The Gun Behind Hollywood Heroes
By Jon Lachuk
Guns Magazine – July 1960
Reprinted, with permission, from Tom Blasgen’s book
“Fast Draw… Yesterday, Today”
Rodd is one of Hollywood’s leading technical experts on weapons. He might very well qualify for “fastest gun alive” laurels, if he cared to claim them. But, as he puts it, “I don’t simply because I don’t think there is any such thing. In the Old West, the white man had a saying, “There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode, or a man that couldn’t be throwed.” This applies to fast guns. Gun slinging is like any other skill; you can’t be best all the time. Speed with a gun depends upon the shooter’s current physical and mental condition. One day, he might be unbeatable, on another, he just can’t do anything right. The most any athlete can hope for is to average out as one of the best.”
Actually, Rodd makes his living by doing things right all of the time – at least when it counts. Too often, doing something wrong would not only cost substantial money lsses for a film studio – it might cost a life.
During the filming of “Fastest Gun Alive,” for which Rodd was technical director, he was obliged to shoot down a narrow corridor between dozens of extras who were “spectators” at the famous “beer mug shot” by Glenn Ford. Alan Joslyn dropped the beer mug (made of wax to avoid glass splatter), and Glenn drew and shot at it with a blank. Rodd, placed out of camera ranges with a .22 rifle, shattered the mug in unison with Glenn’s shot. The backstop for Rodd’s bullet was a bale of hay placed at the end of the narrow corridor between the extras. A wrong shot here could have been disastrous, but nothing happened; and all three “takes” were perfect.
Rodd is also in demand as a professional exhibition shooter. For exhibitions, he uses a pair of Frontier Colts with chambers sleeved to shoot .22 rimfire cartridges, and a pair of Marlin .22 caliber, lever-action rifles. He fires against the hardened steel backplate of a shooting board, which was designed and built for him by the Los Angeles Police Department. Rodd is equally adept with his dozen or so big bore rifles and pistols, but they don’t lend themselves to use on the stage or at a TV studio.
Rodd has performed on many network TV shows, such as “Wide, Wide World of Sports,” “You Asked For It,” “Art Linkletter’s House Party,” “What’s My Line,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “People Are Funny.” During rehearsals for a recent “People Are Funny” show, Rodd twice registered draw times witnessed by 43 persons, of .17 of a second, including reaction time. On “You Asked For It,” Rodd did his most controversial shooting stunt, that of throwing a knife with his right hand, then drawing his holstered gun with the same hand and shooting a hole to receive the still hurtling knife.
One Hollywood writer has intimated that Rodd’s spectacular shooting is largely the result of trickery. The “trick” to the knife shot, as Rodd explained tit to me, is to “Pick out a mark on the board at which to throw the knife. Then shoot a hole in that spot while the knife is in flight.” It’s a good trick - if you can do it.
Another of Rodd’s stunts is to snuff out a candle with his Frontier revolver – complicating matters by putting the candle on a swinging pendulum. He has another pendulum with a two inch hole in its center. Through this he splits a bullet on an ordinary hunting knife, shattering two wafers, placed on to each side of the blade. Rodd performed these and other shots in his repertoire at the December Fast Draw National Championship match, held in Las Vegas, Nevada before an audience of over 3000. He amazed even the most blasé among the shooters present to compete in the event. Crowds are nothing new to Rodd. He recently did his exhibition shooting in the Hollywood Bowl, before an audience of 20,000.
Unlike many Hollywood personalities, Rodd does not make free personal appearances in search of publicity. He does perform a great many benefit shows for the Boy Scouts, Polio and Muscular Dystrophy victims, and crippled children’s schools, totaling an audience in 1959 of almost 8,000. He also visits boy’s detention schools, in an effort to bring a message of rehabilitation to these troubled youngsters. Rodd loves children. After Rodd performs for one of these children’s groups, he throws the meeting open to questions – no hold barred. Here are a few typical ones: “When did you become an Indian?” “Do you live in a teepee?” “Are you married to a squaw?” (Rodd’s charming wife, Erika, came to the United States from Germany, before World War II) “Have you ever been shot?” “Have you ever killed anyone?” Rodd doesn’t tell his youthful audience that he has taken human life, although he was obliged to do so during World War II. He does admit to being shot. When his wide-eyed spectators ask how, Rodd replies with his usual impish grin, “With a B-B gun!” However, the several scars on his body really resulted from some pretty rugged action in the South Pacific as a lieutenant in the Army Air Force.
