Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The Movies That Were Made at Spahn Ranch

Western movies, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, wouldn't have been the same without the infamous ranch owned by George Spahn.

Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood attempts to take back stolen potential via the kind of fantasy fulfillment that’s made only possible on celluloid. As with the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter,” Sharon Tate, and the peace and love generation as a whole, the icons of hope in the 1960s were all tainted by mere association with Charles Manson. None of these needed to be linked to the murderous narcissist. Tate, magnificently captured Margot Robbie in the film, would have continued the rising trajectory of her film and modeling career; “Helter Skelter” would be remembered as the song that invented heavy metal, when it was just Paul McCartney trying to make as much noise on vinyl as possible; peace and Love would have at least hung on until the Rolling Stones played Altamont. And another one of the institutions which was coopted by the Manson connection was a Hollywood staple, the Spahn Movie Ranch.

Some of the hottest film Westerns were shot at the ranch. Howard Hughes’ lusty The Outlaw remolded frontier bad boys with a top-heavy cast that included Jane Russell; Gregory Peck busted bucks, but couldn’t stop most people from calling Duel in the Sun “Lust in the Dust;” generations watched the Cartwright family protect the Ponderosa at Spahn Movie Ranch; Tonto looked under the Lone Ranger‘s mask there; Zorro carved Z’s into walls at the behest of Walt Disney, no less; now part of the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, Spahn Ranch was 55 acres of picturesque property spread out in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains of Los Angeles County.

read more: Sharon Tate’s Sister Adored Margot Robbie’s Performance

It was located at 12000 Santa Susana Pass Road, which has a link to the earliest residents of the area. The Santa Susana Pass, which was named after a third century Catholic martyr, was connected Los Angeles and Santa Barbara settlements in the mid-1800s, and was later used by stage coaches. The first owners were Dionisio Sanchez and James Williams, who got it under the Homestead Act of 1862.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows the ranch when it was owned by rancher George Spahn, played by Bruce Dern in the role originally slated for Burt Reynolds. Spahn bought the property in 1953 when Westerns ruled the box office. But its Tinseltown connection went as far back as movies themselves. Silent film actor William S. “Two-Gun Bill” Hart bought the ranch to stable his movie horses. Roy Rogers had Trigger, and Hart made most of his films atop a brown and white pinto named Fritz. Hart was a Shakespearean actor on Broadway until he became one of the first Western stars, making films as far back as 1914. Signed to Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky, which merged into Paramount Pictures in 1917, Hart insisted on authenticity in his films. A true fan of the Old West, he owned pistols once holstered by Billy the Kid and was a personal friend to real life gunfighters Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.

Hart built the ranch as a stable for stunt horses, but it grew into a sound stage by the time he sold the property in 1928. The Western genre was in decline (it got better) and it was used as a horse rental place until Lee and Ruth McReynolds bought it in 1947. They built movie sets to compete with the leading location spot, Iverson Movie Ranch.

read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Reference Guide

The Outlaw, produced and directed by Howard Hughes–alongside uncredited Howard Hawks (a Tarantino favorite who Hughes fired for not being thirsty enough in his camera setups), was shot at the property in 1943. The film starred Jack Buetel as Billy the Kid, Thomas Mitchell as Sheriff Pat Garrett, and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday, three legends of the Old West. But that was just a pretext for Hughes to lust after the bossom of Jane Russell in her first role (she was under contract by Hughes). She almost pulled off a double role as the character Rio McDonald, and as a breakout sex symbol and instant icon. Hughes famously designed a special cantilevered underwire bra to maximize filmable cleavage. The noted engineering perfectionist brought experts to the censors to allow the footage to be used. Russell threw the bra out after about a day of shooting, according to her 1985 autobiography Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours. It may have been aerodynamic, but it wasn’t practical even for Hollywood’s new fantasy land.

Movie censors also put in overtime on the other most notable film shot at the ranch. It seemed like Duel in the Sun (1946) wouldn’t pass the censorship boards no matter how many scenes were cut. The film was directed by King Vidor, who helmed Stella Dallas, The Champ, and War and Peace (and parts of The Wizard of Oz without credit). It was produced and written by David O. Selznick, who thought it would be his next Gone with the Wind. It wasn’t. It made money at the box office, in spite of bad reviews, but barely broke even after figuring in promotional costs.

The film did break Selznick’s muse Jennifer Jones, who played Pearl Chavez, the “half-breed girl” in hiding after the hanging of her father. Shot wearing full body makeup by three different cinematographers, Jones was nominated for a Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards. Silent era legend Lillian Gish was nominated for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award. And perhaps Gregory Peck was just happy to be there, as Duel in the Sun was his first Western.  

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When Spahn, who nicknamed Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme, bought the ranch, Western series were riding high in the saddle on television. The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore in the title role and Jay Silverheels as his Native American partner, was already shooting episodes on the land. Spahn built a replica of a Western town, centered by The Longhorn Café and The Rock City Saloon. Bonanza, which starred Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts, began shooting at the ranch in 1959.

