(In 1986, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I had the privilege of interviewing Glenn Frey while he was on a promotional tour for his first film, Let's Get Harry. On the occasion of his passing at age 67, I want to share this piece that originally ran on October 30, 1986.)
First, there was the popular video — a mini-movie, really — for his hit single, ''Smuggler's Blues.'' Then there was his well-received guest spot as a seedy pilot on the Miami Vice episode based on the same song. And now, Glenn Frey, the singer-composer who continues to soar on the charts long after leaving The Eagles, has a key supporting role in a feature film: Let's Get Harry, an action-adventure set to open Friday nationwide.
What's next? The romantic lead in a Hollywood blockbuster?
“If I could stretch that far,” Frey said a few days ago in his Inn on the Park suite, “I would like that. But with my limited experience in this field, I'm looking for safe parts right now. I don't want to overextend myself, or have a French accent, or do something I might not be able to handle at this early stage of my acting development.”
In Let's Get Harry, Frey plays Eddie Spencer, one of five small-town men who embark on a renegade rescue mission when their best friend, Harry, is kidnapped by drug smugglers while working on a dam project in South America. Led by a ruthlessly efficient mercenary played by Robert Duvall, the working-class commandos make their way into the wilds of Colombia.
When they reach the den of the drug smugglers, however, there's some doubt as to whether Frey's character, a cocaine abuser, will withstand the temptation of being near so much nose candy. With his background as a musician, Frey joked, “Maybe the producers thought I knew a little bit more about this subject than other people.
“But that didn't bother me. The thing that was attractive about Spence was, he's just a regular guy with a cocaine problem. And I think there's a lot of people like that. You know, you have the classic line, where Spence says, ‘It's cool, I can handle it.’ Which is what every junkie says. Even when they're doing five grams a day, they'll say, ‘It's cool, I'm not addicted, everything's fine.’”
Frey, a bearishly-built Detroit native with a lightly sandpapered voice and an ingratiating bent for self-mockery, looks at Let's Get Harry as an educational experience. He was especially eager to work with such respected actors as Duvall and Gary Busey. His enthusiasm waned only slightly when he found himself unnerved by Duvall's mercurial mood swings.
According to Frey, Duvall would often shatter the silence on the set in Mexico by shouting, without warning, “‘What am I doin' in a movie with a rock star!?!’” Frey couldn't tell for certain whether Duvall was joking. But the animosity, real or affected, brought a certain vigor to the scene where Duvall punishes Frey for opening a door without first determining who's on the other side.
“Yeah,” Frey said with a grin, “we had a real good time doing that one. That particular day, Duvall wouldn't talk to me. In between takes, he wasn’t around — he'd be standing outside in the hall, pacing back and forth. And then we'd do another take, and I'd open the door — and he’d slam me up against the wall. I think he wanted to do that anyway. It was always, ‘A (expletive deleted) rock star! I'd work with a million Gary Buseys before a rock star!’
“And then, when they filmed my reaction shot, he held this knife this far away from my throat, and yelled, ‘I could kill you right now, you . . . punk!’ And then he just let me go. They started rolling the camera — and I wasn’t acting. I was completely in shock.
“That was kind of interesting. But it wasn't exactly fun.”
So what does Frey think of his performance in Let's Get Harry? “I’d say I was adequate. I don't think I was terrific, but I certainly didn't stink it up.
“I was kind of pleasantly surprised, actually. I was very skeptical. While we were doing the film, nobody saw any rushes, nobody saw any dailies. So I really didn't know what to expect. But when I saw the first screening, I was a little bit surprised that I was able to just watch this guy with the mustache.”
As Frey sees it, the only serious drawback to working in movies is the lack of artistic control. “I'm not used to not having control,” he said. “When we make records, what I turn into the record company is what gets pressed, and what comes out. It's not like somebody at MCA Records says, ‘Well, I think we should edit the bridge out of that, and add some bongos.’
“But in the film business — and I was quite surprised by this — it's art by committee. After they shoot all the preliminary footage, and do the director's first cut, they bring in four or five people who know absolutely nothing about film, but are in charge.”
In the case of Let's Get Harry, Frey noted, director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Vilage) had his name removed from the film after producers insisted on re-cutting and re-shooting certain scenes. (The movie is now credited to the pseudonymous “Alan Smithee.”) That's the sort of artistic conflict Frey rarely has to worry about in his recording career.
When Frey recorded his last album, The Allnighter, Elektra-Asylum, his label at the time, was less than enthusiastic. (“One of their comments was, ‘You know, it's not very contemporary.’ And I said, ‘Exactly. And I don't want it to be.’”) Unperturbed, Frey brought the album — which featured “Smuggler's Blues” — to MCA Records, the label that eventually released it.
“Fortunately,” Frey said, “I was sort of vindicated. The Allnighter is sort of like Lazarus. It came out, and sold about 200,000 copies, and disappeared. And then Miami Vice, and the re-release of 'Smuggler's Blues,’ put the damn thing right back on the charts, and I ended up selling 300 or 400,000 more copies. So that was very gratifying.”
If he can continue releasing albums like that, Frey said, you can definitely forget all the wishdreaming rumors about a possible Eagles reunion.
“So if you hear about an Eagles reunion — you can bet your life that I've got income tax problems.”