a fan, so he invited me to his studio at La Brea and Sunset. But a lot of the early Western stars were friends of mine. I knew Tom Mix. Ken Maynard. Hoot Gibson. Buck Jones. Gabby Hayes.
How important were Westerns in Paramount’s history?
One of the first big pictures Paramount made was The Squaw Man (1914) with Dustin Farnum. Cecil B. DeMille came out to make it. They were going to do it in Arizona, but it rained for three days and three nights, so someone suggested they do it in California. He came to Hollywood, found this barn on Vine Street and Selma Avenue, and made it his headquarters. Later, we moved that barn here to the lot. I put a porch on it, made it into a way station, and used it in just about every Western I made! Now it’s across from the Hollywood Bowl—The Lasky-DeMille Barn—it’s a museum.
We also did a very famous series of Westerns with Hopalong Cassidy. That went on for many years. Joel McCrea did a lot of Westerns here, often for Cecil B. De Mille. Gary Cooper made The Virginian (1929) here; one of his earliest talking pictures. And "Bonanza" filmed here all the time as well.
I saw they did a lot of Zane Grey adaptations here in the 1930’s, with Randolph Scott.
Randy was a great star. First for us, then he teamed up with Harry Joe Brown and made a whole series of wonderful Westerns for Columbia. So many of those great stars started here. On my 10th birthday, I saw a picture called Wings (1927); it was the first picture to win the Academy Award; a solid picture—
I’ve seen it. It’s amazing.
Bill Wellman directed, Charles “Buddy” Rogers starred, with Richard Arlen, and Clara Bow, and—for two minutes—Gary Cooper. That one short scene made him a star. And when I eventually came out here to work at the studio, I became close friends with all of them! I gave all their eulogies.
I do a lot of eulogies now. Nine last year. Rhonda Fleming just called me; she told me she’s just redone her will, and in it she’s requested that I do her eulogy. I said, “Just a minute, Rhonda; let me get my date book and make a note of it!”
Did Paramount founder Adolph Zukor have any particular affinity for Westerns?
Mr. Zukor leaned very heavily toward pictures that made money. And Westerns made money. The first picture to ever make big money was The Great Train Robbery (1904). Have you seen it?
So Westerns have always been with us. People are still talking about one made seventeen years ago, Unforgiven (1992). I think Clint is as good a picture-maker as there’s ever been: always on budget, always on schedule, always makes money… and a hell of a nice guy.
Did you see Gran Torino (2008)?
I loved it. It’s like Dirty Harry grown older.
And talk about star power… when he’s on screen, you can’t look away.
Absolutely riveting. Cagney had that as well; you could not take your eyes off of Jimmy. And John Wayne. When Duke was up there, you always wanted to be on his side.
I think what’s amazing about Eastwood is how he doesn’t mind aging on film. I mean, Cagney retired when he was about sixty, right?
Which is when Eastwood really started to blossom. I think his truly great work began when he was 62.
Did you know Cagney made a Western? Him and Bogart… it was called The Oklahoma Kid (1939). These two New Yorkers—Jimmy and Bogie!
That reminds me, Clint always wanted a copy of that picture. He adored Jimmy Cagney; one of his idols. I have to get one over to him.
These pictures are really something.
Somebody asked me once if there were any stars I hadn’t met that I’d like to. I thought for a minute, and said, “Jimmy Stewart.” Three days later the phone rang, and it was him! “What are you doing for dinner tonight?”
But Jimmy Cagney, Ronnie Reagan, and Duke were my three best friends. Well, you saw it in that promo film. Ronnie said I was the first person who told him he would be President… and that was six years before he ran for Governor!
What was it about him that led you to believe that?
Destination. He was absolutely destined for it.
In the same way anyone who met Elizabeth Taylor when she was a girl knew she would grow up to be one of the most beautiful women of all time. When I would hear Ronnie talking as President, he was saying all the things he used to say fifteen, twenty years earlier. When he went in, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. And he was very successful. The more time goes on, I think people appreciate him more and more.
And he made a few Westerns too!
He did four here. A couple with Rhonda Fleming… The Last Outpost (1951), and Tennessee’s Partner (1955). On one of them, he got his first horse; a black one named Tar Baby. They made the picture in Sedona, and he just loved that horse so much, so I told the studio, and they sent it over to him.
When you study the history of Westerns, people generally regard Stagecoach (1939) as the first really “classy” Western. Is that accurate?
Yeah. John Ford was the master, and Duke… see, Duke was a college student out here; he was playing football for USC, and the studios were making a lot of pictures about college ball, so they’d bring the whole team in. Then Duke got a job on John Ford’s crew, and that’s really where Ford found him. But Stagecoach made him.
How did you first begin producing Westerns?
Paramount had a board meeting. They asked me to come in, and they said, “We have a problem. There’s no Western on the schedule.” I said, “Well, I have a great script.” And I did it. And it made money. And they said, “How many can you make a year?” I said, “Five!” They said, “Go make ‘em!”
Who did you report to?
I didn’t report to anyone. I told them I could only do it if I didn’t have a committee. I usually came up with an original story. I didn’t write screenplays—writers wrote the scripts—I just started it, cast it, made it, and shipped it to New York. I didn’t tell anybody what the story was, or what it would cost. I was a one-man studio within a major studio, and that was the only way I could make them.
What was a schedule like for one of your pictures?
I never told anybody.
And you’re still not?
