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Spaghetti Western icon Tony Anthony is Comin' At Ya! again this weekend

Spaghetti Western icon Tony Anthony is Comin' At Ya! again this weekend

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Tony Anthony and Victoria Abril in Comin' At Ya!
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Tony Anthony at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin during Fantastic Fest Photo by Joe Leydon
Comin at ya!
Comin' at Ya! Jay Shaw
News_Tony Anthony_Victoria Abril_Comin at Ya_Feb 2012
News_Tony Anthony
Comin at ya!

If you’ve ever had a hankering for Spaghetti Westerns, chances are good you remember Tony Anthony.

Indeed, even if you’re not as fanatical a fan as Quentin Tarantino – who’s currently shooting his very own Spaghetti Western homage, Django Unchained, for a planned December release – you may savor fond memories of such guilty pleasures as A Stranger in Town (1967), in which Anthony essayed an Eastwoodesque loner who didn’t aim to please with his trusty shotgun, and Blindman (1971), which showcased the actor as a sightless gunslinger who, with the aid of his seeing-eye horse, rescued several kidnapped women from a bunch of Mexican bandits.

 Unfortunately, Comin’ At Ya! has seldom been seen on theater screens since its original theatrical release. But that’s about to change this weekend.

 (Among the supporting players in the latter: Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr as – I swear, I’m not making this up! – one of the bandits.)

And you’ve surely heard of (or, better still, have actually seen) Anthony’s 1981 magnum opus: A 3-D neo-Spaghetti Western aptly titled Coming At Ya! A surprise box-office hit in its day, the cult-fave flick was greeted as a wild and wooly action-adventure with a fistful of full-tilt, slam-bang 3-D thrills and spills. Everything from flaming arrows to heaving bosoms to rampaging bats appeared to fly off the screen as Anthony – doing triple duty as writer, producer and star – and director Ferdinando Baldi made moviegoers duck for cover and guffaw with delight.

Unfortunately, Comin’ At Ya! has seldom been seen on theater screens since its original theatrical release. But that’s about to change:  A digitally restored version of the film opens Friday in theaters across Texas, including three in the Houston area -- the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park, Willowbrook Movie Tavern and Rave Cinemas Yorktown 15.

And no one is happier about its return to silver screens than Anthony, who was on hand to bask in adulation and accolades when the restored Western played to enthusiastic response last fall at Fantastic Fest in Austin. 

Born Roger Pettito in 1937 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Anthony attended Carnegie Mellon University and trained at The Actors Studio in New York before he was signed and renamed by a record company looking for, as he recalls, “the next Frankie Avalon.”

His singing career ended after a single regional hit – something called “Peek-a-Boo,” though he really doesn’t like to talk about it – and an embarrassing appearance at Manhattan’s Copacabana club. But it lasted long enough for him to meet Allen Klein, the legendary talent agent (whose client list included The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) and record company executive.

Klein proved to be a very valuable contact when, after Anthony journeyed to Europe to further his acting career, the future Spaghetti Western icon needed help in finding financing for a little movie titled A Stranger in Town.

At least, that’s how Anthony tells the story, one of many anecdotes he shared when we chatted in Austin last fall.

CultureMap: So just how did a nice kid from West Virginia wind up playing cowboy in Italy?

Tony Anthony: Well, after I got out the music business, I made a couple movies here, and then I ended up going to Europe and starred in this movie called Wounds of Hunger, which was based on this best-selling book about a guy and what he goes through to become a bullfighter. Well, this was at a time when the movie business was really booming all over Europe. And all the major stars, even people like Elizabeth Taylor, were going over there to make movies. After MGM picked up Wounds of Hunger for international release, I figured, “Why should I go to Hollywood if it’s all happening here?” And that led to me starring and co-starring in all kinds of Italian movies. And that led to A Stranger in Town.

CM: This was in the early 1960s, right?

TA:  That’s right. I was over there when the Spaghetti Westerns first started coming out. And I could see that Sergio Leone had really touched a nerve. I mean, watching the audience reaction to movies like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly over there was astounding. Of course, Leone didn’t tell anybody that he got the story for the first one, A Fistful of Dollars, from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. He couldn’t care less. But for the longest time, he couldn’t get that first one made. People would tell him, “An Italian Western? Who’d want to see that?” But he literally changed the whole Western genre with that first movie. And he was followed by all these other directors and producers. My God, I think they made over 700 of those pictures.

