VALERIE STARRETT: THIS ANGEL CAN ACT AND WRITE!
In 1966, Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels roared onto the big screen. Released by American International Pictures, it is a graphic and violent look at the Hells Angles motorcycle gang. At the time, Roger Corman commented in the New York Times, “Everything in the film is based on fact, on something that has happened with the Hell’s Angels…People who don’t believe the stuff that’s in the film should know about the stuff I had to leave out!” Fact or fiction, the mainstream media blasted the film for its brutality and its glorification of hog riding hoodlums. However, it became a cult artistic triumph receiving praise from some film critics for its cinema-verite realism. Grossing over $6 million at the box office, The Wild Angels spawned a flock of imitation biker films. Devil’s Angels, Hells Angels on Wheels, Born Losers, The Glory Stompers, Hell’s Belles, The Savage Seven, Angels from Hell, The Mini-Skirt Mob, Hell’s Angels ’69, The Hellcats, Satan’s Sadists, The Cycle Savages, etc. were just a few of the films to hit the drive-ins across the country. For the most part, they all featured senseless violence and gratuitous sex ensuring their popularity among the younger audience. The motorcycle gangs were usually the villains but beginning in 1968 more anti-hero cyclists began to emerge such as in Run, Angel, Run, Easy Rider, and C.C. and Company.
A number of leading actors became synonymous with biker movies including Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Adam Roarke, Ross Hagen, Jeremy Slate, Tom Stern, and William Smith. As the leaders of the motorcycle gangs they were usually supported by such actors as Gary Kent, John “Bud” Cardos, Gary Littlejohn, Paul Prokop, Robert Tessier, and Larry Bishop, among others who appeared in multiple biker movies.
Not so the Hollywood actresses who made biker movies. Usually it was a one-shot gig and very rarely did any of them pop up as the leading lady of a second one. This is most likely because the women cast (i.e. Nancy Sinatra, Diane McBain, Jocelyn Lane, Conny Van Dyke, etc.) looked more like glamorous beauty queens than real-life biker chicks. Sultry brunette actress Valerie Starrett stands out because she not only co-starred opposite burly William Smith in Run, Angel, Run (1968), but she also wrote the script. Her character of Laurie is another biker chick who begins to yearn for something else other than the open road.
A different take on the genre, Run, Angel, Run directed by Starrett’s then husband Jack Starrett a fixture in biker movies features Smith as Angel a former member of the Devil’s Advocates who not only left the gang but sold his story to Like magazine infuriating his former biker buddies (“Our Angel baby burned us real bad!”). Angel is roaring down the highway (as Tammy Wynette sings the title song) to pick up is $10,000 payment from the publisher inSan Francisco when he is jailed for speeding in a school zone. He phones his flame Laurie a part-time go-go dancer and hooker. She picks up a few tricks and is able to spring the biker with some cash left over causing Angel to sarcastically ask, “What’d you do? Form an assembly line?” They travel a ways when he realizes the Devil’s Advocates are in hot pursuit. Thinking of her safety, he drops Laurie off in a small town only for the biker gang to spot her and begin terrorizing her in the film’s most exciting sequence shot in split screen with sometimes as many as five on-screen panels. Having a change of heart, Angel returns to pick up Laurie and saves her in the nick of time as the duo makes their escape by hopping onto a freight train where they are confronted by three hobos one of whom tries to rape Laurie.
Despite jumping on Angel’s bike in a mini-dress, Laurie has a number of costume changes during the trek north. Perhaps her tiny purse doubled as a suitcase? The pair winds up in a small town where they decide to they lie low after Angel retrieves his money, which he takes in cash stuffed into a bag. They rent a small house from Dan (Daniel Kemp), a motorcycle riding rancher, and Angel takes a job as a handyman. Fighting his uncontrollable urge to be free, which results in a few arguments with Laurie, Dan shows the former gang member the benefits of a traditional family life. Realizing he loves Laurie and wants a more tranquil life, Angel asks Laurie to settle down with him. Unfortunately, the Devil’s Advocates have picked up Angel’s trail again when they find one of the hobos wearing Angel’s jacket. At a drive-in frequented by teenagers gang leader Ron (Gene Shaw) meets Dan’s naïve teenage daughter Meg (Margaret Markov) admiring his hog. She stupidly goes on a joy ride with the bikers and reveals that Angel is staying on her parent’s land. The hoods then viciously gang rape her leaving the poor girl for dead. The Advocates find Laurie and brutally beat her. Angel takes them on and is about to be killed by Duke when Dan appears with a shot gun and blows the gang leader away leaving unanswered if Laurie decides to remain with Angel or not.
