Junior Bonner: Prescott’s Hometown Classic

By Stuart Rosebrook

Junior Bonner screenwriter Jeb Rosebrook enjoyed a special moment on set during the first week of production of his debut film in Prescott, June 1971. (Photo by Allan Hilton; Rosebrook Family Collection)

Fifty years ago, ABC Pictures was preparing to leave the movie business, but first, they had two final productions to release: Cabaret on February 13 and Junior Bonner on June 20, 1972. Both had major casts and directors and received positive reviews. Both are considered classics in their genres.

How did Junior Bonner get produced in Prescott? It started with the screenwriter making an inspirational trip in 1970 to Prescott’s 4th of July rodeo.

My father Jeb Rosebrook and friend, R. Kirk Dunbar, traveled from Phoenix to Prescott to attend the World’s Oldest Rodeo. Little did anyone know the trip would inspire the short story that would change the fate of so many so quickly, especially our family.

Jeb, who first came to Prescott in early 1945 as a fourth-grade boarding student at Orme School, hadn’t been to Prescott since 1955. The changes he witnessed while driving on Highway 69 from Cordes Junction through Mayer, Humboldt, Dewey and Prescott Valley made a strong impression on him.

In September 1970, Jeb received an inquiry from his agent Mike Wise. “Robert Redford wants a rodeo story. Do you have one?” In fact, Jeb had written a first draft of “Bonner,” a story about an aging rodeo star whose career, family and hometown are on the line. Wise didn’t know “Bonner” was a highly personal tale about Jeb’s adopted hometown of Prescott.

The “Bonner” story and the screenplay developed under producer Joe Wizan’s tutelage reflected my father’s love of Prescott and Yavapai County, its history, culture and people. A novelist before turning to screenwriting, Jeb imbued his screenplay with real locations. When presented with the script in late 1970, early 1971, both Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah signed on to star and direct the film. Their reasons were many and personal, but most important, they wanted to make the film on location in Arizona in the real-time of Prescott’s Frontier Days Parade and the 84th Annual World’s Oldest Rodeo.

The cooperation of the Frontier Days/World’s Oldest Rodeo and Prescott allowed Peckinpah to direct the Bonner float and McQueen and Preston in the parade while the actual parade was happening on July 3, 1971. (ABC Pictures)

Because of Rosebrook’s script and its authenticity, the producers attracted a major cast in support of McQueen: Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker, Barbara Leigh, Casey Tibbs, Dub Taylor, Mary Murphy, Bill McKinney and Ben Johnson, who had just become the first rodeo champion to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor, The Last Picture Show).

Without Arizona Film Commission agent and Prescott Jaycee Rodeo chairman Bill Pierce’s knowledge of Prescott and Yavapai County and his ability to work with Sam Peckinpah’s prickly personality, Junior Bonner may not have been made in Prescott. {Rosebrook Family Collection)

Beyond the great cast, locations, production and script, a main reason the film was successful—and remains a snapshot in time—was its location manager, William Pierce, the local Arizona Film Commission representative, president of the Fair Association and the Prescott Jaycees rodeo chairman.

Pierce successfully landed the production of Junior Bonner for Prescott and Yavapai County because he recognized the locales Jeb wrote about and could open doors to secure all the locations. Equally important, Pierce was chair of the World’s Oldest Rodeo and could integrate the film’s crew, cast and stuntmen into the Parade and Rodeo competitions as they happened in real time.

Pierce’s contribution to making the film a reality was so appreciated by the production company, the film ends with a heartfelt message of thanks to the people of Prescott and Pierce. We should continue to express this heartfelt thanks to Bill Pierce, who will be the Honorary Grand Marshall of the 2022 Prescott Frontier Days Parade and World’s Oldest Rodeo on Saturday July 2. In addition, thanks to the generous spirit of the people of Prescott and Yavapai County. Without them, the community would not be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the classic film this summer.

Junior Bonner was not the only rodeo picture of 1972 (Redford’s call for a rodeo story was influential across Hollywood), but it can be argued that it’s not only the greatest rodeo movie ever – but also the best made in Prescott about Arizona and Arizonans.

McQueen tried to push his stunt work for realism. He rode out of the chute for the saddle-bronc sequence, but let the stunt man finish the ride. (ABC Pictures)

Stuart Rosebrook is the editor of True West magazine. A resident of Prescott, he assisted his late father in publishing his memoir Junior Bonner: The Making of a Classic in the Summer of 1971 with Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah. Stuart will present a free lecture on “Junior Bonner: Prescott’s Hometown Classic” on Saturday, June 18th, 2022 at 2 PM in the auditorium of the Fred W. Veil Education Center. Reservations are required. If the lecture is full, there is a wait list in the Admissions Office. If interested, call 928-277-2000.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to dayspast@sharlothallmuseum.org. Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at aarchivesrequest@sharlothallmuseum.org for information or assistance with photo requests.

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