I can recall only three times in my life when I’ve felt weak in the knees. One was on my wedding day. I’d made my walk to the front of the church. Then, as I turned and gazed back across all those over-dressed guests stacked in the pews of Boston’s Old South Church, I saw my wife-to-be (aka the War Department) at the end of a conga-line of bridesmaids. She was out of sight to pretty much everybody but me, hopping up in the air and tossing waves. A private laugh came over me. And my knees became weak.

One of the two other times was when Broadway Joe Namath shook my hand, encouraging me to call him “Joe.” I’d never been a Jets fan. And Lord knows I’d clasped all kinds of famous hands. But when Broadway Joe stuck out his paw to introduce himself, that weird feeling hit me again. Knees. Weak.

But the first time I’d felt weak-kneed remains the most memorable.

I’d heard the term “weak in the knees” my whole adolescent life. It was a cliché I felt was best reserved for describing prepubescent girls in the face of meeting a teen idol. I had an uncle who used to call the feeling “oatmeal knees,” which I admit had a more manly sound. He’d used the term to explain the feeling expressed by WWII sailors antipating a sunrise attack by the Japanese air force.

Whatever, I’d say. I sincerely doubted I’d ever find myself on a Navy carrier, facing down a squadron of attacking zeroes. But I also doubted that I’d ever have a chance to meet Sam Peckinpah.

When I was movie-grubbing teen, I’d heard of the maverick film director. I might’ve even caught an edited scene or two from one of his movies on broadcast TV. But before I’d ever seen one of Peckinpah’s films from start to finish, I’d been graced with a copy of the script to his most famous picture, The Wild Bunch. The screenplay penned by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah was handed to me by a family friend who’d worked on a biography with the director. I remember the script being slid across our kitchen table and into my stubby fingers like it was some sacred text. I’d never held any kind of screenplay before. So my first foray into the screenwriter’s art was that old, dog-eared shooting script. And I must’ve read it five times in hopes of divining its cinematic secrets.

In my remaining high school years, I became a big Sam Peckinpah fan. Catching up on all his pictures when they’d land at my local revival theater. Studying his groundbreaking editorial style of inter-cutting a variety of slow-motion speeds into his high-octane action scenes. Falling in love with the Peckinpah thematics of men seeking one last hurrah in a progressive world that had passed them by. What followed was college and film school at the University of Southern California. In my small class of fellow movie geeks, I was quickly known as the Peckinpah dude, obnoxiously quoting esoteric dialogue from Pat Garret and Billy the Kid or the rarely screened Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. 

One perk of film school was the sponsorship of so many screenings. Filmmakers new and old would often make appearances with early cuts of their work. I recall Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro unspooling the yet-to-be-released Raging Bull and then sticking around for a Q and A with the students. There were also the retrospectives. A weeklong festival celebrating a single filmmaker, climaxing with screening of a favorite work followed by some kind of meet and greet.

It was the final eve of a Don Siegel fest. The last film Mr. Siegel chose to screen was The Beguiled, a dark Civil War suspense-drama featuring his favorite star, Clint Eastwood. The campus theater was packed with students and guests. Shortly after the lights came up, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood took the stage and conducted a relaxed question and answer session. Many of the actors who’d worked with the director over his career were also in attendance, roasting the old director with their own stories. I recall it was during Andy Robinson’s turn (the actor who famously played the oft-mimicked psycho in Dirty Harry) that some of my film school compadres began whispering then nudging me to look back and to the right.

“Yo Doug,” said one of my peers, “Isn’t that Sam Peckinpah?”

I craned my neck, tried to widen my pupils in order to make the correct call. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that the white hair of the man seated one row from the rear belonged to my favorite auteur.

“Yeah, that’s him,” I nodded.

Then came the teasing.

“Well go talk to him,” said a fellow student.

“You’re like his biggest fan,” teased another.

“C’mon,” said somebody in front of me. “You’re the biggest Peckinpah geek around. Let’s see you go up there and tell him so.”

“Not during the program,” I said, seeking a reason to delay. “Maybe after.”

