Michael Parks and I Image

Michael Parks and I

By Josh Roush | May 11, 2017

Much like so many of his fans, I was devastated this morning to learn of the passing of Michael Parks. Throughout the course of his career, the man wore many hats: writer, singer, actor, director, but everything he did, he did on his own terms. Occasionally said terms would come to bite him in the a*s, resulting in him being fired from jobs and blacklisted from others, but Parks was a no-nonsense straight talker who had not an ounce of patience when it came to suffering fools. Had he “played ball” with the studio-system, he might have been the biggest actor ever to grace a screen, but then he would have lost everything that made him Michael Parks.

I thought I could get through today working at my job and write this tomorrow, but I found myself continually breaking down and having to leave my office. So what you’re about to read is my attempt at cathartically trying to relieve myself of the trainwreck that I have become today.

I first met Parks on the set of Tusk. I had begged Kevin Smith for a role in his newest film and he was nice enough to grant me one in the form of being a behind-the-scenes videographer. Parks and I avoided each other the first day because, to me, he seemed like a grumpy old bastard and I’m sure to him I seemed to be a jackass wearing a needlessly decorated motorcycle jacket (he would always ask me “Why do you have all that s**t on you?”). On day two, Kevin and his wife Jen took me aside and asked if I could watch over Parks because he had just dealt with a fall in New York that left him in pretty bad shape earlier that year. I, of course, agreed.

After an awkward hour or so of forced conversation, a cop drove by. This brought us around to the subject of his dear friend “Lenny”. He told me stories about their distaste for the Los Angeles law enforcement officers of the day, and after a few minutes of confusion, I asked him if he meant Lenny Bruce, the famed comedian that contributed so much to artistic freedom of speech. Parks was quite a bit surprised by my depth of knowledge about Bruce and we immediately hit it off. He told me the full story of their friendship, unfortunately resulting in Parks being a pallbearer at his funeral. It was at that moment where we discovered we had damn near identical taste in music, literature, and film. We became fast friends.

“He’d regale me with stories about playing catch with Elvis, riding motorcycles with Johnny Cash, nearly punching Sinatra, shouting off of roofs with Richard Pryor, and jamming with Miles f*****g Davis.”

Michael Parks and I were quite a sight, a young dumbass with tattoos and a crotchety old man palling around together almost inseparable for the rest of the shoot. Every morning I’d wake up, buy a yellow pack of American Spirits, make him a green tea with a dash of milk, and pick him up from his hotel room. We’d get to basecamp, he’d set up in his chair, I’d plop down in his doorway and the old man and the young asthmatic would smoke cigarettes and shoot the s**t. It goes without saying, however, that his s**t was far more entertaining than my own.

He’d regale me (and all of the women in hair and makeup) with stories about playing catch with Elvis, riding motorcycles with Johnny Cash, nearly punching Sinatra, shouting off of roofs with Richard Pryor, and jamming with Miles f*****g Davis. There is no doubt about it, the man led a charmed life. While all of this was astonishing to witness, the most insanely touching moments were when it was just the two of us sitting outside his hotel on the weekends (where all of the staff adored him) and he would just break into singing. His voice was raspy, but you could still hear the man that recorded all of that killer Americana music from the records. It was touching, and I was the only one who got to witness it.

When we returned from Tusk we kept in touch. Every few weeks I’d head out to his place and take him out for lunch. For the first few months the crotchety old bastard would growl at me when I reached for the bill first, but eventually, he relented. Lunch was such a small price to pay so that I could witness the man’s stories. It always boggled my mind that people weren’t knocking down his door to get him to star in projects, after all, Quentin Tarantino quite publicly confessed that Parks was his favorite living actor. So I said the hell with it, I was going to make damn sure to cast him in anything I had any involvement with.
Despite the painful news of his passing, I’m proud to say there’s one unreleased project we worked on that’s currently being presented to film festivals. The thought of sharing our work is the only thing that’s made me smile today.

So all of this got me thinking about a documentary about him. I approached him about it and he seemed luke-warm on the whole thing, so I let it go. A couple of weeks later he called me up on the phone and asked how the progress was going, so I did what anyone in my position would; I lied to the Old Man and told him it’d been all I was concentrating on since we last spoke. I then hung up the phone and spent two days doing a couple of weeks of back-work so I didn’t look like a jackass.

My wife and I came up with a pitch-packet, financial breakdowns, similar documentary financial information, and more. I downloaded every bit of information I could find on the man. We bought old copies of TV Guide for interviews from the 1970’s, original trade-magazines for reviews on his work, French posters of Then Came Bronson for visuals, and I began to construct a timeline of his life. I put out notices on internet message boards and even managed to get hold of a playbill from the first stage project he ever starred in. It was only after all of this research that I got a true grasp of the man’s life beyond the stories he had shared hundreds of times with his friends.

