Unsung Auteurs: Bill L. Norton

March 24, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Bill L. Norton, veteran director of the brilliant 1970s cult curio Cisco Pike.

The 1960s and 1970s bore a host of against-the-grain countercultural voices, from movie icons like Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson (whose Easy Rider, of course, changed the very cinematic landscape itself) to quieter but no less vital voices like Bob Rafelson, Henry Jaglom, Hal Ashby, Barbara Kopple, Stuart Hagmann and many, many more. One name, however, that has vanished almost completely from the ledger is that of Bill L. Norton, who has also been credited, at various times, as B.L Norton, B.W.L Norton, William Lloyd Norton and just plain ol’ Bill Norton. Why the credit changes? Unfortunately, we have no idea, as initial standard research (y’know, Google) has yielded zero in the way of interviews or detailed biographical information.

Born in 1943 in Los Angeles, Bill L. Norton is the son of the late screenwriter William W. Norton, who penned the Burt Reynolds good ol’ boy belters White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976), along with exploitation flicks like I Dismember Mama (1972), Big Bad Mama (1974), A Small Town In Texas (1976) and Moving Violation (1976), and John Wayne’s London-set, Dirty Harry-inspired 1975 cop flick Brannigan. William W. Norton was also a WW2 veteran, a communist (he was infamously dragged before HUAC), a supporter of The Irish National Liberation Army (he was imprisoned for supplying them with guns), and even a killer, having acted lethally in self-defence when his home was broken into while living in Nicaragua in the 1980s. With such an outlaw figure for a father, it’s no surprise that Bill L. Norton would gravitate so heavily toward America’s counterculture in the 1970s.

Bill L. Norton

Norton’s first writing credit was shared with his father on the completely forgotten 1964 sex comedy How To Succeed With Girls, a lurid potboiler about a group of chorus girls stalked by a Peeping Tom. After working as a camera operator on three features (the Elvis flick Girl Happy, Arthur Penn’s The Chase and Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie), Norton made his feature debut in 1972 with what remains his key work: Cisco Pike. Though now largely and inexplicably forgotten, the film is a perfect example of the unusual films that have come to define the 1970s.

When the aforementioned Easy Rider lit a box office fire under conservative Hollywood, the major studios – always ready to chase a trend and make a buck, no matter how absurd it may be – started courting every hippie and free-thinker under the hard-baking LA sun, resulting in a slew of odd, freewheeling films that largely sank without a trace. Most were far from bad, but Easy Rider was a distinct and singular one-off, and its mammoth success was near impossible to duplicate.

Kris Kristofferson and Karen Black in Cisco Pike.

Major studio Columbia released Easy Rider, and it took a similar gamble on Cisco Pike, though this one didn’t pay off in the same way, with the film failing to really register at the box office. That, however, has nothing to do with its quality. Perhaps sensing a trend, this Columbia-backed curio, like Easy Rider, also features a drug dealer as its hero, at one time absolute anathema for a Hollywood studio movie.

In his first major big screen role, country singer Kris Kristofferson is all loose-limbed, raw-boned charisma and cool as Cisco Pike, a famous singer just out of prison for dealing grass. His efforts to get his life and career – as well as his relationship with Karen Black’s goofy but sensible sweetheart – back on track are almost instantly foiled when Leo Holland (a typically fierce and compelling Gene Hackman) – the jittery, idiosyncratic cop who put him behind bars – shows up on his doorstep with a particularly indecent proposal.

Kris Kristofferson and Gene Hackman in Cisco Pike.

The corrupt Holland has stolen a massive haul of top-grade weed, and he wants Cisco to sell it for him…or he’ll frame him and send him straight back to prison. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Cisco starts offloading the grass, beginning a tour through LA’s hip counterculture scene, which is surprisingly located in every socio-economic strata of the famously debauched city.

Boasting a lazy, laidback feel, and a supporting cast of wonderful oddballs (Andy Warhol “superstar” Viva and cult actress Joy Bang winningly play cute upper class drug fiends; Texan musician Doug Sahm plays a hipster singer; Harry Dean Stanton is Kristofferson’s decrepit former musical partner; Antonio Fargas is a drug dealer; and Severn Darden is a sleazy lawyer), Cisco Pike is a perfect piece of forgotten seventies cinema. So powerfully of its era, the film (which featured uncredited script work from Robert Towne) really should have seen Bill L. Norton elevated as a major voice with a true understanding of the counterculture scene.

