Today’s discussion topic: Why do movies always depict bad guys as cigar smokers (or vice versa)? In countless Westerns, the guy smoking the cigar is the evil town banker about to foreclose on Widow Wilson’s half-acre cauliflower farm because ever since her husband was killed in a gunfight (with one of the banker’s hired men, who accused him of cheating at cribbage, or something), she’s neither been able to make the monthly mortgage payments nor, of course, bring in a wagonload of cauliflower to the town’s farmers market.
And when he’s not the evil banker — who, it should be noted, is always seen smoking what appears to be a very fine cigar, a further insult to his impoverished customers — he’s the hired killer, nastily chewing on a cheroot as he knocks back some sort of brown hooch at the town’s saloon, prior to calling out and gunning down the poor farmer. Naturally, neither the farmer nor any of the shocked, churchgoing town folk are cigar smokers. They don’t even chew the occasional stick of Dentyne® chewing gum, though it would certainly make for a delicious break in the day. (Please stand by. I’m experimenting with product placement in my column. This is only a test.)
Equating cigar smoking and evildoing is not the sole province of Western movies, as you know. In “The Godfather” films, for example, you never see the title character, Vito Corleone, the good-bad guy, or any of his good-bad sons puffing on a stogie. That’s left for the rival dons (the bad-bad guys) to indulge in. (In fact, the good-bad and bad-bad guys are all murdering scumballs. But we still seem to like the Corleones. Maybe because they’re non-smokers.)
Now, George Peppard, the late actor, smoked cigars whether he played good-bad guys in the movies (the Howard Hughes-inspired protagonist of “The Carpetbaggers,” the hero of “One More Train to Rob,” in which he also, yuck, chewed tobacco) — or on TV: such good-bad guys as the phenomenally boring title character in “Banacek” and the equally boring leader of “The A-Team.”
Back to Westerns, when Peppard played the morally righteous sheriff in “How the West Was Won” (in Cinerama® — the test is now over) he was smoke-free. Eli Wallach, who was the villain in that film but only showed up for the last 15 minutes or so, not only smoked cigars as the villain-of-all-villains in “The Magnificent Seven,” he also stole a pocketful of them from a poor farmer in a memorable scene. I’m still not sure what a poor farmer was doing with what looked very good cigars stacked like asparagus spears in a festive ceramic pot — unless he was a tobacco grower. But then, the suspension of disbelief is what movies are all about, no?
As you may be inferring from this trip down the cinema smoking section, I smoke a cigar almost every evening. I bother no one except me, since no other humans live in my home — though I even keep my cat away from the smoke. There’s the secondhand smoke danger, but candidly, I’m more afraid he’ll start asking for his own postprandial cigar, and I really don’t make enough money to just hand these out like kitty treats.
There was a time when cigars were a natural if not always avuncular prop for comedians, including Groucho Marx, George Burns, David Letterman, Alan King and Bill Cosby. Wait a minute: Bill Cosby? Yes, that Bill Cosby. In the early days of his hit TV show, he even smoked cigars in front of kids!
And now that I think of it, both Alan King and George Peppard died of smoking-related illnesses. Perhaps this rant merits some re-thinking. I’ll think about it tonight, when I’m huffing and puffing.