For most of us, and certainly for those of us in the south, there are names that are synonymous with Texas: cowboys, oil, George Bush, Gilley’s and of course, Urban Cowboy. Hard to believe, but it’s been 35 years since the film’s release. Urban Cowboy was ambitious; let’s be honest – what are the odds of a Jersey boy morphing into a believable cowboy out of small town Texas – and one who could actually two-step and waltz? See, that’s the thing about odds: once proven, they matter little. I was always sure it was the influence of the true Texans, especially those we get to know in the film, that really pulled out John Travolta’s inner cowboy – and boy did they!
One of those influences was Jessie La Rive Mapes, who played Debra Winger’s best friend throughout the film. This Texas girl’s character was a spitfire and as I’ve learned over the past few days, it most certainly comes natural. Jessie was gracious and was willing to spend a little time with me on memory lane, and as I learned (and always suspected), the authenticity of a film often comes down to director’s leap of faith and trusting the talent of his actors.
Jessie had worked at Gilley’s prior to filming. She ran the bull and worked in the kitchen when she wasn’t working at her “regular job”. She said, “I was driving a wrecker at the time we started filming so they thought it would be fun if Sissy was the one driving the wrecker. It all worked out.”
There are people in life who you look at and you just know that each knows all the dirt on the other – and it’s OK because of the deep loyalty between the two, especially when it comes to women. Lord knows I have a couple of
friends who know where the bodies are hidden. Those friends are rare and when we find them, we just know the treasures that they are. Jessie (Jessie LaRive Mapes) and Sissy (Debra Winger) were so seamless in their interactions with one another that you wonder if maybe they didn’t grow up as school girl friends.
I asked Jessie, “I’ve always noticed how Jessie and Sissy really meshed throughout the film. The two characters really complemented one another. Was it like that with Jessie and Debra offset, that made it believable in your roles onscreen?”
Jessie: “Debra and I hit it off immediately, so we were really good friends on the set and hung out after filming would finish. We had a lot of fun between scenes and would usually go to lunch together when we had time.”
She then goes on to tell me about their “fight”.
Jessie: “…in fact, we had to actually get into a fight to get mad enough to film the scene at Stoney’s when Bud and Wes were fighting in the parking lot. We couldn’t stop laughing, so we went out back and literally started a cat fight just to pull the scene off.”
Fans of the film saw how Jessie went to bat for her best friend when Bud (Travolta) wouldn’t “allow” Sissy (Winger) to ride the bull. Her “Bud, I think you oughta let her ride it” line is so typical of what we women say; it’s not so much of a suggestion, but more of a, “Get the hell out of her way and let her do her thing.” When I asked her about that and whether it’s something she’d really say to her best friend’s husband, she made it clear how much she values her friends.
Jessie: “I am loyal to a fault and will always stand up for my friends. So yes, when I defended Sissy that is a “me” thing.
Here’s a really fascinating truth: all of Jessie’s lines were adlibbed. She said, “They would give me an idea of what they wanted and I just played off that.” Unfortunately, the line where she tells Bud to kiss her ass was cut. She said there was careful editing because of some of the language.
What she told me next still has me in awe. I’d asked her about her favorite “behind the scenes” moment. She said it was the scene at Stoney’s when Bud and Wes found themselves in a fight in the parking lot.
Jessie: “I had just given birth to my son the day before and had to come back for the shoot that next night. When we talk about how sore I was (from riding the bull that day) I was being truthful. The Director, Jim Bridges, had a motor home in the back and hired a nanny to watch my son while we shot scenes. In between each scene I would go out to the motor home and be with him until it was time for the next shot.”
I remember that scene well: The Eagles playing on the jukebox, Bud yelling at the waitress and a hamburger hurled towards Wes (played by Scott Glenn). The next thing we see is Jessie physically restraining Sissy so that she’s out of the line of fire coming from the parking lot brawl. And Jessie had just given birth to her son hours earlier.
And speaking of Wes Hightower (Glenn), he is the epitome of the bad boy that breaks hearts as he goes, each woman more convinced than the one before that she can “fix” him. This brings us to my next question for Jessie. I’d ask her if there was a favorite scene that stood out for her.
Jessie: “My favorite scene has to be the shot in the trailer when Wes drinks to worm in the Mescal. Debra and I sat back and watched him do about ten takes on that scene and for every worm he ate, we drank a shot to cheer him on. That was a long day. There also was a scene that Debra and I shot just the two of us, playing on the bull with a beer in our hands. It turned into an all-out beer fight, we were spraying beer everywhere on anyone that got close to us! I wish they had left that scene in.”
That tiny trailer. A lot went on in that space. From the scene Jessie describes above to Wes owning up to the fact that Sissy was expecting too much, “You can’t expect a man like me to be faithful to any woman,” it was a great contrast to the vast space that defined Gilley’s
I asked Jessie, “Crazy as this sounds, I’ve always wanted to know if there was really a small trailer behind Gilley’s. Real trailer or Hollywood creativity?”
Jessie: “There was never a trailer behind the club. That was something that the director decided would work well with the plot. Also, watch the scenes that were shot at the trailer park. There are no mountains in Deer Park, Texas. We shot those scenes in California along with the last scenes at the club where Wes robbed the office. Those scenes were shot on a sound stage at Paramount Pictures.”
These days, Jessie is recording a CD and she’s hoping to have it ready in time for the Urban Cowboy reunion in June (be sure to follow her on Twitter @urbancwgirl). She and Debra didn’t keep in touch after the film wrapped, but I get the sense that those amazing souls who made Urban Cowboy the incredible film that it is are as loyal as the day is long. Sometimes, actors can be led into creating believable work. Other times, it just falls into place.
Once you’ve seen it unfold and fall into place, from the opening scenes in Bud’s hometown to the marriage waltz across Gilley’s dance floor to Pam’s view of her Houston proper, it becomes a favorite. I won’t say I’ve kept my copy of Urban Cowboy updated with changing technology. I mean, it’s not like I had the beta tape, the VHS tape, DVD and blu ray. But maybe I did. I also happen to know you can see it on demand on Netflix. Hell, who am I kidding, anyone who knows me knows that’s true. Below is the official Paramount Movies trailer. You can see Jessie in the trailer and also Bud’s (Travolta) amazing hoedown.
I am so grateful Jessie La Rive Mapes was willing to share some of her stories and photos with me. For me, this is far more than just a column for the 35th anniversary of Urban Cowboy.
As for Jessie, the Original Urban Cowgirl, she gets the last line and even then, she’s the true best friend. Sissy’s worried about her car getting home. As Bud and Sissy begin their “happily ever after”, Jessie hollers across the parking lot:
“Don’t worry about it, Sissy!”