|From his start in movies as a stunt person to his role
as Hardy in the Japanese film East Meets West, Mr. Kerr had an eclectic,
exciting career before retiring from acting. Nowadays, his spare
time is taken up with working on screenplays.
This interview was conducted by Mel on August 8, 2002.
Our thanks to Crownhelm for providing us with Mr. Kerr's contact information and to Anna M.C. for coming to our rescue by volunteering to edit this interview.
Read part one of this interview
Interviewer: How did you find out about and audition for the role of Con Madigan?
Kerr: I had a good friend at Herb Agency who was a new agent. He asked me to come over and said, "Let's do a week's trial, and send you out to do some interviews and see the feedback. If you feel comfortable and we feel comfortable, we'll sign." The first interview I went on was Five Mile Creek. Interviews were taking place in a hotel, and people were lined up down in the lobby. They didn't say it was a Walt Disney deal, or act like it was a big deal. They kinda tried to hide the company. Anyway, to make a long story short, I went on the first interview with that company on a trial basis, got the first interview I ever did, got one of the leads in the series, and then got to leave for three years and just send ‘em checks.
Interviewer: Was there anything specific about the character that drew you in when you read for the part? Were you hoping to get the role once you'd read for it?
Kerr: Well, yeah! When I read the character and saw what it was — a cowboy, a stagecoach, and set in Australia -- I mean, talk about perfect timing.
Interviewer: Did you have any input into the character?
Kerr: A little bit. Obviously, they had their first show or two written already. But I think after they cast someone, writers start writing around the person, including the personality, what they see about him, and how he reacts with others. As far as writing anything, or saying where the characters went, no, I didn't have input into the show. We had lots of different directors in those first few shows, but I never went to somebody and said, "This is what I want." I didn't go to the writers and try to get in there and step on their toes. I just said, "Everything's great, let's roll with it." It was supposed to be based on a true story, and we went right along that line.
Interviewer: Was it hard switching directors so often early in the series? Is it difficult to work with the different styles?
Kerr: Not really. I was used to it, and I didn't mind it. In fact, I liked it! But obviously, you do like certain ones more than others. You get along with ‘em better. But you know, to be real truthful, I liked all of ‘em. I didn't have problems with any of ‘em. Every director they had down there was a great one.
Interviewer: What was it like moving to Australia?
Kerr: Gosh, it was just great. When I went down there, they put me up in a nice hotel right on the bay. Next thing you know, the cast was there, and we all met and went out to the set, and it was just an instant family. Australia is a very small industry, so the cast and crew and everybody … I mean, actors don't go eat in line first, actors don't have a separate dressing room, actors don't have separate everything. I'm embarrassed to have my own separate dressing room now. In Australia, actors are just in there with everybody else -- and I like it that way. I prefer it, because hey, people are people. Just because you have that role for that movie doesn't mean you're so special. So they saw I wasn't pretentious, and they accepted me right away . . . . God, they were some great friends. Some of the best friends of my life are in Australia.
Interviewer: Were you given any background on the Australian Gold Rush and what life was like back then?
Kerr: No, I didn't get a whole lot of background. Basically, I didn't do a whole lot of research. You have to understand, I was in Australia shooting the show within two weeks of being cast. I really didn't have a whole lot of time to do anything other than just question people and base it on the books. I talked to John Copeland, one of the Associate Producers, a lot. He's very historical, and researches everything: what kind of boots they wore, that kind of thing. So I talked to him a lot, then just jumped in and did it.
Interviewer: Were the cowboy hats you used on the set yours, or were they from wardrobe?
Kerr: Well, they were from wardrobe, but I creased ‘em. [laughing] You get a hat that's just a hat, but you can tell a real cowboy by how they crease their hat. Mine was creased by collision.
Interviewer: Did being raised on a Texas Ranch prepare you for your role as Con Madigan?
