As Netflix starts production on the John Lee Hancock-directed The Highwaymen with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing the legendary lawmen who brought bank robbers Bonnie & Clyde to their bloody end, Deadline asked the film’s original screenwriter John Fusco to detail the twists and turns of a project whose origins began with his long courtship of the son of legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. The Hamer family so hated the stylized Arthur Penn-directed 1967 classic Bonnie & Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway that they wanted no part of Hollywood. The creator of the series Marco Polo and writer of frontier pics including Young Guns and Hidalgo, Fusco details how the film overcame that and the loss of the chance to team Paul Newman and Robert Redford one last time to finally see the film get made with Costner and Harrelson.
As a kid, I found a kind of compelling power and magic in old photographs of legendary figures, particularly gangsters, gunfighters and itinerant blues men. Maybe it was the dark allure. Or maybe it was how the rendered tintype images often contradicted the legend itself and made one wonder about who this person truly was beneath the strata of myth.
Billy the Kid was one of those; that haunting 1880 sepia ferrotype of Henry McCarty aka William H. Bonney changed my life. Literally.
I’d sit and stare at that 2-by-3 inch plate in my Old West history books, fascinated by this short, buck-toothed, narrow-shouldered New Yorker who was reputed to have killed between nine and 21 men in the Wild West but had nothing to do with Audie Murphy or Johnny Mack Brown or Paul Newman. The Kid wasn’t even really left-handed. Could the photo provide an insight into William H. Bonney, the real-life runt of a vigilante gang? This led to me reading everything I could find on Bonney, the “Regulators” and the Lincoln County Range Wars — ultimately following his trail through Arizona and New Mexico, and writing the screenplay that would become Young Guns (and its sequel).
A similar thing happened to me with Bonnie and Clyde, albeit with a surprising twist. Those old photos of Barrow and Parker, leaning on their stolen 1932 Ford V8 Sedan, intrigued me to no end. The black-and-whites of a big-eared Clyde and a dirty-haired, 4-foot-11 Bonnie Parker with a gun, a gimped leg and stub-soggy cigar in her mouth downright haunted me. These two sociopathic criminals were not the glamorous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the great watershed movie — they were the opposite on so many levels — and I wanted to furrow under that rock, dig a little deeper. When I did, I discovered that the true hero in the saga was the very lawman who was portrayed (by Denver Pyle) as an antagonistic buffoon in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 classic.
As I researched the history beneath the Robin Hood gangster myth of Bonnie and Clyde, I found Frank Hamer to be one of the most compelling yet shockingly unsung heroes in American history — a man with a life story so epic and relevant that I wanted to learn more. Hamer was a decorated Texas Ranger who had been shot and wounded 17 times over the course of his life, left for dead four times. He is credited with having killed more than 50 men. But what truly fascinated me was how, in 1934, during the notorious rampage of Bonnie and Clyde — when J. Edgar Hoover and a 1,000-man dragnet had failed to capture them over two years — Frank Hamer, then retired, was approached by the Governor of Texas and asked to “take up the hunt.” Barrow and Parker were, by then, responsible for murdering 12 individuals, including nine law enforcement officers, across a half-dozen states.
Frank Hamer was more at home patrolling the Rio Grande on a cow pony with a Winchester, but after a half-dozen lawmen were gunned down, he came out of retirement to take on the modern-day assignment. Recruiting another retired Ranger, his former partner, B.M. “Maney” Gault, the two replaced their Winchesters with machine rifles and their horses with Hamer’s wife’s beloved ’34 Ford V8. They even hand-sculpted (hat makers call it “abusing”) their Stetson Homburgs into more of a fedora style and headed off down the rutted highways of a changing America, during the Great Depression. After 102 days on the road, Hamer and Gault would outsmart Bonnie and Clyde, boxing in their circle and driving them like rogue cattle down a rural road near Gibsland, LA, and putting an end to their rampage in the controversial ambush that has become legend — mostly via the operatic slo-mo finale in the Penn film.
For many years since those first photos led me to look beyond the myth, I had felt strongly that it was time to give Frank Hamer his due and to reveal the other side of the conflict. When I presented the idea to producer Casey Silver, somewhere out in the desert while we were filming my script Hidalgo, Casey responded with great enthusiasm and wanted me to begin writing as soon as we wrapped. It didn’t hurt that the Bonnie and Clyde death car — the actual one — was on display in the hotel/casino lobby in Primm, NV, where we were staying. Call it a coincidence or not, but I had a PowerPoint presentation, riddled with Frank Hamer’s bullet holes, right there in the lobby of Whiskey Pete’s. I told Casey that I wanted nothing more than to dive in but that there was one remaining hurdle for me, personally; if I could resolve it, I’d get to work.