Rodd’s concern for his own people leads him to spend much of his time working in their behalf. He is Chairman of the Public Relations Council of the Los Angeles Indian Center, helping thousands of Indians to settle in the big city every year. Ten years ago, Rodd started a Christmas collection of gifts for Indians still living under poverty stricken conditions on reservations. He enlists the help of the Shriners and the Boy Scouts in collecting the gifts, and the Navajo Trucking Company delivers them without charge.
You can’t help responding to Rodd’s personality, once you get used to hearing an Indian who talks more like Cary Grant than Tonto. He attacks life with a zest that is refreshing amidst the pervading ennui of Hollywood. His hair is still a glistening gunmetal black, although I’m sure he is ten years the senior of your salt and pepper headed author. He is not tall, but he is lithe and physically fit. Typical of his race he has little need of shaving his smooth youthful appearing face.
Rodd’s accent results from his being raised in the heart of London. He attended Westminster School until he was 14; then accompanied his stage actor father, William Redwing, and his lovely mother, Lillian, to New York City. (It was for Rodd’s mother that Cary Mills wrote the familiar song, “The Moon Shines Tonight On Pretty Redwing.”)
Rodd attended Harlem High School in the “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of New York, with such later to be famous classmates as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Jack “Legs” Diamond, Buddy Minabrook, and Franky Yale. In spite of his slender build, Rodd was an excellent athlete, participating in track, basketball, baseball, and football. He went on as a History major at the New York University, where he starred as one of the lightest first string ends in football history.
During those years, Rodd’s father taught him to love and respect firearms in the same manner as the Frontier Indian did. The elder Redwing also taught his son another tenet of Indian Philosophy, “Don’t kill, except in need.” To this day Rodd has yet to kill and animal, or even a bird.
After gaining his Bachelor’s Degree at NYU, Rodd was pondering an offer to teach history and double as a football coach at Wheeling, West Virginia High School for $125.00 a month. Suddenly he was offered a role in a stage play, “The Bad Man.” at $125.00 a week. The choice was easy. The late Cecil B. De Mille subsequently brought Rodd to Hollywood for the role of Lupe Velez’ brother in “The Squaw Man.” With one exception Rodd appeared in every De Mille picture filmed since.
Rodd still acts in many big budget pictures and numerous TV shows such as “Wyatt Earp” and “Playhouse 90” but his career as technical firearms director overshadows his acting. For 23 years, Redwing has been called in by Hollywood studios to add excitement to shooting sequences in virtually every important Western filmed in the Movie Capitol, from Howard Hughes “The Outlaw.” Through such classics as “Shane” “Duel in the Sun” “High Noon” and “Vera Cruz” to the more recent “Warlock” “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and “Last Train From Gunhill.” Soon to be released is his newest, the biggest budget Western ever filmed, “One Eyed Jacks” with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden.
Rodd takes over the actual direction of the gunfight scenes in these pictures. He receives a copy of the script about a month before the cameras are ready to roll. He picks out each shooting situation, checks it for authenticity and plausibility, then works in new and starling shooting stunts. In “From Hell to Texas,” star Don Murray was to be surprised by a shot fired from ambush and take cover behind a rock. To dramatize the situation k Rodd had Don leap from his horse, cock a lever action Winchester ’92 one-handed while in the air, land in a prone position and fire the rifle as he hit the ground. “I had to start him out landing on three mattresses, then take them away one at a time, as he perfected the leap,” Rodd told me. Don had never handled as much as a B-B gun before he got this role. Rodd made him look like a boy who grew up with a rifle in his hand.
Rodd is often called upon to make a gun-shy movie star look good with a gun, in front of the camera, but he also teaches them to shoot with live ammo. “I start them out shooting at a Dixie cup, only a few feet away,” Rodd said. “I let them shoot until it gets beyond their accurate range, then start them on a new cup. As their skill increases, they can hit the cups farther and farther away.”
