The True Story of Perkins Cobb, King of the One-Shots

I gave up on the thought of writing about Perk Cobb long ago. He had caught on to the idea that I might be imagining writing a book about him. "One of those movie lives?" he wondered. This was in the early '80s when he was roaming around, dropping his money as tidily as possible, and always seemed to be caught between some Tuesday Weld, Graziella Ortiz, and Lady Antonia Fraser...

Vanity Fair was calling him "Percolating Cobb," and young journalists were out to "find" him. He was still colorful and vaguely active, and he could see as well as anyone that he was "good material."

So he shut himself down, all in a matter of two weeks. He quite simply gave up on doing things. It was as if he were determined to fold his "life" up like a blanket in which he happened to be sleeping. Or a shroud. So I took the hint and I dropped the book thing. But now that he is dead, I believe there are a few things that need to be said.

There was a time when I would not have needed to supply the back story--of how Perkins Cobb, of Escalante, Utah, had fallen upon the film program at UCLA in 1970 like a serene scourge and a lethal visionary--the best anyone could dream of, a kid who could "do" Bunuel, Bergman, Von Sternberg, or Arthur Hiller at the drop of a hat, and who came with a hat. There would have been no need to reiterate how, while still at UCLA, he had in a single weekend done a brilliant, uncredited polish for Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. ("It was a polish without a script," he claimed, "just a shine hanging in the air.") Or of how, in 1977, he made his first and only film, My Sweet Dread, that hilarious, yet unnerving, sun-drenched noir that starred Warren Oates, Jean Seberg, Claudia Jennings, and Armand Croixant. (Within just a few years, all four of these actors had passed on, leaving My Sweet Dread oddly impervious to researching interviews. Thus its legend grew more lurid, fed by extant tales of fights, fucks, spur-of-the-moment improvs and relentless off-camera melodrama on its Mexican locations.)

Though only a small hit in the United States, My Sweet Dread was huge in Europe and monstrous on video. There is a graffiti subculture that still talks in its lines. Critics were ecstatic. "Here is a moviemaker," said Pauline Kael, "who leaves us hardly caring what he does--what the pretext is for his camera--so long as he does it for us, to us, now." Vincent Canby said, "This is a debut such as deserves to be ranked with Citizen Kane or The Night of the Hunter. It is breathtaking to behold so complete a talent come from nowhere." Richard Corliss wrote that the picture was "both nifty and swell, in a rhythm that resembles the roller coaster of your dreams."

The kingdom of Hollywood was Perk's for the signature. He was 26, tall and rangy, with that consumptive cowboy look Calvin Klein had not yet hit on. He could put words together in any way that was required--he once did a panel with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida ("Le Signe et L'Abysse"), talking his best Southern Utah French--and he knew how to say nothing with force in studio meetings, and he could wind sentences around women as unbroken and sweet as the pouring of hot butterscotch sauce.

Jeff Berg was his agent, and ICM was ready to package for Perk. There are pictures I know he declined, or dodged, or acted stupid over--Heaven Can Wait, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Right Stuff, American Gigolo, Heaven's Gate, The Natural, Atlantic City, Ragtime. But as Berg told me once (for I was one of those the agent used to rally Perk), "It isn't what he turned down. For three or four years Perkins Cobb could have done anything he cared to name or to invent out of nothing. He could have proposed novels by Robert Musil that didn't exist--The Novel Without Writing--and we'd have been in development. The career we could have had! The course of American movies would have been different. I would have broken the skulls of the business for Perk Cobb."

