Oklahoma acting legend Clu Gulager is excited about this week’s release of “Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood,” the new movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
“I’m hoping that I’m still in it, but I know how these movies go. If I am in it, don’t blink or you might miss me,” said Gulager, with the laugh of a 90-year-old who’s seen it all in movies and TV for the past seven decades.
“They sent me a script and asked if I wanted to do it, and I said you bet. I don’t act much anymore, but (Tarantino) wanted me in it. That was very nice. He’s an old friend of mine.”
“Once Upon a Time...” is the Oscar-winning director’s new film releasing Friday, July 26, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, telling a story set in 1969 Hollywood with the pair playing, respectively, an actor and his stunt-double best friend.
The action is also set against that summer when Charles Manson and his “family” committed murders in the Hollywood community, and Gulager’s scene is with co-star Margot Robbie, who portrays Sharon Tate, then-wife of Roman Polanski who was killed.
“This young woman is so gifted, so talented. She’s also very beautiful and looks very similar to the woman killed by Mr. Manson,” Gulager said of Robbie.
“So my guy is based on a real character, and I knew this guy, a bookseller. My scene was about a guy who has a first-editions bookstore, and she comes in looking for a book, ‘Tess’ (of the d’Urbervilles) and she wants her husband to read it. And (Polanski) made that movie later and dedicated it to her.”
Of the scene, Gulager said, “It’s just her looking for a book, and I’m the old bookseller, so it’s a small role.”
Gulager was born in Holdenville and raised in Muskogee (his father was a county judge) and Tahlequah (Dad also became a state legislator from Cherokee County).
“I was a cowboy from Oklahoma. I rode the fences (around cattle) in the winter, and in the summer, I was out in the field, watching out for rattlesnakes,” Gulager said by phone from his California home.
“And then later on, you move on and something comes over you, and you want to be an actor. Well, I could play a cowboy, and it was easy for me to ride a pony and wear a hat.”
Small roles in 1950s TV shows led to him gaining a co-leading role in 75 episodes of “The Tall Man” (playing “Billy the Kid”) from 1960-62 before playing Emmett Ryker on more than 100 episodes of “The Virginian,” a rare 90-minute TV Western that was a favorite of Tarantino’s.
Gulager’s resume shows him appearing in what feels like every series on television in the 1970s, as well as movies including “The Last Picture Show.”
That continued into the 1980s, and in 1985, his starring roles in cult-classic zombie flick “The Return of the Living Dead” and the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel led to a new career track in horror films — including the trilogy of “Feast” movies directed by his son, John Gulager.
He even moved to Tulsa for a time and shot a couple of movies here (including “Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective,” which was written by former Tulsa World entertainment writer John Wooley).
But the decade also saw Gulager working on a number of micro-budget movies in California with friends in what he described as a “clique” that, at some point, Tarantino joined for a time.
When Clu met Quentin
“He was interested in doing some things in some little films. He just wanted to be around that scene,” Gulager said of Tarantino’s working with the group on some movies that were “so low-budget you didn’t know if you were walking in and out of them. Just no budget.”
“I worked with them too because I loved working with my friends and (Tarantino) was just with us, and we had no idea we had a genius among us.”
Part of the Tarantino legend, before his 1992 writing-directing debut with “Reservoir Dogs” and making classics like “Pulp Fiction” and the “Kill Bill” movies, is the tale of this movie-lover working for five years at a Los Angeles-area video store.
“When he was a young man, he watched TV, and he’s a film historian. He knows film history backward and forward,” Gulager said. “He started out wanting to be an actor, but he was just so good at writing, and then directing.
And in that vast consumption of TV and film, Gulager said, Tarantino “saw a lot of actors, and he never forgot them. He’s done this on other movies, and when he made this film, he put a lot of people he remembers in this film. And he remembered me too and a lot of other older actors.”
Once upon a time...
Gulager certainly understood the idea of “Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood” regarding DiCaprio’s character, a fading star of a 1960s TV Western. Gulager’s last “Virginian” episode came in 1968.
The character is described as a man who’s seeing the culture change and counterculture films grow in stature, leaving him “making his way around an industry he hardly recognizes in this tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age.”
“I lived through that,” Gulager said.
“The DiCaprio character could have been me. I’ve lived that life, where he was a big star and now he’s on his way down, and that’s normal. That’s a way of life in my world, and I’ve accepted it.
“(DiCaprio) is playing me, in effect, and a lot of the guys that I’ve known. And Quentin knows that. He’s a very keen observer of human nature.
“He’s just very gifted. Some of the scenes that Quentin creates are just amazing. And he knows talent; he knows how to cast the best.”
And, at 90, Gulager is still being cast by one of Hollywood’s most-acclaimed filmmakers.
Presumably because he’s one of the best — and an old friend.
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