Because Run, Angel, Run did not glorify sex and violence as a number of biker films did at the time, reviews were better than average. Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas, who seems to have had a warm spot for the genre, remarked, “Smith… and Miss Starrett are able, attractive performers of considerable promise” and he found the film to be “a good low-budget picture.”
Actress Valerie Starrett had a few TV appearances under her belt (Dan Raven, Death Valley Days, I Spy) when she wrote co-wrote the screenplay and co-starred in Run, Angel, Run. Shortly after, she began her long run playing scrappy waitress-turned-nurse Diana Maynard Taylor on the popular soap opera General Hospital. In 1977, fans were outraged when Starrett was let go and replaced by actress Brooke Bundy. As for the character of Diana Taylor, she went from the show’s heroine to a grasping, desperate woman who would do anything to keep her adopted son from his biological parents. Four years after Starrett left the role, Diana was found murdered lying in a pool of blood in her kitchen. Valerie had a happier ending and after retiring from acting she became co-owner of a successful bookstore inMalibu,California.
How did you come up with the idea for Run, Angel, Run?
It was rather a coincidence that I did this. I wrote it for a specific purpose as opposed to thinking I would be part of another biker film. I was married to Jack Starrett at the time and he was cast in the movie Hells Angels on Wheels. We were also friends with Tom Laughlin who was working on his owner biker film, The Born Losers. We knew a lot of actors and actors who wanted to be directors who were part of this new genre. It was just part of our consciousness. I was looking for a vehicle for Jack to switch from acting to directing because that’s where his strengths and interests laid. In the era before the Al Pacino’s and Dustin Hoffman’s, Jack was too atypical in looks to get work as an actor. I thought, ‘Why struggle to be an actor when he could be a great director?’
Had Jack Starrett directed before?
Run, Angel, Run would be his first film with director credit. He previously appeared in this low budget movie called The Girls from Thunder Strip with Jody McCrea that was filmed in theLakeIsabella region. The frustrated director walked off the picture. Jack stepped forward and said, ‘I could do that.’ He finished the film. He was a brilliant man and could do anything. There were no dollies for the cameras so he used wheel barrels. It was a horrible shoot but he did remarkable things to compensate for having no budget. He was one of the most original thinkers and did whatever needed to be done to get the shot.
Did Hells Angels on Wheels inspire you to write your own screenplay?
My daughter and I accompanied Jack on location to Bakersfield, Californiawhere they were filming the movie. We were friends with Jack Nicholson and Adam Roarke who were starring in it. While observing the making of the movie, I thought the biker genre hadn’t peaked yet and decided I could write one with Jack directing keeping the budget lower than all the others. Rather than having Sonny Barger and the real Hells Angels in it like they were in Hells Angels on Wheels, I started recording Sonny and his biker buddies. They fascinated me especially the women. I taped them talking about what they did and it was a subculture that seemed amazing and fascinating to me. The director had a hard time because some of the Hells Angels would go out at night and get drunk. They would then ride their bikes and crash. They were absolutely fearless and would show up the next day all beaten with their faces all torn up.
How did Run, Angel, Run end up being produced by Joe Solomon’s Fanfare?
After finishing the screenplay, I knew Joe Solomon so I submitted it to him and he was very interested in producing it. The deal was though he had to accept Jack as director. He did but it was a leap of faith for him. At that time Jack and I started divorce proceedings. As the marriage broke-up I traded full writing credit for a chance to screen test for the female lead. Jack was absolutely wonderful but terrible with money. Knowing that I would may have to go back to work to support my daughter I thought I better protect myself by having some current film. Joe was testing two other actresses whose names escape me. I hadn’t acted in a number of years and was extremely nervous due to the strange marital situation. I think by default I was the best at the time. It wasn’t the right vehicle for me and certainly doing every scene in one take was not the best format for me since I hadn’t acted in awhile. Anyway, I did it.
Your character longed for a settled life and not one careening around on a motorcycle. Did the biker girls you interviewed express that view?
No, the only way I could conceive of getting the movie made on the cheap was to remove the two lead characters from the pack so that way we didn’t have to hire a whole contingency of bikers. It was a plot device. Plus I realized it would be a stretch for me and it would be easier as an actress to have a strong yearning for something different that would make it more interesting as a character. Some of the ladies I interviewed weren’t terribly bright or interesting so I thought I’d make my character more remarkable.
This did set it apart from the other biker movies released around that time.
I wanted Run, Angel, Run to be a very different but to use a commercially viable subject that would attract the exploitation film backers while trying to make it fresh.
How did William Smith come to be cast in the lead? He had never done a biker film before.