Well, I come along, and I’m like a street guy. And they offer me a role in this picture, A Stranger in Town. So I meet with this director, Gigi Vanzi, and we go out to lunch. And he’s a chain smoker, and he’s walking around the table, and he’s pointing at me, and he says, “You know, you’re not Clint Eastwood.” And I just look at him. And he says, “You know you’re not John Wayne.” And I’m thinking, “Then what are we having this meeting for? So I can find out I’m not Clint Eastwood or John Wayne?” And then he says, “You’re certainly not Gary Cooper. And you can’t even roll a cigarette.”  And then I’m thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”

CM: And then?

TA:  Like I say, he’s walking all around the table. And he says, “You don’t walk down a main street with your gun and shoot the guy on the other side of the street.” And I said, “I don’t?” And he said, “No. You wait ‘till it’s night, and then you sneak down the street. And you’re smart – you know how to trick ‘em. And then you kill ‘em all.” And I think, “What am I getting into?” And I swear, this is a true story – this is how I became a cowboy.

The thing is, after he sat down, I said, “Well, I get the feeling that maybe you don’t want to make the picture with me. And I don’t know if I want to make the picture with you.” And he says, “But I do want you to make this picture with me.” And I said, “Why? You just spent a half-hour putting me down.” And he said that he’d seen these few Italian movies I’d made where I’d made the audience laugh. Which I didn’t know I could do – but that’s what the Italian directors had gotten out of me.

And he said, “If you’ll trust must me, I believe that with your look – with a few changes – you will appeal to the guy in the street. When they go see these super heroes, they say, “I wish I could be like that.” But I think with you, if I can find the humor, they’ll say, “I can be like that.” But I’ll need your complete trust to make that happen.

And that made sense to me – even though I didn’t know where that was leading.

CM: And where did it lead?

TA: The first thing that happens is, Gigi tells me, “I want to put white streaks in your hair.” See, at the time, I had really total-black hair. And I said, “Gigi, I thought you told me you wanted a fresh new look. “ He said, “No, I want you have to have streaked hair.” So I go to a salon…

And then I go back to Gigi, and he tells me, “I don’t want you to wash your hair for 30 days. I want this to be dirty, dirty blond. A white blond.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, boy, here I go.”

Well, next they take me to the costume house. And I had this vision of how cool I’m going to look. But the director hates everything I try on. It’s just, “No, no, no.” So we go out to where they store the oldest costumes, and he pulls out the rattiest pair of Levis. Long underwear full of holes. A vest that’s falling apart. Wraps a serape around me. Takes a hat he found that must have been used in like 25, 30 movies. Puts it on me. And then he says, “If we get the beard right – that’s The Stranger.” And I’m standing there thinking, “Damn. Can you believe this? I’m looking like a derelict.”

CM: Did you have any experience on horseback prior to this?

TA: [Laughs] Are you kidding? Right after that first meeting, Gigi asked me, “Can you ride horses?” And I lied. I said, “Oh, sure, I’m good with horses.” And you know what he said to me? “Well, I hate horses. Horses’ll hurt you if you don’t know what you’re doing.” And I said, “Yeah, I know. I know a lot of people who got hurt by horses.” Which was another lie.

Well, I found out that I was naturally good on a horse. And I got this incredible horse. See, I wanted a horse with personality that’d really show on the screen. So I get on that horse, and I show Gigi what I can do. And he doesn’t like it. So he tells the stuntman who’s training me to ride, “Bring me five or six other horses to try. Don’t worry how beautiful they are, I just want to see good horses that could look right with Tony.”

And winds up picking this horse that looks like a bull that had been in a bullfight. I mean, we’re talking scars, like he’d been in fights with other horses, and they’d bit him. Looks like a road warrior. That’s the horse he picks out for me. I said, “Gigi, what’s going on here?” And he said, “That is The Stranger’s horse.”