Peter Fonda in Outlaw Blues.

Norton continued along that track with the screenplays for 1977’s excellent Outlaw Blues (in which Peter Fonda’s revenge-seeking country singing convict has his hit song stolen by a country star when he performs in his prison) and Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 smash hit rebel trucker epic Convoy (in which Kris Kristofferson leads a protest convoy against a corrupt sheriff), and also with what would eventually become his feature follow-up to Cisco Pike. After directing the bottom-feeding but highly enjoyable and entertaining 1972 horror telemovie Gargoyles (a kitschy, creepy low budget wonder of practical effects starring Cornel Wilde and Scott Glenn), Norton’s second feature would be a sequel to a massive hit from director George Lucas.

With 1979’s More American Graffiti, Norton took the returning characters from Lucas’ freewheeling 1973 smash American Graffiti (a 1962-set plot-free tale of cruising teens and their cars on one eventful night), and placed them into a series of far more adult situations, like The Vietnam War, student protests, parenthood, and the feminist movement. Following different characters over four consecutive New Year’s Eves throughout the 1960s, and shot in a variety of styles and film-stocks to suit each story, More American Graffiti is that all-too-rare example of a sequel to a hit film that really tries to do something fresh and original with the material. While American Graffiti was a crowd-pleasing celebration of youthful energy and exuberance, More American Graffiti daringly moves away from that with its slightly darker subject matter. The film failed to replicate the box office success of its predecessor, and is barely remembered today, which is truly sad because it’s a bold, inventive work that once again speaks to Norton’s keen interest in and understanding of America’s fringe culture in the 1970s.

A scene from More American Graffiti.

From there, Bill L. Norton’s career took an unusual turn. He next penned the excellent 1982 teen sex comedy Losin’ It, one of seemingly thousands of movies to take the Porky’s ball and really run with it. But with a fine director in Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential, 8 Mile), a great young cast that included Tom Cruise, Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell and Shelley Long, and Norton’s funny, perceptive and sensitive script, Losin’ It really is a cut above its sordid 1980s T&A brethren. Norton’s next feature film represented another strange left turn, with the director taking the reins on the 1985 family film Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend, in which William Katt and Sean Young (!)  play a married journalist and palaeontologist, respectively, who discover a brontosaurus mother-and-mother in Africa, and must fight off various unsavoury elements who want them. Cute, unassuming and with its heart in the right place, Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend is a family-friendly charmer, but there’s not much of Bill L. Norton evident in the film.

There was a little more of the director in the unlikely 1987 comedy Three For The Road, in which Charlie Sheen’s political wannabe and his wannabe writer pal Alan Ruck head cross country to deposit the troublesome daughter (Kerri Green) of a corrupt, morally reprehensible US Senator (Raymond J. Barry) into a mental institution. The film’s anti-authoritarian tone and loopy subject matter would perhaps have been a strong appeal to Norton (the film’s screenwriter, Rich Mancini, claims that his original script was much, much darker, and much funnier too, but was completely rewritten at the behest of the film’s backers), but the result is a muddled and haphazard affair. Though not without its charms, Three For The Road doesn’t match the wonderfully freewheeling feel of Norton’s earlier work.

William Katt and Sean Young in Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend.

After Three For The Road failed to make an impact at the box office, Norton moved into the world of episodic television, helming instalments of Tour Of Duty, Profiler, Roswell, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Medium, Law & Order, The Guardian, Ghost Whisperer and many, many more. Norton has also directed a long, long list of television movies, working with genre faves like Jane Seymour (1990’s Angel Of Death), Donna Mills (1991’s False Arrest) and Cheryl Ladd (1996’s Vows Of Deception and 1998’s Every Mother’s Worst Fear). While a couple of teen crime spree telemovies (Bad To The Bone with Kristy Swanson and Jeremy London; Stolen Innocence with Tracey Gold) brighten the field, Bill L. Norton deserved to be doing far more interesting work than this.

Though Bill L. Norton was never able to really rise up to the outlaw potential of his early films, he remains a filmmaker with a fistful of truly fascinating credits, and an obvious gift for telling stories that go against the grain.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Larysa Kondracki, Mel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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