We last visited Levon Helm in a two part FTV back in April of 2020 (FTV: Mark L. Helm – Part 1 (4-15-20) and Part 2 (4-22-20)). Based on his autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of the Band (Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, updated 2013 for A Cappella Books), these two articles pretty well covered his early years from his Turkey Scratch, Arkansas beginnings to the end of his ride. Levon’s life on the road with fellow Arkansas rock-a-billie pioneer Ronnie Hawkins and the various incarnations of his most widely known group, The Band, was a real rollercoaster ride. Helm made a name for himself as a musician but also forged a parallel career as an actor. I am pretty sure when he left Arkansas with Ronnie Hawkins, his only thoughts were the Canadian gigs that The Hawks would be playing. Harold Jenkins (better known as Conway Twitty when he became a hit-making rock-a-billy and country star) told Hawkins that Canada was clamoring for good bands. It was in this musical land of milk and honey that Hawkins collected the various pieces that would morph into The Hawks, Levon and the Hawks (after they booted Ronnie out of his own band), and eventually The Band. The fame that followed for The Band was built on hard work both in the studio and on tour. How Helm’s acting career began was more like a happy accident.
Of course, Helm had been in the movies before he tried his hand at acting. As a reluctant participant in their The Last Waltz concert documentary, he had certainly appeared on the silver screen (though he never received a dime of the royalties). This swan song event was orchestrated by Robbie Robertson and featured contributions by an A-list of famous musicians. It was filmed at Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco and released in 1978. Afterwards, The Band’s members scattered to do their own things before reuniting some years later sans Robertson. The Last Waltz was Robertson’s baby all the way and Helm never really forgave him for pulling the plug on the group. Levon was never shy about criticizing Robbie or his hand picked director, Martin Scorsese, who featured Robertson prominently in the documentary. Helm’s feelings about The Last Waltz were summed up by two statements Hawkins made when he attended a screening with Levon before the premier. Half way through he whispered, “Was Richard (Manuel) still in the group when we did this?” and when the lights finally came up, he loudly exclaimed, “Hey, son, don’t look so glum. The (expletive deleted) movie’d be awright if it only had a few more shots of Robbie. Haw haw haw!”
Levon’s first true shot at an acting gig came in the Loretta Lynn biopic The Coal Miner’s Daughter. An actor friend of Levon’s named Brad Dourif (maybe best known for portraying a shifty character named Wormwood in the Lord of the Rings movies) had brought fellow actor Tommy Lee Jones to see The Band in concert years earlier. Tommy Lee Jones was a Harvard educated Texan who became good friends with Levon. When director Michael Apted was having trouble finding someone country enough to play the part of Ted Webb in the Loretta Lynn movie, Tommy Lee dropped Levon’s name as a possible choice. Levon recalled, “Apted screened The Last Waltz and then had one of his people call me up. I think Conway Twitty might’ve put in a word to Loretta for me. I figured that acting and singing were part of the same ball game and actually had the temerity to show up.”
Levon went back home feeling like he had blown the audition but was pleasantly surprised when they called him back three days later and offered him the part. Helm began researching the Webb family and found, “In the end, it wasn’t a big transition because I’ve been around people like the Webbs all my life. Loretta’s parents were a little like mine. I knew that families like ours made up in love for one another what they might have lacked in material things. That was the feeling I wanted to create. Add the basic formalility to people that makes life in the South a bit more pleasant, and that was the character.” Helm also spent some days in a real coal mine (the mining scenes were filmed in a working mine) and came away with a new respect for those who toil underground.
