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

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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 timeslot and kickstarted a long-running “Tuesday Night at the Movies” NBC programming block.

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 the movie being officially available in digital format. Sparse demand and perhaps a rights issue with Universal have stymied Stranger on the Run’s USA release, since a French DVD has been sanctioned.

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], approached me after a recording session one night telling me that he had been asked by the folks at Universal to get a country artist to record the theme song for a new produced-for-TV western movie. 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”].

Owen asked if I would be interested in being that artist. I said of course I would. He gave me a rough demo tape of the song — just a singer and a guitar — and I was totally underwhelmed. The lyric didn’t make much sense, so I asked if I might have permission to re-write it a bit. Permission was granted, and I tweaked it as best as I could. The label on the one 45 rpm copy that I have lists Kay Scott as the sole writer, but Billboard’s Source Book credits the both of us [Anderson’s acknowledgement is present on the accompanying Decca photo, albeit with the film’s original working title — Death Dance at Banner].

Owen called a special session to record the song [Columbia Recording Studio on 16th Avenue South in Nashville], and we didn’t take a great amount of time with it [guitarists Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Jimmy Lance plus steel guitarist Sonny Garrish, bassist Junior Huskey, drummer Leonard Miller, pianist Jerry Smith, and the Jordanaires are on the single version, while the film theme opted for a stark acoustic guitar and vocal take enhanced by occasional train whistles and percussion from soundtrack composer Leonard Rosenman]. Owen sent it off, Universal accepted it, and the next time I heard it was the night the movie aired.

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 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 coat, he snapped a bunch of pictures, and I went back inside. 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 to be apparently consumed as they were sitting home watching.

I never met Henry Fonda, although I once told Jane Fonda that I had sung the theme in one of her father’s pictures. She asked which one. I said, “Stranger on the Run.” She replied, “Never heard of it!,” and turned away. Our encounter occurred at an Atlanta Braves baseball game when she was married to Ted Turner [Fonda was living in Paris with 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].

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. It did, however, somehow manage to win a songwriter’s award from ASCAP. That’s about the extent of what I recall about Stranger on the Run. I’d love to see it again and hope you’re successful in your efforts to start a revival.

© 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.

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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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