The Walt Disney Productions series Zorro also shot at the ranch from 1957 to 1959. The masked vigilante was played by Guy Williams, whose birth name was Armando Joseph Catalano. He might be best known today though as the patriarch of the pioneering Robinson family in the 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space.

The desolate-looking retreat was perfectly suited to B-movies like Vic Savage’s science fiction Western, The Creeping Terror. The 1964 TV movie starred Savage as a sheriff, newly married to Shannon O’Neil, who has to quench the appetite of a monster which came out of a spaceship in his sleepy town. The violent massacre-revenge western The Talisman, directed by John Carr and starring Ned Romero and Linda Hawkins, was shot at the ranch in 1966. The Prohibition era gangster film, The Fabulous Bastard from Chicago (1969) was also shot at the property just before the Manson murders (but perhaps after Cliff Booth’s fictional visit in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Reference and Easter Egg Guide

The remote locale was also became depressingly perfect for “adult” Westerns, like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ incestuous themed Linda and Abilene (1969), which he followed up with the even more softcore The Wizard of Gore (1970). Set in the Old West, the former focused on the incestuous explorations of two farm orphans. The film starred Sharon Matt, Kip Marsh, and Bambi Allen.

The Female Bunch was shot at Spahn Ranch in the Summer of 1969. Directed by Al Adamson and starring Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff in West Side Story, it was horror legend Lon Chaney Jr.’s final film. And it gave him a special secondary role: The star of The Wolfman personally made a deal with the Manson family which allowed the filming to continue undisturbed.

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The 1969 biker movie Satan’s Sadists was also directed by Adamson while the Manson Family was living at the lot. According to the film’s star, Regina Carrol, the family wore guns and harassed female cast and crew members until Adamson had them thrown off the set. Satan’s Sadists was the last major motion picture filmed at Spahn Movie Ranch until the fire which destroyed the sets in the fall of 1970. But it wasn’t the only film which blurred the lines between the Manson Family and the filmmakers.

Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil, who played Satan in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, appeared in a Western-styled softcore porn movie The Ramrodder. Directed by Ed Forsyth and starring Roger Gentry and Kathy Williams, the film also featured Catherine Share, who joined the Manson Family. Beausoleil would meanwhile go on to commit murder at Manson’s behest in the summer of ’69. He’s still in prison where he records music. Share, on the other hand, did not commit murder, although she did try to intimidate a witness in the Charles Manson trial, and after 90 days in jail she was sent to prison for armed robbery. She was then in prison until 1975 where she was released and renounced Manson and disassociated herself from the “Family.” Lena Dunham plays her in the movie.

Brad Pitt plays the stuntman Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He may have been meting out revenge for real-life stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea. “Shorty” worked at the ranch while the Manson Family was encamped there. The cops raided Spahn Ranch on Aug. 16, 1969, and Manson blamed Shea. Manson, along with Tex Watson, Bruce Davis, Steve Grogan, Bill Vance, and Larry Bailey hit Shea over the head with a pipe wrench, threw him in the back seat of a car and stabbed him. But not to death, the tough stuntman stayed alert until he was stabbed to death o a hill behind the ranch. His body was found eight years later. It had been cut into nine pieces and buried.

“Shorty” Shea had bit parts in two films shot by  Greg Corarito on the ranch, including The Sadistic Hypnotist (1969), which featured a different kind of lashing. The film followed an S&M cult led by the hypnotic Wicked Wanda, played by Katharine Shubeck in her only IMDb-credited film role. Adamson filmed the whip-smart Western, Lash of Lust (1972) about a man who “hears with his eyes and speaks with his gun” at the ranch, as well as the neo-fascist investigation film Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970), starring Broderick Crawford.

Filming continued at the ranch after the murderous events of August 1969. One More Train to Rob (1971) directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, and starring George Peppard and Diana Muldaur, was filmed at the ranch. The TV series The Secrets of Isis, about an amulet which turns an archaeologist, played by JoAnna Cameron, into the goddess Isis, filmed at the ranch. It should be noted that Peppard is called one of “The Three Georges” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and McLaglen is disparaged as a hack by Kurt Russell’s stuntman in the movie.

read more: A History of Charles Manson in Movies and Pop Culture

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The ranch is long gone, but that didn’t stop more recent films to take advantage of the land and its notorious history, including the 2010 straight to video Western, 6 GunsFrankie in Blunderland (2011) also shot there, starring Aramis Sartorio, who best known under his porn name Tommy Pistol. But most of the films made on the land after the ranch was torn down were about the family who was kicked off the area. Director Frank Howard’s The Other Side of Madness (1971), which mixed documentary footage and reenactments. Manson, the 1973 documentary on the Manson family, directed by Robert Hendrickson, included interviews with Vincent Bugliosi and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Manson Family Movies (1984), directed by John Aes-Nihil, recreated Manson Family home movies.

The Spahn Ranch movie sets burned down in 1970, and Spahn died in 1974. The property was burned down again in 2005. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood retrieved a frontier legacy from the ashes and reminded people that, even with a murderous cult living on the spot, movies were actually made there once upon a time.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.