Here was the hurdle: I had known for a long time that the Hamer family were no fans of the classic Arthur Penn movie. I knew that they had been greatly hurt and angered by the unfair and malicious characterization of their father at the expense of romanticizing and glorifying the road killers known as Bonnie and Clyde. I did not want to move forward in any way without the blessing of Frank Hamer, Jr., a Texas lawman in his own right who was in his late 80s and living near Austin.
Frank Jr. refused to take any calls from a Hollywood screenwriter. I didn’t blame him, and I knew I would have to find another way to earn an audience with him. In my research I learned that, along with having been a Special Ranger and bodyguard to governors, Frank Hamer Jr. had been one of the last of the “flying game wardens” in the state of Texas, hunting poachers from the air. I had several wildlife law enforcement contacts due to an earlier project I had field researched, so I asked a veteran game warden friend to call Hamer and introduce me. He let Frank Jr. know that I had done ride-alongs with him in pursuit of poachers in the Louisiana bayou and that I was “OK.”
Frank phoned me a week or two later and invited me down to Texas “for a steak.” It would prove to be a day I’ll never forget. When 86-year-old Frank Jr. arrived, he had an escort comprised of his son Frank III and several nephews and relatives. Frank, himself, had a heavy bandage on his right elbow, covering an infected water moccasin bite. He wore suspenders, a Texas Longhorns ball cap, outsized sunglasses, and he was packing a sidearm at his rear waistband. We all sat in an empty Austin steakhouse at 11 am, at a dark back table, sipping shots of bourbon. After my introduction and explaining why I was there and what my mission was in terms of giving Frank Hamer his due, Frank Jr. stared across the table and said, “I’m still fixin’ to hunt up that Warren Beatty and put a bullet in the sonuvabitch.”
“Dad,” Frank III said with obvious exasperation and raising his voice for the hard-of-hearing elder. “I’ve told you, it wasn’t his fault. It was not Warren Beatty’s fault.”
“That’s right,” the older Hamer said, savoring his bourbon and reflecting. “It’s that Arthur Penn. Like to hunt him up, too.”
Frank III went on to remind his father that, during the character defamation trial vs Warner Bros., Arthur Penn “felt terrible,” “had tears in his eyes” and had apologized profusely to Hamer’s widow Gladys and then to Frank Jr. Penn was sincerely regretful, said Frank III, and the family won an undisclosed settlement.
But that morning at the Texas Land and Cattle Company Steakhouse, I could see that it still bothered Frank Jr. in a profound way. This led to his assessment of the true-life Bonnie and Clyde as “two pint-sized punks who weren’t worth the caps that were busted on them.” At times, Warren and Faye seemed to merge in his mind with Barrow and Parker; the ’67 movie seemed to merge with his firsthand memories of the Depression-era history and the anti-establishment sentiment that had celebrated outlawry and nihilism — turning Barrow and Parker into sympathetic anti-heroes and his disciplined father into an oafish bad guy. The scene in which Hamer is outsmarted and captured by the couple, tied up, sexually taunted, spit on and shoved out onto a lake in a boat still made Frank Jr’s face go dark crimson that day in Austin. “Nobody ever got the drop on my father,” he said. “And I mean nobody.”
I clearly remember his right hand — his gun hand, his infected water moccasin-bitten arm — trembling with rage. “And that’s why I’m here,” I emphasized. “The time has come to tell the other side of the story. To tell it from your father’s side.”
As Frank began to relax a bit, we talked about notorious poachers, Spanish horses, Old West firearms, bourbon, fiddle music and the details of Frank’s father’s life in law enforcement, and he began to share some of the family stories. Particularly, what it was like to be a teenager — in high school — while his father was secretly out on the blue highways of America, hunting down the celebrated hero gangsters. By the end of our meeting, and after some steaks and dessert, Frank Jr. conferred quietly with the younger Hamer’s and then looked across the table at me for a time. I imagine that his father had the same kind of steely gaze.
“I ask one thing,” he said. “Do right by my daddy.”
When we walked out into a lowering Texas sun, I realized how long we’d been inside, talking. Frank Jr. stopped in the entrance way and asked one of the younger men to take a photo of us shaking hands. “You got my blessing, and here’s the record right here.”
