THE LURE (AND LORE) OF THE COWBOY. Michael F. Blake has been involved in the business of Hollywood for more than four decades. As a child actor, he grew up on the sets of the Lloyd Bridges Show, The Munsters, Bewitched and Adam-12.

But it's Westerns that are Blake's true love these days. He's just published Code of Honor: The Making of Three Great American Westerns, ambling through the dusty sets and directors' notes of High Noon, Shane and The Searchers.

"They're three of the all-time classic films and happen to be my favorites," he says.

It just so happens his dad, Larry Blake, played the saloon owner on High Noon. "He had the first spoken line in the film," says Blake of his father's small role in the 1952 Western.

For years, Blake had the idea for his book swirling around in his head. It wasn't until he prepared for his master's thesis in film studies at UCLA that he corralled his ideas into print. It was more than a theoretical interest that led him to these films.

"I've spent a lot of time around cowboys. And they do have a code of honor. With them, a handshake is the ultimate contract. They're a simple yet direct kind of character. Generally they're all very plain spoken, honest, respectful to women--maybe even a bit old-fashioned, still insisting on tipping their hat and fitting into traditional male roles," explains Blake.

"And these three films are quintessentially Western, with the lone figure standing up for the majority. They're a legacy from writers like Zane Grey."

Blake's been around cowboys, but not as an actor all these years. Instead, he makes his living doing makeup--award-winning makeup in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. He's made up folks in all kinds of films as well, from Independence Day to Sister Act.

"But cowboys are some of the best people to be around. You start talking to them, and they're very approachable, far more than some of the other actors I've been around. There's a directness and honesty that I really like.

"It's a funny thing: I grew up watching Gunsmoke and I was so into seeing Matt ride the horses and slinging his gun. I didn't understand why he cared about Kitty. But now, as an adult, I get it."

It's this lore of the cowboy that has stayed with Blake through the years to celebrate the Western's 100th anniversary and the 50th birthday of these three films.

"I chose them not only for their classic Western qualities. I hit the mother lode in terms of the available material left behind by the directors. All of them donated their papers to film libraries. Fred Zinneman was very meticulous in his notes on making High Noon. John Ford, on the other had, didn't have notes in the script, but his memos prior to production revealed lots of details.

"As a matter of fact, Ford was already thinking about a theme song for The Searchers well in advance of shooting."

Blake was able to glean how they mapped their oevre. But he also talked with other people associated with the films.

"Well, my dad had first-hand knowledge of what was going on in High Noon. So I was lucky there. But many of the lead actors on Shane had passed away by the time I was ready to interview them. And some, well, some were just reclusive, like Jack Palance.

"But you'd be surprised how much detail you can get from the film crew. I knew the makeup artist who worked on High Noon. I met the script supervisor on The Searchers. And I interviewed George Stevens, Jr. Apparently at 17, he assisted his dad directing Shane."

Blake says the Western genre is an icon that filters through many other films today.

"It's distinctly American. It's why country music is so popular. It's why made-for-TV specials on Turner Classic Movies are all about the Western. And it's not just popular in this country. My book just got a review in Germany, of all places.

"It just speaks to the simplicity of our culture and what we expect of ourselves. But it also translates into movies like Star Wars. Lucas borrowed heavily from The Searchers."

Is this why the American president has been referred to as a cowboy in other cultures?

"They see him as someone charging in, but so did Roosevelt. It's disparaging, but I think it's just that other cultures try to put us down, and to call President Bush a cowboy--well that's just one example. Why was it that the TV series Dallas was so popular in Europe? It's a reverence for the cowboy."

Blake says he's a bit disappointed at Tucson's disintegrating Western film preservation. "Old Tucson Studios' sets are gone. I wish they'd do more Westerns out there. Maybe the walking tours of Mescal will be a focal point."

Michael F. Blake talks about his book on Westerns at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 25, at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd. The reading is free. Call 319-7887 for more information.

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