By Peter Morris
“They’re gonna put me in the movies; They’re gonna make a big star out of me.” – Buck
The year was 1987, more precisely a multi-year span between the late 1980s and early 1990s,
when the Hollywood movie industry discovered the North Carolina High Country. In rapid
succession, several notable films were produced either partially or entirely within the High
Country region, namely The Last of the Mohicans (Daniel Day-Lewis); The Handmaid’s Tale
(Faye Dunaway); Chapter Perfect (Wilford Brimley); The Green Mile (Tom Hanks) and the
television series Rescue 911, among other productions such as television commercials.
If you missed the action, which is not surprising given movie-maker’s desires to remain
anonymous, here’s a bit of a rundown: Last of the Mohicans was filmed adjacent to
Grandfather Mountain, utilizing nearby Lake James for its military fort setting; The Handmaid’s
Tale incorporated scenes atop Sugar Mountain, where law enforcement snowmobilers’ raced
across frigid dunes adjacent to the condominiums of Sugar Top, with other scenes filmed
on Grandfather Mountain; The Greene Mile which utilized the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Cone
Manor Estate; Chapter Perfect (Wilford Brimley, Lucky Vanous) was filmed entirely in Blowing
Rock; and a segment of Rescue 911 was produced across from the New Market Center, in
Boone, where a house was set afire for a scene depicting the rescue of several children.
All of these films utilized “local talent” in the form of extras and featured extras (more screen
time) and others in varied roles including production assistants, craftsmen and medical
This brings us to the one film which captured the High Country’s attention for a full two-months
back in the late 1980s, The Winter People. During the fall of that year, residents were literally
obsessed with all the film’s goings-on. The newspapers were filled with the actions taking
place in Avery County’s Plumtree, which was taken over with constant production venues.
Winter People starred Kurt Russell, Kelly McGillis and Lloyd Bridges, in addition to other well
known headliners including Mitch Ryan, Eileen Ryan and Don Michael Paul.
Many dozens of local wannabe actors from Watauga, Avery and Ashe counties had signed up
for appearances in Winter People, most of them being hired on the spot as extras. “Yes, you
are all actors!” noted Pam Plummer from Fincannon & Associates of Wilmington, North Carolina, the agency responsible for casting.
Everybody was seeking a moment of fame (Their 15 minutes?) and were especially enticed when they found out that they would be paid daily for their participation, making them, of course, professional actors!
One family of four, who had saved their checks until the end of filming, went to the bank to deposit some 72 checks they’d received for acting, each of the children purchasing new bikes with their portions.
Unknown to many, Winter People was directed by Ted Kotcheff who, while not as easily
recognizable as the likes of Steven Spielberg, was soon to attain his own level of fame as the
director of Rambo First Blood, which propelled Sylvester Stallone to even greater superstar
status after his Rocky films.
Winter People was written by High Country native John Ehle.
The “tiny” community of Plumtree was literally changed over a few weeks’ time from mountain
hamlet to a Depression Era community where a young clockmaker, Wayland Jackson (Russell)
and his daughter, Asheville’s Amelia Burnette, accidently wander into it to become both
unexpected and distrusted residents. They are welcomed by Collie Wright (McGillis) and her
baby, Jonathan, who provide shelter from the winter storms. Thus begins a feud between families, one of monumental proportions, with death and hate playing factors in exciting detail.
“Being an extra in Winter People was great fun for this longtime film aficionado, who’d always
wanted to be an actor but, unfortunately, never had the opportunity or, I’m afraid, the talent
required,” said JP Huston. “We spent six days a week on set, occasionally getting a call to
appear before the camera (or way, way behind it) for a segment of the film. I made a lot of
friends doing my time in the movie and kept in touch with a few over the years. But,” he
continued, “many of them have now passed since the late 80s, and I’ve lost contact.”
Noted extra Ann Randall, of Boone, in a recent interview, “I ran across newspaper clippings I had saved of the time the Winter People movie was filmed on location in Plumtree. My family, in November of 1987, had been extras and featured extras in different scenes. It was so interesting to see how much time and effort was spent creating and filming the movie,” she added. “We developed friendships with many other extras as we at around waiting for the next call to action; many fun stories were shared as we passed the hours as we waited. Interacting with the Hollywood stars at times, we found some were very gracious. It was all a most interesting experience.”
Numerous extras at the time of production highlighted their own feelings of potential instant fame and glory.
Joe Rhodes: “I’m just interested in anything going on in the mountains; I want to see that these mountain areas are accurately portrayed. There are a lot of good folks here and beautiful
country. I love it!”
Clara Dixon: “You can’t imagine how excited I’ve been. I’m a middle-aged extra. When you’re
46, you’ve got to have something in life to give you a life!”
Kathleen Robbins: “I haven’t acted in 50-years, when I had the lead in three high school
productions. I still have the acting bug; I just hope I can still cry on cue!”
While there were rumors among the extras after the film was shot and released—talk of Oscar wins and the like—Winter People was not received well by critics.
Said Roger Ebert, nationally famed critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, “The Campbells (Winter People’s reigning family) are large, unkempt, bearded hillbillies who ride around on horses and shoot their guns and drink moonshine and would have been drawn by Al Capp with flies buzzing around their heads. They have no human dimension.”
