I always loved Westerns. Ben Johnson was one of my favorite characters in the various films he did with John Ford, George Stevens, Sam Peckinpah, and a few others. He was a real cowboy. When he saw the rough cut of the Western short that he was doing the voiceover for, he said to me, ‘You had some real cowboys there.’ I was touched by his comment.
The first important film that Sam Peckinpah directed was RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. In that elegiac Western, the two protagonists, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, play a pair of aging gunslingers. At one point, Joel McCrea has to read a contract. He is too vain to wear glasses so he goes into another room and takes out his glasses to read the paper without being seen. When we went into the recording session with Johnson, he began to read the script that had been rewritten since he had first seen it. The writer, Bill Miller, says that’s the wrong script. I went into the booth and checked it out and it was indeed the right script. Ben Johnson had memorized the first script, probably because he didn’t want to be seen wearing glasses. I told him some of the stuff could be better and we would rewrite as we went along.
When I got back to the mixing board I told Miller and Pat Burnham what was going on and we made ourselves look foolish by ‘rewriting’ the script, of course, apologizing to Ben Johnson. He was always the gentleman and we never revealed the secret to him. Later I asked him how he came to Hollywood. He told me that he worked with John Ford as a wrangler. Ford offered him a couple hundred a week to come to Hollywood. At that time Johnson was making fifty dollars a month on an Oklahoma ranch. Ben said, ‘I was an ignorant cowboy but not so ignorant that I didn’t know that two hundred dollars a week in Hollywood was more money than fifty dollars a month in Oklahoma.’
Now he is part of a great history.