Butch Cassidy was born on April 13, 1866 in Beaver, Utah as Robert Leroy Parker. His nickname “Butch” may have later come from working in a butcher shop.
Cassidy was first arrested at around the age of 14 when he left an IOU after taking a pair of jeans and a pie from a store for a pair of jeans. After a jury acquitted him, he pursued various jobs throughout his youth, including work on ranches.
Cassidy’s first bank robbery occurred on June 24, 1889 in Colorado. While he continued to do some ranch work, his illegal activities increased.
He formed his “Wild Bunch” gang of criminals after getting out of prison in 1896. After that, it was not long before he added Harry Alonzo Longabaugh — “The Sundance Kid” — into the gang.
Of course, it would be the association between Butch and Sundance that would inspire the classic 1969 movie directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains somewhat of a mystery. Two bandits were killed in San Vicente, Bolivia as shown in the film. But many debate whether those two men were actually Butch and Sundance. Some speculate they returned to the U.S. where they lived out their days.
Paul Newman gave one of his greatest performances in the wonderful movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). In one scene, after hearing about the death of his mother, he sits on his bunk with a banjo and sings a song about a plastic Jesus statue in a car. When I first saw the film, I wondered if the song were an old folk song or if it might have been written for the film. Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes, Long as I have my plastic Jesus, Riding on the dashboard of my car; Through all trials and tribulations, We will travel every nation, With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.
The Creation of “Plastic Jesus”
The song, “Plastic Jesus,” was a real song that had been around for about a decade before Cool Hand Luke was made. Ed Rush and George Cromarty wrote the song in 1957 while they were high school students in Fresno, California.
As kids in Del Rio, Texas, Rush and Cromarty listened to the radio and heard a Mexican border station playing a religious program that sold a wide variety of religious items to make money. One of the items was a glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus with a suction cup the driver could stick on a car’s dashboard. The teenagers saw the humor in the selling pitch, and they giggled at a song about “the bosom of the Lord.” From there, they created the song “Plastic Jesus.”
You can buy a Sweet Madonna, Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a Pedestal of abalone shell; Goin’ ninety, I’m not wary, ‘Cause I’ve got my Virgin Mary, Guaranteeing I won’t go to Hell.
Rush and Cromarty began performing the song in college and then traveled around performing as The Goldcoast Singers. As Rush later explained, when they were playing the song around 1962, sometimes the audience reacted with hostility to the song, finding it sacrilegious.
The Goldcoast Singers recorded the song, but their band eventually ended. Rush and Cromarty had their last performance together in 1963 when Cromarty went off to Vietnam.
Below is the original version of “Plastic Jesus” recorded by Rush and Cromarty with a humorous introduction capturing the origins of the song.
If you look around the Internet for the lyrics, you probably will find a long list of verses. Most of them have been added by various people, as the song has taken on a life of its own as a real folk song. Rush and Cromarty only wrote the chorus and the verse about Madonna (both above). The Paul Newman version only uses the original chorus and verse too.
Other Versions of “Plastic Jesus”
In addition to Paul Newman, a number of artists have performed “Plastic Jesus.” In 1971, Tia Blake included the song on the album Folksongs & Ballads with a bouncing country sound.
“Plastic Jesus” also appears in a rock version with extra verses on Billy Idol’s Devil’s Playground (2005). Idol explained in an interview with Juice magazine that his version of the song that is about “an alcoholic who keeps his booze in his plastic Jesus on his dashboard. It’s a symphony song.”
In addition to using additional verses, Idol changed the music from the Cool Hand Luke version, making the song more upbeat: “I just followed the meter of the words and made it less like a hillbilly song. I made it sound more religiouso.”
Idol even made an official video for the song, featuring a plastic Billy Idol jamming with the plastic Jesus, who is pretty good at air guitar. Seriously, you have to watch Idol’s video.
After I posted the initial version of this story actor Lucas Hare pointed out to me that Bob Dylan’s song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from Blood on the Tracks (1975) has music very similar to “Plastic Jesus,” and at least in one live version from 1976, the guitar solo actually plays the “Plastic Jesus” melody.
Finally, Jack Johnson often performs the song, which appeared on Live at Boulder (2001).
