Steven Spielberg Celebrates 50th Anniversary of His First Theatrical Release, ‘The Sugarland Express’ — Which Closed After 2 Weeks

Steven Spielberg was surprised and visibly moved by a video tribute from Goldie Hawn, star of the 1974 Texas car chase drama “The Sugarland Express,” which played Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Spielberg spoke at this weekend’s screening celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the movie’s release, a milestone for the filmmaker, who made his feature debut with the film.

Casting his first theatrical feature

In a post-screening interview, Spielberg said that Hawn’s “pure and honest heart” made her perfect for the role of Lou Jean Poplin. He expressed gratitude and said that without Hawn, the movie would not have been approved by Universal Studios producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck.

Hawn thanked Spielberg for entrusting her with the role of Lou Jean Poplin, the impetuous but lovable mother who orchestrates a jailbreak for her imprisoned husband Clovis (William Atherton) so that he can help her to reclaim their son from child welfare services and foster parents. The Poplins kidnap and befriend Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), who reluctantly drives the couple across Texas with a stream of police officers on their tail, led by the gruff but semi-sympathetic Capt. Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson).

The man on the left holds a gun pointed toward the man on the right in a car, who looks afraid as he holds the wheel. A woman with blond hair sits in the back seat, looking at the man on the left.
William Atherton, Goldie Hawn and Michael Sacks in A still from “The Sugarland Express” (Photo: Stichwort — Pistole/Getty Images)

Spielberg said that casting Hawn was “risky” since “people went to the movie expecting to see a Goldie Hawn picture, and they wound up with an ending like that,” referring to the shocking murder of Atherton’s character at the end of the film. Spielberg noted that the movie was a box office flop, pulled from theaters after two weeks. He thanked the festival’s audience for showing up and speculated that they were the first crowd to see “The Sugarland Express” theatrically in 50 years.

Speaking of the movie’s key cast members, Spielberg recalled that he cast Atherton after a long list of studio-suggested actors turned him down. “And I had lunch with all of them!” Without naming names, Spielberg remembered speaking with and being turned down by several leading men at The Source on Sunset Boulevard, the vegetarian restaurant where Diane Keaton rejects Woody Allen’s marriage proposal in “Annie Hall.”

“It might have been at the same table,” Spielberg said.

Getting “Sugarland Express” to the big screen

A black-and-white photo of a man wearing a jacket and a hat, three actors on the right with their attention to him as he speaks. She sits cross-legged on the hood of a truck, the man to her right smiling, the man on the far right dressed as law enforcement.
On the set, Steven Spielberg directs Goldie Hawn, William Atherton and Michael Sacks. (Photo: Getty Images)

After five years working on television projects, Spielberg scored a hit with “Duel,” his gripping 1971 made-for-TV car chase thriller — but was less than enthusiastic about the feature scripts he was subsequently offered. Instead, Spielberg took inspiration from a Citizen News article about real-life fugitives Robert and Ila Fae Dent, who were described by the Valley paper as a “modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.”

Brown and Zanuck were enthusiastic about “The Sugarland Express’” script, cowritten by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, but insisted that the movie needed a movie star. Spielberg had seen Hawn in a handful of other roles, including movies like “Butterflies are Free” and “Cactus Flower,” as well as on the goony TV sketch comedy series “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

In her video message, Hawn recalled that it took her two months to get Lou Jean out of her system after filming concluded on “Sugarland Express.”

“It was the most beautiful time,” Hawn said. As for Spielberg: “Admire him, love him, and amazed that this young man that I worked with so many years ago has made movies that will go on and on and on — and live forever. I love you, Steven.”

The ending the studio insisted on and the road to “Jaws”

Spielberg spoke fondly of Sacks, singling out his admiration for Sacks’ earlier performance in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Spielberg also shared fond memories of working with Ben Johnson, whom he’d been a fan of since 1949’s original “Mighty Joe Young,” and casting director Shari Rhodes, with whom Spielberg worked again on his next project and his first blockbuster, “Jaws.”

He said that he felt supported by both Brown and Zanuck, the latter of whom had no notes for Spielberg after watching a rough cut of the movie. “The Sugarland Express” may not have been a box office hit, but if nothing else, it provided Spielberg with an oversized showcase. The studio did, however, insist that Spielberg add a coda at the end to let viewers know that Lou Jean was eventually reunited with her son.

Spielberg shared that when Zanuck was presented with a rough cut of “The Sugarland Express,” he sat down to take notes with a large notepad and pencil. He returned blank pages to Spielberg, who would never forget the gesture. Years later, Spielberg repeated the gesture of no notes for Barry Sonnenfeld when he produced the first “Men in Black” movie. “All blank pages.”

Spielberg also happily noted that the Poplins’ son, Baby Langston, was played by Harrison Zanuck, Richard’s son. After making “The Sugarland Express”: Spielberg remembered how “floored” he was after reading the script for “Jaws,” not knowing what the project was. He was told that the studio had already picked a director. “A month later, that didn’t work out,” he concluded.

In the wide-ranging conversation, Spielberg also expressed admiration for some key off-camera collaborators. They included cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond — “We loved the same movies” — and composer John Williams, with whom Spielberg has now been collaborating for 51 years.

The septuagenarian filmmaker also spoke affectionately about shooting in Texas, which moderator Brent Lang of Variety suggested was like a character itself in “The Sugarland Express.” Spielberg described their filming locations as “very flat,” with the exception of one sequence where the road undulates up and down in little rolling hills.

For Spielberg, the key to making “The Sugarland Express” a creative success was capturing its characters’ humanity. “How does the outside world know what’s happening inside that car?” He singled out Johnson’s character, particularly a scene where Lou Jean and Capt. Tanner look at each other and he gives her “the smallest smile.”

“It’s about the faces, it’s about the characters, it’s about who they are to each other,” Spielberg added. “The complexity [of the movie] was more about the people than the landscape.”

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