Monday, February 12, 2018

Randy Starr and The Creeping Terror

The saga of the Tate-LaBianca murders is more massive and complex than any novel by James Michener. The story spans years, locations, and events, and the cast of characters is perfect for the tale. They are varied, individual, interesting, and often quirky (to say the least). Even their names are perfect.  And certainly one person fitting into this murder-tinged mosaic would have been Randy Starr, the black-clad, one-armed cowboy/stunt man who worked at Spahn’s Movie Ranch when Charles Manson and his associates lived there in 1968 and 1969

Randy Starr was born as Joseph Vance Randall on December 13, 1931 in Illinois, USA. Not much is known about his early life, but upon reaching maturity he entered the United States Marine Corps and served as a Private First Class during the conflict in Korea from 1952 to 1954. Upon leaving the service he returned to the midwest. It was there, in Iowa, that Starr was involved in a farming accident wherein his left arm was run over by a tractor. The arm was rendered fairly useless as a result, and it dangled mangled at his side for the rest of his life.

Book from the Randy Starr series of boys adventure books published in the 1930s. It is not known if Joseph Randall was exposed to these books as a child and subsequently adopted the protagonist’s name as his movie alias. 

Although hindered by the loss of one arm Randall didn’t shy away from physical activity, and he eventually made his way to Los Angeles, changed his name to Randy Starr, and pursued a career in the movie and television industries as a bit actor and stunt man. When not  involved with some entertainment project Starr supported himself by working as a ranch hand at Spahn’s Movie Ranch. Starr was living in a trailer at the ranch when Charles Manson and his friends first appeared in the summer of 1968, and he would be present during their entire residency there, including when the murders of the summer of 1969 occurred.

Randy Starr

Randy Starr with George Spahn

Randy Starr publicity propaganda. An associate later wrote, “Randy's stunt gimmick was being dragged or dropped somewhere from a rope around his neck. Being dragged on the ground by a galloping horse was his signature stunt.”

Like everyone else at Spahn’s Ranch, Randy Starr was questioned by law enforcement officers investigating the Tate-LaBianca murders. And Starr made significant contributions to the case against Charles Manson. First, he said that the rope found at the Cielo Drive murder scene was “identical” to rope he had seen in the back of Manson’s dune buggy. More importantly, he identified the .22 caliber Buntline revolver used in the Tate murders as a gun he had once owned before giving it to Manson in exchange for a truck.

Starr testified at the Grand Jury that he saw Manson with a sword in late July of 1969, shortly after the Gary Hinman ear-slashing murder, and that Manson told him, “I cut a guy’s ear off with this.”

Starr also figured in the case during the famous visit to Spahn’s Ranch by Terry Melcher on May 18, 1969 when Melcher came to listen to Manson and his friends play music and sing with the possibility of arranging something professionally. Manson and the others played by the stream in the area behind and below the main ranch set. According to a later newspaper account, “When the group returned from the stream, [Melcher] said there was a strange encounter with a Hollywood stunt man who live at the ranch Randy Starr. He had a six-gun strapped to his waist.

“‘It was a little scary,’ [Melcher said]. ‘It looked like, you know, Dodge City and Marshall Dillon. Randy was going to draw on somebody and Charlie intervened. I think he hit Randy in the stomach and grabbed the gun. I’m glad he did.’”

While Randy star will likely be most remembered for the bit part he played in TLB, he also had a (very) minor show business career on his cosmic resume. A search of his name in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) results in a list of three cinematic projects that Starr worked on, one of which, The Creeping Terror, was supposedly partially filmed at Spahn’s Movie Ranch. From IMBd: “The Creeping Terror (1964), on which [Starr] was assistant director, was shot in part at the Spahn Ranch outside of Los Angeles, which was home to the notorious Manson Family, headed by the infamous Charles Manson. Starr later joined the "family", and after the Tate-LaBianca murders it was shown that Starr provided Manson with the gun used in the killings.”

