Fade to Black

The wasted life of Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell

It was September 1983, and independent Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell had it going on.

From the balcony of Lincoln Center, the lanky, slow-drawling, self-taught director waved to the applauding New York Film Festival audience that had just screened his latest movie, Last Night at the Alamo. In addition to the festival crowd's approval, the film also won high praise from influential critics: Vincent Canby of The New York Times, The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, to name a few.

Alamo was Pennell's third film, the final installment in his trilogy about a couple of well-intentioned, hard-living rednecks, men much like Pennell himself: modern-day adventurers doomed to a world devoid of new frontiers.

Last Night at the Alamo: Roger Ebert asked Pennell if he'd set out to make a movie about alcoholism. Until then, Pennell hadn't noticed that he had.
Last Night at the Alamo: Roger Ebert asked Pennell if he'd set out to make a movie about alcoholism. Until then, Pennell hadn't noticed that he had.

Made on a bare-bones budget of about $50,000, Alamo was Pennell's most expensive project. Eight years earlier, after he'd dropped out of UT-Austin's film school, Pennell had made his first film, Hell of a Note, for $1,200. The 30-minute short was technically and theatrically threadbare, but it was clever.

Armed with positive regional feedback, Pennell then raised $20,000 to finance The Whole Shootin' Match, his first feature-length film. The rough but sweet film is arguably Pennell's best effort, and definitely his most influential. Actor/director Robert Redford recently told the Hollywood Reporter that it was in 1978, while watching Shootin' Match at the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City, that he first envisioned the Sundance Institute.

"I thought a real service to the [motion picture] industry would be to provide a guy like [Pennell] with a place to train, a place to go where he could develop his skills," said Redford. "It would shortcut a lot of the problems he was going to be facing."

Of course, Redford probably had no idea how many problems Pennell was facing -- most of them of Pennell's own making. Even at the pinnacle of his career he was notorious as a boozer and brawler who seemed intent on sabotaging any opportunity for his own advancement. And I knew those tales weren't just rumors: I used to hang out with Eagle Pennell, and I'd seen him at his meanest. I was there at his wedding reception, when he kicked his new sister-in-law in the stomach.

But we'd lost touch, and this summer I heard rumors that Pennell, 47, had joined the ranks of Houston's homeless. Those rumors were confirmed a couple of months ago, while I was drinking in a bar Eagle used to frequent. Two women independently told me the same story. They had just seen Pennell standing under the Southwest Freeway overpass at Greenbriar, waving a handmade sign at passing motorists. The sign read: "I need a rich woman or a cold beer."

Pennell had obviously hit rock bottom. But even at his lowest, he still had panache.

By the time I arrived at the intersection, Pennell was no longer there. In a way, I was relieved.

For about a year, in 1987 and '88, he and I made the same circuit of restaurants and clubs. We were both refugees from the University of Texas-Austin, and rabid Longhorn and Dallas Cowboys fans. I even helped him with the script for his fourth movie, Heart Full of Soul.

While driving to the intersection, I remembered that I had quit seeing Pennell out of a sense of self-preservation. There's something dark and dangerous about him, something that's always one drink away from surfacing.

Still, I'm a journalist, and this seemed a compelling story. After a week, I heard through the grapevine that Pennell had checked into alcohol rehab.

The Center, a white two-story building located on Main near Alabama, offers bargain-basement rehabilitation for those who have few, if any, other places to turn. Inside the air is heavy with stale cigarette smoke.

And Pennell looks like hell. His sandy hair is greasy and matted. His skin is ruddy, both from drink and from from living outdoors the past several months. He's sitting on the side of a small bed in a room he shares; his roommate's asleep.

We're in the facility's sick ward, a place for alcoholics fresh off the street to detoxify. Since The Center is not a licensed medical facility, there are no prescription drugs to help the residents make it through their first painful days of sobriety. Instead, the men get what Pennell calls "bug juice," a mixture of crushed vitamins and cheap vodka.

In the facility's small cafeteria, Pennell stares down a plate of turkey and gravy, corn and greens. Instead of eating, he talks about the last three months, which he spent sleeping in parks and under bridges, fearing for his life and living for his next drink.

He recalls an encounter at a bus stop near the West Alabama Ice House. He had managed to scrounge enough money for a couple of beers, and had just sat down on the bus stop bench when a young man pulled his car into the parking lot, got out and walked over and asked, "Didn't you used to be Eagle Pennell?"

The man proceeded to tell him that he was familiar with his work and used to look up to him. He also said that he had seen Pennell wandering the streets and that he had even thought about seeing if he could help him in some way. Instead, the man told Pennell, "I just decided to let you suffer."

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