Behind the blockbuster, there's a friend's vow to a legend

For years, filmmakers tried to persuade Johnny Cash to let them make a movie of his life. However, the music legend was uncomfortable with Hollywood — distrustful, even — so he kept saying no.

But in this business, for producers, relationships are as much of a factor to sealing a picture deal as finding funds.

For “Walk the Line,” a 1993 guest appearance on the television series “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman,” changed Cash’s take on Hollywood and started the road to the finished film.

Not that Cash suddenly trusted Hollywood, but he developed what would turn into a long friendship with the episode’s director, James Keach.

They became so close that Keach and his wife, “Dr. Quinn” star Jane Seymour, named one of their sons after the singer, and Cash was godfather to the boy who now refers to himself as “the little man in black.”

And based on a friendship born on a set, Cash finally agreed to allow a biopic — but only if Keach were to produce.

Twelve years, two studios, three “Dr. Quinn” episodes and two funerals after their initial TV work, the movie “Walk the Line” has been nominated for best picture by the Producers Guild of America and has drossed more than $100 million. The film, produced by Keach, Cathy Konrad and James Mangold, who also directed, won Golden Globes this week for actor Joaquin Phoenix and actress Reese Witherspoon and took home the best picture (comedy or musical) Globe.

But only Keach could have gotten it off the ground, says the singer’s son, John Carter Cash.

“Without his friendship with my parents, the film never would have ended up in the hands where it ended, it never would have become the film it became,” says Cash, an executive producer of “Walk the Line.”

It became, Keach says, exactly what the singer wanted: a love story.

Other producers had wanted to make a movie about Cash’s addictions, Keach says, but the singer was not interested.

“He says, ‘I just don’t think that’s the story,’ ” Keach recalls.

Seymour remembers hearing Cash tell her husband he didn’t want a standard Hollywood film.

Keach says Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, felt strongly about the film, and spent hours and hours talking to screenwriter Gil Dennis and, later, to Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

But from the start, Cash agreed with Keach’s immediate vision that the movie should tell the public and private story of the couple’s meeting and love. And Cash agreed it should end with their marriage.

During the 11 years it took to get the film made, that vision was inviolate, Dennis says.

“Keach always felt that the movie should end with John proposing to June on the stage in London, Ontario, so that was a given,” says Dennis, who was one of Mangold’s professors at California Institute of the Arts.

Keach also worried about one of Cash’s concerns. The singer didn’t want the film to hurt anyone, or to portray anyone in a negative light. In fact, Cash saw himself as the villain of the story.

“I had to remind him that he’s the hero,” Keach says.

At the same time, Cash wanted the film to be true to the facts — what Seymour says Cash called “the gnarly truth.”

Keach and Seymour’s friendship with Cash and his wife made the couple comfortable with the movie, but Keach realized that, despite his deep knowledge of the story, he was at a disadvantage because he had no such knowledge of the singer’s music.

At the same time, Cash wanted the film to be true to the facts, including the unpleasant ones — what Seymour says Cash called “the gnarly truth.”

Meanwhile, Mangold, who is married to Konrad, had wanted to make a film about Cash for years, and had a similar vision — he had long figured the movie should end in 1968.

“I was really burning to make a movie about this particular guy,” Mangold says. “I wanted to do it with John and with the blessings of the family … so we pursued the rights holder of his material, which happened to be James Keach.”

In 1999, after several attempts to meet with Keach, they finally had breakfast with him. Dennis had encouraged the meeting, and Keach immediately recognized they were the right people for the project.

“I realized they were very strong personalities and they were partners,” Keach says.

He took them to Hendersonville, Tenn., to meet Cash, who agreed to work with them.

“John trusted that if I trusted someone … it would be OK,” Keach says. “My job on this movie … is to start with the idea, the vision, to frame the story, include the best people in the world to do it and to maximize everybody’s potential.”

Mangold says that Keach’s “role for us, personally, was really as an ambassador — to open the door to have us meet John. But James said to us numerous times, ‘I’ve done what I can do and I’m letting you guys do what you can do.’ It was very cordial that way.”

They all got about doing what they do: While Mangold and Dennis wrote, Konrad looked for a studio. At first, Sony agreed, but then declined. Meanwhile, the pair had secured Phoenix — their first choice for the role of Cash — and Witherspoon, whom they first discussed the role of June Carter Cash with at an engagement party the actress was throwing for a friend.

“We had this great package,” Konrad says. “We had a very good script and no one wanted to make the movie … Jim and I personally met with every chairman in Hollywood, we told them the budget was $25 million and everyone passed. Except (Fox 2000 President) Elizabeth Gabler.”

In December 2003, Fox closed the deal. The movie was filmed in the summer of 2004. It opened this past November.

Keach was delighted the movie was being filmed, but sad because his friends the Cashes had died within months of each other in 2003.

The movie, already an emotional project, took on even greater importance to the producer, who owns and occasionally plays one of Cash’s old guitars.

“I made a promise to my friend, and I know in my heart that this is a promise I kept,” Keach said. “That would be that God would be part of this story, that the spirit and love that June brought to him would be at the heart of his redemption.”

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