February of 1979 would find Helm in the back seat of a station wagon with Tommy Lee Jones behind the wheel. They were traveling from Nashville to the film location in Kentucky, the idea being Tommy Lee could spend the trip giving Levon some acting tips. Jones would be playing Loretta’s husband Doolittle Lynn opposite Sissy Spacek’s Lorretta while Levon would play the part of Ted Webb, her father. It is hard to say how many tips Helm picked up on the trip as his only companion in the back seat was a fifth of Wild Turkey. The jury is still out on how many acting tips he found in the bottom of that bottle, but Levon had already done some research on his own. He recalled, “I was so scared of blowing it that I got real ambitious and researched the part until I felt I could be Ted Webb. I went up to Kentucky and met Loretta and her family. I talked to ‘Moonie’, Loretta’s husband, about Ted, studied photographs, and spent time with his son Herman Webb, Loretta’s brother, and tried to pick up on Herman’s ways a little. My main concern was getting it so that it didn’t irritate the family, that it would seem realistic to them. They were my most important audience.”
On the road to Kentucky, Jones did offer Helm some useful advice during the ‘Wild Turkey crash course in acting’ drive: “Levon, the most important thing you got to remember is, never look at the camera. It don’t exist. Forget about it. Next, don’t move too quickly. There’s a rhythm, and you find it and plug into it. Don’t talk too fast either. You have to exaggerate your emotions to get your points across, but not too much. Let the director coach, and then do it your own way, and you’re gonna be great, man. By the time we pulled into the Suburban Motel in Whitesburg, Kentucky, Tommy Lee had managed to turn me into the beginnings of a movie actor.”
Levon’s final scene in the film had him playing a deceased Ted Webb in a coffin as the mourners sang Amazing Grace. He surprised the director when he sat bolt upright and said, “It’s my funeral and if you’re gonna sing Amazing Grace, it’s gotta be the olde-fashioned, traditional way. And I taught ‘em in my dead man’s makeup how to do it shape-note style like they would’ve back in the holler in those days. Some of the ladies they’d hired as extras turned out to be church choir singers, so once we got it off the ground it didn’t sound too bad. We rehearsed it a few times and then I got back in the coffin , and we shot the scene.” The movie was a hit and although the talk about a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination remained just that, talk, Levon’s ‘modest acting skills’ sent a few more offers his way: “For the next decade I took as many as seemed interesting. If there was a part for a country-type hick, I had a good shot at it.”
Among the parts Levon landed was (the CBS series) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The first movie I remember seeing him in was The Right Stuff (1983) where he portrayed General Chuck Yeager’s sidekick (and the movie’s narrator) Major Jack Ridley opposite Sam Shepared’s Yeager. Levon tells readers in his book This Wheel’s on Fire, “One night at the film’s desert location, I winked at Sam Shepard, who was playing General Yeager, and the two of us kind of drifted off into the shadows, where I lit a joint one of the crew had laid on me. Out of nowhere General Yeager himself walked over and said, “What are you boys doing, smokin’ pot? ‘Well, General,’ I said, eager to change the subject, ‘I know you like to fish, but did you ever do any catfish doggin’ down in Arkansas?’ Chuck Yeager just laughed at us and shook his head.”
The film opportunities kept rolling in: “If Hollywood needed a sheriff or a father figure, sometimes I got the call. In 1984, I played opposite Jane Fonda in an ABC movie called The Dollmaker. We filmed a dope smuggler movie called The Best Revenge in southern Spain for a Canadian outfit; another project called Smooth Talk, with Laura Dern and Treat Williams. I played a southern sheriff in a chase picture, The Man Outside, which was shot in Arkansas and had other members of The Band in cameos. Things were going pretty good. Then in the spring of 1984 the agent called and said they wanted me to play a U.S. marshal in a western based on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The script called for a couple of gun duels, so I went out back of my barn practicing quick-draw techniques with a .22 reproduction of a Colt .45 in a western-style holster.”
