Saturday, June 2, 2012

Riding Shotgun With Tom Wopat

In 1997, I had the pleasure of researching and writing The Dukes of Hazzard: An Unofficial Companion for Renaissance Books. Of the dozen or so books on my resume`, this one was by far the most enjoyable and, surprisingly, the easiest. The project was completed in just four months, from the time I signed the contract with the publisher to the Federal Express delivery of a finished manuscript.

It’s very unusual for a book to come together so quickly, but the reasons have less to do with my ability as a writer than with the support and cooperation I received from the series’ cast, creative team, and fans. It seems that working on The Dukes of Hazzard was a positive, happy experience, and everyone (well, almost everyone) was eager to speak of his or her time with the show.

By the time I had a confirmed date to meet Tom Wopat, I had already talked to most of the stars, writers, and directors that had consented to be interviewed. Tom had proven difficult to pin down and a couple of previous appointments had been set and then canceled, but his manager assured me that this time it was going to happen.

On the appointed day I flew from Las Vegas to Burbank Airport. The plane arrived on time, and I knew the friend that was picking me up was always late, so I called my answering machine to check messages. There was a call from Skip Ward, a former Dukes associate producer who I had interviewed weeks earlier. I had stayed in touch with Skip, and he knew I was meeting Tom in L.A. that day. When I called him, he said, “I think you should talk to Denver Pyle.”

When I began this project, I hoped to meet with every surviving member of the cast. But Denver had been seriously ill for some time, so after my first attempt to reach him brought no response, I thought it would be better to not pursue the matter.

“I spoke to Tippie this morning, and she said he’s feeling pretty good today,” Skip continued.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, call him. Here’s the number.”
I called and spoke first to Mrs. Pyle, and then to Uncle Jesse himself. I introduced myself, and told him I was meeting Tom Wopat in about an hour at a diner called Paty’s in Toluca Lake, but if he felt up to it, I’d love to interview him first. “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” he replied.

By then my friend had arrived, and rather than kill the free time I expected to have before the Wopat interview, I had him drive me directly to Paty’s, while I hastily scribbled down questions for Denver en route. Fortunately the place was pretty close, and I arrived first.

A few minutes later, a vintage Mercedes pulled into the parking lot, and out stepped a white-haired gentleman, in a Western shirt, bolo tie, cowboy boots, and a familiar red cap. He was a little thinner than Uncle Jesse, moved a little slower, spoke more hesitantly, but he was in good spirits.

“So, you’re meeting Tom here?” he asked after ordering breakfast. I said yes, and he spoke about his fondness for the cast, and how the Dukes were as much a family off screen as they were when the cameras rolled. Those who have read my book have seen the results of that interview; Denver’s memory was fuzzy about specific incidents and favorite episodes, and he seemed incredulous about the whole idea of dissecting a television show and trying to explain its appeal. But he enjoyed talking about the letters he still received from fans, especially the young ones who wanted Jesse to be their uncle, too.
The interview ended before the meal did. Denver kept an eye on the window. Tom was late, but Denver stayed on, ten minutes, fifteen, until finally he rose, disappointed, and said he should be heading back. But at that moment in walked Tom Wopat, who had parked his white SUV on the side of the diner, where neither one of us would have noticed his arrival.

As I beckoned him to our table, I suddenly realized that Tom had no idea I would be with Denver Pyle.  His surprised expression gave way to a big smile. “Mr. Pyle,” he said as they embraced, “How are you?” They spoke for about fifteen minutes. I don’t remember many of the specifics, but I do recall Denver telling Tom how happy he was that his beard had grown back after taking chemotherapy.

They embraced again before Denver left, leaving Tom to slide into the booth opposite me. The waitress returned as our interview began, apparently wondering if I was going to eat lunch after I just finished breakfast. Tom immediately warmed to the subject of his Dukes of Hazzard days, and he spent almost two hours talking candidly on everything from his first meeting with John Schneider to his still-lingering disappointment over not accomplishing everything he wished with his direction of “The Haunting of J.D. Hogg”.

Denver Pyle passed away a few months later. I can’t say for certain that that day at Paty’s was the last time he and Tom spoke, but if that’s the case I am proud to have played a part in that reunion, and felt privileged to be there to see it.

After the interview, Tom offered to drive me back to the airport. Though I tried my best to remain a serious journalist, I could not help smiling about the chance to ride shotgun with one of the Duke boys. I wondered what the odds were of a bridge being out somewhere between Riverside Drive and the Burbank Airport. Probably not that great, but I fastened my seat belt just in case.

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