Sometimes A Great Notion
And The Summer My Dad Was A Movie Star
An Interview with Ron Bernard ~ by Denise Bernard
“Up as far as Victoria and down as far as Eureka.
Towns dependent on what they are able to wrest from the sea in front of them and from the mountains behind, trapped between both.” – Ken Kesey
With the passing of Ken Kesey, many an Oregonian, along with admirers around the world, have taken to revisiting that famous story, “Sometimes A Great Notion.”
My family and I have a particular fondness for the story, as my father, Ron Bernard, actually played a part in the movie version. Recently, I sat down with him at his home in Florence Oregon, and I asked him to do some reminiscing about those days he spent working on the film. We talked for a couple of hours and pored over boxes of aged and faded photographs of the film crew and famous actors. We found folders stuffed with mementos from the Screen Actor’s Guild, and we even came across an empty bottle of “President’s Choice” Kentucky sippin’ whiskey. But that particular keepsake takes us to the end of the tale.
It all started in July of 1970, when my dad drove from our small home town of Neotsu, Oregon, located just three miles north of Lincoln City, to Toledo, where, along with about 250 other men and women, he applied for a job as an extra in a movie. Author Ken Kesey’s novel, “Sometimes A Great Notion,” was being adapted to the screen and filmed along the Siletz River and parts of the Central Oregon Coast.
Kesey’s book is set around the Stamper family, a clan of stubborn and prideful loggers, struggling to survive, making a living amidst a determined, resentful town and other logging operations seeking to unionize. The Stampers are “Gyppo,” or contract loggers. And “a Gyppo logger,” my dad told me, “never wants to unionize.”
After the initial interview, my father, who was 35 years old at the time, was called by the casting director to come to a second interview at the Salishan Inn. Dad sat waiting, along with about 40 other men, while an assistant made his way around the room, talking with everyone, except my dad. A couple of hours had passed, and finally the assistant asked dad if he was there for an interview. When dad said that yes he was, the man apologized for ignoring him.
“It’s just that you don’t look like a logger.”
All the other applicants had on authentic logging gear, or what they considered a logger might wear. Dad was in a suit and tie. Once the man found “Ron Bernard” on his roster he said, “Well, I’ll get you right in.” And that’s when dad met Richard Colla, the director of the film. And funny enough, Colla had the same impression.
“You don’t look like a logger,” he said.
“Well,” dad replied, “I’m a gentleman’s logger.”
And Richard Colla laughed and said, “Groovy, groovy.”
My father figured that incident helped in setting him apart from the others applicants.
A week after that second interview, a man from casting called up and told dad he’d been selected for a part in the movie, as long as the pay was agreeable. At the time, $720 a week was more than sufficient. Also, at that last interview, Dad found out just what exactly he was applying for. They weren’t simply seeking extras, but they were also seeking what they referred to officially as a “Logger/Actor,” which gave us a chuckle. We asked ourselves how many working loggers have time, or even the inclination, to take up acting as a hobby?
It was explained to dad that he would play one of the “Orland Brothers.” His job, up on the logging landing, was “Chaser,” the man who unhooks the chokers once the logs are drug up from below. The Orland Brothers are employed by the Stamper family-until, union matters really heat up, and the brothers refuse to show up for work due to a sudden nasty bout of the “Asian flu.”
Thus, my father began the acting part of his logging career, which had already spanned 18 years. The very first day of filming, Dad met the crew in Newport and rode out to the logging site with Paul Newman, who portrayed the infamous “Hank Stamper”, and who also shared production credit with John Foreman. From the first to the last day of shooting, which took approximately three months, Dad worked pretty much every day on one site or another. “You were on site for a good 12 hours every single day,” dad said, “If I wasn’t working with the first unit, which included the main director and actors, I was on the second unit.” And after the first 30 days he worked, he was called in to see Art Newman (Paul’s brother), who was business manager for the film. Art told dad that they had originally speculated they wouldn’t need him more than a month, but since that had changed, and they would be using dad’s character until the end of shooting, my dad had two choices. He could quit, and they would re-assign the part, or he could join the Screen Actor’s Guild, and remain on the set. Of course Dad chose the latter. This also assured he’d get residual checks, which, 31 years later, he’s still receiving.
Though Kesey’s novel makes note of three Orland brothers (who, in the book are referred to as just that), the film includes only two brothers. At one point Paul Newman, who, after only a few weeks, had assumed full directing responsibilities because of a difficult working relationship with Richard Colla, came up to Gene and my dad. He put his arms around them and said he’d just call them by their given names. But he asked if dad would mind being called “Ronnie,” instead of “Ron.”
“Well, Paul, for you, okay,” dad happily agreed, as it was all in fun, “but you’re the only guy I’d let call me that.” And so he was dubbed, “Ronnie Orland.”
