Most American cinema fans know the 1968 movie “True Grit,” starring John Wayne and Billstown native Glen Campbell in his acting debut.
“True Grit” is based on the novel of the same name written by El Dorado native Charles Portis, and is set in Fort Smith. The heroine, Mattie Ross, lives on “good bottomland on the south bank of the Arkansas River, not far from Dardanelle in Yell County.”
The film version of “True Grit” — which won Wayne his only Oscar, for his portrayal of “Rooster” Cogburn, “deputy marshal for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas” — was a smash. Fewer recall Campbell’s next star turn — in a film version of another Portis novel, “Norwood.”
Portis was born Dec. 28, 1933. He worked at the Arkansas Gazette and was London correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune before leaving newspapers in 1964 to return to Arkansas and write fiction. After writing in a cabin for six months, Portis finished his first novel, “Norwood,” published in 1966.
In his 1994 biography, Campbell said “Norwood” was “a ridiculous story that set back the cause of country music and perpetuated every stereotype of country musicians as hicks.” The book’s title character is more of a wannabe musician, but Campbell may have a point. Unlike the noble rural Arkansas folk of Portis’ “True Grit,” Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Texas, isn’t the brightest, but in the book, he is at least a principled hero. The movie is less nuanced.
Joe William Reese of Old Carthage is the hero’s military buddy who owes Norwood $70. Reese inadvertently starts Norwood on his odyssey — to find Reese and reclaim that $70.
Just like in “True Grit,” a famous non-actor made his cinematic debut in “Norwood” — NFL quarterback Joe Namath, who cameos as Reese. Meredith McRae (TV’s “Petticoat Junction,” “My Three Sons”) stars as Reese’s bikini-wearing, convertible-driving Arkansas girlfriend. Dom DeLuise gets some bright spots as Norwood’s new brother-in-law, Bill Bird. But surely Paramount Pictures execs were most excited about the re-pairing of Campbell with “True Grit” lead Kim Darby and another Portis story.
Mac Davis is a songwriter on six of the 14 tracks on the “Norwood” soundtrack, released on LP in 1969 by Capitol Records. Campbell’s Capitol producer wrote six instrumentals. Mitchell Torok, who was managed at one time by Fabor Robison of Beebe, has two feature songs. Campbell handled all the lead vocals.
The Norwood character idolizes singer Lefty Frizzell, and both Frizzell and author Portis grew up in El Dorado. In the book, Norwood is given similar roots: “Between Stamps, Arkansas, and Hooks, Texas. … Once, near Stamps, they lived in a house between a Tastee-Freez stand and a cinder-block holiness church.”
Not all agreed “Norwood” was cinematic gold. Here again is Campbell: “Pratt was a hayseed whose big dream was to get on the Louisiana Hayride with a pet chicken standing on his guitar. In rehearsals, the chicken kept defecating on my arm.” Actually, in the book, Norwood merely rescues the chicken, and Campbell’s musicianship is played up for the film. In fact, in the widest departure from Portis’ book, Norwood improbably ends up on the Hayride as the film concludes.
“I had three movies left to do on my contract,” Campbell said. “I walked away. I haven’t been in motion pictures since.”
“Ol’ Norwood’s Comin’ Home”
“The Repo Man”
“Norwood (Me and My Guitar)”
“I’ll Paint You a Song”

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