From being the son of an itinerant laborer to marrying at 16, to losing a brother to drowning, to spending years living on houseboats after being blacklisted from the industry… It became clear to me that Michael’s life was far more interesting than his stories of other celebrities. I became obsessed with making this documentary, I reached out to everyone who loved him, Kevin Smith was set to help me get it off the ground, we had pitch meetings with investors, we were going to open the film with a concert in Hollywood, we were guns fully blazing… and then it all stopped.

The timing just wasn’t meant to be. The financing fell through, we lost momentum, and most importantly, my good friend Parks wasn’t feeling well enough to do the story justice. It was no one’s fault, it’s just one of the thousands of projects in this town that vaporize every single year. I really wish we had got more of those stories on tape, but if you want about the best damn consolation prize you can find, there’s an episode of Kevin Smith’s Red State of the Union Podcast where he interviews Parks that is beyond enlightening, and I was lucky enough to be in the room, in the front row when it was recorded.

I hadn’t seen Parks in months, and now I will feel eternally guilty for having not reached out more in the past year. The man lived life on his terms and told anyone that needed telling to f**k off. Not only is he one of the best actors of his generation, but as far as anti-authoritarian media icons go, he takes the cake. I wish I could have had him tell his story, but some things just aren’t meant to be. Hopefully, this pitch video made for potential financiers can give you some small insight into what might have been. When you’re done watching it, I suggest pouring a glass of whiskey on the rocks, putting on his amazing Long Lonesome Highway album, and hugging everyone you love as they walk through the door. At least that’s what I’ll be doing.

*This pitch video shows a combination of original footage and scenes from interviews not shot by the author.


Follow Josh Roush on Twitter @JoshRoush and visit his website: www.anticurrent.com



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  1. carole loya says:

    I was 15 years old when I saw him on Wild Seed. That was it . He was a young teen ager’s dream. I saw everything, he did and wished he belonged to me. I got to meet in in 1978, at the Texas Tea House in Dallas, Tx. I got his autograph and got to give him a kiss. I wanted to ride or walk away with him. Sadly, at that time my hubby was with me.

  2. Jack Maine says:

    My favorite actor. Met him once and talked to him twice on the phone.

  3. Jim M. says:

    I haven’t seen but a fraction of Michael Parks’ acting work. But I do remember having watched some episodes of “Then Came Bronson” when it originally aired on NBC when I was 11-12 years old. My sister, who is five years my senior, even had the 45 r.p.m. M-G-M record of Michael Parks singing “Long Lonesome Highway,” which I borrowed many times. And whenever and wherever I saw Michael Parks on the small screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him nor resist being captivated by his voice and soul, whether in an episodic TV appearance or a run of one of his theatrical films such as “Bus Riley Is Back in Town.”

    I also specifically recall having seen a few television episodes in which Michael Parks appeared as a guest star, one a very memorable episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” titled “The Cadaver,” in which a medical student plays a morbid trick on one of his alcohol-dependent friends and classmates (name of “Skip Baxter,” portrayed by Parks), in an attempt to scare him into sobriety.

    The other TV episode of which I have a definite memory of Michael Parks was “The Case of Constant Doyle,” from the sixth season of the long-running legal and detective series “Perry Mason,” when star Raymond Burr missed four episodes due to having had some dental surgery and other actors substituted for Burr (who filmed some short scenes in a hospital in advance; his character explained as also having had surgery) in those episodes. The very first episode without Burr featured two-time Academy Award winner and 10 times Oscar-nominated actress Bette Davis, who portrayed the role of an attorney who inherited her late husband’s law
    practice, trying to defend a difficult-but-charming client named “Cal” (portrayed by Parks). Of course both were fantastic in that nonetheless routine TV episode. I confess my reason for tuning in to that episode of “Perry Mason” was to see Bette Davis. But to my delight I was also rewarded with another excellent Michael Parks performance.

    I also just finished watching (on Turner Classic Movies) Michael Parks in the 1965 film “Wild Seed,” in which Michael Parks portrayed a drifter who teaches a teenage runaway how to hop trains, then accompanies the girl on her journey to Los Angeles to meet the father who abandoned her and her mother, never having met him. Of course along the trek the young runaway girl, “Daphne,” falls in love with Parks’ character of “Bill/Fargo,” as so did I again with Michael Parks. I won’t spoil it by revealing any more here, except to say the film moved me to
    tears and Parks’ “Fargo” was especially compelling. I also read somewhere the late director of “Wild Seed,” Brian G. Hutton, had filmed two endings for the picture. I would love to see the alternate ending, if it has survived after 44 years and may be located for a re-release of the film someday. I have also seen one of Hutton’s other films, “Fear Strike Out” (1957), about the mental illness of the late Boston Red Sox center fielder Jimmy Piersall, which starred Anthony Perkins but originally starred Perkins’ former boyfriend Tab Hunter, in a TV production on the “Climax!” anthology series on CBS.