Credit from The Creeping Terror listing Randy Starr as an Assistant Director

Given the inaccuracy of the blurb’s description of Starr’s relationship to “the notorious Manson Family” I wondered if the film was indeed shot at Spahn’s or whether this was just another Mansonian mirage. To find out, I took a look at the film myself. (You can too; it’s here. You can also read some detail about this ill-fated cinematic project in its Wikipedia entry here.)

The Creeping Terror is generally regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, and after viewing the film I would have to concur. Some movies are “good” bad, but this one is just bad bad. Pick any aspect of the production — writing, acting, directing, music, special effects — it’s all bad. (In fact, it’s bad enough that the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 had a go at it.) One particularly odd feature is that since the original soundtrack was apparently lost or destroyed a narrator explains much of the dialogue that is clearly going on but cannot be heard. The film’s only redeeming quality is that it is just over an hour long.

Al Lewis (the same name as the actor who played Grandpa on The Munsters television program) is listed in the credits. I didn’t see him when I viewed the film, but I will not watch it again to see if he’s there. Perhaps one of our readers can confirm Grandpa’s presence and add that factoid to the endless encyclopedia of TLB trivia. (Terror is not listed among Lewis' IMDb credits.)

Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster

(Since Manson was incarcerated at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary in 1964 when Terror was filmed it would have been impossible for him and Lewis to have connected at that time. But Lewis eventually did meet Manson, as he recalled in this 2010 article: "In California in [the late sixties] the estimate was that there were at least half a million runaways from the age of eight on, drifting to California. Every Friday I used to have about fifty [to] sixty kids who would wait for me on Sunset Boulevard and I'd take them all to dinner. All runaways. That's how I met Charlie Manson. He wanted to be in the music business. He babysat my three kids ... I met him in front of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard. He sat for four or five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat.”)

One interesting feature of Terror is a perhaps prescient “Hootenanny” scene of a young man with a guitar playing for a group of pretty young girls in a meadow. (Like their real-life 1968-69 counterparts, they are all devoured by a monster.)

Many scenes occur at a location described as “Lovers Lane,” which was the actual name of the road leading from the main western set to the back ranch house when Manson and his friends lived there. Is this a case of life imitating art?

Although there is no sign of the western set, many of the outdoor scenes in Terror look like they could have been filmed at Spahn’s, especially near the end. But then, just when you’re thinking, “Yeah, that looks like it could be the ranch,” at the 108.50 mark the characters unmistakably drive past the Outlaw Shacks. No question; case closed.

Above and below, the Outlaw Shacks in The Creeping Terror and Will You Die For Me?

Randy Starr had two more films to his credit after The Creeping Terror. Both were released posthumously. The first was Machismo: 40 Graves for 40 Guns, released in 1971. Starr appears in this film as a bit player described in credits as a “roper.”

Movie poster for Machismo: 40 Graves for 40 Guns

Starr’s last cinematic moment was in Hard On The Trail, which was released in 1972 and is described in IMBd as “a hardcore pornographic film.” I was not able to find this film, so I can't say whether it is actually “hardcore” or is more of a Ramrodder type of soft-core breast fest.

Above and below, movie poster for Hard On The Trail and Randy Starr’s billing

Randy Starr died unexpectedly on August 4, 1970, shortly after the trial of Charles Manson and his co-defendants began. Starr had been anticipated as an important witness for the prosecution because his testimony could have placed the murder weapon (gun) used at the Polanski residence in Manson’s hands. Although the sudden death appeared mysterious and suspicious initially, it was soon revealed that Starr died of “acute purulent meningitis due to or as a consequence of left otitis media and mastoiditis, acute.”  (In other words, he died of an ear infection that spread to his brain.)

Randy Starr’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times

From the Van Nuys Valley News

Upon his death Randy Starr reverted to his original identity and was buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Lemay, Missouri (2900 Sheridan Street, St. Louis, MO)  Section 1, Site 2262.

Randy Starr’s military grave

(Thanks to Deb S. for the clarifying info on the arm!)