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The Cowboy Chronicles

"No, he wasn't difficult," I said. "And he wasn't method either. His mother was an acting teacher. He thought he could act the role without having to live it."

While we were shooting the movie, everybody wore cowboy clothes -- cast, crew, director, writer -- everyone but John Travolta. As soon as we wrapped each evening, he would strip off his cowboy shirt and put on a T-shirt. He would exchange his cowboy boots for huge running shoes. He seemed to need to put a wall between himself and the role. But the day we finished shooting the movie, Travolta started wearing nothing but cowboy clothes.

Winger was just the opposite. She wanted to live the role in order to act the role. She thought the two of them should have real sex and real fights. But John wouldn't play. That is, he wouldn't play until we came to the scene in which he was supposed to slap her. Suddenly he got real. He slapped her so hard he knocked out one of her front teeth. Debra had finally gotten John to fight for real, but she still got nowhere trying to seduce him. Until we stopped shooting. Then John Travolta had an affair with Debra Winger and even asked her to marry him. But she said no. The movie was over.

Clint Black never did make it to the reading. "Just how interested are you in doing the music for Urban Cowboy?" I asked him over the phone.

"Well, I do have some problems with it," Clint admitted in his Texas-cured drawl. "You know, people think Urban Cowboy changed country music. Made it less pure."

"It helped bring a lot of people to country music who hadn't been fans before," I said. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"It was just too popular. People don't like that. Would you be willing to change the name?"

"No!" I said a little too sharply.

He sent $3,000 to help pay for the reading he would miss.

Phil and I had our second fight. wedisagreed about who should play Pam. He said my choice was just like every girl he had ever seen in every chorus. I said his Pam was even worse. Later he called to say that my Pam had a conflict and couldn't do the role anyway. I sort of believed him.

This time we invited show people. Mike Nichols offered kind words and welcome advice: He thought we should change the ending.

Actors Equity allows only twenty hours of rehearsal before a read-through. We started on Sunday at noon. We had four days to get the show on its feet, and we got off to an unpromising start. Jodi Stevens, Phil's blonde and beautiful Pam, showed up in character: Like the spoiled rich girl she was to play, Jodi hadn't done her homework. We wasted two precious hours going over the lyrics. I felt a spasm of pessimism. We were never going to be ready by Thursday!

Norman-my-doorman announced the arrival of Lauren Lucas, our 17-year-old Sissy. Tall, probably five-foot-ten. Well-constructed. Lovely face with a nose that tilted slightly upward. And long brown hair down to her shoulder blades. She really was Sissy from the first moment I saw her. It didn't hit me until later that Lauren hadn't even been born when the movie Urban Cowboy opened.

James Carpinello, our Bud, arrived; fortunately, he and Lauren had learned the words and most of the notes. When we rehearsed the falling-in-love scene, nobody kissed nobody.

Two hours later came Jim Newman, who would play Wes, the outlaw. Jim was from Alabama, so he already had a southern -- if not quite a Texas -- accent. He sang a Travis Tritt song about a convict who broke out of jail. In the movie, Wes was out on parole, but the real-life character he was based on was an escapee hiding out at Gilley's. Phil pronounced Jim "perfect."

On the second day of rehearsals, Sissy was first up.

"I'm set on fencin' in a desperado/ takes my breath away like Colorado," Lauren sang, taking my breath away, "who ain't afraid to walk a mile in my boots, ooohh, Buckaroo."

Then Jodi arrived. This time, she was ready. "Here's Pam's story," Phil said. "It's that business of I love you, you're perfect, now change. She's making him into her daddy. What she really wants is to feel, and she does feel in this song."

James Carpinello arrived, as always in white T-shirt, and got right to work.

"James, you're going into TV acting," Phil warned. "You've got to stay big."

Tuesday, the penultimate rehearsal day, our Uncle Bob, Michael Mulheren, who had been sick, arrived more or less healthy and completely in character: avuncular and caustic. Michael's body is built on a wide chassis: He reminded me of a truck. In the musical, Uncle Bob's job is to tell Bud when he is screwing up, so Michael lectured James all day long. "Now, James, if you don't straighten up," he drawled, "I'm gonna have to take you out back and introduce you to somebody you don't wanna meet." When somebody mentioned that my wife, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, was going to be our narrator at the reading, Michael asked: "What's the matter, Ed Bradley wasn't available?"

I wanted Michael to be my Texas uncle. Some of them had let me down lately.

Two mornings later, 60 rented folding chairs arrived at my apartment. We had scheduled the reading for two in the afternoon. As the invited audience began arriving, I hid out in my office. When I heard the piano, I emerged but stayed at the back of the room. We had a more than full house. I recognized the back of my daughter Taylor's head; she had driven down from Amherst College for the performance and would drive back as soon as it was over. I also recognized my agent, Sterling Lord. But mostly I recognized friends. We had deliberately not invited producers or investors, because we didn't think we were ready for them yet.

Lauren made a dramatic entrance, coming down a winding staircase. She and James had a long talk under a starry New York living-room Texas sky. Would they kiss at the end of the scene? Yes, they kissed. Was it her first kiss?

Lesley drew the biggest laugh. As narrator, she was called upon to describe the aftereffects of Bud's first rides on the mechanical bull. He kept getting hurt in the same painful place.

"Thanks to the bull, his balls are bruised," said my wife. "Aaron, do I have to keep saying balls?"

Our second staged reading -- held last January -- was in most ways superior to the first. Instead of my living room, we had the Clark Theater at Lincoln Center. Instead of just a piano player, we had a piano and a band. The $11,000 in production costs was underwritten by Prosper Arts, a small nonprofit production company run by a very young producer named Matthew Putman.