Now that NBC's Asteroid has leveled much of Denver (which stood in for Dallas and Kansas City), it's time to sift through the smoking rubble and unearth some more of our state's memorable celluloid moments.
Hollywood fat cats come here because they like the mountains and because it's cheaper to shoot here than in L.A. Meanwhile, locals teeter between annoyance at the intrusion and a clinging hope that the next film project will be the start of a cinematic boom for Colorado--or at least include some recognizable scenery.
The Rocky Mountains may never become a film mecca, but the hits--both entertaining and embarrassing--keep on coming.
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS... HAROLD BUCKWALTER?
A news and commercial photographer in Denver around the turn of the century, Harold Buckwalter made several short pictures about life in Denver and Colorado.
* Denver Firemen's Race for Life was Buckwalter's 1902 film about Denver firemen racing at full speed up 16th Street between Champa and California. That's it: Buckwalter staged the gag just to promote the city.
* For Denver in Winter (1905), Buckwalter picked a warm January day and persuaded Denverites to walk about in short sleeves to tout the city's mild climate. A major snowstorm hit a few days later.
* In 1905 Buckwalter was in western Colorado, filming a hunting party of President Teddy Roosevelt. At some point, a young woman who was apparently part of the hunt got into a few scenes with the president. Scared that his masculine image would be tarnished, Roosevelt ordered Buckwalter to destroy the footage.
COLORADO'S FIRST MOVIE HEROINE
It has to be Ida Noland, mother of former Denver district judge James Noland, who appeared in The Great Bear Hunt (1908). Directed by Edwin S. Porter, who shot The Great Train Robbery five years earlier, the new film's plot was designed to appeal to Eastern audiences unfamiliar with the beauty and adventure of the Rockies.
The threadbare plot: Heroine Noland goes fishing in a stream, only to be surprised by a large grizzly. She runs to warn the camp, and the hunters move in for the kill.
THE HOLLYWOOD OF THE ROCKIES?
CANON CITY, OF COURSE
Between 1910 and 1912, Chicago's Selig-Polyscope Company came to Canon City and fired off dozens of two-reel silent Westerns, many starring the legendary Tom Mix. News of year-round filming conditions in a little town called Hollywood drew the company to California in 1913, and it never came back.
Some of William Selig's old employees, however, stuck around and started up the Colorado Film Company, which continued to make short Westerns for a few more years. Alas, a drowning accident involving star Grace McHugh and a subsequent lawsuit bankrupted the company.
Still, filmmakers have returned to Canon City often for movies such as:
* Vengeance Valley (1951), a Burt Lancaster vehicle about dueling foster brothers (the other is Robert Walker) in a small Western town.
* Canon City (1948), based on a real-life prison break from the Colorado State Penitentiary in December 1947. With a young DeForest Kelley before he became "Bones" McCoy.
* The Outcast, a 1954 Western revenge drama with John Derek, shot at the MacKenzie B-H and Everheart Mountain ranches near Canon City. Derek, of course, went on to fame as the groomer and hubby of Bo Derek.
* The White Buffalo (1977), in which Charles Bronson portrayed an aging Wild Bill Hickok obsessed with a mythical white buffalo (a la Moby Dick) that represents his fear of death.
THE CITIZEN KANE OF CANON CITY?
Possibly 1912's The Equine Hero, about a horse that crosses a deep ravine on a narrow log, unties a rope and saves the heroine. Described by the Canon City Record upon its release as "probably the greatest motion picture ever taken in Canon."
THE OFFICIALS' FILM CAPITAL
* Former governor Ed Johnson had a brief role in Night Passage (1957). Johnson, who had started out as a railroad telegrapher, got to play one named Big Ed. Apparently, he got through his brief scene without flubbing a line.
* Johnson's successor, Governor Steve McNichols, was invited to do a cameo in These Thousand Hills (1959), a Western being shot in Durango (which was filling in for Montana). McNichols was offered the part of the starter of a big horse race but couldn't make it down to Durango.
* In Canon City (1948), Warden Roy Best played himself and allowed some filming in his office.
