By Aaron Hillis
Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, Larry Bishop (son of Rat Pack comic Joey Bishop) began his acting career after high school, working in comedy with friends like Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. Though he’s guest-starred on TV sitcoms like “Laverne & Shirley,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Barney Miller,” Bishop is far better known for being a drive-in theater badass, appearing as an American International Pictures contract player in wild-and-wooly biker flicks like 1968’s “The Savage Seven” and 1971’s “Chrome and Hot Leather.” On an acting hiatus after 1983 (more on that later), Bishop returned to the screen in the mid-’90s with new credits to his name, writing the script for “Underworld” and making his directorial debut, “Mad Dog Time.”
Enter exploitation film guru Quentin Tarantino. Understandably a fan of Bishop’s AIP years, Tarantino cast him in a bit part for the second volume of “Kill Bill,” but only after inspiring Bishop to write and direct “Hell Ride,” an ultraviolent, oversexed homage to his motorcycle mayhem years. Bishop stars as Pistolero, the no-nonsense, quippy leader of the Victors gang, whose beef with their rivals, the 666ers, goes back to a murder some three decades before. QT executive-produced the Sundance-vetted midnight movie, whose cast includes Michael Madsen, Vinnie Jones, Dennis Hopper and “Bill” himself, David Carradine. I spoke with Bishop about his contemporary take on the biker subgenre, women taking their clothes off and what Tarantino has in common with Brando, Sinatra and Muhammad Ali.
What did you want to change or improve upon within your take on the biker movie?
When I made these movies as an actor in the late ’60s, I was living right off the Sunset Strip, and my life was wilder than the movies they were making! [The movies] were hinting at wildness, but they weren’t really wild. It was about eight cents short of a dollar, not just six. So I figured if I made another motorcycle movie, I could up the ante with the sexuality. With all due respect to the people who made the motorcycle movies during the ’60s, I felt the sophistication level could be a bit higher, and I felt I could raise the bar on that, too. I’d been influenced by the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, and even though they were very primitive in terms of all the killing, they were really sophisticated, particularly “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I wanted the dialogue to be a bit sharper, so those were the areas I focused on.
The sexuality reminds me of the old casting-couch clichÃ©, so I have to ask: how much convincing did it take for a bevy of hot actresses to strip off their clothes and have simulated sex with you?
I approached 1,000 or 1,500 actresses for this thing over a period of a couple years, because there was a gestation period where I knew I was going to make the movie, but we had to finish up “Kill Bill.” Quentin asked me to be part of it, and we knew that until “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” premiered, nothing was going to happen production-wise. So I was meeting a lot of actresses, and I was interested in a melting pot of the United States — father was from Finland, mother was from Haiti, things like that. It makes for an interesting face, and I thought, I’d like to have that because that’s part of what America is about, all those different nationalities. That’s why a lot of the girls, their lineage is exotic and fascinating.
In terms of casting it, I actually tried to talk people out of doing the movie because I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable. Of course, everyone wants to be in movies, and a lot of the parts were just one or two lines. I didn’t want to marginalize the smaller parts because I felt like a three-way orgy was just as meaningful to Pistolero as a relationship. I had to make sure everyone was comfortable because one day I was going to appear on the set with them — I didn’t want them pretending to be comfortable when they weren’t. They needed to really be uninhibited. I had many conversations with all these actresses, because they were going to see a side of me on the set; I wasn’t going to take any prisoners as an actor. As a director, I’m their friend and confidant, but as Pistolero, I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to do what Pistolero would do, okay? If it’s in the script that Pistolero enters the scene, puts his hand between your legs, that’s exactly what I’m doing. That’s not simulated. That’s a real act of a hand and a pussy.
Quentin Tarantino has a reputation for his overenthusiastic personality and big ego. But as someone who has spent time close with him, what have you observed about him that people might be surprised to hear?
I’ve met a lot of people since I was around four years old, some really big ones along the way, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s as generous of spirit as Quentin Tarantino. He’s very aware in a kind of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady way; that’s one of the things that caught me completely off guard. I’m not just saying that he was intelligent — he understood things almost immediately. I could see that he’d really been around. What I’d read before I met him was written by movie geeks and people like that. All my knowledge of him outside of the movies I saw was through the kids who were excited about him.
When I met him, I found a really intuitive, worldly sophistication. He’d made a speech when he was getting an award at Sundance, saying that the last time he was there for “Reservoir Dogs,” he wasn’t a man yet, and he doesn’t know when he became a man, but he feels different now. When I ran into him later that night, I said, “You were a man when I met you in 2001. I don’t care about the boyish enthusiasm or any of that. That’s great to have, but there’s no way I’m rolling the dice with a boy, okay?” I had to size that up really quickly. But getting back to the awareness thing, I spent a day with Muhammad Ali, and I felt like he was really aware. I spent a couple of conversations, once in person and once over the phone, with Marlon Brando. Brando was aware. Frank Sinatra was aware. There are only a handful of people like that, but I immediately put Quentin in that league.