But to it all, Perk offered the wayward, amiable and gentle back of his hand. Warren Beatty was after Perk for years over Reds. Not that Warren risked frightening him off with anything as barefaced as an offer. But Perk out-paused him on the phone, and steadily missed a series of meetings until finally Warren had nothing left to do but send Perk a cable: "Will you direct John Reed? Or play John Reed? Are you there?" And Perk just sent back another cable, "I would prefer not to." Warren called me up and said, what did I think it meant? Was it a ploy? Was there a subtext? I had to tell him that it was only Perk alluding to the Herman Melville story, Bartleby the Scrivener, about a clerk who stops doing anything. Until he dies. Warren found the story, and he liked it, and he asked Perk to do that--write it, direct and play the lead. And Perk just sent another cable: "Ditto." The last I heard, Warren was still fascinated, and Robert Towne had done a script that had Bartleby as a realtor in Laguna Hills. A month before he died--we were in Ely, Nevada, passing through--Perk said very casually, "Beatty's getting awfully pushy after Tracy. I may have to check out to get rid of him."

Of course, the great rage for Perk Cobb did not last. You can be a silent sensation for only so long. Perk had known the bright, busy world would go away. "I have made my picture," he said, "and I do not intend to make it again."

"But," I tried to argue with him. "A career--?"

"There are no careers anymore" he told me. "Just one-shots..." He took a swallow of Henry. "And flashes in the pan."

It was not Perkins Cobb's way to need to explain what he was doing, or, more accurately, what he was not doing. No, he concentrated on doing it, on doing as little as possible. He had all the single-minded negativity of a light in a fade-out. He avoided statements or interviews, any of those formal opportunities for presenting his antagonism to Hollywood as a system for others to emulate. I saw a good deal of him, here and there, but we spent most of our time going from one Best Western motel to another, driving, finding dusty, empty bars for beer and a little pool on parched, bumpy tables the color of old money, small-talk flirting with waitresses and watching ball games on the motel TV. Perk had become an Atlanta Braves fan, he was that close to giving up the ghost. I can see now that he was only patiently waiting to intersect with his end. (I might as well say now--not that any filmography mentions it--that Perk went over the script of Antonioni's The Passenger. I know because I was there--in Roswell, New Mexico--in the Best Western where he did it. I can hear the quiet, tidy blitz of his pen as he took out lines of dialogue. That film would not be as mysterious or laconic as it is, had it not been for Perk.)

Still, over the years, I got some idea of why Perk would make only that one startling, lovely and dangerous film, and then do nothing else. It doesn't amount to anything so grand as an explanation. I simply believe that Perkins Cobb was a man, unlike most others, uncommonly founded in both adventure and boredom.

He was the child of a Mormon preacher and a lady gambler-- make what you will of that clash of salvation and uncertainty. There was an incident in his boyhood that now seems more easily "read" as true to Perk. One blazing July when he was eight, the boy Perk went missing on a wild trail near his home in Escalante--the Burr Trail. He had walked the trail, 60 miles that took him five days, in heat and desolation, with snakes and countless ways of getting lost. He had a bottle of Dr. Pepper and some fried egg sandwiches, and he had made it through, burned black but still as philosophical as ice cream out of the freezer. Some local press had asked the child--I looked this up--"Will you be an explorer in the wilderness one day?" And the boy Perk had hesitated, puzzled to think of America in those terms, and replied that no, he had done the trail, and he was ready for the city now.

So that combination of achieving great things and being unimpressed by them was there very early. Perk Cobb didn't much like to do anything once the world was watching.

"I was a sleeper hit, you see," he told me, referring to My Sweet Dread. "That was my trick. And I just got out before anyone caught up with me." There was more to it, but keep in mind that I am putting together odds and ends of what Perk said over many years. He would never have endured making himself this coherent.

Perk had a notion that Hollywood had ceased to exist as a worthwhile business or creative enterprise once the contract system went to hell. And it was Orson Welles, he claimed, who was the "single most effective assassin of the contract system. Because he had a contract, there on paper, that gave him such liberty. The first absurd document in Hollywood, a contradiction in terms."

Perk was all the more admiring of Welles because the Kenosha Kid had gone to work with everyone watching and eager to laugh at his failure. Welles had known no discretion and had never tolerated modesty in himself--that was the secret to his "inhuman genius" as Perk saw it.