So that’s what happened. There I am with streaked hair, a costume that makes me look like a homeless person, a horse that looks like it’s ready to die. That’s how I got The Stranger’s look.

CM: As I recall, A Stranger in Town – like most of the other Spaghetti Westerns – often seemed very funny because it was so over the top. It took all the clichés of the genre – and pushed them up to 11.

TA: Well, let me tell you about one sequence – the one that I think led to the sale of this picture. I’m in a dungeon. They beat the hell out of me. Break me. Smash my face. Frank Wolff, a wonderful actor kicks me, leaves me there to die. They leave. And I’m there, crawling across the floor.

And in the middle of the shot – you see, over there, the director would talk to you in the middle of the scene, because they’d put the sound in afterwards. So the director tells me, “Tony! Go get your hat!” Well, by this point, I’m in the middle of the dungeon floor, and my hat is back there where they beat the hell out of me. And I’m thinking, “Go get my hat? Geez. Can you imagine what the audience is going to say? He’s stops in the middle of his escape, and goes back to get his hat.”

So I wouldn’t do it, I kept going. He starts yelling. I kept ignoring him. So he says, “Cut!” And he comes over to me with the Italian producer, and says, “Tony, you have to go over and get your hat. When I tell you to get your hat, you get your hat. Remember: You promised you’d trust me.” And I said, “I’m not going to stop in the middle of that and go back to get my hat. I’ll be laughed out of the theater for doing such a stupid thing.”

And he said, “You don’t understand. Every American cowboy – every cowboy in the world – has to have his hat.” I’m thinking, “Oh, my God! This guy is fucking crazy, I’m going down the tubes.”  But then the producer says, “Tony, you can’t see a cowboy who doesn’t have his hat. Where are we going to find his hat for the next sequence?”

So I figure, OK, if they’re going to argue, I’ll go back and get the hat – and then we can cut that out later. But Gigi fucked me on that. He knew exactly what I was thinking. So he did it all in one shot, and it couldn’t be cut. 

CM: Flash forward about 14 years. By that time, A Stranger in Town had spawned three sequels.  When you did Comin’ At Ya! did you ever think of maybe playing the lead role as an older version of the same Stranger character?

TA: Oh, no, Comin’ At Ya! was always intended as a completely different thing. The Spaghetti Western was already past its prime by that time. But I was offered this deal where I’d play a Western character in a movie with this Chinese actor who they thought was going to replace Bruce Lee, who’d died. And it was going to be shot in 3-D.

So I went over with [director] Ferdinando Baldi to Taiwan to talk with them, and to see what this 3-D thing was going to be all about. Because I’d never seen 3-D since I was in college, and we’d go to midnight shows. Well, we go there, and we see this incredible footage that they’d shot. And Baldi and I got to talking, and I said we had to do a Spaghetti Western with this technology, if we could find the equipment to do it the way we wanted to do it. And he said, “Absolutely. It’d be a goldmine.”

CM: Comin’ At Ya! actually was something of a hit back in 1981. But not as big a hit as you hoped, correct?

TA: Well, the really difficult part was the exhibition problem we had. This picture sold 3,250,000 admissions in less than 200 theaters. But there were really no other theaters set up for 3-D exhibition when Comin’ At Ya! came out. We broke the record for Star Wars at one theater where we did show it. And that’s why Hollywood tried to start making 3-D movies again in the ‘80s.

CM: I think it’s safe to say that Comin’ at Ya! is remembered more fondly by fans than, say, Jaws 3-D or Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone – or any of the other Hollywood 3-D movies from that era. Still, it’s been hard to actually see since its original theatrical release. It wasn’t until you were approached a few years back to have it digitally restored for theaters and home video…

TA: The trouble was, I didn’t know anything about digital. Fortunately, [film restoration expert] Tom Stern, who’s now my partner, knows everything about digital. He came to me, and said, ‘Why don’t we just take a look at this picture, and see if it’ll hold up today?’

And I agreed with that, because I didn’t want to get embarrassed.  So we set up this screening. And we had a few people who came in and watched it, cold, without knowing what to expect. And we watched their reaction. And they liked it. A lot.

We wanted to make sure we had a picture that would still play today. And we decided that we did.