An Interview with Larry Bishop

by Andrew J. Rausch

Larry Bishop was born into show business royalty, the son of Rat Pack member Joey Bishop. At the age of eighteen, Bishop was a member of the improvisational comedy troupe known as the Session, which also included Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks. He made his acting debut in Wild in the Streets in 1968. He soon became a contract player with American International Pictures and became synonymous with the motorcycle movie genre. He is perhaps best known for the film The Savage Seven. He also appeared on numerous television series, such as Laverne & Shirley, Kung Fu, and I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1996, he wrote and directed the film Mad Dog Time, which featured Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, and Richard Dreyfuss. That same year he wrote and starred in the film Underworld alongside Denis Leary and Joe Mantegna. In 2004, he appeared in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. He later wrote, directed, and starred in the Quentin Tarantino-produced film Hell Ride.

When did you first become aware of Quentin Tarantino?

I became aware of Quentin when Reservoir Dogs opened. I brought my oldest son with me to the movie theater. He was in his late teens at the time. He had actually typed up some of my scripts, and he was really worried that Reservoir Dogs was going to affect what I was doing. He was a little bit worried that whoever this Quentin Tarantino guy was, it was going to affect me in my attempts to sell my own similar projects. I said, “No, let’s just see the movie.” So we went to see Reservoir Dogs at the Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. I remember it as if it was yesterday. There were twelve people in the audience for that movie. My son kept saying, “It’s funny, it’s violent, it’s a lot like your stuff. Do you think this is going to get in your way?” I said, “Let’s just relax and watch the movie. If the guy is talented, he’s talented. What difference does it make? If he hits it big before my scripts hit it big, I’ll just deal with it.” But my son was very concerned.

I always sit in the back of the movie theater. Besides watching the movie, I want to see how people are responding to the material. We both really liked the movie, so that wasn’t what was at stake. When we finally left the theater, my son said, “Well, it’s funny and it’s violent. There are real similarities.” Then he said, “But there were only twelve people in the theater.” I remember this very clearly. I never root against anybody who’s got talent. I said, “Yeah, but we both really liked that movie.” Besides that, I watched the audience. There were only twelve people in that theater other than us, and they were all guys, sitting separately. I said, “I got news for you—this Tarantino guy’s gonna go places, because those twelve people were really engaged in watching that movie.” I watched their body movements. They were really riveted. Nobody went to the bathroom, nobody got up for popcorn… Those twelve people were really engaged. So when I left that theater, I knew that Quentin had himself a career. I didn’t know what kind of career he was going to wind up having, but I knew he wasn’t going to have to work on any other kind of thing except movies. I knew he could do this for the rest of his life. It was actually exciting to see somebody who was that talented.

How did you wind up meeting Quentin?

What happened was, I got a phone call back in 2001. I got a call from my friend Laura Cayoutte at midnight. She said, “I’m standing next to Quentin Tarantino, and he’s your biggest fan.” That’s the first thing she says to me. I assumed he was a fan because I had just done a bunch of gangster movies—Mad Dog Time, Underworld… I said, “He really liked the gangster movies?” And she said, “No, no, no. He loves the motorcycle movies you did in the late sixties and early seventies. He loves Savage Seven.” So he got on the phone and he said, “Do you want to see a mint print of Savage Seven? Come to my house and we’ll watch it in my theater.” I said, “Yeah, when?” And he said, “Let’s do it tomorrow night.” So that was the beginning. That was like a real big kick, because no one in show business liked those motorcycle movies. No one.

In all of the time since—from 1967 to 2001—not one person had ever said a nice thing about the motorcycle movies. But he flipped for them. He loved The Savage Seven. It’s one of his favorite movies, so he really got it. He liked the grindhouse movie ambiance. They were not part of the mainstream, which was what I liked about them. Because I had been raised in a Hollywood setting. Because of my father and the whole Rat Pack thing, I had been around show business from the time I was two. That was the top of the line in show business, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. You couldn’t get any bigger in show business than they were at that period. But that wasn’t me. I liked rebel movies. I like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. I like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. In a way, they were the opposite of what I had been exposed to. I made a decision at nineteen that I was just going to make movies and wasn’t going to do nightclubs. I wanted to separate myself from all the show business stuff I had experienced previously. The motorcycle movies weren’t seen as a respected form of show business. But this was purposeful on my part. I didn’t think it was a good thing, psychologically speaking, to follow very closely in the footsteps of my father. But no one had ever complimented me for those movies before. No one. So Quentin was completely separate from anybody I had ever met in show business. He appreciated those movies for what they were.

