The Cinematic Life of Black Jack Young

It is difficult to find one's way through the muddy reflexiveness that typifies the history of the film industry in Southern Arizona, but it is not difficult to understand why the people once involved in it would do anything to get it back.

It is not just that the blue-collar, labor-intensive work feeding and building props for the aldermen of popular culture tends to seem more glamorous, and more expensive, than it really is. It is not just that mowing lawns, shuttling people, painting buildings and holding microphones seem like more than just jobs when done to support even a bad film, though that is probably part of it. But there may be something more in this subculture that perhaps the region's tourism departments could learn from, and no one person represents this subculture more than 74-year-old production manager Black Jack Young.

If the life of Black Jack Young were ever made into a movie--and it contains many decidedly cinematic episodes--it wouldn't be that different from the hundreds of films produced in Tucson over the last half-century, as it has been punctuated by the very qualities that most Westerns try to reveal through steely-eyed cowboys and mythic gunfighters. These qualities--the best of which may be independence, a commitment to taking risks and, most of all, individualism--are integral to Young's personality. But it is hard to tell if he learned them from the movies, or if, perhaps, the movies learned them from him.

After spending World War II as a frogman working with underwater demolitions, Young went to Hollywood, yearning to act. Because, as he said, he "was never the best actor," Young fell into stunt work, and often doubled for Clark Gable, to whom he bore a striking resemblance in his younger days. It was during his work on the B-Westerns Hollywood was churning out in the 1950s that Young took the movietone rubric "Black Jack."

"We would start one of those movies on Monday, finish on Wednesday, start another one on Wednesday and finish on Friday," he said. "It was truly Hollywood in those days. I was having a ball playing cowboy and making big money."

Those 1950s Hollywood B-Westerns, much more than Old Tucson, played a major role in shaping the way the world views the old and, unfortunately, the contemporary West.

Then, in 1959, while working stunts during the filming of The Alamo, Young fell off his horse and was nearly trampled to death. He fractured his skull, punctured his lung and spent 17 days in a coma.

"After I got out (of the hospital) it just wasn't the same; it wasn't fun anymore," he said.

Fun or not, Young continued to work stunts until he watched a fellow stuntman lose his leg while filming a train robbery for the classic film How the West Was Won.

During a stint at Old Tucson working on McClintock with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, Young met Bob Shelton. At the time Shelton was looking for a gunfighter to put on shows for tourists, the kind of Old West claptrap that Old Tucson is now primarily known for. Since Young had by his own admission spent the last 15 years playing cowboy in Hollywood, he seemed a perfect choice for the job.

"We wanted the image of Gary Cooper in High Noon, Shelton said. "And Jack had a great sense of theater and staging about him."

Soon Young was becoming more and more involved with the studio work at Old Tucson, working in casting and production and even public relations.

Then, in 1972, Young decided to go out on his own, creating Jack Young Film Services. Over the years he's been up and down, he said, working all the time when things were good, working sometimes not at all.

"It was a gamble to stay in Tucson and do this kind of work," he said. "But my whole life has been a gamble."

These days, like most of his friends in the local industry, he's always scrounging for the next gig, no matter how small. Though known all over as the primary production manager, location scout and all-around film industry go-to guy in Southern Arizona, and after almost 54 years in the business, Young still seems to be living the kind of Western life dramatized in a movie he helped make, perhaps the greatest Western ever made--Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable.

In that movie, the aging Gable, whom Young doubled for, sums up his philosophy of life in one resonant phrase--a phrase that probably a lot of people like Young and Shelton and all the others over the years who have tried to live in Tucson and work in the movie industry have voiced at least once:

"Anything's better than wages."

And that, after all, may be the one Western cultural cliché--whether learned from the movies or the people who make them--that is real and true.