I recently discovered this wonderful little story which originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune – June 18th 2017. It also led me to track down a couple of ‘then and now’ photos which illustrate just how little this beautiful part of Montana has changed over the decades.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was produced largely in Great Falls and the surrounding area. It’s a classic, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, and for many it’s memorable. For one man who lives across the world, the film has formed the fabric of his life.
Klaus Erik Okstad 57, is a TV journalist from Norway who first saw the film in 1974. He’s been obsessed with it ever since. Five years ago, he made his first trip to Big Sky Country.
“Having had Montana in and my mind since 1974 I was finally ‘coming home,’” Klaus says in an email. “Driving in evening light towards Choteau I felt instantly I was in the movie and that with very few exceptions the Great Falls area buildings and landscapes look pretty much like they did in 1973.”
The crime film, which also starred George Kennedy and was directed by Michael Cimino, who later made the brilliant “Deer Hunter,” was shot in the summer of 1973 on location in Hobson, Wolf Creek, Fort Benton and Great Falls.
“The real star of this picture is the Montana landscape,” Klaus says. “It was love at first sight. From the fabulous opening shot of the church in Hobson to the final images on I-15 the film gives you a sense ‘Place and America’ that really moved me. I think it is one of the best ‘location movies’ Hollywood has made.”
Klaus has made two additional trips to the Great Falls area, always with the intent of visiting the locations used in the filming. “The three trips,” he says, “have resulted in a large-format, three-volume book. One for every location in the film with comparison shots location today.” He has 300 pages worth, and has even given a copy to Jeff Bridges. Klaus was in California in December of 2015 and Bridges was giving a musical concert at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
(left) Klaus showed up five hours before the event and bingo, Bridges was there to rehearse. “He had long hair and an avalanche of a beard,” Klaus says, “but he was instantly recognisable.” So Klaus told the actor he had a gift for him and handed over the 300 pages on the Great Falls movie made decades before. “He was all smiles,” Klaus says. “And as I was about to show him the book he looked at my very loud shirt with a Navajo pattern and said: ‘Cool shirt, man.’ His laid-back California presence is something to behold.” Bridges, of course, has had a fabulous career on the silver screen, with films like “True Grit, The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart” and “The Last Picture Show.” “He remains,” says Klaus, “a favourite actor of mine.”
Clint Eastwood has been a favourite for millions of movie-goers for decades. It was true in 1973 as well. But Clint wasn’t really treated like a celebrity when he spent time in the Minneapolis Bar, the late, great lower Southside watering hole that for more than 100 years offered boozing and schmoozing for Great Falls folks. Paul Horning and his family owned the place. Back in 1973 Paul was an 18-year-old bartender and, he says, “sure enough Eastwood was hanging out at the Minnie House.” Paulie says he saw the famed actor more than once. “He was there probably a dozen or 15 times,” Paul says. “And the last time he was in, he came up to my father (Phil) and I and said ‘Thanks guys, for making for feel so welcome here and for not letting other people bother me.’”
So the Hornings looked out for Clint and kept the regulars away?
“We didn’t have to,” Paul says. “What was amazing about the whole thing was people would come in and go, ‘Oh look, is that Clint Eastwood over there shooting pool? Hey it is, isn’t that cool. OK, give me a Bud.’ “The whole time he was in here I think one person asked him for an autograph,” Paul laughs. Clint usually had a few folks with him in the bar. But one time he was alone. “He was looking for somebody to play pool against,” Paul says. “And I said I would. He goes, ‘Do you want to play for a beer, kid?’ And I was like sure.” It was Paulie’s bar. And guess who won the game? “So he had to buy me a beer,” Paul laughs. “I should have saved that beer.”
Klaus has never met Clint Eastwood. But he has met his son, Kyle. “Kyle had a bit part in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, ” Klaus says. “He buys an ice cream outside Meadowlark school.” Klaus met Kyle at a jazz concert in Oslo four years ago. “Kyle was five at the time (of the Great Falls movie shoot),” Klaus says. “He called it his first paid gig, since he got the $25 that all the extras got.” Klaus says the Great Falls Tribune covered the filming at Meadowlark and had photos of Clint and Kyle between takes.
Below: Meadowlark Elementary School, 2204 Fox Farm Road, Great Falls, Montana -Then and Now
What captured Klaus about the film then and now?
“The film turns on the Eastwood-Bridges relationship,” Klaus says. “Eastwood confidently draws on his tender, vulnerable side. And Bridges, after his adult debut in ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971), continues to refine and define his role as the optimistic, small-town all-American boy, retaining a cheerful, bewildered innocence even as he grows older.” If Klaus sounds like he’s carried away by the 44-year-old film, it’s because he is. And really, what’s wrong with that? “I will definitely visit Great Falls and the surrounding areas again,” he says. “And have breakfast at Tracy's on Central Avenue. I am from mountainous Norway but simply love the Rocky Mountain Front and the plains below it.
“Prairie,” he adds, “we ain't got in Norway.” Klaus has a message he wants to spread, too. “If any of you good Great Falls citizens have pictures or stories from the shooting of the film 44 years ago,” he says, “please let me hear from you.”
Below: The house on River view Drive East, Great Falls, Montana, that lawn is still looking good