Thunderbird Film Discovered

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 12th, 2006

Wisconsin writer and investigator Todd Roll has discovered an early forgotten, overlooked film that coincidentally appeared as a precursor to the famous Thunderbird flap in the 1970s.

Thunderbird Movie

The movie was released in 1974, and entitled The Legend of Hillbilly John. Three years later, with the attempted airborne abduction of Marlon Lowe by two giant birds at Lawndale, Illinois, on July 25, 1977, the modern era of Thunderbird sightings began. The first investigator on the scene was my brother, Jerry, and the first write-up of the case came from his rough notes in Creatures of the Outer Edge.

Thunderbird Movie

Based on a book of Appalachian Mountain folktales by Manly Wade Wellman, The Legend of Hillbilly John’s plot involves a wandering ballad singer in the Appalachians who is terrorized by a giant bird. This film may be evidence of the cryptofictional reflection of those earlier stories as noted in Mark A. Hall’s Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, in his chapter, “Mystery of the Balds,” about the old big bird traditions that then were fictionalized in Wellman’s book. One can measure a circle, beginning anywhere.

Thunderbird Movie

The film has the look of a made-for-television compilation, and this is probably because it was directed by John Newland. Newland was a well-known 1950s-1970s TV director (“Wonder Woman,” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” “Police Woman,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Night Gallery”) who served as a frequent on-camera host for early 1950s’ television series like “Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond” and “Tales of Tomorrow.” But as opposed to this film going straight to the smaller screen, it ended up playing the drive-in movie circuit in the South and Midwest in the mid-1970s.

The Legend of Hillbilly John has as its most well-known actor Denver Pyle (1920-1997), who played “Grandpappy John” in the film. Susan Strasberg, a friend of Marilyn Monroe’s and the daughter of Lee Strasberg, played “Polly White.”

The film is populated with people who were foundation television actors of their day. In the movie there is one pivotal character that is in control of the giant “Ugly Bird,” that would be the evil “O.J. Onselm” (played by Alfred Ryder). Onselm’s minion, the Ugly Bird, is only destroyed when Hillbilly John (Hedges Caper) plays the song El Kabong (passed on to him from Grandpappy John) on the Ugly Bird’s head, causing it to melt and Onselm to shrivel and die.

Playing the “degrees of separation” game with this one actor, via the IMDb credits, I found some intriguing results. Character actor Alfred Ryder, who played “O. J. Onselm,” is the brother of Olive Deering. Deering was known as one of the so-called “Queens of the Golden Age of Live Television,” and had been married to Leo Penn, until 1952. Penn, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, moved on to marry Eileen Ryan that same year, in 1952. Penn and Ryan are the parents of actor/director Sean Penn, the late actor Chris Penn, and musician Michael Penn. Michael Penn is married to songwriter and musician Aimee Mann, who did most of the songs for the 1999 motion picture Magnolia. Magnolia is one of the most Fortean films made in recent years, ending with a long scene of falling frogs. I couldn’t find a link between The Legend of Hillbilly John and The Mothman Prophecies, but I almost got there.

Thunderbird Movie

As one contemporary reviewer on the “Bad Movie Report” site noted:

You can’t judge The Legend of Hillbilly John as you would standard drive-in or B-movie fare – it’s that rarity, a sorta thoughtful film. In true 1972 style, it wears it’s politics painfully on its sleeve a time or two, with its “highways & dams = evil” pretensions, and the rather suspect hailing of John as a hero by the black cotton pickers simply because he brought the guitar (it’s the outspoken black worker who actually does in Captain Lajoie while the villain is choking the guitarless-and-therefore-helpless John). But all that aside, the closing image is damn clever. My aging hippie heart embraces it.

Directed by John Newland – the host of One Step Beyond for all you oldsters – Hillbilly John treats its subject matter fairly matter of factly, by which I mean after a few jarring instances, we fall into the arcane sentence structure and belief systems of the backwoods pretty easily. The cinematography is handsome enough, showcasing some beautiful scenery, and the editing and camera placement is fairly spot on. The major problem we have here is budget, pure and simple. Newland has overcome it well in a couple of instances: entering the cotton plantation through enormous yellow gates, everything is tinted yellow until Lajoie’s death; and as Grandpappy John sings the ultimate line of “The Defy” (written by Hoyt Axton, no less), his death is symbolized by the film breaking. It’s an audacious, arty moment, and deserving of applause.

As a political, cultural, and cryptozoological foreshadowing of the series of Thunderbird sightings that occurred in Illinois in the 1970s, I guess no one could have wished for better cinema.

Thunderbird Movie

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

18 Responses to “Thunderbird Film Discovered”

  1. mrdark responds:

    Loren: I’ve got your Mothman Prophecies connection. (I’m an old pro at ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’ and a new game created with a friend using the newly prolific ‘every time you need a Chinese actor’, which we call ‘Can’t Go Wrong With B.D. Wong’.

    Okay, let’s take it from Sean Penn.

    Sean Penn was in Mystic River with Tim Robbins
    Tim Robbins was in Arlington Road, directed by Mark Pellington
    Mark Pellington directed the screen adaptations of The Mothman Prophecies.

    (I could probably come up with a cleaner connection if I spent awhile on the IMDB plugging search after search, probably via Denver Pyle or Strasburg’s connections with Monroe, but it’s Friday night and I’m lazy.)

