By Bruce Bellingham
Mort Sahl and I wandered out of the Big 4 a few years ago. The afternoon sunlight blinded us. Glancing up, I saw a group of people across the street gathered on the steps of Grace Cathedral.
“Look, Mort,” says I, “they’re still waiting for Bishop Pike!”
Mort said immediately, “You mean Pike Bishop.”
I was silenced for a change, stunned for a moment. “Who’s Pike Bishop?” I asked.
“Pike Bishop was the William Holden character in The Wild Bunch.”
“Pike Bishop? How did that happen?” I asked. “Who’s Pike Bishop?”
Mort explained that his old friend Sam Peckinpah, the director on The Wild Bunch was fascinated by the strange disappearance of Bishop Pike.
You may recall that Bishop Pike was the Episcopal bishop, based at Grace Cathedral in the 1960s. There was much consternation when he disappeared in the Sinai Desert in 1969. I’m sure there was some relief too. Nob Hill hasn’t changed all that much. James A. Pike was found later, dead, a victim of a car accident in what is now called Israel. Come to think of it, it was called Israel then. It had always been called the Promised Land.
Up here on Nob Hill, Bishop Pike’s name for the old-timers is a low murmur, a distant tide of memory.
Few can recall it.
Gee, and I thought this was going to be a quick joke.
“So,” I asked Mort Sahl, “what fascinated Sam Peckinpah so much that he would insinuate Bishop Pike into his film, a very important film in so many ways?”
Mort gave me that treacherously winning smile.
“Sam would order two Scotches, then turn to me, and say, what are you having?” recalled Mort.
Think about it, Bishop Pike was under fire for being a roué, a boozer, a renegade – and, as the Episcopal Church asserted, “a heretic.”
I recall as a kid reading about Bishop Pike in Time magazine, being described as a heretic.
How cool is that?
I always wanted to be a heretic but no one would listen to me.
Mort said that Peckinpah, for whom Mort had worked as an actor, always loved renegades. I regret that Mort and I do not speak anymore. I hurt his feelings in some ways. It makes me feel quite bad.
After all, The Wild Bunch is part of my childhood.
How is that?
When I was a kid – 17 years old that is – I worked at a movie theater in New York City, in Greenwich Village, called the Bleecker Street Cinema. It was called in those days an art house or a repertory house. That means we’d show foreign or so-called experimental films. Today they call them indies.
To show a first-run film was out of the question. But the management decided to run a new film (this was in 1969) called The Wild Bunch. Why was it running in a rep house? Get this. It got an ‘X’ rating. An ‘X’ rating? Yes, it did. Not for the usual smutty reasons, but for the violence. You see, Peckinpah shot all the bloody shoot-’em-up scenes in slow motion. That freaked out a lot of people. Most of the critics who ambled into the Bleecker seemed to agree. Well, some. The mainstream chaps thought it was terrible. Pauline Kael, bless her, loved it. So did Roger Ebert. The few defenders of the movie.
As I think back on those days, I can’t help but think there was a holy moment in watching this beautiful, reckless movie.
No one but a grizzled, angry William Holden could have played the role of Pike Bishop.
Think about it. Pike Bishop, the gunslinger, was a determined man who went to the desert to finish his life, and be heroic, by shooting a lot of Mexicans; to stand up for a modicum of justice, massacre the local oppressors.
Bishop James Pike of San Francisco also went to the desert. He carried his theological six-guns. He stirred up the lone prairie with questions about God and Existence. He made everyone mad. What he was looking for is still a mystery. It certainly is to me. Do you think clergy should be equipped with handguns? There’s a thought.
It was bad news for all gathered on the steps of Grace Cathedral. Well, perhaps not. They actually looked quite happy. Bishop Pike had died for their sins. I’m sure he wished he could have participated. Only Mort Sahl and I seemed to have recalled both Bishops Pike in a truly reverent manner that day.
Bruce Bellingham is a writer, author of Bellingham by the Bay. Talk to him: email@example.com. No, that’s not right. Yell at him. Catch him at the airport before he escapes to Cuernavaca.