(Pictured: Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop.)
In the summer of 1970, film director Monte Hellman saw a Los Angeles billboard with James Taylor’s face on it, and he believed he’d found a star. So he created a movie for him, which turns up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two-Lane Blacktop is about two drifters with a ’55 Chevy who eventually get into a cross-country race with another driver. Taylor was cast as a character known only as the Driver. Four days before principal photography began, Hellman still didn’t have Taylor’s co-star. He eventually settled on Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, figuring Wilson’s real-life experience with cars would translate into his on-screen role as the Mechanic. Completing the cast were 16-year-old Laurie Bird as the Young Girl, and Hollywood veteran Warren Oates as GTO, the driver of the other car in the race.
Two-Lane Blacktop was shot on location across the country, and it shows an America that no longer exists, one of small-town diners, full-service filling stations, and hitch-hiking as reliable transportation. Like many youth films of the ’70s, there’s not really much of a story to it. The atmosphere of lonely alienation is the point of the film—the Driver and the Mechanic are silent as much as they speak, and while each of them seems to have an interest in the Young Girl, neither one does much to communicate it to her. (GTO is a livelier character, spinning a variety of tales about who he is and where he’s going, depending on who he’s talking to.)
It’s too much to say that Two-Lane Blacktop put a curse on its stars. Nevertheless, three of them came to tragic and/or early ends, while another was probably lucky to avoid one. Taylor, in his only movie role, was addicted to heroin while the movie was filming, and for years thereafter. From time to time he would come up missing on the set, and was said to be off fixing at the time. His co-star Wilson was also an enthusiastic user of drugs and alcohol. He died on December 28, 1983, drowning while swimming off the California coast—coincidentally about the same time Taylor was kicking his drug habit for good. Laurie Bird, who played the Young Girl, was only 16 when filming began in 1970. She appeared in only two other films, including the 1977 Oscar-winner Annie Hall. She became a photographer, and she took the cover shot for Art Garfunkel‘s 1977 album Watermark. She and Garfunkel were romantically involved. In June 1979, aged just 25, she committed suicide in the apartment she and Garfunkel shared. Warren Oates, whose performance as GTO was considered Oscar-worthy by some, died young too. Oates, who appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the ’60s and ’70s, is probably best-known for his portrayal of Sgt. Hulka in the Bill Murray film Stripes. It was one of his final performances. Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.
(Adapted from a couple of pieces in my WNEW.com archives.)