Joe Solomon asked me to read with a bunch of different actors. One of them was Tom Skerrit who gave an absolutely wonderful audition. Talking with Joe, Tom wasn’t really physically marquee type for a biker film. Then Bill Smith came in and he was marquee biker ready and could ride a motorcycle quite well. It was one of those decisions in retrospect I regretted. I would have gone with Tom who was my first choice but I am not sure how much weight that would have had with the producer. Perhaps the film would have been a lot more interesting. Not that I have anything against Bill Smith who was fascinating and I really, really liked him, but Tom was so appealing against type. For a formula film it was a reach to put me in it and if Tom was cast it would have been a different movie.
I wrote the parts for all the people I knew and in my mind I already had it cast. I knew Gene Cornelius from when I was living in Carmelwhere I started in theatre. We did Caesar and Cleopatra together. All of the minor players were personal friends. Most roles were pre-cast except for the Angel and the young girl who gets raped by the bikers. That role was played by Margaret Markov who had to test for it and she was an inspired choice. She was just marvelous in it and I just saw her in 2009 at an art show she hosted at her Hollywood Hills home. We talked for a long time. She retired from acting years ago and has a great life.
The split screen montages were very cool. Was this Jack’s idea?
This was all Jack. He was quite amazing and had to be innovative working with such a low budget. Everything was one take and then he’d say, ‘Move on, move on.’ It was shot so cheaply that though there are references to theRussianRiverof NorthernCaliforniabut it was all shot inMalibuCanyon. Those endless shots of us on thePacific Coast Highwaywere all inMalibu.
Did you have any favorite scenes in the movie?
No, the actual filming was extremely painful and I hated all of it. It is one thing to envision a rape and another to be the active person in it. Gene Cornelius is bursting through a window and it was so laughable to me. That scene was hard to do. There was another scene at the railroad station—which was actually a great action piece—where as I am running I accidentally fell and banged up my knee. For most of the rest of the filming I was in excoriating pain. It was all very odd.
For a low-budget biker film Run, Angel, Run received a lot of press when released.
Yes, that’s true. We had the premiere in a big theater in New York City. Joe Solomon paid to fly the Hells Angels to New Yorkand we had a parade down Fifth Avenue. Bill Smith and I rode in a limo. Then a wonderful review came out in Time Magazine, which was absolutely mind-blowing that it would even cover a biker film. The critic said the movie was ‘curiously better than it should have been.’ Bill and I went to three or four other cities to open and promote the movie. It became a financial hit and made a lot of money for Joe.
Joe Solomon must have been pleased with its success because he hired Jack Starrett again to direct.
Joe piggy-backed the making of three films based on the success of Run, Angel, Run. One was The Losers [a.k.a. Nam’s Angels] that he tapped Jack to direct. They did ride motorcycles in it but it was about these renegade soldiers who were assigned by the CIA to rescue an agent captured by the Vietcong. William Smith, Adam Roarke and Gene Cornelius were in it. Jack even has a wonderful role at the end. It is such a interesting film crossing genres. It was due to this film that Jack worked constantly thereafter until his death.
You never did another movie but landed on TV’s General Hospital in 1969. How did you make that leap from biker film to a daytime soap opera?
I was in my early thirties when I did Run, Angel, Run. The only place—at least in my thinking—for me to work again and support a daughter was something steady. I had film offers but when I was offered the soap I thought, ‘Okay, regular life. I can go back to the PTA.’ I would be able to raise my daughter and not have to deal with the film world again.
Actors always say acting on a soap opera is one of the hardest jobs in show business.
Yes, the soap life is a very difficult one. Back then we shot on live tape, which means you couldn’t break tape even if there was a mistake like a chandelier falling. You just keep rolling. I had a scene where this guy was trying to rape me in my kitchen and I had to reach for a frying pan to hit him over the head. They set up the prop in such a way that the handle wasn’t out so I had to finally reach for the rim of the pan and of course it barely made the actor’s face. Even so the blood ran down. It was an absurdity.
You were one of the General Hospital’s most popular actresses during the seventies. Fans were outraged when you left in 1977. Was it by choice?
I left—I love this term—because of creative differences. Tom Donovan replaced the director I had always worked with. It was a volatile relationship. I didn’t fall into the mix nor would I meaning that I rarely said the lines as written. I had always been sort of the darling of the previous director and I was the antithesis of that with Tom Donovan. It was amazingly bloody. I remember being called to his office right before I was let go and he screamed at me, ‘You’re Marilyn Monroe!’ I yelled back, ‘You’re worse!’ It was not a happy relationship.
Then you retired from acting.
Within less than a year after I left General Hospital I opened a bookstore with my brother in downtownMalibu. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Copyright © 2012 Tom Lisanti. All Rights Reserved.