As I walked to my rental car, I remember thinking two things: 1) That was fucking amazing. And 2) I might have just saved Warren Beatty’s life. Over the months and years as I worked on the screenplay, I’d come back to Texas to do research, both on the trail (a nephew, Harrison Hamer, was very helpful in opening up boxes of family photos and records for me, turning his small kitchen into a research hub) and inside the archives at the Texas Rangers Research Center in Waco. I would also drive the Bonnie and Clyde trail with several of the foremost historians on the subject. Sometimes these travels would expose me to a long-standing feud between the “Barrow camp” and those related to a certain alleged “snitch” who betrayed Clyde and his girl. Hard as it is to believe, some 80 years later, there were — and likely still are — vestiges of bad blood and ugly grudges roiling in the Dallas neighborhood reputedly once called “the Devil’s Back Porch.”
There were times I got the stink-eye when word got out that I was poking around old history to tell a pro-Hamer story.
All through this field research, I got to know Frank Jr. and greatly valued the stories and insight he shared. Certain smaller details about his “daddy” and Maney Gault and what they did during those 102 days on the hunt — the canned sardines they ate, songs they sang, Frank missing his pet javelina, Spanish phrases they used as shorthand, tracking tactics they employed and ghosts from their Old West past — exposed a deeper layer for me as a screenwriter while always trying to make good on my word to Frank Jr.
The rough draft of the script was perhaps too ambitious as I attempted to tell the entire Frank Hamer story in flashbacks wrapped around the road trip and hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. Still, it was an organized bible of dramatic material. Casey Silver, always the best creative partner, worked endlessly with me on this approach till the day he called me and suggested that we place our focus squarely on the Bonnie and Clyde hunt and the relationship between Hamer and Gault. Although it was hard for me to let go of the epic cradle-to-grave drama, the adjustment made all the difference, and the script found its focus, velocity and tempo. It became a two-hander in earnest. Hamer became The Highwaymen.
And as it did, the question became, who would play those two former Rangers? When a draft was complete and we discussed casting, Casey asked who I saw as Frank and Maney while I was writing them. When I suggested Robert Redford and Paul Newman, we both laughed for a moment at the sheer audacity. Casey loved the idea. As the former president of production at Universal, he had relationships with both screen legends, but we both knew it was a long shot to land the famous tandem. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pairing for a third and maybe final time? But Bob Redford responded positively to the screenplay and told Casey that he’d get on a plane and bring it to Paul personally if that’s what it took to make it happen.
In one of those pinch-me moments in life, Casey would soon report that he had Robert Redford and Paul Newman attached to play Hamer and Gault. Together, we’d spend creative meeting time with the both of them. Casey also recruited the interest and passion of John Lee Hancock — a move supported with great enthusiasm by Bob and Paul. For me, personally, John Lee — who had grown up in Texas and visited Hamer’s grave site as a kid — was the perfect filmmaker for this movie. But all of this took time to come together, and time caught up with Frank Hamer Jr. who had, by then, turned 88.
The last time we spoke he was in an Austin hospital, gravely ill. He had just received a coffee table book I sent to him: A collector’s photo gallery of firearms from the Old West. He turned a few pages and talked over the phone about the “Colts” his father owned — which guns were best and which were “a piece of shit.”
It was on that call that I had the great joy of telling him that Redford and Newman were going to play his dad and Maney — and that the Texan John Lee Hancock was going to direct. He was thrilled and grateful. A few weeks later, Frank Hamer Jr. passed away.
Not long after losing Frank, Paul Newman would become ill, and the project would go dormant. Call it heartbreak on top of heartbreak; losing Frank Jr. was losing the last direct line to the old-time Texas Rangers like his father and not getting a chance to see the other side of the story on the big screen. Losing Paul Newman was closing a chapter on cinema history and, it goes without saying, losing one of the greatest actors and humanitarians of all time. However, to Casey and John Lee’s credit, they never dropped the ball and never stopped looking for that casting equation that could capture Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. As the writer, I’ve never stopped dreaming that one day I could make a longtime goal come true and keep my word to Frank Jr: do right by his daddy.
Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, both of whom might have been too young back when we started this, are now the perfect Hamer and Gault, in my book. In fact, they are closer to the actual age than Redford and Newman would have represented. I know that Frank Jr. liked the work of both Costner and Harrelson tremendously — he was particular about what working actors today could capture the Western ethos with authenticity — and I know he would be thrilled with where things landed.
After a dogged and serpentine pursuit longer than it took to catch Bonnie and Clyde, Captain Frank Hamer will finally get his side of the story told.
And, hey, Warren Beatty: I’ve got your back.