The Hollywood Backstory on a Western Favorite
BY Trudy Ring
August 08 2012 8:00 AM ET
Many Advocate readers might not think Western films their cup of tea, or coffee around the campfire, aside from Brokeback Mountain or Johnny Guitar. But there are some with surprising gay connections and a bit of resonance for LGBT audiences, such as 1959’s The Hanging Tree, just released on DVD.
The film, which had tied up in rights issues, was one of the last for star Gary Cooper, who died two years after its premiere. It’s an atypical Western in many ways; it’s not a cowboys-and-Indians tale, but a story of prospectors attempting to find instant riches in the gold fields surrounding a tiny town in Montana around the turn of the 20th century.
At the center of it is Cooper’s Dr. Joseph Frail, a man with a troubled past and a controlling nature. He’s one of the more complicated characters played by the star, who is primarily associated with Westerns (especially because of his Oscar-winning performance in the classic High Noon) but did excellent work in many film genres.
“The Hanging Tree gave him a chance to be very nuanced,” says Cooper’s daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, who spends much time speaking and writing about her father’s legacy. (She’s also an artist and does extensive charitable work, the latter often in partnership with her husband, pianist and composer Byron Janis.)
His Doc Frail, she notes, is a man with admirable qualities, such as his dedication to his patients and willingness to defy public opinion, but he also has a violent temper and a desire to exert power over others. Cooper himself was a man more nuanced than many fans might realize, according to his daughter. For one thing, she says, he was a man of great sophistication who was well aware, and accepting, of the many gay people with whom he worked in Hollywood.
“He was totally nonjudgmental about everybody,” she says. “He respected everyone’s life and right to make their own choices. He had friends in Hollywood, in the acting community, who were gay, and they couldn’t come out. He saw what an emotional toll it took on them.”
A costar Cooper particularly liked, Janis says, was bisexual actor Anthony Perkins, who played his son in 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, about a Quaker family drawn into the Civil War despite their pacifist ideals. “I know my father adored Tony Perkins,” she says. “My father felt he was a hell of an actor.”
There is also a gay, or perhaps bi, costar in an important role in The Hanging Tree, although he apparently did not come out until later in life. Ben Piazza plays Rune, a thief saved from hanging by Doc Frail; the doctor, however, makes Rune something of an indentured servant, promising to keep his criminal past secret in exchange for his labor.
Piazza, who was being groomed for movie stardom but ended up with a steady if unsensational career of supporting roles and TV guest shots, was married to actress Dolores Dorn from 1967 to 1979 but went on to be “longtime companion” to a man named Wayne Tripp, according to Piazza’s 1991 Los Angeles Times obituary.
Piazza had some notable success on Broadway, where he replaced George Grizzard in the role of Nick in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and appeared in two other Edward Albee plays, The Death of Bessie Smith and The Zoo Story. On television, he had recurring roles in two iconic prime-time soaps, Dallas and gay fave Dynasty, and played a supportive doctor in the coming-out TV movie Consenting Adult.His big-screen credits include The Bad News Bears, The Blues Brothers, and Mask, and his final feature film was the blacklist drama Guilty by Suspicion, portraying studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck.
He also wrote plays and a novel, The Exact and Very Strange Truth, a coming-of-age story about an Italian-American boy in Little Rock, Ark. That was Piazza’s hometown, but he wrote in the book’s introduction that any resemblance between the characters and real people was “irrelevant.” He dedicated the book to his close friend Albee.