The Hollywood Backstory on a Western Favorite

By Trudy Ring

Originally published on Advocate.com August 08 2012 7:00 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.

Pictured: Gary Cooper and Maria Schell

 

Piazza’s career certainly deserves more notice, and he’s one of several fine performers who surround Cooper in The Hanging Tree. Austrian actress Maria Schell plays independent Swiss immigrant Elizabeth, who comes under Dr. Frail’s care after a near-fatal stagecoach accident. The doctor restores her health but is also driven to control her, even as the two fall tentatively in love. Meanwhile, her presence in his home brings criticism from the judgmental townspeople, a portrait of small-town small-mindedness that will likely resonate with gay audiences. Also in the cast are George C. Scott, in his film debut but already in full throttle as a religious zealot who despises the doctor, and the ever-reliable Karl Malden as Frenchy, a hard-drinking, gold-greedy lecher with designs on Elizabeth.

Cooper “adored Karl Malden — respected him as an actor and liked him as a person,” says Janis. Malden, she says, “wasn’t caught up in his own image.” That didn’t keep Malden from being in awe of Cooper, though; producer Dick Shepherd, she says, told a story of hearing Malden muttering, “I can’t overact around him, I can’t underact around him, I just say my lines and get off the set.”

The Hanging Tree’s director, Delmer Daves, was one of Cooper’s favorite helmers, Janis says. Others include William Wellman, who directed Cooper in the first Best Picture Oscar winner, the silent Wings;William Wyler; Billy Wilder; High Noon’s Fred Zinnemann (her father’s “soul mate,” she says); and Henry Hathaway. Growing up as the only child of Cooper and Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, who acted briefly under the name Sandra Shaw, Maria considered Hathaway and his wife extended family.

Cooper had a production company that was responsible for bringing The Hanging Tree to the screen; he didn’t care to be a hands-on producer but liked finding stories he thought would make good movies, his daughter says. The film is adapted from a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, whose writings also formed the basis of two other well-regarded Western films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse. The Hanging Tree attracted Cooper, Janis says, not only because of the nuanced character of Doc Frail, but also because of the stories he’d heard of the gold rush in his home state of Montana (Washington State stands in as the film location, however) and because of its examination of human nature in general. “The greed factor raises its head a lot,” she says.

While Cooper had a long and distinguished career, he had plans for many more films when he died at the relatively young age of 60. “There would have been a lot more to come,” Janis says. One of his dream projects may come as a surprise. “One of the stories he always wanted to act in was Don Quixote,” she says.

Gary Cooper tilting at windmills? An intriguing idea. But while that remains an impossible dream, audiences can view him in a great many films, and The Hanging Tree is a worthwhile addition to the list of choices. It’s available from Warner Home Video; for ordering information, check Warner Home Video.