The Stamper House
Until Lee Remick (who played Hank Stamper’s wife) came to work on the set, Dad shared a trailer with Gene Altemus. But after Ms. Remick’s arrival, dad was told he would then need to share a trailer with Michael Sarrazin. And that’s where dad went to first, every morning, to put on his wardrobe. He was told he could pretty much wear his own logging clothing, except they wanted him to wear a plaid, flannel shirt. Now, for me this looks completely out of place. My dad rarely left for work in any type of shirt other than the traditional garb, which was, and still is, the “Hickory” shirt. But each time I see the movie, I have to say I’m glad for that wardrobe change. Dad is so much easier to spot in the logging landing scenes because of that flannel shirt. He chose to wear the same hard hat he’d used since 1955, and he declined the new pair of “cork boots” they offered him. He told me he knew better than to take on a new pair of corks. He remembers the prop guys going into town to the local saw shop and purchasing a bunch of new cork boots. Dad knew exactly what was going to happen when the actors donned those brand new boots. Though the boots were made to look old and worn for authenticity, none the less they were not broken in, and nothing is stiffer and more awkward to work in than a brand new cork boot. Dad said he had to laugh a bit, watching the men struggling to walk as normally as possible. Even I know you’ve got to work into those boots. I can still remember the smell of the heated dark oil we kids brushed on dad’s cork boots. It was one of our chores, kind of an honor I suppose, giving dad a chance to relax in his recliner, which fit him about as perfectly as the boots. We’d paint the boots until they were drenched in this greasy stuff and then leave them on newspaper to bake and dry next to our old oil burning stove.
After wardrobe, most actors then went on to “makeup.” But dad was told by the makeup artist that there was no reason for him to report there. He just looked the natural part of a logger. He said one of the men who did “rushes” at the end of each day told dad, “Yeah, you look really good on film.” And the soundman had said his speaking parts worked out well too-though, in the end production, they never did use any of those shots.
The Stamper House from across the Siletz
I was astounded when dad said, “They probably left enough film of me and the second unit on the cutting room floor to make two movies!” And he also noted he was constantly riding around in the “crummy,” the vehicle the loggers ride in to get to the landing site. Over and over again, they’d drive the same bumpy old logging roads. One crummy scene in particular was one our family saw only once, at the film’s Lincoln City premier. It happened to be a close up of dad and Paul Newman riding in the crummy. But for some reason the film was edited again, probably for release to the television and video market, and that scene was cut out.
The shooting set on the Siletz
Another scene that dad specifically remembers working on, which was never used, was a “cut in” scene that was being filmed by the second unit. The Assistant Director, at the time, told dad he was to start a power saw, cut into a log, look up, pretending to catch a glimpse of Hank about to top a spar tree, think to yourself, “wow what a guy,” shut the saw off, look up again, “with admiration,” imagine the top of the tree falls off, then start your saw again and continue cutting into the log.
So Dad looks around at all the cameras, lights, sound people, grips, and what he estimates to be about 70 people staring at him. ” They hang the mike out over me, and there’s a big camera lens right up close to me,” dad explains, “and this guy comes up by me and claps the old board, and then there’s the roll ’em, and so I start the saw, brrrrrrrrm. I cut half way through the log, looking up and thinking whoa look at that old Hank up there in the tree! I shut off the saw, take a good long look up, with admiration. I go up to start the saw again. The saw won’t start … the saw won’t start! And the director yells, ‘CUT.’ And so the assistant director yells at one of the grips, ‘run up to that supply truck and get that other saw. This is costing us two-thousand dollars an hour!’ So this guy goes runnin’ up the road and starts runnin’ back with the other saw. In the mean time, I’m lookin’ at this saw thinking, I wonder what’s wrong with this thing. Then I look at this switch, which says ON/Off. ON/Off, I think to myself. I should have turned it ON. But I never told anybody I forgot to turn the switch back on.” Dad laughs, “Might have been a little stage fright there. I should have known how to run that power saw. So the guy brings me the other saw, and I start it right up and finish the scene.”
Of course it was the famous spar tree topping scene that dad was pretending to witness. And he did get to see the actual shooting, which he told me was the most fascinating to watch. The logger who performed the actual topping of the spar tree was Wayne Bryant, an acquaintance of my father’s. “But how they did the close ups of Paul,” dad said, “was they went out along the side of the loggin’ road and they found this little scrawny hemlock, not much bigger than a Christmas tree. Well it looked like the top of the Hemlock tree Wayne cut out. So they built a scaffolding and platform around the base of this little tree, and they had a notch all cut in the tree, and they had a saw stuck in the back of it. So Paul Newman puts on a belt and spurs, climbs up about three steps off of this platform and holds the handle of the saw. It’s just amazing how they can cut in all that stuff, the distance shots and the close-ups.” Dad said that once Wayne had topped the tree and sat there on the end, even the Hollywood stunt men were impressed. He told me it was a common thing to do. He had done it himself. “Some loggers,” dad explained, “especially the old timers would actually take a rest up there before climbing back down a hundred foot tree they’d just topped.”