* Ever hear of Robert Christides? In the 1960s he was set to be the fictional hero of a television show called The Mayor, to be shot in Denver by the makers of Dr. Kildare. The show's creator, E. Jack Neuman, reportedly chose Denver for its lack of recognizability.
* Yaphet Kotto as Wellington Webb? Kotto, onetime Conifer resident and supporter of mayoral candidate Norm Early, was intrigued by Denver's 1991 mayoral race, in which both candidates were black. The tentatively titled War of the City would have starred Kotto as "Clarence Chancellor," a figure modeled after Webb, rather than Early. But then, it was Webb who won the race.
* Esai Morales (the bitter older brother from La Bamba) lit up the screen as former Denver mayor Federico Pena in last year's Dying to Be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Pena Story, shot in Denver and Boulder and also starring Crystal Bernard.
COLORADO: MAP OF THE WORLD
As they do in Asteroid, Colorado and Denver have often doubled for other locales:
* Korea: Target Zone (1955). American troops battle between enemy lines during the Korean War. With Chuck Connors and Charles Bronson.
* Switzerland: A 1972 TV pilot for an "international detective show" called Intertect was shot in Glenwood Springs.
* The Future: Woody Allen made use of the famous "Flying Saucer" house in the mountains off I-70, just east of Denver, for his sci-fi parody Sleeper (1973).
* South Dakota: Terrence Malick's Badlands (1974), about the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree in 1958 (which occurred chiefly in Nebraska) was shot around Lamar with Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen.
* Washington, D.C.: Stapleton International Airport filled in for Dulles Airport in Die Hard 2 (1990).
* Chicago: Point the cameras east, and no one will ever know TV's Father Dowling Mysteries were filmed in Denver.
* Dallas: Larimer Square stood in for the Big D in NBC's Asteroid.
* Kansas City: Asteroid again; while hundreds of extras were evacuating downtown Denver at 16th and California, upper Larimer was about to be wiped out by a flood (re-created with studio models).
WE'LL PRETEND IT'S COLORADO
Colorado Territory (1949) and Denver and the Rio Grande (1952) were both shot in-state, but many films that ostensibly take place in Colorado were shot on the backlots of Hollywood:
* Call of the Rockies (1944), in which Sunset Carson teams up with some Westernesque Robin Hoods who steal from an evil mining-equipment man.
* Colorado (1940), a Roy Rogers tale about a plot to keep Colorado out of the Union that stirs up Indian uprisings.
* The Denver Kid (1948), about a border patroller who lures a killer into the arms of the law.
* Colorado Sundown (1951), starring Slim Pickens, about the inheritors of a ranch who are unscrupulous about getting rid of their competitors.
* The Hallelujah Trail (1965), a Western satire with Lee Remick and Burt Lancaster. Remick is a temperance leader trying to stop shipments of whiskey from reaching Denver miners. Shot in New Mexico.
* Red Dawn (1984), in which Commie forces invade America and overrun a small Colorado town; we fight back. Shot in New Mexico.
* Cliffhanger (1993): Though filmed in the Italian Alps, the Sylvester Stallone mountain action flick supposedly took place in the Rocky Mountains.
HEY! THAT'S MY HOUSE!
Zeroing in on specific sites used by moviemakers:
* For The Glenn Miller Story (1953), the first feature-length movie ever shot in Denver, Lowry Air Force Base was turned into the site of a World War II USO show, and the corner of West Colfax and Fourteenth Street became a 1926 gas station.
* In Cold Blood (1967), in which a Colorado prison filled in for the Kansas State Penitentiary.
* Downhill Racer (1969), in which Robert Redford starred as an arrogant Olympic hopeful who was eventually cut down to size. Filmmakers shot in Conifer and parts of Clear Creek County.
* The feminist epic Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), in which Jacqueline Bisset memorably burns her bra, featured scenes shot at the State Capitol and the U.S. Mint, as well as on East Sixth Avenue, along the stately parkway of homes just east of Colorado Boulevard.