I never told Paramount what they cost. Because you don’t preview a budget, you preview a picture.
I was curious because I worked on one Western myself. It was for TNT, and we had thirty shooting days, which seemed pretty tight. Then I talked to Arthur Penn a couple months ago about The Left Handed Gun (1958), and he said Warner Bros. only gave him twenty days.
Vincent Canby once wrote a story about me. It was called “Money Invested, Money Returned,” and his opening line was, “A.C. Lyles has been the most profitable producer in the history of Paramount Pictures.” And it was true.
I only managed to find one of them at my video store: Johnny Reno (1966), with Dana Andrews and—
Jane Russell. Who else was in that one?
Lon Chaney, Jr. Richard Arlen. A lot of old-timers.
Those were my buddies. I always tried…
He indicates the poster of his film Black Spurs (1965).
Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney, Richard Arlen, Bruce Cabot, and Terry Moore. They’d call me and say, “When do we start the next one?” I’d say, “Three weeks.”
Were they studio contract players? Or was that system already gone?
They called them “The Lyles Posse.” I used them a lot. Richard Arlen had done so many Westerns in his time. When I was an office boy, he told me I’d be a producer some day, and that he wanted to be in every picture I made… and I never made a picture without Richard Arlen! And all the other people on the lot who were my friends… they did so much for me. So much.
Why do you think Westerns finally fell out of style?
Things go in and out of style. Like all those great musicals MGM made…
Those are sort of coming back. There’s usually one high profile one per year now.
And some Westerns. You had Appaloosa last year.
I had so much fun on the one I worked on. It was called Purgatory (1999).
I read that script before they made it. It had kind of an interesting twist to it.
Yeah, kind of Twilight Zone-ish. Did you see it?
I don’t think I ever did.
Well, I brought you a copy. I thought you’d get a kick out of it.
Good. I’d love to see it. (He examines the DVD box) This had some good people in it... and it had a great opening. I don’t remember who wrote it.
Gordon Dawson. Who was one of Sam Peckinpah’s guys. His original draft was pretty tough; a real R-rated movie.
It sure was.
But TNT doesn’t do R-rated movies; they like things more family-appropriate, so we had to tone it down. But Dawson was working for Chuck Norris in Texas, so the director and I did all the script changes.
Who’s this director? U - l - i… ?
Uli Edel, from Germany. He’s great; I’ve worked for him a lot. He’s going to the Oscars for the first time next week; his new movie The Baader Meinhof Complex was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture.
Interesting… Yeah, I remember this script. It was around for a long time before it got made. We couldn’t do it here because it was too expensive.
We had to scale it down that way as well. We took out the river crossing, and the Indian attack, the buffalo stampede… I also believe this was the last movie shot at the Western town at Warner Bros. before they tore it down.
I don’t think there’s a standing Western set anywhere in town now. We did Deadwood out at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita.
I was going to ask about Deadwood. How did you get involved in that?
HBO got together with Paramount on that; they retained the domestic rights, and gave Paramount the foreign rights. David Milch, the creator of it, called me their first day, and said, “You did a lot of Westerns at Paramount, so…” He admired what I did, and wanted me to be around. And it was a very successful series.
Were you surprised by the profanity?
Yeah, I was. But David had really done his research. He was a professor at Yale for twelve years; he taught story writing. And most of those characters in Deadwood were all real people, and that dialogue… that was the way they talked. It sort of went with the look of the picture; the griminess of that town. It was very authentic. People might have been shocked, but not too many objected. We didn’t get too many complaints.
Can you imagine what all those guys who made Westerns under the studio system would have thought of it?
Nope, you couldn’t have done it that way back then, that’s for sure. Only on cable.
I mean, even when Peckinpah began, his pictures were clean. Something like Ride the High Country (1962)—
With Joel, and Randy—
That had to have been one of the most beautiful films you’d ever seen.
Oh boy, was it. I knew both of them so well; I just talked to Joel’s grandson the other day. And Peckinpah… God, what an interesting person he was. He was as interesting as any of the pictures he made.
But he does Ride the High Country, this beautiful, classic, all-American Western… then Major Dundee (1965) was much darker, and then you get to The Wild Bunch (1969), which was like nothing anybody had ever seen. What did you make of where he was going?
I tell you, I just appreciate anybody that can make pictures that people see and enjoy. I’ve been a member of the Academy for sixty or so years. I see movies here at the studio, and at the Academy screenings; I have a season pass at every theater in town. I see almost every picture made… and I’ve never walked out of a picture in my life. Never.
You’ve lived an extraordinary life. To what do you attribute your longevity?
Oh, let’s see… well, I never started drinking. I never started smoking. Strangely enough, I’ve never exercised either. I belong to the Bel Air Country Club, but I’ve never played golf… the most exercise I get is brushing my teeth! I’m six-one, and I’ve never weighed 150 pounds; it’s always around 148, 147. I don’t diet; it’s just my metabolism.
See that picture? That’s me with Mr. Zukor on his 98th birthday. We always had a party for him. I said to him, “What do you want me to do with this leftover cake?” He said, “Save it for next year!” He lived to be 103. He was my mentor; both he and Cecil B. DeMille. They really took care of me. Not only taught me how to be a producer, but… what to do with my money. How to dress.
I’d wanted to work for Mr. Zukor from the moment I saw Wings when I was ten years old, and it came true. And now I’ve spent eighty years doing what I wanted to do.