Peckinpah, David Samuel ("Sam")

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PECKINPAH, David Samuel ("Sam")

(b. 21 February 1925 in Fresno, California; d. 28 December 1984 in Inglewood, California), actor, television and motion picture scriptwriter, and film director whose 1969 film The Wild Bunch reflected the violence and social upheaval of the late 1960s.

Peckinpah was one of three children born to David Edward Peckinpah, an attorney and later a judge, and Fern Louise Church-Peckinpah, a homemaker. Peckinpah married four times, wedding his second wife, the actress Begonia Palacio, twice. He sired five children, four of them by his first wife, Marie Selland, whom he divorced in 1964. He also fathered a daughter with Palacio, whom he divorced in 1972. He married his third wife, Joie Gould, later that year.

Peckinpah attended Fresno High School but in 1943 enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps; he saw limited duty in China. After World War II he enrolled in Fresno State College, from which he received a B.A. In 1947 he married Marie Selland, who introduced him to the theater, and in 1948 Peckinpah enrolled in the graduate drama program at the University of Southern California, from which he received an M.A. After the birth of his first child Peckinpah dropped out and worked at the Huntington Park Civic Theater near Los Angeles, where he was both an actor and director in residence for two years.

In 1954 Peckinpah was hired as a dialog coach for the film Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and was subsequently cast for a small part in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In 1955 he wrote episodes for the television series Gunsmoke, one of which earned him a Writer's Guild nomination. Peckinpah's subsequent television assignments during the 1950s included Have Gun Will Travel (1957) and the critically acclaimed The Westerner (1960).

During the 1960s Peckinpah established himself in films. His first feature film assignment was The Deadly Companion (1961), an unremarkable western but one that marked his debut as America's "bad boy" director, due to recurring battles with producers. His reputation as a director of considerable talent, however, was established in his next film, Ride the High Country (1962). Set in the early twentieth century, when automobiles were replacing horses and uniformed police were replacing the swaggering lawmen who had tamed the West, the film, starring Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, is an action tale of two aged gunfighters well past their prime and out of place in a world that no longer needs them. Addressing salvation and loneliness, themes to which Peckinpah would return, Ride the High Country was not recognized by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) as the classic it later would become. Nevertheless, the film did catch the attention of critics, who subsequently would place it among Peckinpah's finest films. Newsweek, for example, declared it the best American film of 1962.

Peckinpah's career lagged during the mid-1960s due as much to a dearth of westerns (in 1960 forty-six westerns were shown on television as compared to eleven in 1964) as to his repeated conflicts with his studio employers. For example, Columbia executives thought Peckinpah's 1965 western Major Dundee, starring Charlton Heston, was an overlong and confused story and confronted him about the problem. Peckinpah wouldn't cooperate with the studio's request to alter the film, so eventually outside parties had to be brought in to edit the footage, a move that angered Peckinpah so much that he disowned the film. Despite the movie's failure, Peckinpah became a living legend, as the press magnified his confrontation with the Hollywood power structure. But Peckinpah's feud with Columbia executives resulted in his being barred from the studio's lot. He subsequently was also fired from MGM after disagreements with studio executives over his assignment to direct The Cincinnati Kid.

For the next several years Peckinpah found it difficult to find work in Hollywood. He returned to television in 1966, when the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) hired him to adapt and direct Katherine Anne Porter's novella Noon Wine for a new hour-long dramatic anthology series, ABC Stage 67. Starring Jason Robards, Jr., Noon Wine was a critical success, and Peckinpah received a Writers Guild nomination for best television adaptation and a Directors Guild nomination for best television direction. Noon Wine's success helped rehabilitate Peckinpah's career.

In 1969 Peckinpah returned to Hollywood, where Warner Bros. employed him to direct what many critics consider his best film, The Wild Bunch. The epic western was made in a decade witnessing Vietnam War protests, political assassinations, and violent opposition to the civil rights movement. Peckinpah was not apologetic about the excessive violence that characterizes much of the film and defended the brutality depicted in The Wild Bunch when he said, "the whole underside of our society has always been violent … everybody seems to think that man is a noble savage. But he's only an animal, a meat-eating, talking animal." One critic wrote of The Wild Bunch, "I'd never laid eyes on a western like that. It seemed to me to be so much a film about the Vietnam war, a film about guys … going to foreign countries and murdering people."

Starring William Holden, the film tells the story of embittered and aging gunfighters who realize that their time has passed. Nevertheless, they are hired to "make one last score" and subsequently become entangled in the Mexican Revolution, where they engage in some of film history's most relentless carnage before finding redemption. Peckinpah told the film critic Pauline Kael that he wanted the picture to be so ferocious that "it would rub people's noses in the ugliness of violence." The film established Peckinpah as one of the most imaginative filmmakers in Hollywood. His use of slow motion to depict graphic scenes of blood and gore sparked controversy among critics and audiences alike. Peckinpah received an Oscar nomination for the film's screenplay.

The Wild Bunch elevated Peckinpah to the A-list of Hollywood directors, and he continued to make high-quality films that were generally reviewed favorably. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) was followed by his first nonwestern, Straw Dogs (1971), then by Junior Bonner (1972), The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977), Convoy (1978), and his last film, The Osterman Weekend (1983).

Peckinpah suffered from both a severe drinking problem and a strong addiction to cocaine, as well as other health problems. He suffered a heart attack in 1984 and died at Centinela Hospital Medical Center at age fifty-nine. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean at Paradise Cove, California.

By the end of the 1960s Peckinpah had established himself among the top rank of directors in Hollywood. The Wild Bunch became an instant classic, and Peckinpah's name became synonymous with excessive violence in films that were viewed by critics as mirroring the turbulent 1960s.

Biographies of Peckinpah include Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage (1982); Marshall Fine, Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah (1991); and David Weddle, "If They Move… Kill 'Em!": The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah (1994). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post (both 29 Dec. 1984).

Jack Fischel