Rodd teaches and practices an instinctive, pointing type of aim, if you can call it that. Actually, he claims not to be aware of the gun at all, looking with both eyes at the target, and using no sights. The front sights of his revolvers are all filed down to facilitate his draw, and some of his rifles lack sights entirely. “My method is more like shotgun pointing,” says Rodd. When he spotted my raised eyebrow, he smiled, “You never saw sights on a bow, did you? At least, not on an Indian bow. That’s strictly instinctive. When I was working with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin on “Pardners” Jerry couldn’t figure out how I outshot him using a rifle without sights. He had a scope on his. After a couple of weeks with me, he threw away his scope and shot better than he ever dreamed of.”
Often, Rodd must give an impromptu demonstration of his shooting skill for a movie star, before said star will allow some of the shooting stunts that involve putting live bullets in the air near him. For a scene in “Warlock” Henry Fonda was indulging in some target practice at bottles. Rodd was stationed out of camera range with an M1 Carbine, shooting past Fonda to break the bottles, in unison with the actor’s blank shots. In “Tin Star” Rodd fired live ammo from a .30 caliber M1 into a watering trough behind which Don Murray was hiding. Midway through the trough Rodd had placed a steel plate to stop the bullets. The holes and spurts of water that resulted were realistic enough for the severest of critic. Later in the scene, Don ran from behind the trough, and Rodd followed him with a barrage that kicked up dust barely inches from his heels. Those ricochets were the real thing!
Often, Rodd has to be concealed from the camera by bits of scenery, which obscure his target. On such occasions, Rodd will sight upon his target and lock his arms in position while the scenery is moved into place and then, on cue, neatly dispatch the bottle, bar glass, or what have you, without the movie audience ever being aware of his existence.
Even the story lines of many movies are influenced by Rodd’s ideas for shooting stunts. It was his idea for Grace Kelly to shoot one of the badmen in “High Noon”. Rodd had the pleasant task of coaching Princess Grace for both “High Noon” and “The Swan” making her into an excellent pistol shot and a creditable fencer. In “Warlock” Rodd set up one shot in which a barber was standing in front of a water wagon as he was gunned down by the villain. Rodd fired two blood pellets at the man’s chest, perfectly positioned, so that as he sagged away, two holes appeared in the wagon behind him, with water pouring forth. This was one of the few times that Rodd was able to persuade Hollywood that a 255 grain slug traveling at 900 feet per second will go through a man, not lodge two inches deep in his shoulder.
Rodd organized the now popular trick of yanking the victim of a shooting off his feet with a hidden wire, to simulate the knockdown power of the big bore guns common to the Old West. He first used it in “Shane” when Jack Palance shot down Elisha Cook. He used a wire for yet another effect in “Warlock” when Fonda, dressed in a frock coat, had to outdraw a baddie who was completely unencumbered. Rodd placed a fine wire under Henry’s coat in such a way that by pulling it at the strategic moment, Rodd could yank the coat back from the holster, leaving Henry free to draw without interference from the garment.
No mere sixgun jockey, Rodd excels at, and teaches, fencing, knife throwing, whip fighting, and fast and fancy rifle shooting. He also acts as a consultant on military tactics, and teaches military drills of all nations, including the Union and confederate armies of Civil War days. For “Gunga Din” Rodd taught 3000 extras to crisply execute the English drill and the Queen Anne Salute, a complicated rifle drill.
Rodd also acts as unofficial gunsmith on location trips, carrying a supply of often needed spare parts. “You can’t teach a man to shoot if his gun won’t work” he explains.
Rodd uses his own design of holster and belt, and is now producing them commercially. They are available in every color, including silver and gold, to fit any make and caliber of revolver. The holster is reinforced by a resilient spring steel band that encircles the cylinder.
“Motion pictures have come a long way since the days of six-shooters that never ran dry, or heroes who could hip-shoot the bad guys at 50 yards” said Rodd, “but progress has been painfully slow. Many producers still hesitate to add a gun advisor to the budget, and leave the shooting scenes up to the writer. The results of this economy are hackneyed at best, and at their worst, physically impossible.”
In his current release, “Heller With a Gun” Rodd does the gun work and also plays the role of what he terms, “an idiot Indian.” When I asked if he objected to such roles, he mused, “No – I guess not but someday I’m going to produce a Western of my own and for once, I’m going to have the Indians ride up a hill!”