Revisiting the true-crime TV movie “The Executioner’s Song,” a gritty period piece about the angry love story of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, opens up a time capsule to the seedy small-town Utah life that served as a backdrop to two 1976 murders.
Gilmore’s death by firing squad at the Utah State Prison on Jan. 17, 1977, captured international headlines as the first execution in a decade after the death penalty was reinstated in the United States.
“The Executioner’s Song,” written by Norman Mailer and directed by Lawrence Schiller, invites a look back at the tragic crime story that launched careers and catapulted Utah’s fledgling film industry. Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book and Schiller’s subsequent film anchored Gilmore’s reputation as a national cult figure whose execution prompted, among other things, savage “Saturday Night Live” skits and material for a punk band’s song, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” The film starkly depicts Gilmore’s words to the firing squad, “Let’s do it,” which live on as the alleged inspiration for the ubiquitous Nike ad campaign: “Just do it.”
This week’s public screening of the 1982 movie — which was viewed by 40 million people when it first aired over two nights on NBC — comes 38 years after the shootings of Max Jensen, a law student and Orem Sinclair gas station attendant, and Bennie Bushnell, the manager of Provo’s City Center Inn.
The screening is timely as part of a national debate about capital punishment and lethal injection. It resurfaces decades-old questions about the for-profit manipulation of a criminal and his friends and family, and the intersection of crime and storytelling.
Gilmore’s last months “were expensively, exhaustively covered, covered in teams, covered in packs, covered with checkbooks and covered with tricks,” Joan Didion wrote in her glowing 1979 New York Times review of Mailer’s book, “covered to that pitch at which the coverage itself might have seemed the only story.”
Now Schiller, the controversial dealmaker who directed the film in which he’s also depicted as a character, has returned to town to lead On The Road summer writing workshops for the Norman Mailer Center, which he founded in 2008. As part of the program, he’s partnering with the Utah Film Center to host screenings of his movie, which launched his filmmaking career and earned an Emmy for a young Tommy Lee Jones’ firecracker performance as Gilmore. Matching Jones, with her own brand of dreamy intensity, is Rosanna Arquette as Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole Baker.
“The main thing that’s important for me in all of this is I just really hope that Max Jensen and Bennie Bushnell are not forgotten,” says Tamera Smith Allred, who as a young Deseret News reporter befriended Baker. “There are some children out there that grew up without their fathers, and I think that’s the sobering fact that needs to be held onto.”
The dealmaker at the center • Reading a Los Angeles newspaper in 1976, Schiller was mesmerized by a story reporting the twisted romanticism of Gilmore and his young girlfriend’s suicide pact. That’s when the then-photographer committed himself to telling Gilmore’s history — for history.
Schiller described himself as an entrepreneur — an aggressive Fuller Brush man or Avon lady — when he parachuted into Utah and for $75,000 sewed up exclusive interview rights with Gilmore, his family and associates, angering local journalists. He, along with Gilmore’s uncle and lawyers, was an eyewitness to the execution; reporters had to wait outside. Only five people invited by Gilmore were allowed to view the execution, in keeping with prison policy at the time, Schiller says now.
Former Associated Press bureau chief Bill Beecham, now 10 years into retirement, still steams about the questionable ethics of that decision by state officials. “If I were bureau chief then, I would have gone to the governor in a shouting match, because it was so unnecessary to ban the media,” he says.
In the months Schiller spent interviewing people in Utah, he generated enough material to keep four transcriptionists busy. He wanted the best writer he could find to turn his material over to. It was the violence embedded in Gilmore’s story that piqued Norman Mailer’s interest; he and Schiller had previously worked together on a biography of Marilyn Monroe.
“I was a little bit controversial and crazy myself, not only the high profile of the project. I do migrate to antisocial behavior and stories, and this certainly is a story of antisocial behavior,” says Schiller before explaining how he later embedded himself in O.J. Simpson’s defense team and subsequently co-wrote an account of the case, “An American Tragedy,” published in 1996.
During “The Executioner’s Song” years, his attention to detail sometimes drove his collaborators crazy, Schiller admits, recounting the four ways he interrogated Gilmore — via face-to-face conversations, phone interviews, sending questions through his lawyers, and asking him to write out his responses — to see if the prisoner’s answers were consistent. They were, Schiller says now. The only thing Gilmore consistently refused to talk about was his mother, Bessie.
“Mailer screamed at me once: ‘Stop interviewing. I’ve got too much.’ And I said: ‘Who knows? I might find something to replace what you have,’ ” Schiller says.
The jailhouse suicide pact • Tamera Smith was a stringer for the Deseret News’ Utah County bureau when she was assigned to cover Gary Gilmore’s arraignment. At the hearing, at a time before enhanced courtroom security, Smith watched Gilmore, who was manacled, lean over and kiss his girlfriend, Nicole Baker.
After the arraignment, Smith approached Baker and asked her if she wanted to grab a bite to eat, and the pair talked for several hours. “My first connection to her was as a human,” Smith says of Baker, who was then 19, with three failed marriages and two children, while the reporter was 22. “Honestly, I felt a little sorry for her.”
Four months later, Smith was working in the paper’s Davis County bureau when a colleague assigned to the Gilmore story couldn’t get Baker to agree to an interview. This was in November, just days before Gilmore’s first scheduled execution date. The reporter handed the phone to Smith; Baker remembered her, then agreed to a 45-minute interview, which extended into a six-hour conversation.