Dad was also impressed by another example of Hollywood technology when they filmed the drowning scene, with Paul Newman and Richard Jaeckel. Dad didn’t see the filming of the distance shots, which were done at Yaquina Bay. But he watched them film the close up work. “They used an above ground swimming pool, about three feet deep, or so,” dad explained, “they had constructed a hollow log, made out of slats and round disks, and then they glued this log bark on the thing. Anyway, when they had it rigged up to the pool, it had a big lever on it, and every time Jaeckel would say something like, oh, it’s shiftin’ Hank, or whatever, then the crew guy would roll the log a bit.”
The last days of filming centered on the “Lumberman’s Field Day,” which was shot at both Fogerty Beach and Elk City, where they had a motorcycle track. For the picnic scenes Paul Newman told my dad and Gene he wanted the Orland Brothers to have wives with them. So Newman instructed them to go over to a group of extras and select a wife.
But dad felt awkward about it, and he said, “Paul, I really have a hard time doing that.”
So Paul says, “Well here, I’ll do it for ya.”
And he goes over and makes his way through the crowd and comes back with a couple of pretty girls, and he introduced them. Dad remembers how funny it was to hearing Paul announce, “This is going to be your wife. Her name’s Judy.” So the next week the two Orland Brothers, and their wives, had a picnic table next to Joanne Woodward and her and Paul’s daughter, Missy.
It’s during these beach scenes that Hank and his crew is called out to a game of touch foot ball. And Paul Newman calls out to Ronnie and Gene to “play a little football.” Dad runs up along side Newman, and they’re off to the shore. It’s difficult for me to pick my dad out of the football crowd, which eventually develops into a fight scene. But I can see him now and then, quick glances as he rough and tumbles around on the beach and in the sea as well. Dad said the fight felt fairly authentic to him. “The stuntmen,” he said “were fairly tough. One guy nearly bit my ear off!”
It was on the last day of shooting those beach scenes that some of the guys were complaining about how cold they were getting from being soaked in the ocean. And that’s when Paul broke out two bottles of “some of the finest sippin’ whiskey you’ll ever have.” Dad took the last drink out of one of the bottles, so that’s how he happened to keep one as a memento.
“I’ve logged from California to Alaska,” my dad told me, “and when I mention the film to some folks, they talk about how it’s an icon of the logging industry.”
But I tend to think of it differently. After reading Kesey’s novel, and watching the film several times, I think “Sometimes A Great Notion” is more an accounting of, and maybe even a tribute to, the true icons of logging. Men like my father.
Hank Stamper said, “… It’s one dirty, tough, miserable way to live … It’s about as dangerous a way to make your bacon as you can find.”
And so it is … one of the most dangerous professions in the country. My father was gravely injured in a logging accident, when he was quite young, in the early 60’s. The woods wounded him beyond full repair, and crippled him to where he still has operations to remedy what was broke up by the will of one single log. Most of the loggers, on both sides of my family, have been injured to one degree, or another. And this makes me wonder. What calls them back? Are all these men, who keep to the woods their whole lives, born instinctively with the Stamper motto, “Never Give A Inch?” Even after his accident, my father didn’t quit. He went back. And he has labored in the woods, off and on, for over 45 years. How is it, despite the suffering and risk of danger and hardship, there are men of this kindred spirit who forever return to the woods?
Perhaps the answer is hidden amidst my dad’s telling of this one, extraordinary event in his life. Or maybe the answer is not in an entire picture, but in snapshots of smaller magical happenings that come to a person quickly, shaking their spirits, quickening their pulses, and connecting them with something, that for a burning instant, is greater than they are.
While working on “Sometimes A Great Notion,” my dad said he had “one, true, shining moment.” And, fortunately, it’s a scene that remains in the movie, a brief image I’ve watched over and over. It’s kind of like a dance that’s choreographed while it’s happening, in an instant, each movement is determined in fractions of seconds.
As dad relayed this moment to me, I could see his eyes fixating on the memory of it, and his voice was stumbling, trying to catch up with his thoughts. And maybe it’s moments like this, instances, in a lifetime of logging, that are even lesser, or greater in grandeur, calling the loggers back to the woods.
“That one moment you’ll see in the picture,” dad explained to me, “was really an act of skill. Because few people could pull if off, unless they were really experienced. You’ll notice when the Yarder brings the log up and in and drops it down, and I come running over to unhook it, and I have a hold of the choker and the wire, which is an inch in diameter, and there’s no slack what-so-ever, well the engineer just drops a little slack, and this time it was very little, hardly a bit of it there, and this is what we call ‘gettin’ it on the bounce’ because the slack comes down, and you have to twist that, while gettin’ out of the way while you just pop the choker bell, just like that, and the timing has to be perfect, when the slack gets there, which, this particular time, is only gonna be there about half a second.”
Denise R. Bernard