BOOTLEG FILES 461: “Pray for the Wildcats” (1974 made-for-television film starring Andy Griffith and William Shatner).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of the film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a VHS video release in 1987.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A cult film that has been absent from commercial release for too many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, that would be fun!
When Andy Griffith passed away last year, he was recalled for his work as the ultimate good ol’ boy: as Mayberry’s genial sheriff, as the wily attorney Matlock, and as the happy-go-lucky soldier in the stage and screen versions of “No Time for Sergeants.” But these roles only showed a portion of Griffith’s versatility.
On a few occasions, Griffith was allowed to tap into deeper and darker characters. The most prominent example of these anti-Mayberry endeavors was his work as the vicious folk singer in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd.” This film allowed the actor to aggressively plumb the malevolence of a toxic personality – though, unfortunately, Kazan failed to keep Griffith’s performance in check, and the actor savagely overplayed his part.
But Griffith had a second chance to show he was capable of being a villain, and that came in 1974 with a made-for-television production called “Pray for the Wildcats.” While director Robert Michael Lewis may have lacked Kazan’s pedigree, he was able to keep Griffith focused on his character without resorting to excess emoting. The result was an extraordinary and thoroughly unpredictable achievement.
In “Pray for the Wildcats,” Griffith plays Sam Farragut, a business tycoon who is the main client of a struggling advertising agency. Farragut’s importance to the agency is so pronounced that the executives assigned to his account give up their weekends to indulge the client’s passion for motorcycle racing. Even worse, the ad men drag along their wives for these weekend happenings – but the unhappy women are expected to set up lunch tables and prepare meals while the men race about the rugged desert landscape in southern California.
The ad agency guys are also having their own problems. The lead man on the account, Warren Summerfield (William Shatner), was quietly terminated by the agency for unclear reasons – the agency is only allowing him to remain until he secures work elsewhere, but that task is not easy. Even worse, Summerfield’s bourgeois wife (Lorraine Gary) is unaware that he is losing his job. The account team’s second in command, Paul McIlvain (Robert Reed), is experiencing a meltdown with his wife (Angie Dickinson), and she is having her revenge via an affair with Summerfield. And art designer Maxon (Marjoe Gortner) is having his own headache with his girlfriend (Janet Margolin), who abruptly announces her pregnancy.
But these domestic squabbles are put on the proverbial back burner when Farragut impulsively demands that the ad agency team join him on a motorcycle trip across the border and into the Baja California desert. In order to appease their client, the ad agency trio obligingly agree to go along. Farragut purchases leather jackets with the insignia “Baja Wildcats” for the men, and McIlvain’s wife watches the men depart by sourly declaring, “Pray for the Wildcats.”
The trip into Mexico is mostly benign until the men stop at a cantina in a small town. While enjoying their tequila, Farragut spies a young blonde woman doing a provocative dance. Farragut becomes immediately obsessed with the woman and tries to engage her sexually, but her boyfriend intervenes and embarrasses Farragut. However, Farragut gets a chance to have his revenge on the young couple – and it ain’t pretty.
While this is taking place, the home front has its own blow-ups between Summerfield’s wife and McIlvain’s wife – the latter is convinced that Summerfield is going to commit suicide during the trip, but she is stymied into getting Mrs. Summerfield to accept her fears.
Yes, the film has many of the vices typical of the productions offered in the 1970s’ television films: obvious low-budget production values, an annoying synthetic music score that often seems to belong to a completely different movie, and a surplus of B-level stars gathered together in wooden performances. Indeed, there appears to be an unofficial competition between Shatner, Reed and Gortner regarding who can turn in the most stolid performance. Naturally, the Shat triumphs – heck, even his hairpiece has more vibrancy than his acting.
Ah, but “Pray to the Wildcats” belongs to Griffith. His character barbecues his threats and bullying in a sharp Dixie charm, but the broadness of his good ol’ boy smile barely hides a seething rage. Griffith’s Farragut views the world like a starving wolf eager to tear down any prey, and his lupine ferocity erupts with equal parts rapture and rage. In the scene where Farragut goes wild against the young couple, Griffith explodes in a blast of physical and vocal energy that is utterly shocking in the velocity of its fury.
Griffith’s ability to portray the vile and violent Farragut caught many people by surprise, including the actor himself. In an interview with journalist Noel Holston, Griffith recalled that after shooting a particularly harsh scene, the actor retired for the night but did not divorce himself from the Farragut character. That night, dreamed that he was beating his former sitcom co-star Don Knotts to a bloody pulp. Griffith awoke in horror and frantically phoned Knotts to confirm the man was still alive and in good health.
“Pray for the Wildcats” was first broadcast on ABC on January 23, 1974. At the time, it was dismissed as a disposable made-for-television offering, and no one thought twice about it. Over the years, however, the film gained something of a cult following. Shock Cinema’s Steven Puchalski called the production “one of the nuttiest made-for-TV movies of all time” and Michael Karol’s book “The ABC Movie of the Week Companion” referred to it as “campy, sadistic fun.” But not everyone was enthused – American Motorcyclist magazine dismissed it as the worst motorcycle-related film of all time.
“Pray for the Wildcats” was released on VHS by Republic Pictures Home Video in 1987. To date, however, there has been no DVD release; no reason for the film’s prolonged absence has ever been offered. Bootleg copies based on the VHS version can easily be located, and a few key scenes from the film are available in unauthorized YouTube postings.
After completing “Pray for the Wildcats,” Griffith would attempt another bad guy role in the made-for-television film “Savages” (which, strangely, also put him in a desert setting and on a violent streak). But audiences didn’t want to see him playing bad guys, and he would shift back to roles that reaffirmed his persona of everyone’s favorite Southern pal. And while there’s nothing wrong with venerating the sheriff of Mayberry, it is nice to recall that Griffith had the talent to tap into the dark side and turn in a work of deeply satisfying villainous dimensions.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!