  2. jjames1 responds:

    The connection from Hillbilly John to Mothman Prophecies is pretty easy. Susan Strasberg was in an episode of the “Mike Hammer” TV series with Stacy Keach. Keach guest starred on an episode of “Will & Grace” with Debra Messing…who was in Mothman Prophecies.

  3. jjames1 responds:

    Oh–and here’s a more direct connection. Val Avery, who plays Cobart in Hillbilly John, was in “Out of the Darkness” with Lucinda Jenney…who was in Mothman.

  4. One Eyed Cat responds:

    No degrees of seperation insite but Denver Pyle would more likely be remembered by those my age for his role in the 1970s series ‘Grizzly Adams.’

  5. urrlord responds:

    manley wade wellman wrote quite a few stories including crypto eating plants,strange animals.he had some interesting theories to explain some of them,werewolves were people who used ectoplasm to change their appearance.he had a few stories using pre-indian races who were still lurking around.he generally used southern/appalachian folklore as a base.this gave the stories a consistent internal logic.he was an interesting author with easy to read stories.

  6. George Wagner responds:

    I saw this film just once, at a World Science Fiction Convention back around 1975 or 1976. I remember it as an exquisite little production remarkably faithful in both spirit and letter to Manly Wade Wellman’s “John” stories as they’d previous appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE- FICTION. Its only flaw was its impossibly corny snd demeaning name.

    Anybody know where I can pick up a DVD or video tape?

  7. voodoochild responds:

    I think people are way off base here. I am 36 yrs. old and remember watching ‘Grizzly Adams’, and I can’t say that I remember Denver Pyle EVER being on that show. Not even as a guest star. The lead role was played by a fellow named Dan Haggerty. As for Denver Pyle, as far as my age group is concerned, I would think he would be most notably remembered as ‘Uncle Jesse’, from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’. He was also ‘Brisco Darling’, on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’. I also have seen him in various westerns from the 50’s and 60’s.

  8. wls responds:

    Denver Pyle was indeed a regular on the “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” TV series; he was on nearly every episode, along with his beloved army mule “Number 7”. His character was named “Mad Jack”, and he saved Adams’ hide quite a few times and vice versa.

    Check it out @

  9. Loren Coleman responds:

    If you click on “Denver Pyle” in the posting above, I’ve now revised it to link directly to his listing on the Internet Movie Database.

    Keep those links to The Mothman Prophecies coming.

  10. jjames1 responds:

    Here’s another short one:

    Harris Yulin was Zebulon in Hillbilly John. He starred in American Raspberry with Murphy Dunne…who was in Mothman.

  11. One Eyed Cat responds:

    Okay Denver Pyle was ‘Mad Jack’ in Grizzly Adams The mountain Man – with Burro Number Seven that was Adam’s friend and connection with the outside world.

    Still I did forget about ‘Dukes’. Horses interest me not cars.

  12. voodoochild responds:

    Okay, guys, my bad. I just didn’t remember him on that show. Actually, the main thing I watched the show for was the grizzly. (I was only about 6 or 7 at the time). Thanks, for jarring my memory. Yeah, Mr. Pyle was on quite a few shows and in alot of movies. He had a good run in his time.

  13. yoyodyne responds:

    Speaking of giant birds, who can forget the 50’s classic THE GIANT CLAW? With its cheesy, dumb-looking 75 foot long bird that chased airliners (DC-6’s) and a no name cast, this is one of my all time favorites.

  14. Lee Pierce responds:

    Early ’70’s-Texas. I saw this movie at the drive in on a double bill with a poorly done devil come monster movie called EQUINOX. The latter film starred Frank Bonner who went on to semi-fame as Herb Tarleck in WKRP in Cincinnati. Severn Darden was in HILLBILLY JOHN. He was a super character actor who graced many SF-Monster-Satanic themed movies during his csreer.

  15. Lee Pierce responds:

    THE GIANT CLAW was a fun concept with a top ten worst creature nominee in the big bird. I was 10 when I saw this flick and I remember seeing the strings holding up the puppet bird. Jeff Morrow starred in Claw. He was a Sci-Fi staple in those days. THIS ISLAND EARTH is my favorite film he was in. He also did westerns among other things.

  16. Mnynames responds:

    Finally, someone who remembers Giant Claw! I mentioned it in another posting about crypto-movies a while back and got bupkiss. I loved that movie so much I finally had to track it down on DVD…my wife got it for me for Xmas. She thought I was crazy because I raved about a 20-some-dollar D-movie from the 50’s like it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I guess I’m a cheap date. I liken it a bit to old Doctor Who episodes- decent plot, terrible special effects. I’ve always found the theme of the Giant Claw to be quite Lovecraftian, actually.

    Speaking of Doctor Who, several episodes dealt in some fashion with cryptozoological themes- Yeti, Loch Ness Monster (two separate explanations, actually), lizard men, time-displaced dinosaurs, etc.

  17. George Wagner responds:

    THE GIANT CLAW isn’t a bad movie by any means, Its only real shortcomings are the close-ups of the flying monster’s head and face, showing it to be an incredibly silly-looking thing, downright goofy, which would have been much more at home in SILLY CHICKEN COMICS, circa 1945.

  18. TerraTerror responds:

    Hahah, cute movie! I wouldn’t mind seeing it.

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