Kentucky’s been grist for the cinema’s mill more than a few times, but there’s still so much more drama to mine from these here hills. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of 10 Kentuckians who deserve a film or play – a great one, I mean – written about them. Broadway and Hollywood, listen up:
1. Kit Carson - Once upon a time, the “big three” of frontiersmen was generally regarded to be Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson. Somewhere along the way, Carson’s reputation has lagged behind the other two thirds of the triumvirate, and it’s time for Hollywood to start rectifying that. Carson was born in Madison County, near Richmond, and went on to become a great American adventurer out west. The Carson family lived on a farm owned by the sons of Daniel Boone, who had purchased the land from the Spanish prior to the Louisiana Purchase. The Boone and Carson families were closely linked by intermarrying. Carson’s reputation as an explorer, trapper, and soldier were canonized in a series of action novels and a popular TV show that ran for four seasons but is all but forgotten today.
2. Ron Whitehead - Ron Whitehead is one of the greatest living poets of all time, and the true heir apparent to the voice of The Beat Generation. I know this, because I receive frequent email press releases from him which tell me so, over and over and over. A play about Ron does exist – Marathon by Todd Autry. Ron put the script in my hands a couple years ago, urging my company to stage it. It’s a faithful adaptation of Ron’s book Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon – perhaps a little too faithful. The play is more than a little self-indulgent as a vehicle for Ron as a character (referred to as “Bone” in the script) to talk about his opinions on everything from soup to nuts, and recites some Ron poetry along the way. It’s also an excessively long show, making the whole affair indeed a marathon for the audience.
No, what’s needed here is a Ron Whitehead play or movie that Ron himself had nothing to do with. Something that tells the real Ron story, foibles and all, from the outside looking in, not from Ron’s point of view looking out. All ribbing aside, Ron truly is a shining example of that species peculiar to Kentucky, Wildmanicus Undomesticus, a voice speaking all things rural, determined to be a thorn in the side of all things technocratic, from here to eternity, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Tom Cruise in "Jack Reacher"
3. Tom Cruise - Although Thomas Cruise Mapother IV was born in Syracuse, he spent the largest chunk of his chaotic childhood living in Louisville, and was a Courier-Journal paper boy. Cruise, known for films such as Magnolia, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Interview with a Vampire, and fellow Kentuckian Walter Tevis’ The Color of Money, devotes much of his time to activities with Scientology, but still finds time to visit Kentucky occasionally, visiting relatives and associates and, of course, attending the Derby. He’ll always be one of the finest actors in Hollywood, for my money, regardless of what controversial hi-jinks he gets up to next. The Tom Cruise story is still writing itself, of course – he’s still a relatively young man and has miles to go before he sleeps. But even his life story thus far would be a fascinating one.
4. Walter Tevis - And hey, speaking of Walter Tevis, what about him? He was a good Madison County boy who authored three blockbuster novels: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and the Science Fiction classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, all three of which were also made into equally blockbuster Hollywood films. Walter’s two biggest passions were playing pool and writing, and he somehow managed to juggle the two well enough to earn his Masters degree. Tevis spent a great deal of time in the smoky, dirty pool rooms of Richmond, even after becoming a schoolteacher in small towns like Science Hill, Irvine, and Carlisle. Later, he went on to become a professor at UK, and then Ohio University. His pool shark’s life of drinking and smoking caught up with him in the end, however, and in his final years he battled alcoholism and lung cancer. He died in New York in 1984.
5. Hunter S. Thompson - Wait, they’ve already made movies about Thompson, I hear you cry. Even people who don’t know about Bill Murray’s peculiar Where the Buffalo Roam are at least semi-familiar with Johnny Depp’s portrayals in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary. But it’s the circumstances surrounding his last days and mysterious death that would truly make for some moving theatre or cinema. Thompson, who from all reports was not depressed, allegedly took his own life with a handgun in his Aspen, Colo., home on Feb. 20, 2005. He left the single word “counselor” typed haphazardly in the center of a sheet of paper in his typewriter. He had been in a phone conversation with his wife, asking her to come home from the gym to help him on a column he was writing. Suddenly, his wife says, he went silent on the other end of the phone. He didn’t hang up the phone, he simply stopped talking. She heard no shot. I repeat: she heard no shot.