* Scarecrow (1973), in which Gene Hackman and Al Pacino decide to journey from San Quentin to Pittsburgh: Scenes were shot at Turk's Supper Club on Denver's north side and an unnamed LoDo tavern, where Hackman does a striptease for Pacino.
* I Want to Keep My Baby, a 1976 TV movie with Mariel Hemingway, was shot at George Washington High School.
* TV's Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982, helped put Boulder and Robin Williams on the map. The goalposts at Folsom Field never looked so good. Na nu, na nu.
* Continental Divide (1981): Blair Brown is a Rocky Mountain woman in touch with the eagles, and John Belushi is a struggling Chicago reporter sent to get her story. Shot in Pueblo and Custer counties.
* Dynasty (1981-1989): Though Blake Carrington's mansion was actually an estate south of San Francisco, this glamorously trashy soap opera, which starred Joan Collins, Linda Evans and John Forsythe, was set in Denver. One episode featured former prez Gerald Ford and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the Carousel Ball.
* Breaking Away redux: American Flyers (1985) included scenes of the then-annual Coors International Bicycle Classic in Golden.
* Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Clint Eastwood's orangutan classic, featured Eddie Bohn's Pig-N-Whistle on West Colfax, the Zanza Bar, a country-Western joint on East Colfax, and Sid King's strip lounge on East Colfax, where Westword staffers played extras. (Former Westword writer John Ashton popped up Sunday night in Asteroid as a hospital patient.)
* City Slickers (1991): Billy Crystal wrestles with cattle and Jack Palance in La Plata County.
* Die Hard 2: The filmmakers staged a big snowmobile shootout in Mead, a little town off I-25 north of Denver. Filmmakers blew up a false front and steeple built onto the Highland Lake Church.
* Under Siege 2 (1995): Navy SEAL Steven Seagal is a chef at the Wynkoop Brewing Company.
* Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995): What film list would be complete without it? Locales included the Casino Cabaret on Welton Street in Five Points (it emerged as the Silver Naked Lady); scenes were also shot outside Coors Field and the Denver Museum of Natural History.
* Larger Than Life, Bill Murray's recent elephant opus, was shot for a few days last summer in Loveland at Johnson's Corner, one of the last family-owned truck stops in the country. Employees appeared as extras in the film.
* A soon-to-be-released TV remake of The Shining, starring Rebecca DeMornay and Steven Weber, was shot partly in Congress Park and partly at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, the original inspiration for Stephen King's tale of a demented resort caretaker.
* Centennial: the fictitious setting of Centennial, a sprawling 26-hour mini-series based on James Michener's novel about the settling and development of a Colorado town. The project aired in twelve segments that ran from October 1978 to February 1979. Its $25 million budget was four times that of Roots. The cast was a who's who of rising stars and fading legends. Just a few: Raymond Burr, Andy Griffith, Sally Kellerman, Barbara Carrera, Timothy Dalton and that old mini-series stalwart Richard Chamberlain.
* Snowfield: Phantoms, a Dean Koontz thriller starring Peter O'Toole, recently finished filming around Georgetown, which played Snowfield--a town where everyone has strangely vanished. Producers turned down Westword's offices as the set of a newsroom in the film, saying they weren't realistic enough.
COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU
In addition to Phantoms, scheduled for release later this year, look for:
* Warriors of Virtue, a locally produced action-adventure movie about five martial-arts-fighting kangaroos. Scheduled for release in May.
* Going West in America: Shot last March in the mountains and on the streets of Five Points, this Dennis Quaid-Danny Glover thriller should make theaters before 1997 is out.
THOSE CRAZY HOLLYWOOD STARS...
* During the filming of Cat Ballou (1965), crew members recalled star Jane Fonda arriving straight from Paris, mad that she couldn't find any French food in Texas Creek, about 25 miles west of Canon City, while Lee Marvin nursed a hangover by alternately swigging wine and cold milk on a ninety-degree day.
* Mr. Majestyk (1974), from an Elmore Leonard novel, starred Charles Bronson as a Vietnam vet trying to be a peaceful farmer in Colorado. The peace doesn't last: During the filming, Bronson apparently was offered pottery by some children in La Junta, where the film was shot; he threw the pottery to the ground and broke it.