Impact of “Plastic Jesus”
My favorite version remains Paul Newman’s version in Cool Hand Luke, where Newman adds a layer of meaning to the humorous song. The lyrics remain funny, but as Newman sings the song in his pain at losing his mother, the viewer learns a lot about the relationship between the son and the mother. Additionally, the song about Jesus underlies a movie that is full of Christ imagery.
I’ll bet those two teenagers laughing at the radio had no idea their song would go so far. But “Plastic Jesus” was not the only time that Ed Rush and George Cromarty had a brush with movie fame. In 2013, the Coen Brothers used an altered version of The Goldcoast Singers’ 1961 song “Please Mr. Kennedy” in the film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
Actor George Kennedy recently passed away on February 28, 2016 at the age of 91. Kennedy turned in many great roles in movies like Airport and the Naked Gun films. But for my money, I will always first associate him with his wonderful role as Dragline in the classic film Cool Hand Luke (1967), which has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
While Paul Newman played one of his greatest roles and one of the great cool characters of all time, George Kennedy made us see the main character through the admiring eyes of his hot-tempered character. It is the pairing of the two actors, laying the foundation for the future of buddy movies, along with a fine supporting cast, that elevates the movie from good to great.
Kennedy’s portrayal of Dragline gave us a movie character for the ages. He even received the honor of uttering the movie’s title in response to Luke’s great line that “sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” Check out the poker scene from Cool Hand Luke.
It would be too long before Paul Newman finally received a Best Acting Oscar, but Cool Hand Luke gave George Kennedy an honor he deserved with the Best Supporting Actor statue. And he gave a touching and exceptionally short speech.
Interestingly, Kennedy had a different impression than Newman of his Cool Hand Luke character’s motivation in the church scene near the end of the film. In a 1968 interview with Roger Ebert, Kennedy explained that Newman saw Dragline’s acts leading the authorities to Luke as a form of betrayal, while Kennedy saw the act as one of stupidity. I tend to agree with Kennedy’s interpretation, perhaps because his great acting gives the viewer the sense of the character’s simple sincerity.
What is your favorite George Kennedy movie? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Thanks to PBS, “The Education of Gore Vidal,” a documentary about the writer who passed away Tuesday, is available online for free viewing today through August 9. The 2003 film originally aired on PBS’s American Masters series and includes interviews with a number of people, including the late George Plimpton and Paul Newman. Of course, the film also features Vidal, talking about his life, pondering history, and dropping the witty remark here and there. In one of the interesting segments, Vidal explains why he chose Aaron Burr as the subject of one of his historical novels.
If you prefer watching it on television, some PBS stations will be running the film too. But if you cannot wait, you may either watch the first 20 minutes below or go to PBS.org to watch the whole 84-minute version. [November 2013 Update: Unfortunately, PBS no longer has the video for The Education of Gore Vidal online, but you may check the PBS link for more on Gore Vidal and also to see if they have responded to requests to repost the video. For now, check out the below Charlie Rose show segment featuring highlights of Gore Vidal’s appearances on that show.]
What do you think of “The Education of Gore Vidal”? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Today is Paul Newman’s birthday (Jan. 26, 1925), who passed away almost two and a half years ago in September 2008. In honor of his birthday, here is the Chimesfreedom Top 10 Paul Newman Movies. For today, it is a short post of the list, but at some point we will be revisiting some of these movies. The rankings are based on quality of the movie combined with level of Paul Newman performance.
(1) Cool Hand Luke (1967) (2) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) (3) The Verdict (1982) (4) The Hustler (1961) (5) Hud (1963) (6) The Sting (1973) (7) Slap Shot (1977) (8) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) (9) Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) (10) Nobody’s Fool (1994)
Hon. Mention: The Color of Money (1986) (Best Actor Oscar), The Hudsucker Proxy (1991), The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Absence of Malice (1981), Road to Perdition (2002), and many others. Bonus Ranking: Premier.com (link no longer available) ranked the Top 10 Paul Newman movies as: 1. Hud; 2. Cool Hand Luke; 3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; 4. The Hustler; 5. Somebody Up There Likes Me ; 6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; 7. The Long Hot Summer; 8. Absence of Malice; 9. The Verdict; and 10. The Color of Money.
What is your favorite Paul Newman movie? Leave a comment.