Phillip Michael Thomas and Earl Billings
Thanks to Bill “Amazen” Bazen for connecting with actor Earl Billings and getting Earl to share a great story. Earl Billings played the heavy in the episode “No More Sad Songs”. The basic plot is that Sonny and Will unknowingly carry a small time hustler’s loot to Pensacola. The bad guy, Phillip Michael Thomas, promises his boss that he has everything under control but the boss sends Choo-Choo along with him to make sure either he gets his loot or someone pays with their life. Earl Billings, as Choo-Choo, is a very believable enforcer. Ironically, Earl’s story shows what a sweetheart he is in real life. Here’s Earl’s story with an introduction from Bill, and followed by Barry Weitz’s memory of the episode:
I have a special treat for our Facebook group members today. Mr. Earl Billings, who appeared in the episode “No More Sad Songs” has agreed to share with us his memories from 1975 of working on the Movin’ On production. This is an exclusive interview for Movin’ On fans. As we all remember, Earl’s character was named Choo-Choo and he was Mr. Flick’s bodyguard and henchman. Take it away Earl!…………..
There were two things that have stuck with me after all these years. One had to do with the episode’s guest star, Phillip Michael Thomas, and the other with Claude Akins, himself. I had seen Phillip’s work on TV, so I knew who he was. This was long before “Miami Vice” when he became a household name.
I had brought my then wife up from New Orleans where we were living at the time to the location, which was in Mobile, I believe. The night before we began working, the three of us had dinner together and Phillip asked had I read the last scene, the capture scene. During our escape with the loot we drive off the uncompleted freeway into the Gulf. I said that I had read it and thought nothing of it because it was a stunt and all we had to do was surface from the water and get captured. The worst that could happen was that we would get wet.
All week Phillip kept asking me, “Have you met or seen the Stunt Men who would double us?” I said no, that was not my worry. The day of the scene, I went into my dressing trailer and among my clothes was a full wet suit to wear under my wardrobe. Being ex-Navy, I knew that the wet suit was to help us float. There was a knock on the door. It was Phillip holding up his wet suit and frantically asking, “What’s this for?” I explained it was for our safety, in case something happens. He screams, “LIKE WHAT?”
They drove us to the location, which was under the unfinished freeway. A State Trooper and a Diver took us by boat out into the Gulf. For some reason, Phillip brought along a long tree branch. They shoot the stunt, the car going off the freeway. There’s a big splash and then Phillip drops the bomb. “Earl, I can’t swim.” The State Trooper looks at me, I look at the Diver, he looks at Phillip. And from way up on the unfinished freeway the Assistant Director says, “Okay, Phillip, you and Earl get in the water and count to ten, then let the stolen money float up and then you guys surface and that’s a cut.” Phillip sticks the branch in the water checking to see how deep it is but the branch doesn’t touch bottom. Pandemonium!
The Director wants to know what’s the hold up? The Diver and I finally got Phillip in the water and he was holding onto the boat for dear life. Then the Assistant Director called action and the Diver and I pulled Phillip under with us. I let the money go, the Diver pulled away, to stay out of the shot, and Phillip lost his mind. I’m trying to pull him to the surface and he’s fighting like a crazy man. I’m holding him up when the Director calls cut. The Diver comes back and we get Phillip into the boat and we hear the Director say over the bullhorn, “Phil, that was great, you really looked like you were drowning.” The State Trooper, the Diver, and I could not stop laughing.
I had been a fan of Claude Akins ever since “From here to Eternity” and didn’t know his name until “The Caine Mutiny”. During our shoot I got to ride in his trailer to a different location and we talked for about an hour. We talked about how we got started, family and how black actors were now getting good breaks in the business. When I told him that he was big star in black communities, he was taken aback until I told him that he played bad guys and we identified with his guys. They wanted the booze, broads and money, while the guy in the “White Hat” kissed his horse and rode off into the sunset. What the hell was that? His laugh was huge, and warm, and real, and he understood the compliment.
Earl also had something nice to say about Barry and Phil, “Weitz and D’Antoni are some of the best in the business. Great guys!”
Movin’ On creator Barry Weitz’s memory of “No More Sad Songs”:
I don’t have any special behind the scenes memories of “No More Sad Songs” other than that we never shot in New Orleans or Pensacola. There may have been some second unit done in New Orleans, but we never shot there with Claude and Frank. The opening shot of the New Orleans harbor was stock footage that we bought and cut in to “establish” the location.
I had a vague recollection of shooting in Mobile, AL. Bill “Amazen” Bazen confirmed that we did use Mobile to “double” for New Orleans and Pensacola. Bill also states, and I believe him, that we used Daphne, AL as the location for Aunt Bess’ house. Bill further states that in a later episode, “Sing It Again, Sonny” we again used Mobile to double for Nashville.
After viewing the episode… 40-years later, I’m comfortable talking about what just might be my biggest problem with the series as a whole. It has to do with edginess, or lack thereof. Our pilot, In Tandem, was edgy. It was raw. It was rough and it was tough. We made In Tandem to appeal to a 10pm audience. Network TV in the seventies was a different beast than today. Nowadays, almost anything goes at any time during prime time. In the seventies, raw, adult themed programs did not air at 8pm or even at 9pm. I created and always saw Movin’ On as a 10pm show but NBC wanted it at 9pm and that is when it ran in season one.
To accommodate the more genteel 9pm audience we had to take out a good deal of the edge and grit. In season two, NBC wanted us on at 8pm and all the edge went away. Did someone say Disney Movie? I was happy to have a show on the air, but I sure wish we could have had the 10pm show that I had imagined.
“No More Sad Songs” is an example of the soft, family style content we were forced into by our time slot. You may notice that “No More Sad Songs” is the second story of a precocious, gambling child. In season one we did an episode called “Roadblock” with Mackenzie Phillips. Mackenzie played a similar role to Maggie, the girl in “No More Sad Songs”. Maggie is younger, sweeter, and more innocent than Chessie, Mackenzie Phillips’ character. That’s the difference an hour makes on network television. My preference would have been, if we were doing another child older-than-her-years episode, to do it more like Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But I knew it would never fly with the network.
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