What happens when a TV superstar makes an understated, personal film with friends in rural Kansas in the early 1970s but doesn't get it finished until the blockbuster-prone '80s? David Carradine was about to find out. He had directed and starred in the drama Americana during the 1973 hiatus of his hit show, Kung Fu, because he wanted an escape plan from ever having to act in another TV series—or in film roles he didn't care about. Americana was a small-town story about a Vietnam vet, and it was one of a few personal films he began in the '70s (along with Mata Hari and You and Me). These films were part of David's master plan to make himself an actor-director auteur successful enough to pick his own projects. Ironically, the opposite happened, and David accepted tons of "mercenary" acting work, so he could keep tinkering with his hard-luck personal films. The projects were so important to him that he even sold his Kung Fu royalties back to Warner Bros at one point, in order to keep the dream alive. And even though directing had already proven to be a tough road for David to hoe, he couldn't have been prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that he (along with Skip Sherwood, his on-again, off-again producer) would experience in trying to get Americana seen by audiences circa 1981-1985.


However belatedly, the time had come to offer it to the world. And since this was the Carradine film everyone considered the best of the lot, surely it had to spread farther and wider than You and Me's halfhearted release.

David must have known it would. At some point, he paid to submit it to the MPAA, the association in charge of American film ratings. A movie has a tough time getting a wide theatrical release in the U.S. without an MPAA rating.

Carradine said two women from the association were almost willing to grant it a PG rating, which would allow kids to see the film, taking exception only with the wolf's death during the climax. They didn't like how loud the sound of the spine cracking was in the mix.

David couldn't afford a new audio mix. He could, however, shorten the sound of the crack. That seemed like a reasonable solution to the MPAA women. David resubmitted the film a week later with zero changes, allowing the MPAA to believe that the requested revisions had been made. They bestowed the desired PG rating.

David was aiming for a wide audience. But would any serious studio be interested in a film more than half a decade old, enough to do a legitimate theatrical release? Surprisingly, David was already having those conversations.

Back in April of 1980, David had grumbled to a newspaper, "We spent a lot of time, for instance, speaking to one woman with a high-flown title at one of the studios, only to wind up hearing her say that she couldn't say 'yes.'" (Cue David ranting to the newspaper columnist that the studios get "bogged down in their own power structure.")

But then, the next month, another paper had reported that Carradine and Sherwood struck a deal with 20th Century Fox and that Fox would be releasing Americana (under the title Americana '73) in December of that year. In the article, Skip even paraphrased Sherry Lansing, the newly hired president of Fox, as saying, "Nobody's making movies like this, David. I just want you to make movies like this." Sherwood also speculated that Fox would be releasing Mata Hari soon after.

Fox didn't release either film.

But there was still hope. If a filmmaker doesn't have distribution for his or her film, he or she can hit the festival circuit and hope to gain it. And at the outset of 1981, the year was already shaping up to look like a prestigious festival year for Americana.

Americana publicity still courtesy Calista Carradine

First up was the proto-Sundance festival in Park City, Utah, called the U.S. Film & Video Festival and held in January. Americana was one of ten films selected for their series New Directors, an ironic distinction for David nine years into his directing career.

While not as big as it would become under its Sundance branding, the festival was nothing to scoff at. Roger Ebert addressed a standing-room-only crowd on the first day, and HBO's V.P. of programming solicited movie submissions from the attending filmmakers. The fest had already focused its mission of showcasing the worthiest of independent film.

David and Skip were in the Utah resort town to take advantage of any and all business opportunities. Journalists, remembering his 1970s maverick image, noticed how Carradine was now "subdued" and had "matured considerably" as a "dedicated independent filmmaker."

Americana publicity still courtesy Calista Carradine

But whoops. Americana's first festival and already a problem: The Park City screening venue required a monaural print instead of the filmmakers' preferred stereo print. A monaural version was made from the stereo one, but the sound at the screening was reviewed as "occasionally garbled and sometimes faded."

Nonetheless, the screening was reportedly "warmly received," and Carradine noted that the audience laughed in all the right places and applauded at the end. Furthermore, the stereo print got screened a couple nights later at the Regency Theater in Salt Lake City.

Americana publicity still courtesy Calista Carradine

David, though, seemed to be hedging his bets. Maybe he worried that his little 1973 low-stakes movie was competing in a world of Superman, Star Trek and Flash Gordon movies—all based on established brand names. He told festival reporters that he wanted to direct a big-screen adaptation of Kung Fu as an "epic fantasy."