Kerr: Yeah, it really did. Not only was I raised on a ranch, but I was raised on a ranch where we had exceptionally good horses—some of the best horses in the United States. I showed three horses that were in the top ten in the world in cutting, and I started showing professionally when I was twelve. I won the State championship in high school on a horse I had named Hatman. One Easter Sunday when he was just a colt, there was a big storm that scared him, and he actually jumped out of his pen at the ranch. No horse had ever jumped out of this stall pen before! Anyway, the storm knocked down our telephone line, and the line was laying low on the ground, and when he ran, it cut across his back hind leg and cut his tendon in two. So we had to get a vet out there on Easter Sunday, and lay Hatman down and sew his tendon up. Then, because it created a thousand pounds of pressure when he stood up, the suture broke every time. We'd lay him down again, sew it up again, and he'd get up again. It popped like a rifle going off. Finally, my dad said, "Listen, just put a cast on him, you can't keep getting him up and down." They said this horse would never run again, that he'd just be able to walk . . . and then two years later I won the State Championship on him! He was only a four-year-old horse, the youngest horse to ever win the State Championship. He was a great horse. It just broke my heart when we had to sell him. When he died from a twist of colic, he was a world champion.
Interviewer: Here's a question from one of our younger members of the FMC mailing list: ‘Was it fun to work with the horses, and did you have a favorite horse?
Kerr: I loved driving the coach and riding the horses. I had a really good stunt double who did the stagecoach falls and the horse falls, but other than that, I did all my own driving and riding, even the bareback stuff. That was just part of the job, and I liked that part of the industry. As far as favorite horses . . . we had so many. There was a horse called Nellie that I kind of liked, but after the first series, we didn't get to use her anymore, ‘cause they changed wranglers about three times. Those wranglers in Australia were great guys, and really good wranglers. I mean, you're talking about some tough guys, you know? There was one great wrangler in particular, a guy named Laurie Norris. His father hooks up something like forty horses every year and drives a forty horse team. His kid was phenomenal, and so nice! He married a girl while we were on the show, and she became the nurse through the entire series. I've always wondered what he was up to, and what happened to him. Also, Danny Baldwin was my stunt double, and as good a stunt double as you could ask for. He was a handsome, young, athletic guy -- he got to the point where he could mimic my riding when he did my stunts for me. I always thought that if I ever really hit it big, I'd call on Danny to do stunts for me in America.
Interviewer: Henry Crawford mentioned that you are a natural horseman, and very skilled at driving a coach. Did you already know how when the series started?
Kerr: Yes, I knew how to drive a four-up [a coach with four horses], and the coach on the set was a four-up. A six-up is a little harder, and I'd only driven it a couple of times. I was ready for driving the four-up. I wasn't the greatest in the world, but I was pretty good, and by the end of the show I felt like I was one of a handful of people who could really drive, because I'd had lots of practice. Laurie Norris was an exceptional driver, and taught me a lot, since his dad was one of the greatest team drivers in Australia—probably the greatest. You know, when you do a shot, you have to be within the depth of the camera. You can't be over twelve inches away from your mark, or else the camera is out of focus. So, when you're coming in lickety-split, and you've got to stop a coach right on that mark — depth-wise and length-wise — you have to get pretty good. To tell you the truth, by the end of the series, I could hit those marks.
Interviewer: Those were beautiful coaches used in the show.
Kerr: Yeah, they are. You know, Disney bought the first one for the show here in America for $25,000.00 -- and then this guy down in Australia built us three reproductions for $25,000.00.
Interviewer: Concerning what Louise has said about an intended romance between Jack and Maggie, what did you think of the switch to a romance between Con and Kate?
Kerr: I thought that was where it should go. It seemed a natural progression, and I really like Liz Burch. She has such a beautiful outlook about life. She's always going to be a beautiful person because she has a beautiful attitude.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite story from your time on the FMC set?
