After a half-century in movies and television programs, Red West probably is better known as a longtime friend of Elvis and key member of the so-called "Memphis Mafia" than as an actor.
That perception is changing, however, thanks to West's new movie, "Goodbye Solo," which opens Friday at Malco's Ridgeway Four.
An interview with Red West and others involved in the making of Goodbye Solo, which opens Friday, May 15, at Malco’s Ridgeway Four. West is best known as a longtime friend of Elvis and key member of the so-called “Memphis Mafia” . Watch »
West will introduce the film before its first evening screening (7:25 p.m.) and will answer questions afterward.
An independent production that has earned rave reviews (The Washington Post this month dubbed it one of the "Top 5 Most Anticipated" movies of the season), "Goodbye Solo" gives the former Memphian top billing and the first lead role of his career, at an age when other actors are considering -- or being forced into -- retirement.
"I started out in this business as a stuntman, and it's taken its toll on me," admitted West, who turned 73 in March and was fitted with his first hearing aids during the production of "Solo." "I've had knee replacements, and I've got big calcium deposits in my neck from falling on my head so many times. So this is just in time."
"I think this is the one," said Pat West, West's agent and wife of 48 years. "In this particular film, he comes into his own. While he is very proud of his association with Elvis, he of course wants to be recognized for his own talent, as well."
Joked Red: "It took me 59 years to become an overnight success."
The third distributed feature from North Carolina-born Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani, "Goodbye Solo" chronicles the relationship that develops between a taciturn, mysterious old man named William (West) and a chatty Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané).
While Solo seems filled with hope and enthusiasm for the future, William apparently has lost interest in life. For Solo, coming to America was a leap of faith; meanwhile, William apparently has resigned himself to a leap of death: He hires Solo to drive him to a cliff known as Blowing Rock, a North Carolina landmark that juts into the howling air some 3,000 feet above a forested river gorge.
West was superb as a grieving mute father in Francis Ford Coppola's made-in-Memphis John Grisham adaptation, "The Rainmaker" (1997), and as a scene-stealing basketball trainer in "Glory Road" (2006), but Bahrani is the first director to fully exploit the actor's gruff, unpretentious gravitas. In "Goodbye Solo," West comes across as a sort of proletarian, deglamorized Robert Mitchum -- a weary but tolerant tough guy, with Sad Sack, saucer eyes that try but fail to conceal a lifetime of hard-won wisdom and painful lessons.
"My hope is people in the industry will remember Red," said Bahrani, 34. "I wish Clint Eastwood would stop casting himself and realize that this guy's better." (In fact, it's easy to imagine West in the Eastwood role in "Gran Torino," which demonstrated that a movie starring a geezer could be a box office smash.)
Bahrani -- dubbed "the great new American director" by Roger Ebert -- said West was "incredibly precise" and "incredibly emotional" as an actor, even though the character he plays rarely reveals his feelings.
"You can see in (the film's) final moments, he is a man about to crumble," Bahrani said. "I don't want him to get into fights in Memphis with people calling him a sissy, but, yeah, he was emotionally torn up after that scene."
Said West: "Ramin, he's a deep thinker, and some of our conversations were incredible. He wrote a winner here, and directed a winner." (Literally, in the case of the 2008 Venice Film Festival, where "Solo" captured the International Critics Prize.)
Born in Bolivar, Tenn., and raised in Memphis, Robert Gene "Red" West was a high school friend of Elvis who became the singer's driver, bodyguard and confidante, until he was expelled from Elvis' inner circle in the mid-1970s after becoming too vocal about Presley's drug habits and unhealthy associations. (West was a collaborator on the 1977 behind-the-scenes book, "Elvis: What Happened.")
At the same time, West found work in Hollywood in Elvis' movies and on such programs as "The Wild Wild West," as a stuntman and bit player. He was a regular on the short-lived but well-regarded 1970s World War II fighter-pilot series "Baa Baa Black Sheep." He also wrote or co-wrote such Elvis recordings as "Separate Ways" and "If Every Day Was Like Christmas."
After some 30 years in California, Red and Pat West relocated to Bartlett, where they operated an actors' studio and talent agency. Now their home base is Biloxi, Miss., although they travel to Memphis frequently to visit such relatives as Red's brother, Harold West, and Pat's mother, Marie Sherrod.
They also spend time with their two sons, John Boyd West, 37, now in Tampa, Fla., and Brent West, 46, of Redondo Beach, Calif., now recuperating after a grueling battle with throat cancer.
West had never heard of Bahrani -- whose previous features, "Man Push Cart" (2005) and "Chop Shop" (2007), used nonprofessional actors -- when Nashville-based casting director Kim Petrosky recommended Red for the lead of "Goodbye Solo." West sent an audition tape to Bahrani, who had never heard of Red West.
Said Bahrani: "I really wanted to have a true Southerner, someone who walked, talked and dressed like a Southerner. I saw the tape for about five seconds, I hit pause, and I said: 'That's him. That's the guy I've had in my mind for two years now.'"
The movie was shot on high-definition video (blown up to 35-millimeter film for theatrical release) in the fall of 2007 in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina on a budget of "just under a million," according to Bahrani. The movie -- which opened recently in New York and California and expands this weekend to such cities as Memphis, Cleveland, Dallas and Portland -- looks wonderful because Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, are "both very vigilant about what we allow in the frame, because certain patterns and colors and textures do not register well on video," the director said.
West appreciated the many, many rehearsals demanded by Bahrani prior to shooting.
"You have to dig into yourself and find things parallel to what your character could be thinking," West said. "His grandson doesn't even know him, his wife left 30 years ago, and he's facing a nursing home and whatever comes with old age. He's seen people in this position, and he's not going to let that happen to him ... So that's the way I calculate it in my head; this is what's driving this guy to do what he plans to do."
West said he already has "four or five offers" for movies as a result of the critical acclaim garnered by "Goodbye Solo," which A.O. Scott, in The New York Times, labeled "an almost perfect film." Bahrani said he hopes the offers lead to more large roles for his star.
Said the director: "So many movies focus on young, pretty people, and there's so many other types of people in the world."
The movie: "Goodbye Solo" opens Friday for at least a week's run at the Malco Ridgeway Four, 5853 Ridgeway Center Pkwy.
The event: Star Red West will introduce the film at the 7:25 p.m. screening Friday and answer questions afterward.
Tickets: $9 each for adults, $6.50 for children (ages 3 to 11) and seniors (60 and older), available at the box office or malco.com.