Deadhead Miles: Knoxville Scenes from Alan Arkin’s Forgotten Road Movie

Deadhead Miles, South Gay

Guest post by Paul F. Brown, a freelance content writer in Knoxville, specializing in higher education marketing, history, and business. He is the author of Rufus: James Agee in Tennessee, and may be contacted through his website:

Paul Benedict (left) and Alan Arkin stand outside the old Blount County Courthouse, in a scene from Deadhead Miles.

You’ve probably heard that three Hollywood films—All the Way Home, The Fool Killer, and A Walk in the Spring Rain—were shot in and around Knoxville between 1962 and 1969. Although time has somewhat obscured these films, their glamorous premieres in Knoxville were major events—attended, respectively, by stars Robert Preston, Anthony Perkins, and Ingrid Bergman.

But 50 years ago this month, an even harder-to-find film, written by Terrence Malick and starring Alan Arkin, was partly shot in Knoxville.

Arkin was a high-profile actor by that time. He had been nominated for two Oscars, for his performances in The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And while in Knoxville, Arkin was invited to the local opening of Catch-22—in which he played Captain Yossarian, still one of his best-known roles—at the Fox Theatre on Kingston Pike. Unfortunately, Arkin’s shooting schedule wouldn’t allow him to attend.

Malick, on the other hand, was unknown; Badlands, his acclaimed directorial debut, was still three years down the road. The screenplay that brought Arkin to Knoxville was actually Malick’s first feature-length script, Deadhead Miles—a trucking term for hauling an empty trailer between loads.

Few people know about this movie, and even fewer have seen it. As far as I can tell, it has never appeared on a Knoxville movie screen.

The Story

Deadhead Miles opens with Cooper (Arkin) and a few other men staging a car wreck along a lonely road, then hijacking a semi-trailer that stops to assist. The thieves discover hundreds of new carburetors among the freight. Cooper and a partner leave town to sell the loot, but the next day Cooper ditches the partner at a gas station. At the Virginia state line, Cooper reluctantly picks up a hitchhiker, played by Paul Benedict (later Harry Bentley on TV’s The Jeffersons). The duo spends the rest of the film driving west toward some vague location, stopping along the way to eat, chat with locals, sell carburetors, pick up other goods to haul, and sweet-talk law officers. Plotwise, that’s about it.

Dialogue is largely inconsequential and seems improvised, as in the scene where Cooper teases a person dressed as a huge baseball. (More on that later.) The bizarre comedy elicits few laughs, but Arkin and Benedict are likeable. Deadhead Miles also features character actors like Charles Durning, Hector Elizondo, Richard Kiel, and Avery Schreiber.

Knoxville Area Production

Arkin and Benedict arrived at McGhee-Tyson on October 31, 1970, and lodged with the crew at a nearby Holiday Inn on Alcoa Highway. The filmmakers, who would be shooting scenes in the Knoxville area to represent the story’s Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas locales, expected to be here until November 20.

For whatever reason, the local press was less interested this time around. Eighteen months earlier, the News-Sentinel alone had published more than thirty articles detailing A Walk in the Spring Rain’s production. But for Deadhead Miles, the Sentinel and Journal produced, altogether, fewer than ten articles.

One news story involved a minor mishap with a semi-trailer on the evening of November 4. During a break in filming downtown, the crew decided to eat at Lyle’s Restaurant, then located at 317 West Church Avenue. In parking the rig along the curb, the driver hit Lyle’s overhanging sign out front and got it hung up on the truck.

On November 6, the crew filmed on Rutledge Pike. The Sentinel later printed a photo of the crew with actors Arkin and Schreiber standing in front of a parked semi, but didn’t specify where along that road it was taken.

During its final week in the area, the film crew shot a scene in Maryville, outside the old Blount County Courthouse, on November 12. They hired a few local extras, including three men seen playing checkers in the film. It turned out that one of those men had been indicted on theft charges back in August but somehow never arrested. A county sheriff standing off camera recognized the man, and took him into custody after the scene was finished.

Knoxville Movie Locations

Discovering local scenery in a forgotten Hollywood film—especially a 50-year-old one—is worth celebrating. Here are three Knoxville scenes to watch for, and where they appear in the film.

  1. Forest Avenue (0:04:09–0:06:40). After stealing the semi, the thieves inspect the freight at a warehouse and have the truck painted. I figured the building’s “House of Abe” sign (including the slogan, “The joy of cheap price is never equal to the misery of poor quality”) must have been created for the film. However, the House of Abe was a real wholesale produce business located at 2229 Forest Avenue. The building is long gone, replaced by student apartments.
The House of Abe, 2229 Forest Avenue, in Deadhead Miles (left), and a February 2019 Google view
  1. South Gay Street (0:06:41–0:06:59). As the opening credit for “Instrumental Music” appears, the semi drives down a city street, with Cooper behind the wheel. Discernable signage and a covered sidewalk are clues that this was actually the 400 block of South Gay Street back during its “Promenade” era. Signs are visible for Spence Shoe Company (430 South Gay, now Blackhorse Brewery) and White Cross Drug Store (422 South Gay, now the Art Market).
The 400 block of South Gay Street, as seen in Deadhead Miles (left) and a July 2016 Google view
  1. North Gay Street (0:29:30–0:30:03). Cooper and the hitchhiker stop in an unnamed town, presumably so that Cooper can buy a jacket to wear when he later visits his estranged wife. On a particularly scruffy city block, we see a pedestrian dressed as a giant baseball, and various businesses including Knoxville Photo Service (319 North Gay, where Theatre Knoxville Downtown lived until its recent move to Central Street). This brief scene features great views of North Gay Street storefronts as our antiheroes round the corner of the American Loan building (313 North Gay, now the O’Hanlon Group) and Cooper tries, unsuccessfully, to engage the costumed figure in conversation.
The 300 block of North Gay Street in Deadhead Miles (left), and in November 2020
Alan Arkin and Paul Benedict in the driveway beside American Loan, and the view today
Benedict and Arkin outside American Loan, and the view today
Arkin outside the American Loan building, today home to the O’Hanlon Group
Arkin and the giant baseball in Deadhead Miles, and the view today
The 300 block of North Gay Street in Deadhead Miles, and in November 2020

After the giant baseball walks away, the next shot shows the hitchhiker walking along what appears to be the same sidewalk—but it’s actually Nashville’s Deaderick Street (a block that was demolished shortly after filming).

Other scenes probably shot in Knoxville include the opening heist (0:00:15–0:04:09), Cooper meeting the hitchhiker (0:10:24–0:12:17), and various driving scenes, though these locations have yet to be identified.

An Unreleasable Film

The filmmakers departed Knoxville without fanfare or public notice, and began shooting in Nashville on November 23. They went on to New Mexico and finally California, where filming wrapped in February 1971.

Test screenings in early 1972 netted poor reviews, and Deadhead Miles was shelved until 1976, when producers reworked it in hopes of finding a new audience. The movie screened in Omaha that August but never attracted a distributor, and producers considered it “unreleasable.” Then in the 1980s, showings at film festivals in Los Angeles and Miami helped develop the movie’s reputation as “a classic of American existentialist cinema” comparable to Easy Rider.

After half a century, Deadhead Miles is still a curiosity. Several years ago it was available on Amazon Prime Video. But at this writing, this quirky (and R-rated) film can still be found here on YouTube. If you recognize any Knoxville-area locations that I missed, please let me know!

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