Kerr: Oh, yeah. This story was an ongoing deal with Gus Mercurio, who is one of my greatest friends. He'd come over and stay at my house a lot, and I'd cook, and we'd eat, and to make a long story short, he's a great guy -- but he was very particular about his character's wardrobe. He started out with a gun, and then he added a Bowie knife, then he had these gloves he was always worried about, then this nice walking cane, and he had a special hat. So every day when I'd get to work, the first thing I'd do is steal a piece of his wardrobe. I'd hide his knife or his cane somewhere, and he'd come running and say, "I know it was you, mate! I know it was you! Where's my cane? Where's my knife?" And I'd say, "Gus, man, I'm offended that you think that was me, I didn't have anything to do with that." And then I'd go get it and just pitch it on the set somewhere, so he never knew if I stole ‘em or not, because they'd just show up — he'd never see me hand them back. So one day, to get me back, he went into the dressing room, stole what he thought were my boots, and hid them. Well, our boots all look alike, and it turned out he'd stolen his own boots! We were getting ready to shoot, and he called up and said, "So, mate, how's your wardrobe?" When I asked what he meant, he said, "You're not missing anything?" So he comes down there, and there's his boots in a locker inside the spare room where he'd hidden them. He'd waited right ‘til the last minute. I was going to be without boots right up to the scene. He thought he'd really tricked me, and he'd stolen his own boots! Everybody teased him about that, and we hid his hat I don't know how many times. Kevin Dobson was even in on it. Gus would be looking for his hat, and there would be Kevin, the director, wearing it. Everyone got in on the joke, and would pass Gus's stuff around.
Interviewer: Is there an episode that stands out in your mind as particularly challenging?
Kerr: Probably the most difficult episode was the one where we had to get up and move across country. There was turmoil on the set, and we had huge scenes we had to get in one take. We'd get up one morning and say, "Well, we don't even have that set, so we can't do that . . . ." It was also weird, wild weather. I remember I went to the set one time, and the sun was shining. I had on a T-shirt. You could get burned in that sun. Then that same afternoon, it snowed on us! It was just everything. The whole time you were there, you thought, "God, this is going to be terrible," but it ended up being one of my favorite shows.
Interviewer: What is your very favorite episode?
Kerr: I guess it was the same episode I just mentioned, the one where we moved across country. The series had been filmed in Frenchs Forest, which is almost in the city of Sydney. It was just a mile and a half from my home, right on the ocean, with a beautiful beach -- but they hadn't thought the series would last that long [laughing], and our lease was up! So we lost our set, and they said, "Now what do we do?" They went shopping around and found a place in Melbourne, which is clear across Australia. I mean, way down. So when everybody packed up and we moved, we just made that a show: ‘We're packing up and moving to a new stagecoach headquarters.' It turned out nice.
Interviewer: Besides Five Mile Creek, you did another "western" project with an international cast. East Meets West was set in the southwestern U.S. and filmed with a Japanese crew. I'd imagine that movie presented a very different set of challenges.
Kerr: It was great, but different. They have a totally different way of shooting, and we had to have interpreters, since they couldn't understand any English. As far as the experience went, I couldn't have been treated nicer, and I had a great time. Unfortunately, my best scene, the audition scene which got me the part, was cut from the film. I mean, it looks like it was cut, but it really wasn't . . . You see, the director who wrote the scene didn't understand any English. It may have flowed very well in Japanese, but in English it didn't, so when I auditioned, I went and edited the scene myself. I put in all the words that were supposed to be in the English interpretation, but weren't, since I knew he meant to have them. That's what got me into the final running for the part. When I read for the director and his wife and all the rest of the Japanese, they didn't understand anything I was saying, but I did the audition with the scene I wrote, and got the job. Then the first thing we shot was that scene, but I couldn't get it across to him that I had changed the words, and that we needed to have more coverage on that scene. The first AD [assistant director] was scared she was going to get fired, and I didn't want to step on anybody's toes, so I said, "Oh, heck, let's just do it, but the scene doesn't stick together right."
Interviewer: And now you've moved on from editing badly translated Japanese scripts, to writing your own screenplays.
Kerr: Yeah, I've finished five scripts. You know, it's hard to finish scripts. You can talk about them all you want to, but very few people go ahead and write 110 pages, and put the end on ‘em. I think what I'm going to have to do is go back to California and find somebody I trust to review and polish them, then try to sell them. I'm not sure that my scripts are so great, but I do know there are some great stories there.
Interviewer: So, what are your scripts about?
Kerr: I wrote a movie about my best friend George Paul. He was a world champion bull rider his first year in pro rodeo, and owned a million acre ranch in Mexico, and had a very interesting life because he lived in two cultures, Mexico and the United States. He was in poverty as a kid, living in a used clothes store, but ended up having his own airplane before he was twenty-four years old. Then he died tragically after he crashed his plane his second year in pro rodeo.
