His own man

"The Man in Black" trusted his friend, James Keach, to tell his story on film.

Malibu resident James Keach celebrates success and staying true to friend Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”

By Kim Devore / Staff Writer

“When he walked in the room, he was his own man,” said producer James Keach of country icon Johnny Cash. “He also had his faults and was not afraid to show them.”

Keach is responsible for bringing the story of the legendary “The Man in Black” to life in the crucially acclaimed biographical film, “Walk the Line.”

Keach met Cash in the early 1990s, on the set of his wife’s hit series “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.” “Johnny was a fan of the show,” actress Jane Seymour told The Malibu Times. “He made several appearances as gunslinger Kid Cole and James was the director. They became friends and really developed a spiritual connection.”

That connection led to a 10-year collaboration, which would emerge as “Walk the Line.” While Cash had turned down pitches and proposals many times before, Keach was different.

“People kept calling him saying they wanted to do his life story,” Keach recalled, “but he didn’t trust people in Hollywood.”

Like Cash, Keach went through some rough times himself and the two bonded over those shared experiences.

“In the end, Johnny said, ‘I want you to do this film, because you get it. You get me,'” Keach said.

“Everyone wanted to tell his story,” Seymour recalled. “John wanted to tell it, but he wanted to tell it right and James was the one to do that.”

Soon Keach was delving into the details of Cash’s life and what grabbed him most was the singer’s relationship with wife June Carter Cash.

“Sure there’s sex and drugs and rock and roll,” Keach said, “but this was a love story. I told him this is about a man who suffers loss but also marries the love of his life and Johnny said, ‘that sounds good to me.'”

The movie didn’t happen overnight. The script’s first draft was written back in 1997.

“The studios were interested,” Keach said, “but the film went through a whole bunch of phases.”

One thing that did not change, however, was the script. Written by the creative team of Gill Dennis and James Mangold, and directed by Mangold, it won rave reviews on the home front.

“It was astounding,” Seymour said. “At the end of the day, it was John and June’s story told brilliantly.”

Like Keach, Seymour knew this story would strike a chord.

“I wasn’t raised on country music,” she said. “I was raised in England on opera and ballet. If it could connect with me, it could connect with anybody.”

With producer Cathy Konrad also on board, the film was cast with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June. The tale begins in the early years of the singer’s life when he was far from famous. It depicts a difficult childhood, a stint in the Air Force, anger, drug addiction, alcoholism and his rise to fame. After a rocky start, Cash found himself in Memphis recording along side other music greats like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. He became known to country fans and nonfans alike with memorable hits like “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and, of course, “Walk the Line.” But the backbone of this story was his pursuit of strong willed country singer June Carter.

Keach loved the actors’ vulnerability in the film.

“Their performances blew my mind.”

Another surprise is that both Phoenix and Witherspoon sang all the songs themselves.

When “Walk the Line” was finally released, Keach’s instincts proved to be as accurate as a cowpoke’s lasso during a cattle round-up. The film grossed more than $22 million its first weekend.

“Was I happy?” Keach asked. “You’re damned right. I was thrilled. We opened against Harry Potter for crying out loud.”

Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture turned out to be the icing on the cake as well as a point of pride for Seymour.

“When they announced the Golden Globes, I was jumping up and down,” she said. “James has been in the shadows for so long. I’m more excited for his success than anything that’s happened to me.”

Keach, in the meantime, is enjoying the accolades but due to his intensely personal relationship with Cash, sees things just a little bit differently.

“The fact that we remained true to John’s wishes,” he said, “that means more to me than any award.”