Then came a brief, unscheduled intermission because of an electronic demon that was dogging the sound system. While the tech crew scrambled to fix the problem, I no longer had an excuse to avoid telling Sam Peckinpah what a stupid fan I was. I slipped from my seat and climbed the steps to the rear of the theater. All the while, I could feel the eyes of my classmates staring me down as if to see if I would follow through on some kind of dare.

When I reached Sam Peckinpah’s row, he was five seats deep and surrounded by a crowd of grad students from the critical studies department. Not quite the optimal situation for a hello and pleased to meecha and let me fawn all over your genius. Still, I looked past the four bodies between myself and the director and spoke.

“Mr. Peckinpah?” I asked, loud enough to attract the attention of everybody in the section.

The movie director, who I’d recalled hearing was in poor health, swiveled his head in my direction.

“Sir? I just wanted to tell you what a big fan I am,” I said. “And that The Wild Bunch was the first screenplay I ever read.”

“You read that lousy script?” said the director. “I’m not sure Warner Brothers ever read that script.”

The director’s line got a laugh.

“Where the hell’d you get it?” he continued.

“Jim Silk,” I said. “He’s a family friend.”

“Not my best writing,” said the director in a moment of humility.

“I thought it was amazing,” I said.

“Well let me shake the hand of the young man who read a crappy old script he didn’t have to.”

With that, Sam Peckinpah attempted to stand. I say “attempted” because as he wobbled to his feet, I realized that he was in far more feeble shape than I’d imagined. He was only 59, for God’s sake. After a career of battling with both studios and producers, he was clearly in the final stages of a throw-down with his own mortality. His attendance at the retrospective was to show his respect for Don Siegel, who’d given the young director his start in television.

“Please,” I said. “Don’t get up. I just wanted to say—”

“Nope,” he interrupted.  “I’m gonna shake your hand, young man.”

This is precisely where I felt it. In my knees. A gooey feeling. As if the ligaments connecting femur to tibia were no stronger than molten string cheese.

With help from the grad students flanking him the legend rose to his feet. The pair of attendees nearest me cleared their seats, allowing me to slide closer and accept Sam Peckinpah’s hand. The director’s strength was weak. But he kept his grip on me while asking me if I’d learned anything in film school.

“Remember,” said the maverick, placing his free hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. Make the movies you wanna make.”

By then, the sound problem had been remedied and the program was about to resume. I thanked Mr. Peckinpah for the advice and hustled back to my seat. My socially retarded compatriots were full of backslaps and envy. And while Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel continued with their tales of masculinity in moviemaking, I kept flashing back to the mushy feeling in my knees when the dying legend insisted on getting vertical to shake this film student’s sweaty hand.

I’ve since had countless other brushes with greatness. I’ve pressed flesh, broken bread, and worked alongside both the famous and infamous. But none—and I’m talking not a single one—made such a distinct and empowering impression as Sam Peckinpah. My moment with him had lasted barely a minute. But for me? It has lasted a lifetime.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Wonderful story, Doug! I had the same ‘oatmeal knees’ when I met and spent time with Charles Bronson on the set of Death Wish 5. I loved that man’s films and talking with him was amazing.

  • Dave Frizzell

    Great story, Doug. Thanks for sharing such a personal and defining moment in your life with us.

    Dave

  • Powerful.

  • paul

    I played basketball through a couple years of college (and it’s pretty much left me feeling physically like Mr. Peckinpah was when you met him), played in high school with someone who had a long NBA career, scrimmaged with more pros, went on to meet and work on lots of celebs as a massage therapist…, but when I went to a coaching clinic as a high school coach and met Coach K I got those knees. Very distinct feeling. Like there’s still some magic out there to be experienced. Very cool, Doug. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Isabel

    I loved the moment when he insisted on getting up to shake your hand, even when you said it was okay not to. That one got me.

  • Colin Holmes

    Great story, Doug.

    Make the western.

    • A very nice moment. And, as for not letting people to tell you what to do, he was right.

      • To all you commenting peeps. Big thanks. Now go rent The Ballad of Cable Hogue. This one shows Sam’s sweet side.

