"This all started with a phone call," Don Schisler said as he took the floor at the Super 8 Motel this past weekend to relate his experiences with the hit TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard."
"The film commissioner of the State of Georgia had recommended me to do the picture cars. I'd done picture cars for years on commercials and other features. The phone rang and it was John Marenda, and he said, 'Can you meet at the Holiday Inn tomorrow morning?' This was about six weeks before the first day of principal photography."
So did Schisler bite? You betcha. This Dearborn, Michigan, native, who attended Wayne State University in Detroit and even worked for Ford Motor Co. for a time, became the transportation director for our beloved show. "I'm sort of a Georgia redneck version of a casting director for cars. The General hadn't even been chosen as a Dodge Charger. The art director and the director have the big say-so. For the General, I put up three cars: I put a Firebird, a Mustang and a Charger as a he-man sort of thing. The Charger was the best choice because it was a little bigger and it's about as macho as they come. In retrospect, they don't come any better."
Schisler told the group gathered in the meeting room of the motel in Covington last Friday that his wife read the script for "The Dukes of Hazzard" back then and said it would never reach the screen. "She said, 'There's no story here. There's no meat here.' It was very vanilla. But when you put the whole thing together -- the right people, the right location -- everything went together magically, to end up being something that went to No. 1 on the charts."
And Schisler's own role was so crucial, since this was to be a show that was as much about a car as it was about people. But for the action to start, models of that "he-man" 1969 Dodge Charger had to be secured. "These were cars that had been flailed for all those years. The first thing we had to do was get them to the shop. And it was safety, safety, safey. ... It changed my whole life when Rodney Mitchell was killed." (Just a day away from leaving the set for another production, Mitchell died on June 18, 1980, when a camera car rolled over as it hit a soft side of the shoulder of the road in Lake Sherwood, California.)
"The cars arrived here to the Holiday Inn," Schisler continued. "I don't think any of them was a good start. They had to have new batteries. One of the worst things we had to do was get the rear brakes to work. So the first thing we did is we went to the parts store ... I went down to the drag race shop and bought all the line locks, and I put the line locks in the circuit going to the front wheels. They were originally hydraulic locks for wreckers. My dad was service manager for Hudson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and all the Hudson's would buy line locks. I had a liberal education when I was 12 years old with line locks in Pittsburgh. The Baxleys were hitting me over the head, why couldn't you make these rear brakes lock up? So that worked out. I carried one of those in my camera car."
Appropriately enough, Schisler's work sped by as fast as the General on one of them back roads!
"The whole thing went through in a flash. In retrospect, it was like one week. I think it was actually a month and a half. It was just pandemonium, 24-7. ... The body shop had it even worse." (Yea, they did! See yesterday's post of this blog!)
But it's par for the course, Schisler said. "Episodic TV always suffers from major problems. A lot of crazy unplanned things. There's some real wild stuff that goes on."
Sounds like Schisler, who still lives in Metro Atlanta, loved every minute of his work on "The Dukes."
"It's been a great ride," he said. "I never thought it would do what it's done today. The magnitude."
Photo above, of Schisler, right, looking over Jon Holland's new "Dukes" book, "The Roads to Early Hazzard," by Billie Rae Bates. See last week's post of this blog for more on Jon's book.