    If there is an afterlife and “heaven” may truly be the paradise of one’s dreams, then after I say my perfunctory reunion greetings to my dead parents and other family members, as well to a few friends of mine who died too young in life, and of course meeting Lucille Ball and Bette Davis (since in heaven we may all meet anyone and everyone we choose, just like being at one, great big cocktail party), I would choose to meet and make Michael Parks my partner for eternity. I figure since Michael had five wives in his life on earth and my love life was rather minimal, in my paradise I get to ride off with Michael Parks on his motorbike into the sunset. Of course in our shared eternity Michael Parks would forever appear no older than his age in “Then Came Bronson,” and I will never be more than 25 years old myself. But with my luck, even if there is a heaven and I am fortunate enough to wind up there, Michael Parks would be “gay,” but I would be heterosexual, in yet one more cruel and final joke.

    Anyway, until I am, hopefully, able to meet Michael Parks in another life, I plan to see as much of his acting as possible from the wonderful body of work he left in films and television. I also sincerely hope the documentary being made about Michael Parks is able to be completed and screened worldwide. Interesting, too, Michael Parks named his only son James (nickname “Jim”), which is also my given name as well that of the character Michael portrayed in “Then Came Bronson.” And of course I must also now check out some of James Parks’ work.

    What more can I say, except I have always had a soft spot for drifters and troublemakers, having myself been a bit of the former and most definitely more of the latter. Life has been mostly a “Long Lonesome Highway” for this “Jim” too, except for some brief interludes of pleasure as a music journalist and fronting my own garage band that made a few records.

    I wish you success, Josh, in getting this documentary made about your old friend Michael Parks. He certainly deserves to be remembered with such a special accolade. It is also comforting to see online that a great many people do remember Michael Parks, even without a documentary about his life yet released.

  4. Michael Mendola says:

    Thank you for sharing.I also was inspired by Michael Parks (Jim Bronson) at an early age.
    R.I.P. Michael Parks you will be missed.

  5. Doug McCoy says:

    This is, with no doubt, a project that should have gained enough support & inspiration to see it through to completion .
    My question?
    Is it too late, as hinted in your pitch (time waits for no man)? Or can you complete this now?
    It’s not easy to bring a dream like this to reality but you have many advantages to get you on the way. First, Spending that quality time you did with the man, his musical legacy, film & TV clips, memorabilia in private collections.
    How much footage do you have from time spent together on Tusk?
    Maybe write down those stories that never got recorded?
    You may be the closest thing there is to a Michael Parkes personal historian.
    Use your good fortune to be that, to create the documentary tribute to this great man who inspired so many to
    Live life my way!
    I’m thinking about the most recent documentary completed on Marlon Brando making use of some of his personal audio tapes.
    Use whatever source material you can get access to and capture the life of the man – Michael Parks.
    The one I was introduced to while watching his character (with loads of integrity) on late night TV with my Dad when I was an almost teenage boy. Helped to make me a better man.
    Hope this helps contribute to the cup of inspiration?

  6. Ken Kyzer says:

    I only wish there was more. Michael Parks was the foundation of my love of riding and I still take off seeking the ring going to “where ever I end up.” I have always thought that it was a shame that the network brass was more interested in perpetuating the Hell’s Angel, motorcycle hoodlum myth instead of the way he played Jim Bronson, a thoughtful, intelligent make looking for answers and seeking freedom in his own way. When I hit the starter on my almost Bronson red Indian I ride out looking for the freedom that can only be found on a motorcycle. That spirit came from the life that Michael breathed into Jim. So thank you for this insight into a man that meant so much to me.

  7. Darrell Carlisle says:

    Nobody influenced my life more than Michael Parks in his role as Jim Bronson. Through all these years
    that influence has never dimmed. My favorite time is when I am on my Sportster singing one of his songs
    and thinking back on when we were all younger and life was simpler.
    Godspeed Michael. You will never be forgotten.

  8. Susan Alcott Jardine says:

    Thank you for this. I’m one of Michael’s crotchety friends from El Camino College’s Theater Group and was heartbroken what had happened to him in the tragic accident that sent him along “The Long Lonesome Highway.” Perhaps this documentary could find a home on PBS. A beautiful Homage to an amazing human being, beautiful soul and unbelievable artist. Take care. Susan Alcott Jardine.

    • Jim M. says:

      What did you mean by “the tragic accident that sent him [Michael Parks] along ‘The Long Lonesome Highway’?”

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