I’d like to get back to your early career making those AIP pictures. What made those such wild years for you? Were you hanging out with real bikers?
Oh my god, yeah. I went to Phoenix, Arizona for “Angel Unchained,” and they’d hire the bike gang from Phoenix to be extras in the movie. The bikers would work for beer in those days. They felt like it was a cool thing to be in a movie, and they didn’t want anything else. They had girls they ran with, all the bikers, but if they liked you hey, they’d introduce you to that girl. ’66 through ’69 was a really wild time. The sexual revolution was in full bloom, which was caused by women, not men. Men always wanted to have sex. [laughs] It was the women who said, “Hey, count us in, too. And guess who’s going to be offering it up for any of us?” Because of the interactions with the psychedelic drugs, there was an odd, really amazing vibe in the air that I guess you could view as naÃ¯ve in retrospect. It was a once in a lifetime experience, because there was a hope that the young people were actually going to change the world. We all believed it. You could say it was delusional, that it was drug-oriented, but we believed it. And we came close, in a certain way. But when the Manson thing happened with Sharon Tate, and then one of the Hell’s Angels killed somebody up at Altamont [during] the Rolling Stones [concert] that was the beginning of the end, the innocence of it all. Then the world went back to the way it was.
Could you elaborate on something crazy or unexpected that happened to you during that era?
Well, in those days, the drugs were flowing freely. But my interest, as I came to realize, was that I liked it when a woman took her clothes off. [laughs] Anything a woman would offer up: “Why don’t we try this?” When I heard it the first hundred times, I thought I was really interested in that thing. But what it connoted to me was: “If we do this, I will take my clothes off,” which really became more consequential to me over the long run. It was out there in a huge way… I wouldn’t be able to communicate the feeling, because it was so different than all other feelings, even to this day; the feeling in the air was different. If you’re interested in talking about this, we could do another [interview] where that’s the only thing I talk about. I have ten zillion stories, as you could imagine. It was wall-to-wall people on the Sunset Strip from around ’66 through ’70; it was a party like you’ve never seen.
Of all the pictures you’ve ever done, which do you think is the most underrated or would you most like to see get a re-release?
The one I enjoyed doing the most was “Angel Unchained.” That was a motorcycle movie from 1970. “Wild in the Streets” is actually one of the best movies that I did. Have you seen it?
I have, and I’d like to know if a story Max Julien says on another film’s audio commentary track is true. Did Richard Pryor urinate on Shelley Winters’ head while filming a scene?
No, he didn’t piss on her head. Well, maybe [Julien] knows something I don’t know, but I’ve never heard that, truthfully. But for one of the scenes, where Shelley was waiting down below and six of us had to come out, [Pryor] said, “Let’s all walk out naked.” To which all of us replied, “Yeah, let’s do it!” Until it came time to do it, and then he was the only one who did it. Shelley just about fainted.
Your filmography stops around 1983 and picks up in 1996. What were you doing in those years?
I got it into my head that I was going to be starring in movies that I wrote, so that’s what I did. I stopped acting in all things, and I wrote my first script, which was optioned a week after I finished it. I had a lot of people chasing me to write other scripts, and it was actually a very lucrative time. So, although it looks mysterious, like I joined the French Foreign Legion, it’s actually more conventional, in that I was raising a family. Eventually we made “Trigger Happy,” which is called “Mad Dog Time” in certain circles, and “Underworld,” the thing I [wrote and co-starred in] with Denis Leary — we made those simultaneously. I waited until the right time to do it, and that’s why I didn’t disappear again. [laughs]
But that’s what happened. I went deep into myself. I had a little desk and a writing pad in my house, and I felt like I was writing the greatest screenplays that had ever been written. My mindset was Nietzsche-ish. It was like I had unveiled something nobody else had ever seen, and I was driven by the idea. Within a week, I had changed my identity. I had gone from being an actor to a writer. You never forget something like that, where you wake up one day and you’re something else, and it works. The biggest switch, from my wife’s perspective, was the day I announced I’d never be acting in another movie again unless I’ve written it, and she says, “You haven’t written anything. Go back to sleep.”
[Photos: Director/star Larry Bishop; Leonor Varela; Michael Madsen – “Hell Ride,” Weinstein Company, 2008]
“Hell Ride” opens in limited release on August 8th.