So Quentin said, “Come on up to my house.” So I went to his house the following night. He’s got a fifty-seat movie theater in his house, and it’s beautiful. He’s got a little lobby before you enter the movie theater, and he had posters of all my movies on display in his lobby! They used to tell you in the late sixties that if you ever took LSD, you’d have flashbacks later on. It was unpredictable. Well, that was the first thing that hit my brain, because my brain started to go very surreal on me. It was so unusual, just totally unexpected. So my first thought was, “Uh-oh, they were right.” This was the acid kicking in from forty years ago. [Laughs.] My first thought was, “Are these posters always in his lobby? Or did he do this for me?” Either way, it was like wow, he’s really doing this. This was really generous of spirit.

Then when we got into the movie theater, he said, “You’re in for a surprise now.” Before The Savage Seven started running, he had seven trailers of my films put together. I hadn’t even seen these trailers. He had put them together. I said, “I know there’s no official Larry Bishop package of trailers. How did you do this? Where did you get all of these?” And he said, “Just sit back and enjoy the movie.” So I still don’t know why I’m up there outside of the joy I’m getting. The movie ends, the lights come up, and I thank him. I said, “So what do you want to do?” I knew there had to be something else he wanted to say to me. And he said, “I think it’s your destiny to write, star, and direct the greatest motorcycle movie ever made.” That was his line—that it was my destiny to do that. So I said, “I’m in.” And that’s how Hell Ride began.

So I started writing, and about a week later he said, “I wrote a part for you in Kill Bill.” I said, “Of course, I’ll do it.” I didn’t even ask him what the part was. He just said my character was someone who was going to give Michael Madsen’s character a very, very, very hard time. “You’re gonna be totally sadistic with him. You’re gonna cut him off at the knees.” So I said, “Perfect.”

What was the experience of working on Kill Bill like?

It was fantastic. First of all, I didn’t know he was going to call the part “Larry.” That was really interesting to me. That excited me. There wasn’t going to be any doubt in anybody’s mind that he really wrote that part for me. That was exciting.

We never talked about the role, Quentin and I, because he went off to travel all over the world making this movie. We never said anything about the scene one way or the other. The only communication we had was through the wardrobe people. They told me, “Quentin said, ‘Bring your clothes.’ We’re not giving Larry clothes. I want him to go into his closet and wear the clothes that he always wears.” That was cool. So when I showed up the first day, this was the first time we ever said anything. He said, “Why don’t we have a run-through? Not for the blocking, but let’s just go through it.” So it was just me and Michael Madsen going back and forth with the dialogue. When we did it the first time, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to do. And Quentin says, “That wasn’t exactly what I thought you were gonna do.” He wanted urban New York fast-speak, which is what I do. But for me, I thought I had to slow things down for this character. I knew I was going to play it with a lot of ego. I felt like in his world, he’s like Frank Sinatra. This is his world, where he’s as big as Frank Sinatra. I wanted to express that.

So instead of rushing into the dialogue, I just held for twelve seconds looking at Michael Madsen. I felt like it would be more uncomfortable for Madsen’s character for me to just stare at him. It’s a sadistic move. It’s cruel to do it. But I felt like it sets the tone for the power dynamic we’re working on. So every time Quentin said, “action,” I hold for twelve seconds. And Quentin held for twelve seconds on the cut! I didn’t think he’d do that, but I knew he’d understand where my mindset was at. I felt that was important. I figure there’s no way in the world he’s going to use all that when he puts this together, or maybe he’ll use a couple of seconds… But he used every single bit of it. And Quentin told me, “You know how to hold those pauses.” That was really cool to me. I mean, I wondered, could my presence hold those pauses? It’s always a little bit of a gamble.