        • Great stuff, Doug. Hopefully you won’t be so frail when I shake your hand, but then again, we could always clink those Guinness glasses instead. Cheers for inspiring ME.

          • There’s a lunch idea. Might have to have me some bangers, mash, and a cold pint.

  • Tim O’Connell

    Great story Doug. Glad you were able to have that moment with him.

    thanks for sharing.

    -Tim

  • Glenn McGee

    Thanks for sharing Doug. It’s sad that Sam Peckinpah led a Mickey Mantle all-too-short lifestyle and we as fans didn’t see more of his talents realized for us to experience. “The Getaway” is also a great film. Coincidentally I just blogged a post elsewhere regarding my rubbery leg encounter this past April with Barry Levinson and got to chat a wee bit on his work. I agree, it should only be during rare occassions when a person is so awestruck to feel that way or it loses its significance in being such a special moment.

    • Can’t say I was awestruck, Glenn. Not that I haven’t been. But it was more about Sam being so close to death yet he still felt it necessary to stand, shake my hand, and engage with a dumb-assed film student.

  • Moments that last a lifetime.

    They’re the real reason we make movies, aren’t they? To give the audience such moments. Love these stories, Doug. Keep ’em coming.

  • Louis Burklow

    And I was proud to have been in the theater when Robert Duvall conducted at Q & A after an IFP screening of The Apostle. Too bad your friends were too gutless to follow you to meet Peckinpah. Their loss.

  • James Hornsby

    I;m assuming that this took place at Norris Theatre? So many great artists have done their Q & A there. It is so warming that he appreciated your admiration and gave it back in kind.

    Another great story. Thank you.

  • Carolyn Hodge

    What a wonderful story Doug. Thank you for sharing it with us. Sometimes it’s the small moments in time that can have the greatest impact.

    I’ve read and studied “Chinatown” so much that it has become a seminal reference in my library, as I pursue the craft of screenwriting. So one of my weak in the knees moments came when I had an opportunity to meet Robert Towne. Just a small moment, but impactful in my world.

    And now, I’m off to read “A.K.A.”

  • Bill Warren

    I was almost as hung up on Peckinpah as you were. I kept going to screenings of THE WILD BUNCH when I heard that THIS one might include a few more minutes. I always thought the movie owed a great deal to John Huston’s TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, while still being entirely its own thing. Finally, word was passed among Los Angeles movie buffs that there would be two showings of Peckinpah’s cut of THE WILD BUNCH at a small theater in Beverly Hills–free showings. You had to have tickets, though. I managed to get two, one of my wife, one for me, for the second screening. We stood in line quite a while, then eagerly rushed in. Peckinpah, Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones were on stage already, staggering about, holding each other up–they all seemed to be roaring drunk (Jones told me later he was stone sober; it was a contact drunk for him). After the showing, Peckinpah sat in an aisle seat, exchanging a few words with fans as they passed by. I tried to think of how to ask him if he was deliberately echoing SIERRA MADRE without also sounding like I was suggesting he ripped it off. When the moment came, I asked him if John Huston had seen THE WILD BUNCH. “I hope so,” Sam (still drunk) replied. “It was a present for him.”
    My wife, on her own, told him it reminded her of the >novel< TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE; he said it was supposed to–it was a tribute to the novel.

    • Jose Chavez

      Can someone please tell me WHERE THE HELL is the rest of Sam Peckinpah’s catalogue on BLU-RAY already?!!

      Sheesh. I mean I’m stoked about the newly restored Criterion bluray release of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” but I would be just as ecstatic (if not more so) for the bluray release of “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid”!!

      And while we’re at it: Let the manna fall from the skies already and give us all “The Ballad Of Cable Hogue”, “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia”, “Junior Bonner”, and “Ride the High Country”.

      How about a deluxe edition BOX SET? Huh???

  • Trevor Peckinpah

    Great Story!! My name is Trevor Peckinpah and I’m Sam’s Great Nephew. I LOVED reading this and wanted to thank u for the wonderful story of my Uncle!