Rowdy L. Herrington was born in Pittsburgh and made his fortune in Hollywood without ever forgetting his roots. After all, how else do you explain Striking Distance? I’ve been a big fan of his films for years, so after tracking him down — let’s not say stalking — I was pleased that he agreed to sit down for nearly an hour-long chat that covered a wide range of topics. He was beyond warm and kind, which made this interview a pleasure.
B&S ABOUT MOVIES: Where are you from in Pittsburgh?
ROWDY HERRINGTON: I was born in East Liberty and when I was about 11 or 12, we moved to Penn Hills. My parents bought a house out there, I went to high school in Penn Hills, and then Penn State.
B&S: How does one get from Pittsburgh to directing in Hollywood? You worked at WQED? NOTE: WQED is the public broadcasting station in Pittsburgh where Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was filmed.
ROWDY: I was a television major at Penn State and I bounced around for a while. I was an English major because I was interested in writing, but then when I took the English courses that they offered, I switched to Television. When I got out of school, it was tough to get work in television. I took a job with my brother at the steel mill in Homestead and I worked about six months before I finally got a part-time job on the production crew at WQED. I got my foreman at the mill to schedule me around that job so that WQED had first call on the days that I worked. It started to get a little tough the more hours I got, so I eventually had to quit the mill. They were surprised — they said, this is the best job you’ll ever have. And about five or eight years later, all of the mills were shut down.
B&S: How did you make the move from public broadcasting to Hollywood?
ROWDY: WQED had funding issues and I got laid off, so I moved to Washington, DC. They cut way back so I went down to visit another brother, who was a Secret Service agent. I started to get freelance work and eventually, I worked on a movie starring Ossie Davis (NOTE: 1979’s Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Loved the Stars). I worked on that and there were people there who had worked on some bigger movies, so I talked to them and asked, “If I want to do this, what should I do?” They replied, “You either need to move to New York or Los Angeles.” California seemed like a much more interesting place for me.
B&S: What was the first thing you worked on?
ROWDY: The first job I got — I met a guy who was a gaffer — which I did at WQED, he hung lights and I had knowledge of movie lights, so I got a job as an electrician on a kung fu movie. This gaffer that I met, his regular crew didn’t want to do it because the pay was so lousy, but it was great for me. I worked my way into his crew and then, little by little, I started working with another gaffer, became a best boy, then I started gaffing…
In between — these are non-union movies, so some of them were four-week shoots, some were five or six, a really good one was seven or right. I’d get off work and write screenplays. I managed to option a few things that I wrote.
Finally, I worked with this key grip a lot named Tim Moore and we were very good friends. He was on one film and I was on another and I had just finished the script for Jack’s Back. I sent it to him — he was in Hawaii — and he was working with this producer named Elliott Kastner (NOTE: producer of Where Eagles Dare, Angel Heart, the 1988 remake of The Blob and many other films). Elliot would come to Tim, who was a really sharp guy, and he would ask him, “Is this movie going to make its day?” Tim was a fountain of information for him, so one day he asked, “What do you really want to do, Tim?” And he answered, “Well, I really want to become a producer.”
His advice? Get a good piece of material and get it to someone like me.
When Tim read my script for Jack’s Back, he thought that it was ready to shoot. He got it to Elliot and the first page said: “One hundred years ago in the city of London, a man shocked the world by murdering, raping and mutilating five women. He was never caught.” Turn the page and it says, “Jack’s Back.” Elliot handed it back to Tim and said, “Make it for $900,000.”
We ended up with Elliot’s stepson Cassian Elwes (NOTE: brother of Cary and producer of tons of movies like Nomads, Psycho Cop, Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Reach Me, The Stranger and more — he’s also a pimp in Jack’s Back) co-producing. And Tim? He’s currently the producer for Clint Eastwood.
We’ve also done four or five movies together and we’re still working on things together. I’ve been re-writing things for him and we’re about to start on a movie called Looking for Water together. We just got more notes, so I’m doing another pass on the script. We think Nick Cassavetes may direct and I’m looking forward to that.
Part two — coming tomorrow — will cover Roadhouse, perhaps the film that Herrington is best known for.