Another stalwart of journalistic renown, the New York Times suggested, “One of these days,
maybe Kurt Russell and Kelly McGillis will look back at Winter People’ and laugh. It has some very funny moments, though it is meant to be an utterly serious drama. It is a historical drama, set in the Depression. It is a family drama, with a Hatfield-McCoy-type feud and pained facial expressions. It is a bad drama, in which a gentle clockmaker goes on a bear hunt to prove his love for a skeptical woman with a backwoods accent.”
While film criticism doesn’t always make or break a movie, there are many other viewers who
hailed Winter People as a most enjoyable film.
These anonymous Internet filmgoers hailed it as, “Thoroughly enjoyable! I can’t think of any
flaws whatever with this film. The scenery is beautiful as well.” And, “This was a surprisingly
wonderful movie. I love the mountains, and the way these people lived was incredibly
However, all High Country actors and visitors hailed the film with enthusiasm. Endearing
incidents were a day-to-day delight as activities were passed around to those associated with
Extras were expected to be at the old Cranberry School, outside of Newland, by 5AM daily
except Sundays. They were then dressed in Depression Era costume clothing by Academy
Award-nominee Ruth Morley (Annie Hall). They were later transported to the Plumtree
production site, 10-miles distant, by a Greyhound charter bus.
One Saturday while the filming of Winter People was delayed, townspeople from Avery and
Watauga counties flocked to the otherwise cordoned-off set. Extras all mingled with the starstruck visitors. Some handed out “Yes, I am a movie star!” business cards obtained from a local merchant. One extra was approached by a visitor, who asked, “Are you a movie star?” But, before she could answer, the visitor said, “Oh, autograph my book anyway!”
All extras were housed in the Plumtree Presbyterian Church, which had an exterior designed to resemble a barn with a hayloft, where they were housed between takes. Every High Country local found it hilarious when Winter People set dressers added snow and ice textures to the set in October and November, after not using natural snow earlier when it was available.
A clerk in a Boone store exclaimed that Kelly McGillis had bought a few cards at her register. “Oh, I couldn’t put her check in the register, I just had to keep it for myself for her signature, paying the small amount myself!”
Star sightings were taking place around Boone and Newland each and every weekend throughout the filming, mostly on Sundays when production was halted. Kelly McGillis and Lloyd Bridges were seen everywhere, with Kurt Russell and long-time lady Goldie Hawn were
seen together shopping for crafts.
Winter People extras eagerly purchased logo-themed sweatshirts at the end of the shoot, happily wearing them in blue, red and white at soon as they got back home.
When Winter People finished shooting, “antique” merchandise cans which lined the shelves in the film’s country store were in popular demand; they had all been donated for the movie by the Mast Store, in Valle Crucis.
Extras were all treated Hollywood-style when lunch time rolled around for on-site catering by a California company, enjoying specialized culinary offerings for the crews who insisted on healthy entrees.
After Winter People was wrapped, edited, and publicized by Castle Rock Entertainment, a
private showing for all High Country locales involved was premiered in Spruce Pine on a cold
and snowy Saturday. The crowd went wild!
Later in the year, after Winter People was distributed nationally and internationally, a special showing was staged at Boone’s Appalachian Theatre for all those willing to pay the the unheard-of-price of $10.00 per-ticket. It turned out to be a festive occasion with speeches by the film’s extras, door prizes and communal good cheer. One lady, in exiting the theatre was heard saying, “It was worth every penny!”
While Winter People has lived long in local history and folklore, many of its regional actors were
infected with continuing star-status longings. Some of the extras went on to greater film endeavors. Several appeared in Chapter Perfect, The Green Mile, Last of the Mohicans and Trapper County War, which was filmed in Asheville.
One actor, whose name escaped memory, proudly proclaimed after filming a scene in the
under-siege fort in Last of the Mohicans, “I got to die in Madeleine Stowe’s arms!” speaking of
Daniel Day Lewis’s costar in the film.
One actress, who chose to remain anonymous, followed up her Winter People experience by
hiring a Charlotte talent scout, the Nancy Watson Agency, which immediately offered a
speaking role in a film titled Black Rainbow, which starred Jason Robards and Rosanna
“I was paid a ridiculous amount of money for two-day’s work!” she laughed. Although
this role led to her becoming SAG (Screen Actors Guild) eligible, she none-the-less decided to
leave acting to join Boone’s Samaritan’s Purse, from which she recently retired.
For those seeking more information about the “nuts and bolts” of Winter People, the Avery
County Historical Museum, in Newland, has an extensive display of movie memorabilia from
the film. They are open limited hours during the winter; their phone number is (828) 733-7111.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, most of the High Country cast of Winter People have passed away in the decades since the film was released, as most were “middle aged” during the production in the late 1980s. However, there were three Watauga and Avery County children filmed who are now themselves in their mid-40s and doing well, two having gone on to other film and commercial roles. The fourth child, Amelia Burnette, who appeared as Kurt Russell’s daughter, did herself continue her acting career in The Ryan White Story and other films. Winter People still stands fresh in the minds of residents, as many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews still talk about when their relatives were short-term movie stars back in the “good ol’ days.”
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