But certain critics knew a masterpiece when they saw it. Charles Champlin, film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, saw Americana and became a giant fan of David's understated drama, calling it "one of the two best films this year!" And Champlin was one of the nationally known film critics programming feature films for the USA Film Festival in Dallas. Thanks to Champlin, Americana had its next festival selection.

Hilariously, Americana was programmed in Dallas alongside some coincidental films. Also selected were Take This Job and Shove It (starring ex-girlfriend Barbara Hershey) and Escape From New York (featuring ex-girlfriend Season Hubley). Of further coincidence was the fact that Escape was distributed by Avco-Embassy, the studio that made—and retracted—an offer on You and Me back in 1974.

Carradine was able to attend the Dallas festival in April before heading off to the big stop: the 34th Cannes Film Festival, held in May of '81.

David and Calista in '81 for Americana's triumph at Cannes. Magazine courtesy Paula Vitaris

David, wife Linda, Calista, Dave Kern, Skip and Skip's wife, Sumiko, all flew to France with their formalwear. This was it. David had had some small screenings of You and Me at Cannes in years past, but those were likely just market screenings for potential buyers. Nothing in competition. Now he was part of the main event.

Well, sorta. Americana was being shown in the Directors' Fortnight—an officially recognized competition that was parallel to the main juried selections of Cannes. The Fortnight was established in 1969 to keep Cannes from becoming too commercial, and Americana (one of the few American films) fit in amongst the international films that were daring and/or socially conscious.

"It's the kind of film that would play well there," said film critic Kirk Honeycutt. "It would today, in fact. It's exactly the kind of film they like there."

And Honeycutt was right. According to David, the sold-out screening of Americana led to a riot in the street, and another screening had to be added. It's been widely reported that Americana won "the people's prize" at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight that year, even if no formal documentation is kept for such an award.

Newspaper ally Charles Champlin used the Cannes screening as an excuse to write about Americana again, gushing over both film and filmmaker. Word was getting out that a work of cinematic genius had been made by a bunch of hippies in some Kansas fields eight years prior.

David and Skip may have been reaping the long-due rewards of making a beautiful movie, but they weren't slouching on the business side of things. The David Carradine Studios took out a full-page ad in the Cannes edition of Variety, and booth space was rented at the Carlton Hotel, in order to handle sales of the picture (as well as for Mata Hari and the others).

And it worked! David said United Artists acquired the movie right there at the fest. And while Skip had prematurely reported the 20th Century Fox deal the year before, this one seemed to be more solid.

A release of the film was to be handled by UA Classics, the arthouse division of United Artists. This deal made sense whether or not the Claire Townsend influence was still in effect. David, after all, had just been the top-billed star of UA's The Long Riders (and there was buzz about a Long Riders sequel or prequel, too).

David was now a filmmaker appreciated in the most artistic corners of the industry. He was sheepish about accepting a role in a creature feature—Q: The Winged Serpent—but desperately needed to work. (Ironically, he was offered the monster movie via telegram while at Cannes with his sensitive drama. Oh, well. At least he got Dave Kern a post-production job on the film too, launching Dave into a long association with Q's director, Larry Cohen.)

In any case, Carradine thought UA Classics would be quick to release Americana and capitalize on its Cannes triumph. The film's release would rewrite his reputation permanently, with any luck.

But United Artists had lost scads of money with the 1980 film Heaven's Gate (sometimes called "the film that sank United Artists"), and MGM was in the process of buying the company to become MGM-UA. Still, the new company's director of advertising, Ira Deutchman, told the Los Angeles Times in 1982 that Americana would receive very special handling.

Sneak Preview, a newsletter sent to theater owners, announced that Americana was coming that year from United Artists. And then ... crickets. David saw little activity with his film in '82, outside of occasional screenings like one for the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia.

An industry newsletter giving false hope in '82 about Americana's release

Even if UA Classics was dragging its heels, more foreign sales remained a possibility. But there was no American box office from the film yet. Could they really afford to fly to Cannes this year? Fortunately, the David Carradine Studio found a cheaper alternative in the Westwood area of Los Angeles: the newly launched American Film Market. Americana may not have been represented in the posh Carlton Hotel again in 1982, but at least it was available at the Holiday Inn Westwood.

