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Bakersfield Californian (11/Oct/2007) - Wasco man had Hitchcock movie role

(c) The Bakersfield Californian (11/Oct/2007)

Wasco man had Hitchcock movie role

By Shellie Branco, Californian staff writer

It seems kind of funny now, a guy in high-waisted pants running from an attacking biplane.

Not that the iconic chase scene in "North by Northwest" is dated. Some believe it's just an example of director Alfred Hitchcock's wicked humor.

This slice of film history was shot in Wasco with a local pilot at the controls.

Bob Coe couldn't really brag that he ran down Cary Grant. He never met the man. The actor was added later with help from a forerunner to blue screen special effects.

Coe died Monday. He was 85.

The Wasco crop-duster didn't feel his life was overshadowed by the film role, said his son, Bob.

In the 1959 movie, Grant played an advertising executive on the run after being mistaken for a spy and framed for murder. The sequence was set in Indiana, but shot near Highway 46 and Corcoran Road.

Coe's son said his father was prouder of his time in the Army than he was about the role.

It wasn't until the 1970s that a few people took an interest in Coe's claim to fame, said his son. The shoot itself was no big deal, just another flying job, Coe always said.

But he was a little miffed he didn't get royalties, his son added.

Born in Sanger, Coe moved at age 5 to Wasco, where his father found a job drilling water wells.

Coe was an Army flight instructor during World War II. Coe never made it to combat; the war in Europe ended before he got the chance.

After the war, he returned to Wasco. He started crop-dusting around 1946 and stayed in the business for 37 years.

Coe also farmed potatoes, had a trucking company and owned a bar called "The North 40." He liked shooting out of planes during combat flight training. The plane in the scene first runs Grant down, then turns around and shoots at the actor, before spraying something on him as he hides in a cornfield.

Coe never got into details about how he got the part or what it was like to be on set, his son said.

He did recall Wasco High students "planted" cornstalks to simulate a cornfield.

A stuntman rode in the plane's hopper, which stores insecticide, and pretended to shoot.

The substance Coe dumped on Grant was probably a "50-pound bag of flour," Coe's son said.

"Knowing Dad, he probably took what was left home and used it," he said, laughing.

It took four days of flying to get the right footage. Coe lost a few days of work because of the shoot.

"He was paid a certain amount per day and I just remember him saying he would have made more crop-dusting those days than just getting paid," his son said.

Coe had another brush with fame when he was profiled in the late 1960s by a Los Angeles TV station about his work as a crop-duster.

Coe had dinner with Hitchcock, probably in Los Angeles, and thought he was nice, his son said. Coe went to the film's premiere at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield, but it was no big to-do.

The scene is unforgettable because it comes so unexpectedly, said Kern County assistant film commissioner and Hitchcock fan Dave Hook.

"It has all the classic elements of your hero in danger, the faceless enemy -- in this case, it's not even about the pilot," he said. "No one thinks there was someone flying the crop-duster. They think about the crop-duster, the man versus machine, the hero in peril."

Hitchcock probably thought the scene was hilarious, Hook said.

He returned to Kern County to film part of "Psycho" in Bakersfield, with Janet Leigh driving down Union Avenue, Hook said.

In later years, Coe enjoyed woodworking, tinkering in the garage and cooking.

He was found dead in his lounge chair by friends visiting for their daily glass of wine -- "every afternoon at 3:30," his son said.

A still photo from the movie showing Cary Grant running in horror will sit on Coe's casket at 10 a.m. today during the funeral service at Peters Funeral Home in Wasco.