At this point, practicing for the U.S. marshal part nearly cost Levon more than a little time. The gun got hung up in the holster and basically he shot himself in his hind quarter. The bullet lodged behind his kneecap and he recalled thinking, “That’s the leg you hit the bass drum with! [then] Levon, you’ve really done it this time.” On route to the hospital, they bought a roll of gause to cover the hole in the back of his leg. After x-rays and a call to the state police (standard procedure in cases involving a gunshot wound), Levon described what came next as, “The start of about ten real rough-ass hours. The first doctor who saw me shook his head and told me the might be able to save my leg.” After being shipped to a larger hospital in Albany, NY, the surgeon there told him, “Mr. Helm, I’m going to try to save your leg.” When asked if he wanted a local or to be put all the way out, Levon told them, “All the way out, because what you all don’t understand is, this thing is on fire. It is on fire!” They were able to repair his severed tibial nerve and told him to lay off playing the drums for a couple of years – if he could play at all.
The absence of his drumming outlet was filled by playing guitar in a septet called The Woodstock All-stars. A year later, he sat down at the drums for the first time and realized he could play the lick from King Harvest without too much pain. By the summer of 1985, they were touring with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Band, sans Robbie Robertson, were back on the road in February of 1986 when their manager Albert Grossman had a heart attack and died on a flight to London. Richard Manual took it especially hard as Grossman had been taking care of ‘The Beak’s’ affairs. Manual had previous problems with alcohol and Albert’s death accelerated his drinking. When Rick Danko and his wife tried to get him to slow down, he bristled at them to mind their own business. After playing a show in Winter Park, Florida in early March, Richard thanked Garth Hudson profusely for their twenty-five year collaboration. He said good night to his wife, Arlie, and then sat up until 2:30 a.m. chatting with Levon. Manuel was neither angry or depressed, but he told his drummer, “Nothing hurts like self-doubt. When you put that whammy on yourself, it can be real bothersome. And playing these little joints after playing in Japan, you just feel you’re slipping.” Levon told him, “We’re just musicians. We’re just working for the crowd. It’s the best we can do.”
Apparently, Richard Manuel didn’t see it the same way as Levon. When his wife awoke in the morning, she found her husband dead in the bathroom. Levon figures he had just been worn down by the decline in The Band’s fortunes: “Richard had flirted, maybe halfheartedly, with the Reaper a few times before, and every time God threw him back to us. This time He decided to keep Richard Manuel for Himself. Wherever he is now, you can bet that Richard’s got a hell of a good band.” After the funeral in Canada, Blondie Chapman joined The Band to help them finish their commitments, something Helm said, “Was an insane thing to do, but Blondie helped us carry on until we could carry on no longer.”
After Manuel’s passing, Levon said, “I did a few more film roles and was lucky to get enough voice-over and commercial work as an actor to keep to keep the cash flow interesting.” If the IMDb data source is correct, Helm is credited with at least sixteen films (not including concert films) in the years after his friend’s death. His last role on the silver screen was his portrayal of Confederate General John Bell Hood in The Electric Mist (2009) alongside his old friend Tommy Lee Jones.
Though he lost the use of his voice due to throat cancer in 1998, Levon continued performing playing the drums, mandolin, and harmonica, often with his daughter Amy Helm. As his voice slowly returned, he decided to host a series of live performances at his own Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock, New York. These legendary Midnight Ramble Sessions (named after the traveling minstrel shows he attended as a youth back in Arkansas) began in January 2004. The list of performers who flocked to Woodstock to play at ‘the Barn’ is a veritable whose-who of the music industry. There are multiple examples of these outstanding performances available including a live CD/DVD set called Ramble at the Ryman (2008) recorded when Levon took to the road to bring the show to the fabled auditorium in Nashville.
Shortly after the Ryman set garnered Helm his third consecutive Grammy Award as the Best Album in the Americana category, his cancer returned. He passed away on April 19, 2012 and as one would expect, his funeral was both tearful and joyful. How could it not be a musical celebration of his life filled with accolades from his musical peers? Levon Helm may be gone, but he won’t soon be forgotten. He never marveled how a country bumpkin like himself could become a recognized star in the field of music because it was in his blood from an early age. Earning acclaim as an actor, however, was one of those great mysteries he never quite understood, but he enjoyed his other career as an actor just the same.
Top Piece Video: Levon and friends doing the Ramble at the Ryman.