Wayfaring Stranger: The Ballad of Michael Parks

© Turner Classic Movies

It all started with my two favourite girls, my wife and Ann-Margret. My wife is the best for many reasons, one of which being that, when she’s out shopping without me, she keeps her eyes peeled for stuff for me. One day years ago she brought me home an Annie movie on videotape; showing that my wife knows she’s my girl and no amount of Ann-Margret movies in the house is gonna change that. The movie she brought home to me was Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965). That Annie is terribly sexy in Bus Riley should come as no surprise but the movie as a whole was so compelling to me and it’s one of the few VHS tapes I’ve hung on to. A big part of what struck me was Bus himself, Michael Parks.

Michael Parks was born in Corona, California and struck out on his own early in life. He worked as a fruit picker, a ditch digger, a truck driver, a forest fire fighter and an upholsterer of caskets. His father, Harry A. Parks, had been a ball player. Parks the Elder was a right-handed starting pitcher who played the 1940 and 1941 seasons with the Albuquerque Cardinals of the Arizona-Texas League, finishing with 10 wins and 9 losses and an ERA of 4.75. Michael was a fine ball player, as well, and tried out to play minor league ball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Eventually he turned to acting and it was while he was appearing in a play at age 18 that he was discovered by Jamaican-born actor Frank Silvera. Parks appeared on several episodes of television shows until he was eventually chosen to replace Marlon Brando in Wild Seed. This project was originally sold to Brando’s production company but by the time it was to be made Marlon was deemed too old. Produced by Marlon Brando, Sr. and Albert S. Ruddy, Wild Seed was shot by famed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and was in production for 24 days, from February 4, 1964 until the end of the month. Based on his work on this film, Parks was hired by Universal to appear in Bus Riley which went before the cameras not three weeks after Wild Seed wrapped.

My copy.

Bus Riley’s Back in Town was based on a play written by William Inge, a playwright and novelist who had already contributed three significant plays to Hollywood; Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic and Bus Stop. Bus Riley returns to his hometown after three years in the Navy. A skilled mechanic, he resists working at the local garage, hoping for something more prestigious. Cursed with good looks, he resists job offers from men that include romantic relationships and drifts back to the girlfriend he had before entering the service. The stunning but coldly pragmatic Laurel (Annie) has, however, married a wealthy older man. She is willing though to have an affair with Bus but the flinty changes in her repel him. Confused and rudderless, he gravitates toward a quiet young girl who is a friend of his little sister after the girl suffers a tragedy in her life.

Here’s the thing with Bus Riley’s Back in Town. I’ve talked a bit before about films I’ve loved mostly because of the life the main character leads. Blue Hawaii is my favourite film of all-time for many reasons one of which is the fact that I so want the life that Chad Gates lives. Same for Capt. Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944). Matt Dillon in The Flamingo Kid or Tom Cruise in Cocktail. The character of Bus Riley resonated with me because he reminded me of myself in my early twenties. I had my kicks living as an aimless bachelor but never had many actual adventures, romantic or otherwise. Watching Bus Riley try to navigate, I couldn’t help thinking “dang, I wish I was in his shoes”. If only, I thought to myself watching the film, that would’ve happened to me I would’ve done this or that. That, to me, is a wonderful element for a film to have. Perhaps it’s relatability or maybe it’s more accurately described as simply an exercise for your imagination; thinking back to your own experiences and plugging in the adventures and opportunities of another person.

After Bus Riley, he was then pegged by John Huston and Dino De Laurentiis to portray Adam in Huston’s 1966 Biblical epic The Bible: In the Beginning… Though the cast boasted the likes of Huston himself, George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Franco Nero, Parks was billed first. Though they may have been going by order of appearance, Parks playing Adam, and all.

© Twentieth Century-Fox

When Denne Bart Petitclerc was five years old, his father took him to see the angel atop the Christmas tree at the Bon Marché department store in downtown Seattle. His dad told him to watch the angel, he’d be right back. It was then that Denne’s father left and abandoned the family. Petitclerc went on to become a war correspondent during the Korean War, working for the San Francisco Chronicle. He later wrote Ernest Hemingway a fan letter. Papa wrote back and the two would later work together. Denne would script Islands in the Stream (1977), based on Hemingway’s novel and he also wrote the 2015 film Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, work he was engaged in when he passed away.