* The Disappearance of Aimee (1976), a TV movie starring Bette Davis and Faye Dunaway, was shot in Denver. (The real-life story of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson took place mostly in California.) During a church-sermon scene, Dunaway shouted at one lackadaisical extra, "Why aren't you listening to me? Look at me, LOOK at me!!"
MEMORABLE STUNTS AT THE ROYAL GORGE BRIDGE
* The climax of Denver and the Rio Grande (1952) involves two trains colliding on the bridge just west of Canon City.
* Two stuntmen leaped 900 feet off the bridge for Fast Getaway (1990), a direct-to-video chase flick starring washed-out teen star Corey Haim.
In the late Eighties, Councilwoman Debbie Ortega proposed that the 16th Street Viaduct be sold to Hollywood impresarios looking to blow up a bridge.
It's not surprising that Colorado--the first state in the country to establish a film commission, back in 1969--would also be great at tooting its own horn:
* Canon City Record, 1911: "There is some thought that Canon City may become the movie capital of the country."
* Denver Post, June 15, 1915: "The big picture enterprises should have been located in this state instead of the rainy, murky action of California."
* Denver Post, August 15, 1940: "Denver will become the 'movie capital' of the world."
* Denver Post, February 1, 1953: Actress Janet Leigh fails to attend the 1953 world premiere in Denver of the Western The Naked Spur with James Stewart. Why? "She's busy on a picture in the customary and more prosaic Hollywood."
* To appease oversensitive Coloradans, the makers of The Naked Spur included a credit line at the end of the picture that read: "FILMED IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS OF COLORADO, U.S.A."
* Rocky Mountain News, August 28, 1955: "Colorado Becomes Top Movie Location Area."
* Denver Post, July 22, 1973: Running Wild, an inauspicious Western, was nevertheless "the first in a series of major motion pictures...to establish [western Colorado] as a center for motion-picture production."
* Denver magazine, October 1976: "Lady Hollywood has arrived in Denver, and it appears certain she plans to stay."
* Rocky Mountain News, February 24, 1983: "Colorado boosted as cinema center."
* Rocky Mountain News, September 24, 1988: "A major film production studio is planned for the Denver area."
* Rocky Mountain News, September 16, 1994: "Colorado, Stage of the Stars."
AND THE WINNER IS...
Colorado, Utah and New Mexico have been butting heads for decades trying to lure film companies. For years, New Mexico seemed to be the most successful, but now New Mexico film officials say their state is experiencing a film drought of late, with no major projects scheduled.
Utah, on the other hand, is raking them in. Leigh Vonderesch, executive director of the Utah Film Commission, says the state--which currently is home to two television series, Promised Land and Touched by an Angel--has eight more projects under way, all TV movies.
Colorado has no film or TV projects under way. Could Utah be stealing our scenes?
"For the last several years, Utah has been getting a lot of business, but I don't know that it's directly taken from Colorado," says Peggy Larson, head of Colorado Casting. "Maybe some of the business they're getting we could take from them. Other than the Salt Lake and that big Tabernacle, we have the same things as them."
Vonderesch denies that Utah is grabbing Colorado business. "I don't know who would spread that rumor," Vonderesch says. "I fly in at the dead of night and take from Michael Klein [head of Colorado's film commission]? It's not the way you work getting movies. We're not in a negotiating position."
The states have been rivals since the early 1950s, when both Durango and Kanab, Utah, were vying for the title "Hollywood of the Rockies."
THE NATIVES ARE GETTING RESTLESS
* The filming of The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), with Goldie Hawn and George Segal, enraged some Central City residents after asphalt streets were covered with dirt to make the town appear older.
* While The Last Gun (1978), a Western with samurai overtones, was filming in Central City, residents balked at the hassles. "I guess if I wanted to live in a movie colony, I'd have moved to Hollywood," said local merchant Vern Terpening.
* Filming of the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) at Mesa Verde National Park came under fire from the park's archaeologist, who feared that filming would damage ancient ruins. He was overturned by the National Park Service's regional office in Denver, but the filmmakers wound up shooting in Conejos County, near Antonito.
