Whisperin’ Bill Anderson looks back at the 1967 western ‘Stranger on the Run’

Henry Fonda surveys “Stranger on the Run,” a 93-minute NBC movie-of-the-week that aired on October 31, 1967. The AFI Life Achievement Award alum was a “tightly wound spring” on and off camera who communicated “anger over affirmation…he is almost always more convincing, attractive, and memorable when at odds with something — the situation, the community, himself.” Image Credit: Allstar Collection / Universal Television

I previously gauged Stranger on the Run in my Jeremy’s Classic Western Roundup column. Henry Fonda’s frequently forgotten sagebrush saga was a Halloween 1967 made-for-NBC-movie with James Dean’s costar Sal Mineo, director Don Siegel, and screenwriter Dean Riesner [both repeat Clint Eastwood collaborators] among the talented personnel. Aside from actors Michael Burns and Rex Holman, few survivors remain from the dusty Most Dangerous Game homage that won its Tuesday Night at the Movies timeslot.

Whisperin’ Bill Anderson cut the theme song. Spontaneously emailed, the Country Music Hall of Fame lyricist, whose latest LP is The Hits Re-Imagined, shockingly sent a detailed remembrance the next afternoon. “Thank you for dredging up some old memories,” began the Brad Paisley collaborator’s sincere message. Turns out he corresponded with Academy Award victor Anne Baxter and sat side by side with Jane Fonda at an Atlanta Braves ballgame. Co-written with Kay Scott, the ballad has never been remastered or reissued. No dice either for Stranger on the Run being officially available in digital format. Patience can reap victory. An official Blu-ray 2K master, containing commentary by film buff Gary Gerani and additional sizzling extras, is incoming on July 27 courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The Bill Anderson Interview

Owen Bradley, the legendary record producer [e.g. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Anderson’s studio collaborator from 1958–1978], and I were standing around after a recording session one night just talking. All of a sudden he pulled a small reel-to-reel tape out of his pocket, almost as an afterthought, and said, “The folks at Universal are looking for a country artist to record the theme song for a new produced-for-TV western movie. They need it pretty quick. Would you be interested in doing it?” Universal was the parent company of MCA/Decca Records where Owen worked and the label for which I recorded [Anderson was attached to the label from 1958–1981, already boasting 22 Top 20 C&W hits in his arsenal prior to issuing “Stranger”].

I said I didn’t know without hearing the song, so Owen and I went back into the control room and listened to it. As I recall, it was a rough piano demo with a female voice. I was totally underwhelmed. Still, Owen thought we should record it using a real simple guitar arrangement. I responded, “If you think I can do it, then I’m willing to try.” He set up a session a few days later with just me and Grady Martin on acoustic guitar, and we put it down. Owen sent it off, Universal accepted it, and the next time I heard it was the night the movie aired [soundtrack composer Leonard Rosenman enhanced the theme with occasional train whistles and percussion].

Later, the powers that be wanted an actual A-side to release in conjunction with the movie. I felt as though the movie lyrics were tied to the Henry Fonda character [e.g. “why am I hunted?”], and I wasn’t sure that they would stand up on a record released totally separate from the film. In other words, if a person had not seen the film, I didn’t think they could understand or relate to the movie lyrics without some changes [Blu-ray commentator Gary Gerani likens the original theme to “a man singing from beyond the grave, as he struggles to stay alive”]. So I got permission from Kay Scott, the original writer, to change them for the record and to try and make them more universal [according to Gerani, “the record version is more of a ‘love and lost’ ballad, just as powerful in its own way, but without the ‘life-or-death/standing up against killers’ aspect of the movie lyrics”].

Owen called a special full band session to record the single [Columbia Recording Studio on 16th Avenue South in Nashville], and we didn’t take a great amount of time with it [i.e. guitarists Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Jimmy Lance plus steel guitarist Sonny Garrish, bassist Junior Huskey, drummer Leonard Miller, pianist Jerry Smith, and the Jordanaires]. I never met Kay, but she had no objection to what we did. Kay was an ASCAP writer and I was with BMI, and in those days the two licensing agencies didn’t split songs or work together very much or very well. I had to ask BMI’s permission to let me put my name on this one song as an ASCAP writer…and darned if we didn’t win an ASCAP songwriting award! It’s the only one of those in my collection, and there will probably never be another. These days the two societies work in tandem.

I wish I had a blown-up copy of my photo accompanying the orange advertisement. It was taken by somebody Universal hired, and I was never in the loop. I was flying to Germany with my band for a series of concerts at U.S. military bases — my first overseas tour — and got an emergency phone call from someone connected with the movie telling me that they needed a picture of me. We had a layover at JFK Airport in New York, and they sent a photographer out to shoot a picture of me between flights. We walked outside the terminal, the photographer told me to turn up the collar on my dark all-weather coat, he snapped a bunch of pictures, and I went back inside. They chose one where I’ve got a serious, almost sinister look on my face. Quickest photo session in history!

Stranger was an early made-for-TV movie [Distributed in 1964, John Forsythe’s See How They Run holds the top honor. The runner-up was Robert Culp’s The Hanged Man helmed by none other than Don Siegel of future Stranger fame. All were broadcast on NBC via Universal. The Killers, also directed by Siegel, starred Ronald Reagan, Lee Marvin, and Angie Dickinson and was scheduled to be the first TV movie until its violent nature provoked a rearranged theatrical run]. The network did a massive promotional job on it, sending my 45 rpm recording out in a colorful sleeve with my picture and scenes from the movie. Critics received a large tin of popcorn, similar in color and style to the record sleeve, to be apparently consumed as they were sitting home watching. I know because I got one, too. Made-for-TV movies were something brand new, and NBC was trying to get a leg up.

I never met Henry Fonda, although I did encounter Jane Fonda at an Atlanta Braves baseball game when she was married to Ted Turner [1990–2000]. I had known Ted for years, so he introduced me as a country music singer. I said, “I once sang the theme song in one of your father’s movies.” “Oh yeah?,” she replied rather sarcastically. “Which one?” “It was a made-for-TV movie from the ’60s called Stranger on the Run.” She gave me this blank look and said very curtly, “Never heard of it,” and turned away. So much for her endorsement [Fonda was living in Paris with first husband and French director Roger Vadim when Stranger premiered in the states. She had recently finished filming the cult space classic Barbarella. Stranger was assembled while her relationship with her father was severely strained. The elder Fonda was also a lifelong Democrat but disagreed with his daughter’s tendency towards radical causes, not to mention her choice of suitors and celluloid projects. When they teamed up for Henry’s penultimate project, the multiple Oscar-winning On Golden Pond, they mended fences].

I did meet Anne Baxter [Best Supporting Oscar winner for Tyrone Power’s The Razor’s Edge and nominated for Best Actress as the manipulative All About Eve in 1950]. We had done The Mike Douglas Show together prior to the release of the film [broadcast on October 18, 1967; Baxter was co-hosting the enduring talk show from Philadelphia that week], and we reconnected after the picture came out. We became pen-pals of a sort for several years afterward. I really liked her a lot. She was the ultimate professional.

Decca released my recording of the song to country radio, and it reached No. 42 in the charts with no promotion whatsoever. I don’t recall ever singing the song onstage or performing it anywhere live. I never asked a disc jockey to play it. To my knowledge, it was never included in an album. I have one 45 rpm copy in my archives. I’d love to see Stranger on the Run again and hope you’re successful in your efforts to start a revival [Anderson’s encouraging words were not in vain].

© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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