After writing episodes for TV westerns in the 1960’s, Petitclerc wrote a script for a story of a newspaper reporter who becomes disillusioned and takes off traveling the country on a motorcycle to figure out the meaning of life. Petitclerc based his story on Birney Jarvis. Alabama-born Jarvis left school to become an adventurer. Jarvis was a sailor and a journalist – for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a Hell’s Angel back when they were just guys who liked to ride bikes together and Hunter S. Thompson used Birney as an entrée into the gang and as a model for a character in his book Hell’s Angels.

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Petitclerc’s story began life as a TV movie and Parks was chosen to play Jim Bronson in Then Came Bronson. Bronson is a reporter – for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s called to the scene of a would-be suicide because it is his good friend, Nick Oresko (Martin Sheen), who is threatening to throw himself into the ocean. Jim arrives in time – but Nick jumps anyway. Jim inherits Nick’s motorcycle and decides to quit his job and take a trip to try and figure things out. Bombing around the beach, he sees a bride who has fled her wedding and throws her gown into the ocean. He encounters her again on the highway and the girl – played by young and pretty Bonnie Bedelia – ends up a reluctant passenger on the back of Bronson’s bike. Then Came Bronson aired on NBC on March 24, 1969 and it was soon after released in Europe as a feature film.

Petitclerc then created a version of Bronson for television and brought in Herbert Solow to serve as Executive Producer for the series. A TV heavyweight, Solow had served as Executive in Charge of Production on series like Star Trek (1966), Mannix and Mission: Impossible and would later work for MGM and produce Elvis: That’s The Way It Is. Then Came Bronson featured some notable guest stars during its brief run. These include Jack Klugman, Gloria Grahame, Elsa Lanchester, Kurt Russell, Keenan Wynn, Bruce Dern, Robert Loggia, Lois Nettleton, James Doohan, Jessica Walter and jazzbo Slim Gaillard, of all people.

The opening credit sequence of Then Came Bronson (Episode 1.1). It is the exchange between Jim and the driver of the station wagon that resonated with so many. The juxtaposition of the two lifestyles. Jim is gentle and polite with the guy. “Hang in there”, he says. It’s an encouraging phrase that Parks came up with himself. That’s the Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur. © MGM Television.

Many shows of this era featured a main character traveling the country and getting in adventures, from Route 66 and The Fugitive to Kung Fu and The Incredible Hulk. Much like these shows, the protagonist of Michael’s program – Jim Bronson – drifts into town and becomes embroiled in some local intrigue. Again like those other shows, Jim is gentle and is often the voice of reason and justice. Bronson will do what he can to help and then will move on, adding the experience to his mental journal and using it as a stepping stone towards getting things figured out.

Much like Bus Riley, here again I experienced a show and a character that fed my imagination and presented scenarios I could relate to in some way. In the pilot, Jim makes a move we’d all like to make; chuck everything and head out. A template of sorts was laid down for me early in life by Presley’s 1964 film Roustabout. At the start of that movie, King is free as a bird traveling the countryside on his Honda 305 Superhawk. Bronson inherits his buddy’s 1969 XLH 900cc Harley-Davidson Sportster and hits the road. In the pilot – which is a delightful film in its own right – Bronson picks up Temple Brooks who has fled her wedding and her old life. In one of my favourites I have reviewed in these pages, 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, acquaintances played by Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer are thrown together by a minor tragedy; they are made to fast-track their relationship as a result of extreme circumstance. Same with Jim and Temple. In her efforts to flee, Temple has gotten into trouble and needs Jim to extricate her. They are thrown together by circumstance. In my daydreams as a young man, if I’m traveling around on my motorcycle, I’m running into a girl like Temple.

My LPs. I’ve actually bought both of them twice, happily upgrading from shabby copies.