* Filming of a 1989 episode of the Father Dowling Mysteries on High Street, a few blocks from the Denver Country Club, had residents up in arms about all the lights and all the trailers and all the noise.
* When The Shining was filming in Congress Park last summer, residents were up in arms about all the lights and all the trailers and all the noise.
WE PAUSE FOR A PRODUCT PLUG...
Smokey and the Bandit (1977): Back in the days when Burt Reynolds, a black Trans Am T-top and Coors beer were all you needed, Burt tried to smuggle several hundred cases of Coors east of Texas, where it wasn't sold and importing was illegal. Mayhem ensued.
* Aspen, a 1977 TV mini-series, featured Sam Elliott and a gaggle of near-stars in a steamy soap opera.
* Avalanche, a 1978 "disasterama" set at a posh mountain resort, starred Mia Farrow, Rock Hudson, cheesy special effects and lots of snow.
JUST PASSING THROUGH
* The Searchers (1956): This classic John Ford-John Wayne film has the Duke playing a Civil War vet obsessed with finding his missing niece, who was kidnapped by Indians. Parts were shot in Gunnison.
* Eighty Hoofs to Denver (1962): Based on the true story of a 1908 race sponsored by the Denver Post to prove that the bronco was better on Western terrain than other breeds. The race started in Evanston, Wyoming, and followed a path along the Union Pacific tracks to Denver.
* Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): Paul Newman and Robert Redford play bandits cheating and charming their way through the Old West. Shot in southwestern Colorado.
* Vanishing Point (1971): In Richard C. Sarafian's cult classic, Barry Newman and an all-white Dodge Challenger race from Denver to San Francisco (1,257 miles) in fifteen hours. Newman plays an ex-cop, ex-racer loser named Kowalski.
* Bite the Bullet (1975): Another horse-race film, about a 600-mile jaunt through the West, this one featured filming in Antonito with Gene Hackman and James Coburn.
* National Lampoon's Vacation (1983): Chevy Chase clowns his way through a cross-country trip that takes the Griswold family through southern Colorado en route to Wally World.
* Thelma and Louise (1991): We don't know for sure whether the gals passed through Colorado en route to the Grand Canyon, but the filmmakers did, shooting scenes in Mesa County on the Western Slope.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
The most famous Western film landscape, Monument Valley (The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West), is less than 100 miles from Colorado, on the Utah-Arizona border.
NOT EVEN CLOSE
* In 1967, long before Oliver Stone's JFK, Robert Larsen of Colorado Springs planned to make Countdown in Dallas. The pivotal roles of Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby were to be played by musicians who closely resembled the two men. The film was never made.
* In 1979, sites in southern Colorado were being considered for a 2,500-acre, $400 million movie set and science-fiction theme park that would have been larger than Disney World. The park would have been built as a set for a $55 million sci-fi extravaganza called Lord of Light. The project never got off the ground.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
* The biggest movie ever to be filmed in Colorado--according to the film's backers (and given the demise of Lord of Light)--was supposed to be Battlefield Earth, L. Ron Hubbard's very long science-fiction saga. Shooting was set for 1985 in Denver, Canon City, Colorado Springs, Climax and Longmont and was to include a flying platform suspended from a large crane overlooking the Royal Gorge.
* Greeley's near-contribution to furthering the Colorado film scene was a 1989 pilot for a TV show called Curse of the Corn People, which followed several twenty-year-olds in a Midwestern town who were making a horror film of the same name.
* Enter the Bassett was to be a 1984 low-budget, locally shot parody of Bruce Lee featuring characters named Awesome Lotus, Chuck Tuna and Tofu Cava, who battle against Herr Bassett, a canine lover who runs the "Federation for the Advancement of Rayon Textiles." Coming nowhere soon!
JUST HOW MANY PERRY MASON MOVIES WERE THERE?
The answer? Thirty, shot between 1985 and 1995. Raymond Burr did 26 before he died of cancer in 1993; Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook starred in the remaining four. Twenty-two were shot in and around Denver, according to Viacom, the show's producer.