Regaling Richard Burton – The Fall Guy

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Thanks to Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews for hosting this Blogathon.

“Reluctant Travelling Companion” is one of Burton’s last screen appearances made just a couple of years before his early death at the age of 58. While it might be a footnote in Burton’s career there’s something quite moving about seeing an acclaimed actor best known for playing embittered drunken failures cutting loose in a silly 80s’ action show. Especially when Robert Earll’s script takes the time to have fun with Burton’s movie star persona. Burton’s high seriousness, his reputation as a hellraiser, and his solitary nature, all fit nicely into a plot which sees the legendary movie star travelling across country on a train and getting caught up in an assassination attempt.

The Fall Guy was created by Glen A. Larsen, the man behind Battlestar Galactica, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, and my own personal favourite Cover Up with its ridiculous premise of a fashion house being used as a front for a team of secret agents. The Fall Guy was a vehicle for former Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors who even sang the show’s irritatingly catchy theme tune. Majors played Colt Seavers, a Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a bounty hunter with the aid of his handsome but dippy cousin Howie (Douglas Barr) and fellow stunt performer Jodie (Heather Thomas). As the show was set in the movie business there would be occasional cameos from erstwhile movie stars playing themselves. James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Roy Rogers, and Britt Ekland all made appearances.

In “Reluctant Travelling Companion”  Colt Seavers travels to Philadelphia to escort Christina (Mary-Margaret Humes), a prisoner accused of embezzling money from a bank. She claims she did so in revenge for them ruining her father’s life. The bank’s owner wants her dead and has hired a pair of hitmen to kill her because when she hacked into their computer system she may have seen evidence of illegal financial dealings. Colt has no idea and assumes this will be a routine assignment. He doesn’t even handcuff her. She refuses to fly so Colt is forced to take her back to L.A. by train. Christina makes a break for it at the station and both end up being questioned by security after Colt mistakenly punches out a plain clothes police officer.

Onboard the train a distinctive well-spoken Welsh accent enquires about the commotion earlier at the station. We hear the voice before we see the face and  immediately know who’s speaking. Burton wants peace and quiet to study the screenplay for his next movie. The guard Jackson (Michael D. Roberts) gives Burton his word there will be no more distractions. Burton gets a magnificently portentous response. “You’re a rare man Jackson. You understand a man’s need for solitude.”  Everything is set up nicely within the first ten minutes. Burton’s desire for a quiet journey will be repeatedly ruined by Colt and his inability to handle Christina.

“Richard Burton!?” Nice double take from Majors here when he realises who’s in the next cabin and his incredulous line delivery is just shy from being over the top. Colt then does what anybody who works in media does when they meet somebody who is higher up the food chain. They pitch themselves and try to get a job. Colt mentions they worked together on The Desert Rats (1953, Robert Wise). “You drove over my head with your staff car.” Claiming his shouting match with Christina is a rehearsal for a scene in a forthcoming movie Colt manages to placate Burton who returns to reading his screenplay. Not before turning down the offer of a drink with a line which neatly undercuts his reputation as a booze hound. “I only drink when I’m working.”

Christina doesn’t believe for a moment Richard Burton is in the next cabin, but whoever is there she’s going to annoy them by loudly simulating intercourse. Jackson arrives to investigate the noise and is less than impressed to see a young woman handcuffed to the bed. “I used to be a pretty decent middle-weight so make it good.” Colt should really mention the whole bounty hunter thing at this point but he’s worried Burton might find out he needs a second job to pay his bills. So Colt repeats the lie about them both rehearsing a scene for a movie. Burton is called upon to back up Colt’s story which he reluctantly does. Burtons’s fruity line delivery here would be suitable for a Carry On film. “Rehearsals?…yes,” drawing out the pronunciation of “yes” so it lasts longer than the first word.

“Now why didn’t you show me these right off?” Jackson has a point. This whole misunderstanding could have been avoided if Colt had shown him his Bounty Hunter’s license and the letter proving he has been hired by the state to escort Christina back to L.A. Instead he has to stay in the bar until Jackson gets confirmation from the authorities leaving Christina alone. To be fair she also should have mentioned there were a couple of hitmen tailing them.

“Oh no, not Mr Burton!” When an exasperated Burton goes to investigate yet more screaming he ends up getting knocked out by Christina. Earll’s script gives Burton some more flowery language to play with when he awakens. “There is a time and a place for such maniacal idiocy but it is I repeat, I repeat not in a public convenience.” Burton is still convinced at this point that Colt and Christina are nothing more than a couple of noisy kinksters.

Back in his compartment nursing a sore head Burton sees Colt fighting one of the hitmen outside his window. Burton wants to know how what he assumes to be a stunt was performed. Finally it dawns on him there’s trouble onboard when Colt tells him bluntly, “well. I threw him off the train.” It’s enough to get Burton on the drink. He orders from room service a “tall Scotch, at least as old as I am..” then when it arrives drinks straight from the bottle.

Every 80s’ action/thriller show has an episode in which the protagonist arrives in a small town and ends up in a jail overseen by a corrupt sheriff. With Christina going AWOL from the train Colt is forced to give chase and finds her in a cafe. Cue another unwritten rule of 80s’ television. Any scene in a diner has to end in a mass brawl with unfriendly locals. The sheriff fancies himself as a cowboy and wants a part in a movie, preferably a Western. Not so funny now when somebody starts hassling you for movie work is it Colt? After bribing the sheriff with false promises and the silver belt buckle he’d taken a fancy to, Colt gets a free helicopter ride. Eventually catching up with Christina in Chicago, and this time with Howie in tow, they return to the train.

Burton was clearly not in the best of health when filming this and looks much older and frailer than his 56 years. They get round this by having Burton assist Colt during a fight sequence by nonchalantly opening a window so the hitman flies off the train. Having had his entire journey disrupted Burton gets his revenge on Colt by offering him a chance to rehearse a love scene with the stuntman playing the part of a young lady.  I bought Burton’s diaries in which he’s never shy in offering caustic views on his profession but there are no entries between 1980-83 so sadly I’ve no idea what he thought of his appearance on The Fall Guy. It’s a lovely self-deprecating turn though with Burton gamely playing along with all the silliness.

There’s only a handful of Burton performances to come after this. A televised version of an Alice in Wonderland Broadway musical, the second series of a TV show about Richard Wagner, and his final movie 1984 (1984, Michael Radford). The last thing he did is a big glossy 80s’ mini-series called Ellis Island about immigrants trying to make a new life in America which saw him playing a rich politician. In his last scene he smiles at Faye Dunaway, takes her hand, and disappears into a mansion. Not a bad way to make an exit.

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