The California Kid (1974)
An actor such as Martin Sheen is a great example of someone who has been on television screens for as long as I can recall and of course he still is. This made for television feature is to my best recollection, the earliest memory I have of seeing Sheen and his role here is easily one that grabbed the attention of this youngster. What’s not to like? His role as The California Kid harkens back to a James Dean like character. Taking place in 1958, he wears a leather jacket, his hair is slick black, he thumbs his nose at authority represented here by Vic Morrow and he drives a hot rod car with flames flowing down the side. As I said, what’s not to like?
This movie of the week comes from director Richard T. Heffron and starts us off with a couple of sailors returning to base just across the state line. It’s a temptation to hard to resist when they pass through a speed trap and hear the siren on their tale. It’s Vic Morrow who is just hoping his prey will make a run for the state line. These boys take the bait speeding into a winding highway featuring a hairpin turn with little chance of navigating it without veering off the road and down into a ravine. Having Morrow speed up to hit your bumper at a crucial point in the turn all but seals the fate of the two men within. The car sails out over the ravine and does a death roll to the bottom killing both men trapped inside the car.
Looking for his next victim, Morrow climbs back into his cruiser when Sheen’s hotrod passes through the small town he controls. With Vic in pursuit, the calm and polite Sheen pulls over and is brought back in to town to face the county judge. It’s a trumped up charge resulting in a 50 dollar fine. Sheen quietly pays it and to Morrow’s disappointment, he doesn’t leave town but rather begins to hang around on the fringe of Morrow’s daily haunts including the diner where love interest Michelle Phillips works.
Staring Morrow down across the diner’s barstools, Sheen purposely leaves a torn newspaper article for Morrow to pick up after he leaves in his souped up hotrod. It’s a newspaper article concerning the death of the two sailors. One of which will prove to be the brother of Sheen. Morrow is getting uneasy about Sheen in town and isn’t fond of his digging into the crash. He’s clearly waiting for Sheen to take the bait and make a run for the state line.
Not uncommon for a TV movie of the week, the running time comes in at a brisk and never dull 75 minutes. Just enough time for Sheen to slowly turn the tables on Morrow as we’ll soon come to see who’s baiting who for the final chase. The pair continue to circle each other over the course of the film as if they were two boxers sizing each up for the inevitable showdown. When Morrow can’t help himself and runs a couple of young kids off the road, Sheen steps up the challenge and is backed by the latest victim’s brother played by an emerging Nick Nolte as the town mechanic who suspects the truth and wants his pound of flesh. Also participating in the film is the always likable Stuart Margolin who was about to become a regular on the popular Rockford Files show.
Playing Sheen’s victimized brother in the film is indeed Sheen’s real life brother going by the “other” family name, Joe Estevez. Then there are some actors that you just know more by a character name than a real name. Such is the case with Gavan O’Herlihy who I always refer to as Fraker thanks to his playing the chief baddie in the outrageous Death Wish 3. Sheen plays it cool which caught me eye as a kid and thinking about it, it’s probably my first look at Morrow as well so it’s hard not to always think of him as a mean son of a bitch.
Another fine example of seeing a movie as a kid and because of the characters the lead actors are playing, you kind of identify them as projecting that image henceforth. At least that’s how I see it on occasion though it is in many instances the furthest thing from the truth I suppose.
California Kid is out on DVD and worth a look if you find the time.