6. Virgil Earp - Wyatt Earp may have gotten all the fame from the O.K. Corral showdown, but his brother Virgil (born in Hartford) was a more interesting and talented figure. After surviving the shootout, he led a life filled with drama and action, being chased and pursued for years afterward by men seeking revenge for the Tombstone incident. One subsequent assassination attempt very nearly did him in, and cost him the use of an arm. After spending much time on the run, he worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, hired as security during the Battle of the Crossing. Late in life, he fought against the Temperance Movement, whose prohibition laws prevented him from opening a saloon. Though Virgil was portrayed admirably by Sam Elliott in the 1993 film Tombstone, I’d like to see him get a story all to
himself, especially one that focuses on his later years.
David "Stringbean" Akeman
7. Stringbean - David “Stringbean” Akeman, star of the Grand Ole Opry and the Hee-Haw television show, was born in Annville in 1916. Like many who grew up during the Great Depression, Stringbean had a great distrust of banks, and walked around with several thousand dollars on his person, in the front zip-pouch of his ubiquitous overalls (The overalls, by the way, were not a pose or affectation — that’s what he wore pretty much 24-7, onstage and off). It was well known around Nashville that String had his life’s savings stashed away somewhere at home. On Nov. 10, 1973, John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown conspired to follow Stringbean to his home as he left the Ryman Auditorium, for the purpose of taking his life’s savings at gunpoint. Just as with the Kansas robbery-turned-murder case popularized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the men failed to find any money in their home invasion, and out of frustration and confusion, ended up killing Stringbean and his wife Estelle for no good reason.
8. Beulah Annan - Beulah was already used, in a highly fictionalized way, as the basis for the Roxie Hart character in the musical Chicago, but it would be nice to see her story told in a more gritty, realistic and factual film. Beulah was something of a femme fatale who, in a very short period of years, went through many men and much misadventure. She made national headlines in 1924 when she shot and killed a laundromat worker named Harry Kalstedt, with whom she was having an affair. Beulah told multiple versions of her story, but what is common to all versions is her admission that instead of calling for help immediately, she sat around drinking cocktails for two hours while playing a 78 record by Sophie Tucker called “Hula Lou” over and over and over.
9. Henry Earl – There are many among us who find much hilarity in the story of Lexington’s Henry “James Brown” Earl, infamous for his erratic behavior around town and his epic-length arrest record; I do not. I’d like to see a film or a play that underscores the real problems America faces today using Henry’s story as a focal point. Having said that, it would probably be depressing as heck and I probably wouldn’t go to see it myself. But that’s not to say that someone shouldn’t, even if only to present a differing viewpoint to Jimmy Kimmel’s worldwide mockery of this man.
10. Colonel Sanders - As if creating the greatest fried chicken restaurant ever and becoming a Kentucky iconic figure himself weren’t enough, Harland Sanders led quite an interesting life even before he went into the bird business. In his early adulthood, Sanders was a volunteer firefighter, a chef, a soldier stationed in Cuba, a traveling salesman, a steamboat operator, active Freemason (he underwent his initiation in 1917) and ran several small businesses of his own, including a gas station in Corbin. It was in Corbin that his special way of preparing fried chicken became a great roadside success, and by 1932 a thriving restaurant and motel had developed out of it. Sanders Cafe Chicken was renamed Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, and the rest is history. I’d love to see a movie or play all about Sanders’ exciting life before the rest of the world came to know him. (Can’t you just imagine “Colonel Sanders: the Broadway Musical”? I can.)
Jeffrey Scott Holland is a native Kentuckian, painter, writer, actor, musician, paralegal – and interested in all things. He joins a growing stable of talented, interesting regular columnists for KyForward.com, bringing his gift of a well-turned phrase, quirkiness and humor to entertain and enlighten — and sometimes provoke — our readers. He can always be reached at any time, by anyone on the planet, at email@example.com.