After we did that, Michael Madsen walks over to me and said, “Larry, the scene’s all yours.” That was a pretty generous thing to say. So I was thinking of him for Hell Ride, but now he had consolidated it. I found him to be a compatriot of mine. Even though we could have conflicts on Hell Ride, I wanted him to be on my side. I figured a biker would appreciate someone backing them like that. That was an unusual thing for an actor to say. But I think the more I dug in with how I wanted to play the part, the better it was for Michael. I think it’s a great scene for him. We know his character’s background—he could cut off my head in a second. But no, he’s gonna take it. There’s a reason he’s gonna take it. If you watch the movie a couple of times, I think it benefited him. I wasn’t taking the scene away from him, I was enhancing a different way of looking at his character.

Also cool, Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, turns to Quentin Tarantino and says, “Who the fuck is this guy?” He knows nothing about me, except that he can’t get over what he just saw. He was sort of watching it just to get a sense of the lighting and the coverage, but he said, “Who the fuck is this guy?” That tickled Quentin. I didn’t want to interrupt him because it was so beautiful; he went on for ten minutes about who I was. Robert Richardson knew absolutely nothing about me but what he’d just seen.

In the movie, I say, “That fucking hat.” That was like code words for everybody. That went on for the rest of the shoot. Everybody was saying, “That fucking hat.” That wasn’t in the original script. When I got there, Quentin handed me three handwritten pages. He said, “I’ve got to get Michael Madsen to take this fucking hat off. He won’t stop wearing that hat in the movie. So you’re gonna be the one who tells him to take the fucking hat off.” So that was the inside joke of the whole thing. “Let’s get Michael’s hat off.” And the handwritten pages… I took that idea later on. When I went to do Hell Ride, I thought it was beneficial that the director took the time to write these extra things in his handwriting. It made me have a different feeling when I was looking at the pages. I never forgot that. So I did that myself during Hell Ride. I think it changes the tenor of the way you see things as an actor.

Working on Kill Bill set the tone for how much I trusted Quentin when I worked with him. It couldn’t have worked out better. Even to this day, when I’m at a newsstand or Rite-Aid, there’s always somebody who’s staring at me. I’ve gotten to the point where I can recognize a Kill Bill look. I get different looks for different movies. But this one was out there, and it plays everyday on cable. There could be a Kill Bill channel as much as it plays! I get that kind of attention all the time because of this movie.

What was Quentin like to work with on Hell Ride?

He was a doll. We had two meetings at the very beginning, just to make sure we were both on the same page. I said, “What do you think I should call my character?” So I let him anoint me with the name. He said, “Pistolero is a good name for you.” So I said, “Perfect. I’ll be Pistolero.” We were in sync on all this. We both loved Sergio Leone, and that’s where the humor and the violence came into play in both of our films. Quentin and I have different senses of humor, but it’s a strong sense of humor. I knew we were making a biker movie with kind of a spaghetti western vibe going on. That was our meeting point in terms of what we were going to do. I was happy to see that everything I wrote wound up in the movie.

Here’s what Quentin did. He was going to leave me completely alone during the shoot, which was very cool. The last thing he said to me after our second meeting was, “I’ll see you in the editing room.” That was it. So I went off to make the movie, and then went into the editing room. He came in for about three weeks after I did my cut. He was brilliant.

I had written the script so graphically that when I had made the deal with the Weinsteins, Bob said, “What kind of rating are we gonna get on this?” I said, “I’ll get you an R-rating.” He felt that it was written so graphically that it wouldn’t even get an NC-17. They were going to have to invent something for us. But I said, “No, I’ll get you the R-rating.” And that was the end of the issue. When we were going to the motion pictures ratings board, everyone was sending me notes for what to say when it didn’t get the R-rating. There was pages of this stuff. But we passed on the first screening. Everybody kind of fainted. It was really crazy, but it was really Quentin. He knew how to get an R-rating. He knew how to do it without hurting what I was interested in—the eroticism mostly. I felt that was important to the picture.

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