David was frustrated that the domestic release wasn't happening. He checked in with United Artists to discover that nobody in the new corporate regime there had even seen his movie. Fed up, Carradine bought Americana back from the studio, in what must have seemed like another Twilight Zone moment. After all, his film had just been a triumph at Cannes! The price to purchase the movie back was reportedly $12,000, UA's expense in editing a trailer. Back to square one.

In less devastating developments, David was getting another Los Angeles-based champion in the press.

"I met him at a dinner party at a friend's house, and I was surprised he was there," said film critic Kirk Honeycutt, about David. This dinner party was being thrown by a mutual friend who was a film critic for KPFK radio.

"We met, and then he set up a screening for the two of us," said Honeycutt. "He set up a screening at MGM Studios ... MGM was a very cheap place because it was falling to bits and there was nothing there.

"I liked it, I liked it a lot," said Honeycutt of the film. "And I wanted to do something about it ... I really felt he was putting a lot of his heart into this film and it deserved to see the light of day."

"I pitched the New York Times," said Honeycutt. "The New York Times said, 'Go for it.'" Honeycutt was not an actual film critic for the Times, but he "was doing a lot work in those days for [their] Arts and Leisure" section. A piece on Carradine's epic struggle to get his film released sounded like a natural idea for a feature article.

"I would go up to his place in Laurel Canyon ... Skip would come by," said Honeycutt about his interview sessions with David. "When I was over there, it was just him and his producer, and I met his wife at the time."

Honeycutt's intimate experience seems to indicate that a mature, focused David had shaken the frivolous scene with his many hangers-on.

"We’d sit on the porch or out in the living room and talk about the movie," said Honeycutt. "I was not talking to David Carradine, the celebrity and the actor. I was talking to David Carradine, the filmmaker that was almost an unknown personality. So, it was a different side to him."

Carradine was back to being without a domestic distributor for Americana. But the August 13, 1982 issue of The Hollywood Reporter announced a possible deal for his film with Jensen-Farley Pictures, a newly formed distributor based in Utah. And in Carradine's interview with Oui magazine the next month, he also announced Jensen-Farley as the distributor for Mata Hari too, optimistically even giving an exact month of release.

Jensen-Farley was a major step down in prestige from UA Classics, being primarily known for horror (The Boogens), sexploitation (Chained Heat) and teen films (Private Lessons). Further, Carradine said he learned that the company president was spending worrisome amounts on booze, women and cocaine. But it didn't matter; no deal was made, as Jensen-Farley was already on borrowed time in 1982. The distributor would file for bankruptcy protection the next year.

Ultimately, David ended up taking his sweet-souled film to Crown International Pictures, another distributor known for low-budget exploitation pictures. But unlike Jensen-Farley, Crown had a multi-decade track record of selling their schlock. It may not have been prestigious, but it was stable.

Crown could have shamelessly spun the story of a returning Vietnam vet into an exploitation poster full of guns and hostile locals. After all, there had been several recent films concerning Vietnam vets rampaging in small American towns: Rolling Thunder (1977), Ruckus (1980) and First Blood (1982). The temptation may have been strong to shoehorn Americana into this violent subgenre. In fact, David was sensing that audiences were "waiting for [my character] to go nuts, like First Blood" anyway.

But instead, Crown International made a deliberate move into the arthouse market, creating a new program for distributing sensitive dramas. Americana would kick off this program, followed by French film Tendres cousins. Was David finally at the right place at the right time?

The artwork the company used for its press kit and poster was striking. The American Soldier clutched a wooden carousel horse, standing in an idyllic field of tall grass. "There's a dark horse in the American Dream," read the tagline.

Conspicuously missing from the front of the press kit and from Crown's corresponding poster was the name Skip Sherwood. Skip may have, at that point, finally parted ways with David for the last time.

David didn't address his final split with Skip much in interviews, but he did later tell a magazine writer that Skip "gave up," which he found strange for someone who used to say, "There are no failures in Hollywood, only people who give up too soon."

Coincidentally, Skip's Didn't You Hear sold to videocassette around this time, finally bringing the 1970 film to a national audience. It's uncertain whether this deal was brokered through the David Carradine Studio (it was routinely mentioned as one of the movies owned by the company). But a new reality was becoming clear: The burgeoning market of home video could bring a second life to movies—even troubled ones. In the early 1980s, empty shelves at new rental shops created a ravenous need for video product.

Americana was back at Cannes in '83 after ending up with B-movie distrib Crown International Pictures

In any case, Crown's acquisition of Americana was announced in the trades in Spring of 1983. The company took it back to Cannes that May for more screenings—market ones. Reports conflict on who owned what international territories, but Variety announced in 1983 that Crown owned all worldwide rights for Americana, outside the U.K.