I also have a story about a little league baseball team called Twelve Little Men, and a movie called Champagne Perfect -- kind of like The African Queen, except it's set up on a mountain, and it's about an old rancher and a younger woman and their conflicts. I'm very proud of that script. In Find Fred, this movie I wrote set in Australia, Fred's a girl. A Vietnam cowboy goes down to Australia to try to find this girl who is lost, and her old cowboy father says on his deathbed "Fred's down there, go find her," and . . . ahhh, I don't want to give away a whole lot on it, but I think it could be a blockbuster.
Right now, I'm finishing The Bootlegger, Benny Binion's story. When I was 22 years old, I was one of the youngest pit bosses in Las Vegas after I was hired at the Binion's Horseshoe casino. Benny Binion is a cowboy from Texas, and George had told him about me, and he hired me. I didn't know anything about cards, but he told his son, Ted, "When you get back to Vegas, you make him a boss." And Ted said, "He doesn't know how to shuffle or anything!" But Mr. Binion said, "I like the way he thinks. He makes good decisions and he's super loyal, so he's a boss." So I went back, and everybody was mad and jealous of me, but I had a lot of fun. I would work at his casinos in the winter as a boss, and in the summers I would break horses at his 250 square mile ranch in Montana. He had 300 brood mares, and I rode nothing but geldings. I'd break horses over five and six years old, and I'd ride them that first day. He taught me so much about breaking horses. His family became my second family. I really loved Mr. Binion.
I remember when I left, I said, "I'm gonna go do some stunts in a movie in Santa Fe," and he told me, "You're gonna come back with holes in your pants." And I said, "Yeah, but this casino business doesn't really agree with me, Mr. Binion, so I'm just gonna go off and have some fun, and do some stunts in these movies." Then within a year, I had my own TV series. If you look at my life and where I've been . . . You know, I wrote a movie about myself called Cowboy in Trouble. I've never showed it to anybody, but I wrote it and set it away. So, if I die sometime, you can come over to my house, and tell someone to go find that script, and you'll know all about me. [laughing]
Interviewer: Speaking of which, I've got a few "getting to know you" questions here . . . . First, what's your favorite movie to watch?
Kerr: I'd have to put more than one in there. I'd say Cool Hand Luke and The Man Who Would Be King are probably two of my favorite films.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite band or musician?
Kerr: I'd have to list Waylon Jennings and Bruce Springsteen and John Bryant. I took everyone to see Bruce Springsteen in concert when he was in Australia.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite television show?
Kerr: I love Seinfeld, Friends, and The Bernie Mac Show, but I don't watch a whole lot of TV. I watch sports and the news, and I keep flipping through the channels.
Interviewer: Of all your acting roles, which was your favorite?
Kerr: Five Mile Creek. I mean, it just fit me so perfect. I was in a new country, with new friends, and the country was great, and the friends were great.
Interviewer: What do you think about finding out that your character was selected as one of Five Mile Creek's favorite characters?
Kerr: I just can't believe it. I'm very flattered. In the other interview about Wizards and Warriors, I think I mentioned that I was probably the least prepared actor of all the people on that show. I mean, you go down that list, there's all those people who've done so many things, and there I was: basically, just a cowboy from Texas who thought he was through with the industry. Then the next thing you know I'm Australia, and being treated just great. Instead of them having great memories of me, I'm the one who has great memories of them -- including the people who watch the show. I'm not the kind of guy people recognize, but when I came back to America and went to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, people were coming up and asking me for my autograph over and over again. I just couldn't believe it.
Interviewer: Are you surprised to find out that Five Mile Creek has such a significant fan base nearly twenty years later?
Kerr: Surprised? That's not even close . . . I mean, it's been years! It's really nice. Until recently, I didn't even know anyone cared. It's added years to my life. One of the greatest things in my life was going to Australia. I've always had a soft spot for Five Mile Creek.
To view images from most of the shows Jay Kerr has starred in, check out Jay Kerr's other roles and miscellaneous pictures.