Thanks to some help from a hometown boy in Hollywood, “This Promise I Made” is still on track to be kept in Clinton.
In more than a half-century of professional acting, the one role Ken Kercheval isn’t known for is that of the day-saving hero. But for Vermillion County film producer Candy Beard, he’s all that and the 10-gallon hat to boot.
“I had already thought about him when we first started,” she said Thursday on the back porch of Steve Russell’s home, an old friend of Kercheval’s with whom the star visited while shooting “This Promise I Made.”
But she thought her chances far remote of getting the star who once played feisty underdog Cliff Barnes on the television series “Dallas.” Still, the idea of making a film in Clinton without at least trying to give him a nod seemed rude, and so she sent an email to his manager.
“And the next day, I was talking to him on the phone,” she said, Kercheval seated beside her.
Set to turn 77 years old in July, Kercheval could have been any senior citizen lounging in blue jeans on the back deck of the home on Pine Street. Thinner and grayer now, his voice hasn’t changed, and any fan of his earlier work would recognize quickly the sharp, direct manner with which he spoke.
“I think it’ll be a good film,” the Los Angeles resident said of Beard’s coming project, set to wrap production in June. “I admire her. Taking it on to do it is not exactly easy.”
Kercheval laughed, recalling his surprise when his manager informed him a film producer wanted him for a movie being made in his hometown.
“I said, ‘No, really. What are you calling about?’” he chuckled.
Beard, chief executive officer and executive producer of Dreams Come True Films LLC, said her company’s first movie, “In A Cage,” is currently in post-production, and she hopes to have “This Promise I Made” at a premiere in Los Angeles by the fall.
In January, Beard thought she had secured John Schneider, star of “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Smallville,” for a role in the film. Complications preventing his participation arose, and she quickly found herself faced with a number of problems, all of which were quickly solved by Kercheval’s extremely generous fee structure, she said.
“He is so genuine, sweet and down-to-earth, and has treated me and my family and crew like long-lost friends,” she said. “He treated us all to dinner last Saturday night at Terra Villa. Having Ken be a part of this project is a dream come true, and I will never forget the feelings of ‘I-succeeded-in-getting-him-here’,” she said.
But Kercheval’s crusty demeanor didn’t beg much by way of accolades Thursday. And though his work includes a number of films, including Sylvester Stallone’s second movie, “F.I.S.T.,” and “The Seven-Ups,” the man best known for playing lawyers and doctors said stage theater is without question his true love.
“Definitely. That’s my primary passion,” he said, noting he’d just gotten off the phone with producers in London about a performance of “White Christmas” in the U.K. this winter.
Kercheval left Clinton as a young man to pursue a career on stage, and he spent 22 years on Broadway in such productions as “Fiddler On the Roof” while working roles such as that of Dr. Nick Hunter on the daytime soap opera “Search for Tomorrow.”
“I’ve played a doctor so darn many times,” he muttered, trying to recall the names of various characters. “My dad was a doctor here you know.”
A statue commemorating his father, Marine “Doc” Kercheval, still stands in town, and the actor wryly observed his dad is still more famous than he, given the number of babies Doc delivered.
Kercheval will resume that persona in Beard’s film as Dr. Christopher Webber, and he said the opportunity gave him a welcome chance to revisit the area.
“I haven’t been back to town in three years,” he said, quick to solicit information about developments in the local arts community.
Kercheval’s self-described “obsession” with art and antiques bubbled forth with information as he explained his hopes to visit The Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute while here. A personal friend of the late John Rogers Cox, that museum’s first director, Kercheval said there’s a few works in that museum he’d like to swap into his own private collection, and named the “American Scene Painters” as among his favorites.
Kercheval also appreciates antiques, especially those from the late 1860s through 1900, mentioning early American pressed pattern glass, folk art and American period furniture.
Sculptures of oil wells didn’t gush forth on his list, but his work on “Dallas” wasn’t hard to raise as a topic of conversation.
“How many times do you think I’ve been asked, ‘So, when are you going to get J.R.?’” he said, adding he used to dead-pan an answer that would make any studio executive smile for the ratings. “This Friday night.”
Kercheval and “Dallas” co-stars Larry Hagman, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy will reprise their roles in that series as it returns to nighttime television this June on TNT, continuing where it left off in the 1990s, when they did follow-up reunion movies. The new show will be good, he said, adding the younger cast members are extremely talented and the photography is outstanding.
But insider secrets about old plot twists have been long forgotten, and Kercheval said the tangled webs of dirty deals all run together in his mind. Still, it was a golden deal for any actor.
“We all knew we had a good thing going,” he said of the series’ 13 regular seasons, all of which featured Cliff Barnes, perennial rival to America’s anti-hero, J.R. Ewing.
Fans of the show know that, in the end, the underdog from the wrong side of the tracks ultimately won the war against his trust-funded rival, but Kercheval admitted it was tough work making his character believable at times.
“I always tried to interject some kind of humor into that character,” he said, shaking his head and recounting the number of times he told producers that Barnes had to be either crazy or stupid to keep getting out-snaked by the Ewing family. The only way to make it work, he said, was to soak into it healthy doses of jokes.
While Beard’s company hasn’t quite reached the status of the fictional Ewing Oil yet, she did say happily that it, too, has become a family affair. Her husband now serves as production supervisor and co-producer, while both her sons also help, including her youngest’s multiple roles, one of which is “pizza delivery guy.”
And Kercheval seemed quite at home with that, dusting off memories such as his lead role in “Kiss Me Kate” performed at The Hippodrome in Terre Haute, now the Scottish Rite Cathedral, at the corner of Ohio and South Eighth streets. Seventeen at the time, his female co-star was 34, he recalled with a grin.
“Her name was Barbara something,” he said offhandedly.
Whether it’s a new series, more stage productions or perhaps another Beard film, Kercheval said he has no plans to retire.
“What else am I going to do?” he shrugged. “I wouldn’t think of quitting.”
And as far as Beard’s film is concerned, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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