The second place I encountered Michael Parks – after Bus Riley and The Bible – was in the record bins at a thrift store. Is this that Michael Parks?, I asked. Something of a singer, Parks released – as far as I can tell – four albums in a roughly 18-month stretch in 1969-70 with a few – real rarities – coming much later. Long Lonesome Highway was the fourth of the four but the first one I found. I was intrigued by the personnel on the record. James Burton, Jerry Scheff and Ronnie Tutt all play on the record and considering that this is 1970, this was right on the cusp of these three joining Elvis Presley‘s band and working with him throughout the 1970’s. Long Lonesome Highway features front and back cover photos depicting Parks as Bronson and the title track served as the show’s closing theme. Parks also essays “Reenlistment Blues”, a song movie fans will recognize from From Here to Eternity (1953). Parks’ debut, Closing the Gap, I found much later and features only “Jim” Burton of the Elvis trio. These albums were engineered by Douglas Botnick, who’s surname should ring bells; his brother, Bruce, is a legendary engineer known for his work on albums by the Doors. Parks worked closely on his records with arranger and producer James Hendricks. Hendricks had been a musician who was married to and played with Mama Cass Elliott in the Mugwumps with others who would go on to be legends of the California sound. Hendricks avoided celebrity when The Mugwumps would splinter into The Mamas and the Papas and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Hendricks? He formed The Lamp of Childhood. Yeah. I’ve never heard of them either. I give Hendricks love, though, for writing one of only two, maybe, really excellent songs by Johnny Rivers, “Summer Rain”. As of 2021, Hendricks has a thriving Christian music ministry in Nashville. The week of April 18, 1970, the single “Long Lonesome Highway” peaked at #20 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart. On March 25, 1970 Mike had appeared on an episode of The Johnny Cash Show singing “Oklahoma Hills” with The Man in Black. Also appearing that night was the outlaw Waylon Jennings.

Awesome to see the whole sequence including the two cycling together. © Screen Gems/ABC/Sony.

As the Then Came Bronson TV show built steam, producers began to attempt to put more sex and violence into the show, hoping to attract a broader audience. Bronson was indeed a more gentle, cerebral program. For example, the very first episode features Jim breaking through to an autistic child. Parks bristled against these attempts and clashed with the powers that be. I’ve always been one to side with the artist over the studio, the record label or the network but, in this case, I can see both sides. Admittedly, not a whole lot happens during an episode of Then Came Bronson. While this time period did see a change in music and film to a simpler, more stripped-down aesthetic, Bronson can be very quiet and contemplative with scenes featuring more meaningful looks than dialogue. It was a bit of a paradox; they had a star that was akin to James Dean and a show that was closer to The Waltons. This combined with Michael’s admitted tendency to be difficult on set, always inserting his opinion and fighting for the direction he thought the episodes should go, resulted in not only the show being cancelled but Parks being “quietly blacklisted” in Hollywood. Word got out that he could be hard to work with and subsequently Michael appeared only intermittently – and in nothing of note – for years through the 1970’s and ’80’s. Like many subjects here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, Michael Parks entered a valley of sorts and became something of a cult figure. For an idea how fall Michael Parks fell, seek out 1985’s Spiker. Heartbreaking

Inexplicably, in 1986, Michael Parks starred in and directed The Return of Josey Wales, a sequel to Clint Eastwood’s original classic that Clint had planned to make himself but shelved. Then in 1990, Parks regained a measure of visibility with his portrayal of a French-Canadian drug runner in a story arc on the television show Twin Peaks. Enter Quentin Tarantino.

Texas Ranger Earl McGraw with son, Edgar. © Miramax

An early instalment in the unique cinematic world known as the Tarantinoverse is 1996’s From Dusk till Dawn, an outlandish, rock & roll vampire film scripted by and co-starring Quentin and directed by his homeboy, Robert Rodriguez. By general consensus, the compelling opening scene of this film is dominated by the “note perfect performance” of Parks as world weary Texas Ranger Earl McGraw. The scene in which he employs a flawlessly authentic country drawl as he describes his terrible morning to a convenience store clerk introduced him to a whole new generation. Quentin – being Quentin – played the character who blew Ranger McGraw away in that opening scene but Tarantino – being Tarantino – revived the character and had Parks play him again in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003). Again southern drawling his way through an early scene – this time with his real-life son, James, playing his on-screen son – McGraw is coldly and comically analytical while deciphering clues at a gory crime scene. For Kill Bill: Vol. 2 a year later, QT let Michael play a bit. Parks appears almost unrecognizable as Esteban Vihaio, a suave 80-year-old Mexican pimp and has a scene describing his role as a father figure to the Bill of the film’s title to Uma Thurman’s Bride character. In but two scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s epic tale, Michael Parks does indelible work that forges a place in the viewer’s memory. Ranger McGraw proves to be still on the job and still lamenting the sadness he’s seen in his life in the Grindhouse pairing that Rodriguez and Tarantino unleashed on audiences in 2007. In Rodriguez’ half of the drive-in-inspired set, Planet Terror, and in Quentin’s tale, Death Proof, McGraw is a welcomed site for fans of the Tarantinoverse. In Death Proof in particular – again with his son along – Parks gave me a chuckle when he refers to Kurt Russell’s stunt man character as “Hooper”. Those who know will know and will perhaps chuckle, too. To boot, QT threw Michael in Django Unchained (2012) alongside himself as a pair of mining company employees.

