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LEE PURCELL REFLECTS THE CULT CLASSIC OF 'BIG WEDNESDAY'

Actress Lee Purcell Interview on the John Milius surf classic BIG WEDNESDAY pictured here with Jan-Michael Vincent
How were you selected for the role of Peggy Gordon in BIG WEDNESDAY? There is a funny story about my audition. I was given the script and invited to audition for the role Patti (d’Arbanville) ended up playing, but I had already recently played similar characters. So I asked if I could instead audition for the role of Peggy. John (Milius) said yes, but that I had to come into Warner Brothers Studio and show them how I looked in a bikini.

I was appalled since I was a “serious” actress, trained in London, etc. But, I wasn’t going to get the role if I didn’t, so I showed up in a trench coat with a bikini underneath. I told them to watch me carefully and not blink, and “flashed” everyone in the room then quickly closed the coat. They all laughed and I had the role then and there.
Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Purcell and Gary Busey in BIG WEDNESDAY
Was there any preparation for the actors/actresses in pre-production? The only group preparation that I remember was one table-read at Warner Bros. After that, we were on our own creating our respective characters’ universes, until being on set and hearing Action. I became good friends with John and Billy Katt.

There seems to be such a unique and genuine closeness of the central characters in this film… Was there a family-like feeling on set? I don’t think anyone was actually close – it was just good acting, good direction, good writing. And the natural evolution of being with a group of strangers over a period of months day after day in isolated conditions. A certain dynamic develops that translates to the screen. It happens on many sets. Each actor has their own style of preparation, and whatever that was, perhaps helped create the on-camera illusion of closeness.
William Katt, Gary Busy, Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Purcell, Sam Melville, Darrell Fetty & Dennis Aaberg
It seems more pronounced in this film because that is what was on the written page. The film was about universal themes of friendship, loyalty and love. It happened to be set against a surfing background with that as the metaphor, because surfing and the BW story were autobiographical for John and Denny (Aaberg). But, it could have been football, or a factory, or anything else.

Of course, the three guys, Jan (Jan-Michael Vincent), Billy (Katt) and Gary (Busey) spent more time together to learn, and/or improve, how to surf (someone of them had never surfed, I don’t remember who) and they got to travel to distant locations together and they just had more time on the film than Patti and I had, so there would be more of that natural evolution that I spoke of above for them.
Lee Purcell and Patti D'Arbanville in BIG WEDNESDAY
Patti and I were ordered by John to get tan for the film, since we were both naturally pale-skinned. I didn’t want to tan my face, as it is so bad for the skin, so Patti and I sunned ourselves on my little patio at my little Laurel Canyon house day after day, getting tan. Except, I kept a towel over my face to protect my skin, so I was tan from the neck down, but very pale from the neck up.

John was very puzzled and kept trying to figure out why the skin on my face wouldn’t tan, but my body did, and I never said anything until now. I knew that makeup could easily give me a fake tan on my face, so I never let my face tan. If John reads this, he’ll laugh.
Jan-Michael Vincent and Lee Purcell in at a screening of Liquid Dreams from BIG WEDNESDAY
A thought: Many people say how much like our characters we BW actors are in life or that we grew to be like them in real life. I always found that particular concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy odd and not true.

I just think it was great casting by Karen Rea. We, as actors, could hardly be like each character we play, as they are so varied! I am certainly not like Peggy in real life. But, I really enjoyed creating and playing her.
Lee Purcell's Peggy reacts to being called "The Point Grinder" in BIG WEDNESDAY
Memories of the Mexico bar-fight scene?
I was avoiding getting actually injured in the fight scene since it was pretty wild. There is one point in that scene where I had to repeatedly duck to the floor after the camera panned away from me to not get punched – take after take.

There’s another scene where we’re all walking down a dark Tijuana street and we’re approached by a creepy drug dealer played by John Milius! And he was very good. He made me laugh and laugh; I could hardly breathe from trying not to laugh in the scene and would burst out laughing when he yelled Cut. It still makes me laugh when he says that line to me when I see him.
Lee Purcell takes the water hose to the guys in BIG WEDNESDAY
How about the keg party scene? The best part for me was in the “bathroom” when I tell a girl she should wear a padded bra and she responds that she already is! Very funny and very realistic female dialogue! Also, when Jan (Matt) and I were on the couch towards the end, and my character is so drunk that I fall over sideways. That was my improv and John loved it and kept it in. Of course, then I had to fall over and over, from different angles, for many takes. I also loved working with Billy’s mother, Barbara Hale – she is a great woman, a real trouper and very funny.

The water hose scene was a very fast, one-take scene, for obvious reasons. I was so nervous I wouldn’t get it right and knew the consequences if I didn’t, so I did get it right! I was so relieved.
Barbara Hale, Fran Ryan, William Katt, Patti D'Arbanville, Lee Purcell, Amber Vincent, Reb Brown & Gary Busey
How about Bear’s wedding scene? I loved working with Sam Melville (Bear); he was a wonderful person and terrific actor. That scene has a wonderful bittersweet quality to it that is so true of time passing, people growing up and the inevitable changes of life. Also, the “bride” in that sequence was John Milius’ actual wife, Celia Kaye, at the time...

More trivia: the adorable little blonde girl who played Jan’s (Matt) and my (Peggy) daughter is Jan’s actual real-life daughter… There was quite a bit of that type of down-home casting in the film, i.e. John’s wife playing the bride, etc. I also remember Jake Busey, a toddler at the time, being around, but I don’t remember if he was actually filmed.
Lee Purcell in the road trip sequence of BIG WEDNESDAY
Your character Peggy Gordon has quite a story arc… How did you prepare for a character that goes through so many changes? Because of the chronology in the story, and also because we were shooting in a bit later era from the film’s story era, I created a written timeline for myself that I could refer to as needed.

Since we were, of course, also shooting out of sequence, within the span of a day’s shooting, I could be the beach girl, then the mom, then back to the beach girl, etc.
An older, wiser but just as beautiful Peggy Johnson played by Lee Purcell in BIG WEDNESDAY
So, the timeline was a great help to me. Also, because we were portraying an earlier era, there was research involved in that to be authentic to the time.

I also created a biography for my character that I could refer to. Plus, since I was playing a person loosely based on a real-life girl John and Denny had known, I interviewed them both about her. Her name was changed in the script. I wanted Peggy to “grow up” on camera, and I think that worked out.
Patty D'Arbanville and Lee Purcell credited in BIG WEDNESDAY
Big Wednesday Interview with Lee Purcell by James M. Tate
Jan-Michael Vincent and Lee Purcell in BIG WEDNESDAY
Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Purcell and William Katt in BIG WEDNESDAY
Lee Purcell and Jan-Michael Vincent in BIG WEDNESDAY aka Summer of Innocence
Lee Purcell as Peggy Gordon turned Peggy Johnson in her last scene of BIG WEDNESDAY
Lee Purcell as Peggy Gordon in BIG WEDNESDAY by John Milius

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