"And the picture," said Perk, still jubilant at the flagrant ease of Citizen Kane, "it just looked 40 years of the business or the art in the eye and said, 'Fuck you for trying to pretend this is difficult.' Welles was insolent, he couldn't wait for the hacks to destroy him, because he insisted on making not just the best ever picture, but doing it in a way that said, this is so easy, isn't it? He made his movie the way John Doe takes a snapshot of Junior."

Perk had known Orson a little in the great man's last decade, in his lavish decline. Not that anyone could ever really get to Welles or penetrate the many layers of the act that left him so large. But Perk's view of Welles was that the man had lost interest after Kane and yet still gone on because he delighted in the self-abuse of being famous as a betrayed genius and a ruined hulk.

"American film," Perk might have said (I have memory, but no notes), "has a series of great one-shots, moments of amazing force after which the genius could only wait to die. Griffith with Birth of a Nation, Chaplin before his features, Selznick and Gone With the Wind, Dean in East of Eden, Terrence Malick with Badlands and Laughton on Night of the Hunter. Some of them did other things; some of them did a lot of other things. But only with pain, dismay, and a certainty about the passing of time. The urge to make a film, the excitement, comes once only. It's like losing your virginity, or watching a movie. You can only get the power in a great picture once. Looking at it again is feeling your own aging process."

This theory lingered in my mind. I sought to argue with Perk about it. Weren't there good or great directors who went on and on? Talents that developed? He allowed that there had been some in the contract system because then there was a climate of slavery that kept desire sharp. But once directors won power, they faced instant gratification and the sudden termination of longing. I pointed to the modern era-- to Scorsese, to Coppola, De Palma, Altman... to David Lynch.

"Look, old bud," Perk sighed. "Marty made one beautiful outrage. Taxi Driver was his shot. And he will go on forever, sickly but surviving, making the same film about a guy who is so scared of life he makes himself act very tough. That is his one chance of keeping hold of the excitement. De Palma had his rush in Scarface. There are lots of De Palma films but only that once did he really vomit in the public's lap the way he wanted to. As for Francis"and Perk said this before Godfather III, so help me"he will wander around until he finds the Corleones again so he can get off on destroying his family. He is a great dark-souled bastard with just one movie in him."

Perk could make the case for nearly anyone I mentioned.

"Making a movie is so fucking unpleasant," he argued. "And the success is harder to take than the failure. Who has the heart to do it more than once? There are kids coming into the business now who are just crazy to get the fame, the money, the women and the drugs. Sweet kids--they're satisfied after a couple of years. They come and go now like actresses!"

Fumbling obituaries alleged that Perk Cobb grew "more melancholy" in his last year, as if some failure had kept him from his true calling. Not true. He was a cheerful vagrant with but one cause left: he wanted to get into the Paramount vaults to destroy the negative of My Sweet Dread. He even took a meeting with Frank Mancuso as a way of getting onto the premises. Once he even wrote a letter to The New York Times rebuking an article in which Martin Scorsese had urged more money for saving and restoring old films. Perk wanted rather to be certain they would perish. The Times would not print the letter.

Lynch was the last topic we discussed. Perk had loved Blue Velvet--it was his kind of picture and he laughed and shuddered at the same time. "The guy did it," he rejoiced afterwards. "He blew it all open." Perk felt that cinema was a citadel which needed the regular outrage of desperate newcomers such as Lynch. But then Perk submitted to "Twin Peaks" and estimated that Lynch was "trying to throw the curse. He's making dumb shit. Wants to erase himself. But the public won't have it. They say it's genius. That Lynch is in trouble."

Wild at Heart was the last film Perk saw. He didn't say a word about it. But he went out and hired a white Cadillac Seville and drove east out of L.A. until he made it to Utah. He drove the car off the road in Capitol Reef National Park and drove until the ground stopped beneath the car. It was a 600-foot drop and a wicked pretty fireball, even if no one saw it. The solemn press he got spoke of suicide and a disturbed mind. But I am here to tell you that Perk Cobb was lucid enough to know he preferred not to make something like Wild at Heart next.


David Thomson is the author of Silver Light and Suspects.