But Carradine had already been through the "released abroad, unknown at home" routine with You and Me. He surely was anxious to hear Crown's plans for America.

By that fall, Crown had a U.S. release plan in place. Problem was, Carradine was busy making an Angie Dickinson TV movie, Jealousy, when the first exhibitions were set to happen. He just couldn't miss these screenings. They were too important.

Fortunately, Jealousy producer Chuck Fries realized this wasn't just any movie premiere; this was the premiere of a movie ten years (and several months) in the making. The TV movie's shooting schedule was re-arranged to accommodate David.

Americana publicity still courtesy Calista Carradine

On October 21, 1983, Crown International opened Americana at two Embassy Theaters in New York—their 72nd Street cinema on the West Side and an East Side one, too. David was there to do press and make personal appearances. The big feature article by Kirk Honeycutt was scheduled to run in the New York Times on the same day.

But the piece wasn't published. The Times cancelled it at the last minute.

"They spiked the story when their critic said [the movie] was no good," said Honeycutt. "I guess they needed to be on the same page with their critic if they were going to do things like that. In theory, it shouldn’t matter. But it did."

Yes, Times critic Janet Maslin wrote that Americana had "emerged from a time warp very much worse for the wear." She went on to pan the film's direction, screenplay, supporting cast and the Kansas locals.

Honeycutt remembered, "I know a publicist told me, she was with him at the time, he had to excuse himself from an interview and go in the bathroom and throw up because he was just so upset about [the reviews]. He was really upset. He threw up. This was no vanity project."

Americana publicity still courtesy Calista Carradine

But even without critical support, maybe the audiences would still appreciate the film.

Carradine said he arrived at the East Side cinema, ready to sign photos, to find a meager 16 people in the audience. At the West Side cinema, 50 filmgoers were in attendance.

"After that, Crown seemed to lose heart," David said.

"Crown International lost all interest in the film after the New York opening," said Honeycutt. "You try out New York openings in those days and see how it plays. Nowadays, they might not do it that way. In those days, if it didn’t play in New York, then forget about it."

Carradine had also done the New York premieres without the support of wife Linda, with whom he finalized a divorce on October 3, 1983. He had stayed in Manhattan after the screenings to play some country sets at the Lone Star Cafe with a musical partner named Gail Jensen. She was also David's new romantic partner.

Gail was not as supportive of David's expensive directing pursuits, according to Calista.

"[Linda] was on board for it. Gail, however, was not," said Calista. "It seems like the women that he had children with, or already had children, understood that you might want to do [personal film projects] with your family, and the women who didn’t have children didn’t understand that at all."

"She was kind of a cowboy girl," said Calista of Gail. "So they had fun with the horses and stuff like that. I’d say that marriage was like a Western!"

Back in Los Angeles, David soldiered on for his film, even under humiliating conditions. He found someone willing to give publicity to Americana, but it was the biggest possible comedown from the New York Times: Bumbling local talk-show host Skip Lowe, who had a cable-access program about movies. Skip was the inspiration for parody character Jiminy Glick, the incompetent, irritating film critic played on TV by Martin Short. And Skip was in his usual form that day, too ill-prepared to ask any serious questions about Americana or David.

"You only have one child, David?"

"No, I have three children."

"You do?!?"

David smiled politely and got through the uncomfortable Q&A. It's easy to imagine him walking off the set mid-interview, under any circumstance other than crusading for Americana.

Americana production photo courtesy Michael Stringer

Filmmaker Fred Olen Ray said he came into Carradine's life around 1984, a couple years before the two would start their string of films together as director and star: Armed Response (1986), Warlords (1988) and Evil Toons (1992).

"I tried to help David get finishing funds for Americana," said Ray. "We did show it a few times from the workprint to different investors."

Er, "finishing funds?"

That sounds like a strange objective, considering Americana had already been released. It's possible that Carradine, whether or not he had gotten rights to his movie back from Crown, was still tinkering.

"The problem was he wasn't being realistic about it. What he really needed was 50 grand, what he was looking for was 200 grand," said Ray. "I think he was trying to get his whole investment back. So we kept showing it and showing it."

Pressed on whether he truly had the timeline straight on when Carradine might have been finishing Americana, Ray reiterated that Carradine was not showing a finished print of his movie in the mid-1980s.