As Esteban Vihaio. © Miramax.
As LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. employee. © Miramax.

Quentin Tarantino had referred to Michael Parks as “the world’s greatest living actor”, a sentiment shared by filmmaker Kevin Smith. The man behind Mallrats, Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob wrote and directed Red State in 2011, crafting the main character specifically for Parks, stating that if Michael wasn’t available, he wouldn’t make the film. Smith later cast Michael in his horror film with the outrageous premise, Tusk (2014). Once again, Kevin wrote the main character for Parks, saying that if his new favourite actor wasn’t available he’d shelve the project. Tarantino for his part was thrilled and eagerly anticipated Parks’ work in Tusk; “(I can’t) wait to watch Michael Parks let loose his internal Kraken”. Interesting to note that Kevin Smith said that the bulk of the money for the low-budget film went to procure the rights to Fleetwood Mac’s song “Tusk”. Smith began producing a documentary on the life of Michael Parks when the project ran out of money. And then ran out of time.

(**Update: I was informed by the man behind the documentary, Josh Roush of Anticurrent Productions, that the project is anything but dead. Production was stalled but – pending the completion of one last, significant interview – the film will see the light of day. Head to ParksDoc.com to stay up to date**)

In Red State. © NVSH Production/The Harvey Boys.

Michael Parks first married at 16 and welcomed a daughter into the world. His second marriage to actress Jan Moriarty began in 1964 and lasted only months; Jan committed suicide by overdosing. With third wife, Carolyn Kay Carson, he had son, James, alongside whom he would often act. He was wed twice more, the last time coming in 1997 and lasting twenty years. Not long after Red State was released, 71-year-old Parks suffered a fall that did damage to his brain. Though his health was failing, he continued to work. Eventually, though, the flame began to flicker. Then in 2017, at the start of the second week of May, when the land is just beginning to open up after a long winter, when young men are taking stock and wondering if maybe this will be the year they buy the motorcycle and turn their backs on the grind, as the days were getting warmer, the skies bluer, Michael Parks died from complications from pneumonia and blocked arteries. He was 77.

Michael Parks has a certain stature among those of us who “know”. His is a Hollywood story of a fine actor with a striking look who could’ve ascended the heights. Instead, he decided to chart his own course, a path that skirted the spotlight and wound through shadow. Many noticed him there in the twilight, though. And perhaps he had the type of down-to-earth personality that drew people to him. I’ve read that he played catch with Elvis Presley, rode motorcycles with Johnny Cash, nearly punched Frank Sinatra, made music with Miles Davis1, read poetry with Jack Kerouac and was a pallbearer for his friend, Lenny Bruce2. After working with Bette Davis on an episode of Perry Mason, Davis said of Mike “without a doubt, and with neither hesitation or reservation, I’d have to pick Michael Parks as the greatest young actor in the business today.”3 Additionally, as noted, filmmakers today like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith herald his work, created characters for him to play and referred to him as the greatest living actor; think about that for a minute. Think about the actors that were still alive… In the dedication of his novel version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino thanks the “Old Timers” who told him stories of the old days of Hollywood. QT includes Parks with Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Burt Reynolds and others, saying that they were the reason the book existed. Smith called Parks his “muse” and honoured Michael with an Instagram post when he passed; “Michael was the best actor I’ve ever known…He was, hands-down, the most incredible thespian I ever had the pleasure to watch perform…he elevated any flick or TV show he was in and elevated any director he ever acted for”. If you’re like me and love to stumble on unique personalities in out-of-the-way television episodes, TV movies or feature films, look no further than Michael Parks. He may have been something of a wayfaring stranger but check out some of his work. Once he rides back out of your town, you’ll be changed for the better.

© MGM Television

It’s been fun to read about the middle-aged men of today who look back fondly on Michael Parks and Then Came Bronson. Parks and the show were inspiring and are revered among the cycle set and there are websites out there. Charming, semi-pro websites. Start at Michael Parks for You, one that includes links to other sites.

  1. Roush, Josh (2017). Michael Parks and I. Film Threat.
  2. ParksDoc.com.
  3. MichaelParks4u.com


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