Don’t Let ‘Evil Roy Slade’ Be Your One That Got Away

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: A Midnight Movie for the Love of a Woman

The cinematic understanding of romance is on the run. It’s a sad topic ahead of Valentine’s Day, I know. But the big romantic gestures and sweeping professions of love that once characterized the rom-com genre are now about as welcome in real life as TikTok therapists are welcome on the big screen. Add a family counselor to your next “Clueless” viewing and you just won’t see Paul Rudd the same way; try planting one on your step-sister at the next family gathering and you won’t see her in any way.

And yet, if every great story is marked by at least one character experiencing extraordinary change, then it stands to reason that sometimes we can and should do drastic things for love. But an insincere attempt at personal growth can quickly veer toward love-bombing, just as running through an airport after “the one” can be confused for an actual bombing. Suffice to say: Chivalry isn’t dead, but chivalry can’t just show up unannounced like that.

Is there anywhere the problematically impassioned can still roam free? Just look to the Old West as it appeared in 1972 on NBC.

Directed by Jerry Paris, and cowritten by “Pretty Woman” legend Garry Marshall and his longtime collaborator Jerry Belson, “Evil Roy Slade” sticks a gun right in the ribs of ye’ ol romantic theatrics debate — daring to ask if its titular no good, dirty, rotten scoundrel should change for the love of a woman. John Astin stars as Evil Roy opposite Pamela Austin as the beautiful schoolteacher, Ms. Betsy Potter, in this underseen treasure of the small screen.

Foreshadowing the success of Mel Brooks’ Oscar nominated “Blazing Saddles,” and flanked by countless other satirical westerns across film and television, this made-for-TV movie is undeniably special. It’s also decidedly dated. When the dashing-yet-goofy Evil Roy robs a bank, and steals a kiss from the pretty Betsy, their instant connection lands like a love letter delivered via a rock through your window. (Don’t worry; Roy is a gentleman who won’t contact Betsy like that until Act Two.)

But it’s not a good time for Roy to fall in love, what with him being in the middle of a holdup and all. Plus, he’s got an ongoing criminal enterprise undermining the Western Express Railroad and its nasty tycoon Nelson L. Stool, played by a scene-stealing Mickey Rooney. Nevertheless, the “meanest villain in the West” makes off with Betsy’s number anyway. Roy rides away in his carriage complete with stolen train whistle (what? He liked the “toot toot” sound!), but the star-crossed lovers soon find each other once more. As the good-hearted Betsy and black-hearted Roy fall deeper in love, a farcical steeplechase of anti-comic brilliance rassles up a “My Fair Lady” type misadventure for the ages. Can Roy learn to drop his weapons and open himself up to love? Could Betsy look any better in a black cowboy hat? Come for the promise of Dick Shawn as Marshal Bing Bell (“Somebody at the door?”); stay for the singing cowboy’s missile-firing acoustic guitar. A stacked ensemble cast, featuring Henry Gibson, Penny Marshall, Milton Berle, and Dom DeLuise, further recommends it.

A love-at-first sight find for those film historians lucky enough to come across her, “Evil Roy Slade” just couldn’t exist today — and its lack of availability on streaming means that for too many the legend of the orphaned romantic and his passionate partner is fading from memory. IndieWire box office editor Tom Brueggemann told me he remembered the movie doing OK in ratings thanks to the “Love Boat” theory (i.e. cast a bunch of movie stars in a TV project to bridge the big/small screen divide and nab yourself a bigger audience). But Brueggemann also theorized that the movie was likely a pitch for a TV series that never came to fruition; I could find no evidence either way.

Heartfelt and almost deliriously overzealous, Paris’ funny and fiendish lesson in toxic love is ultimately as sweet as the teddy bear-carrying Evil Roy himself. It also stands as a valiant defense of old school romantics, and legendary proof that you can still ride off into the (blissfully misguided) sunset after midnight. —AF

The Aftermath: And for 97 Blissful Minutes, I Was Pro-Evil

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t fully grasp what I was in for when it came time to watch “Evil Roy Slade.” While this column has a proud history of exploring forgotten made-for-TV movies from decades past, all of those previous picks have either been so-bad-they’re-good misfires or strange relics whose mere existence is more interesting than their actual contents. So when I received the merry news that we’d be watching a 1972 television Western comedy that featured Mickey Rooney playing a character named Nelson Stool and Dom DeLuise as someone named Logan Delp, I figured we were in for more of the same.

I neglected to consider the possibility that “Evil Roy Slade” could be something of actual artistic value in its own right, and I was wildly mistaken. While there are certainly moments of midnight glory that stem from dated production value and poor acting (John Astin is arguably the worst performer despite playing the titular character), I felt that a lot of the joke writing was actually ahead of its time.

Roy was constantly delivering anti-jokes like “I want you to know how much I appreciate this. Not enough to thank you, but I appreciate it.” Any of these lines would have fit perfectly into hip 21st comedies like “Wet Hot American Summer” or “Dude Bro Party Massacre III,” and I was left in delightful a state of midnight movie limbo where I was simultaneously impressed by the writing and let down by the acting.

The film’s entire premise hinges on lampooning the White Hats vs. Black Hats moral certainty that defined the Western genre for much of the 1960s, a level of satire that seems far more suited to the media-obsessed culture that emerged in subsequent decades than the sincerity of the 1970s movie-of-the-week industrial complex. So major props go to Marshall and Belson for so astutely anticipating the viewing needs of 21st century midnight movie lovers.

“Evil Roy Slade” is an IndieWire After Dark movie to its core, blending intentional brilliance and dated weirdness in a way that rivals classics like “Every Which Way You Can” and “Pieces.” Even if you ignore all of its clever writing and period charms, there’s no denying that it follows the cardinal rule of cinema: anything that features a large man riding a comically small horse is a guaranteed banger.—CZ

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can find “Evil Roy Slade” on DVD. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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