"It was an interlock workprint, where the sound ran separate from the picture," said Ray. "You had to show it in a screening-type room. You couldn't show it in a regular theater."

Americana production photo courtesy Calista Carradine

If there was indeed more tinkering in the mid-80s, perhaps some of it pertained to the opening-credits version of the song, "Around."

"I think in the first cut, it was just me," said Calista of the song's vocals. "And then later on, when he edited it, he added Gail's background vocals." Before becoming romantically involved with David, Gail Jensen had worked professionally as a singer, songwriter and actress (even having done a Crown International movie!). Her most famous bit of songwriting may be her co-writing of the "Unknown Stuntman" theme for the Fall Guy TV show.

"I recorded my version in 1979," said Calista about the Americana credits song. "At that point, he was with Linda. He hadn't met Gail yet." Calista said she wasn't pleased with the addition of Gail's backing vocals, citing "unstable intervals" in the harmonies as the problem.

"I'm still looking for a copy without her vocals," lamented Calista.

But Gail brought plenty of benefit to the Americana project, too.

"I sold 350 prints to the U.S. Armed Services, who were definitely people who should've seen this movie," David later told a magazine reporter, in 1989. "[Gail] arranged that, 'cause she's friends with Ronnie [Reagan]." Sure enough, showtimes listed in the Navy-printed Guantanamo Gazette show that Americana was screened on base, right alongside Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

"A lot of 'em come out cryin'," David said in 1983, of servicemen who saw his film.

Whether or not Fred Olen Ray had witnessed final Americana tinkering circa 1984, David clearly hoped the film had more commercial life left in it. David phoned—and sent a print to—Robert Laemmle, owner of the Laemmle chain of arthouse cinemas in Los Angeles. Laemmle liked the film and booked it at the chain's Santa Monica location, the Monica 4-Plex.

Opening on April 17, 1985, the Los Angeles run of Americana saw Carradine paying for the advertising himself, and the director-star estimated he had, at that point, put $600,000 of his own money into the movie. If Crown technically still owned the theatrical rights to the movie, they didn't seem willing to sink another penny into it.

"He released it in L.A. by himself, and he got an okay reception," said Honeycutt, "But I don’t know what good that did. It didn’t have any legs."

"Okay reception" may be an understatement, speaking of the L.A. critical opinion, at least.

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called Americana "a landmark film" containing "such rhythmic pacing and lush, sensual beauty ... that it can carry you away."

The reviewer for L.A. Weekly praised the film's "tense, quiet lyricism."

The Hollywood Reporter lauded Carradine's "tender and touching" movie as "seemingly simple but with a lot to say."

And Kirk Honeycutt got to express his appreciation belatedly, writing about David's "intuitive grasp of the emotional flux in men's minds" and going on to predict that "people might study this picture a century from now."

Various critics praised Michael Stringer's cinematography as "almost-lyrical," "elegant" and as a "tone poem."

Americans were finally recognizing the cinematic beauty that Cannes audiences did four years prior.

The film got licensed to home video in North America to Vestron Video, a VHS/Beta powerhouse that began producing its own hit films, like Dirty Dancing, by 1987. Americana spread all over the world on cassette, too. It even ended up on the video arm of a major studio, CBS/FOX Video, in one territory. The movie was being treated as a legitimate, important film.

By the time DVD came around in the next decade, less care was being afforded David's film. Rhino Home Video issued the movie on disc in 2000, but the music-and-effects track was mixed inordinately loud, drowning out the dialogue in places. And despite the fact that DVD was a format routinely offering widescreen presentations, Rhino only released a version of Americana with the 4x3 TV cropping.

So there ended Americana's tortured path toward its brief mainstream moment. It did not create the revised image or career for David as artful, soulful film director. But with the positive L.A. reviews in 1985 (and the subsequent VHS releases), the whole saga basically concluded on a high note—one that hopefully made David satisfied and proud. God knows he worked for it.

Text copyright © 2021 Mike Malloy. All rights reserved.

Mike Malloy is an expert on classic male cinematic toughness, especially where it intersects with the realism and cliché-busting attitudes of 1970s film. A film journalist for such outlets as Slate and Flaunt, he was also Lee Van Cleef's first published biographer and the writer-director behind the hit cinema documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the '70s. As a screenwriter, he co-developed and co-wrote the official (yet unproduced) Django sequel for Franco Nero, Django Lives. Follow the social media for his upcoming Carradine-as-director book, The Lost Auteur (exact publication date TBA).