Her editor assigned Smith to hang out with Baker and not lose the coveted exclusive. In extended conversations, Baker asked Smith if she’d like to see Gilmore’s artwork or read any of the 100 letters — that added up to more than 1,000 pages — he had sent from prison.
Smith suspected something was up and asked Baker directly if she was planning to commit suicide. Baker revealed that she and Gilmore had a suicide pact, and agreed to let Smith print a story after the execution. That permission seemed casually granted from a woman who had worked so hard to avoid reporters, and Smith realized the couple’s plans were set for the morning of his scheduled execution date (which would be stayed). “On the day of my story, she thought they would both be dead,” Smith says.
Smith told her editors, and they alerted authorities. Smith worked through the night drafting her stories, then learned through a brief on the wire that Nicole and Gilmore had each attempted suicide and were recovering at different hospitals. Smith broke the news of the suicide pact in copyrighted accounts, filled with quotes from Gilmore’s letters, published in the Deseret News on Nov. 15 and 16, 1976. (“They did stop the presses,” she says.)
Shortly afterward, Smith, now Allred, left the paper and moved to the Pacific Northwest, where she married and had six daughters. She freelanced and wrote a weekly newspaper column, but went on to become a therapist. “I went from reporting stories to helping people work through their stories,” she says.
Over the years, Allred heard sporadically from Baker, who had found her way to a more stable life, initially due to money she received from Schiller and Mailer. Allred cooperated with the writer but wasn’t thrilled with the title of the chapter about how she gained Baker’s trust: “Sob Sisters.”
It took Allred years to understand how deeply she had been affected by her small role in the story. “Covering the Gilmore story exposed me to a very dark side of life, resulting in reoccurring intrusive thoughts, despair, and after the story was over, depression,” she says. “It also triggered memories and feelings associated with the death of both of my parents while I was young.”
Getting the tattoos right • As a period piece, “Executioner’s Song” reveals remarkable access in scenes shot on location at the Utah State Prison, the Supreme Court, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and at the murder scenes. “It smells better, it feels better, it comes alive,” says Schiller of the art of reality.
For the film, Schiller hired local crews and extras to work under noted British cinematographer Freddie Francis, who had recently shot “The Elephant Man.” Utah film crews were able to make contributions to a staff that included British and Hollywood filmmakers, Reed Smoot recalls.
That state officials were willing to cooperate with the film crew was in homage to Mailer’s book, Schiller says. “They were saying he treated us in a literary manner that was proper, and they were going to treat the film in the same way.”
Several prison guards played themselves in the movie, as did Gilmore attorney Bob Moody and Roman Catholic prison chaplain the Rev. Thomas Meersman. Allred was an extra in one of the scenes of scrums of reporters, and she remembers playing Old Maid with other extras as they waited on set at the prison.
Here’s an example of the filmmaker’s attention to accuracy: One of Gilmore’s buddies was hired as a consultant to the film, but he couldn’t remember which arm held Gilmore’s tattoo. If the man’s best friend couldn’t remember, why would it matter? It mattered to Schiller, who admits that his ego was involved in shooting his first film. So Tom Lefler, who worked for the Utah State Film Commission, was sent to the Medical Examiner’s office to view autopsy slides of Gilmore’s body.
Brian Sullivan, a local filmmaker who also worked on the second camera crew, recalls the setup of a scene where Jones, as Gilmore, is playing poker. Schiller launched into a tirade because the actors were holding the wrong cards, even though the camera wasn’t recording the cards.
“I’ve made a lot of movies, and I’ve never seen anybody get so particular about every little detail,” Sullivan says.
Shooting on the location of murders, just five years later, made some of the Utahns on the set nervous while the filming opened up barely closed wounds for neighborhood residents. “Many times,” Smoot says, “it felt like I was working on a documentary, rather than a scripted narrative film.”
Screening the truth of Gary Gilmore’s story
P The Norman Mailer Center is holding summer writing workshops in Salt Lake City in honor of the setting of Mailer’s 1979 book, “The Executioner’s Song,” about Gary Gilmore. As part of the programming, the Mailer Center and the Utah Film Center are holding a screening of the 1982 TV film adaptation, which was shot on location in Utah. It stars Tommy Lee Jones, Rosanna Arquette and Christine Lahti. All events are free.
When • Wednesday: pre-film panel at 2 p.m., screening at 4 p.m., post-film Q&A with director Lawrence Schiller at 6:30 p.m.
Where • Utah Valley University Library 120, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem
When • Friday, 7 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Main Library, 200 E. 400 South
Also • A post-film discussion will be hosted by KUER’s Doug Fabrizio with panelists: former Salt Lake Tribune editorial-page editor Vern Anderson, former Associated Press Bureau Chief Bill Beecham, former Deseret News reporter Tamera Smith Allred, Gilmore’s attorney Robert Moody and film director Lawrence Schiller.
The Mailer Center Faculty Readings
Jeffery Renard Allen, Quincy Troupe and Lawrence Schiller, writers and faculty members of the Salt Lake City workshops of The Mailer Center’s On the Road program, will read from their works.
When • Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where • The King’s English Bookshop, 1510 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Info • Free