Pansy Cradledew did not believe me when I told her there was a film called Billy Two Hats. She insisted I must be making it up, for my own amusement. But there is such a film, a western, made in 1974, directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Gregory Peck and Desi Arnaz Jr.
Ted Kotcheff is half Bulgarian, half Canadian, and his birth name is Velichko Todorov Tsochev. Gregory Peck you will be familiar with. His surname is the same word we use for what a bird does with its beak, when given millet, for example. The one thing I know about Desi Arnaz Jr is that, before becoming an actor, he worked as a birdcage cleaner. I learned this from a popular bestseller of the 1970s called The Book Of Lists.
Though I mentioned Billy Two Hats in conversation with Pansy, I have never actually seen the film. I have always thought it was the story of a cowboy with two heads, hence his two hats. There is much that a skilled screenwriter could do with such a character. His two heads could prompt either comedy or tragedy. He could be played by two actors, or, using special effects, by one. He might very well frighten his own horse.
If the two hats Billy wore atop his two heads were wide-brimmed cowboy hats – as, in a western, they surely would be – then of necessity he would have to crane each neck, one significantly to the left, the other to the right, in order to avoid brim crushage, or worse, one hat dislodging the other hat, leaving it fallen and stranded in the dust as he rides off on his horse across the sweeping buffalo-riddled plains into the sunset, as tends to happen in westerns, particularly just before the closing credits.
I have often wondered if there is an autobiographical element to the film. Did Ted Kotcheff feel compelled to make it because he himself has two heads, one Bulgarian and one Canadian? I have never seen a photograph of him, so this must remain conjecture. But it would be no surprise if this were the case.
There remains the question of casting. Was it intentional to have, as the two leads, actors who, by name and past employment, cannot help but make us think of birds? It is a great shame that a role was not found, in the screenplay, for Tippi Hedren. Tippi has only one head, as far as I know, but she is a dab hand at acting with birds.
Billy Two Hats is almost certainly available on DVD, which, as any fule kno, stands for Dick Van Dyke. The cheerful chimney sweep did not appear in either Billy Two Hats or The Birds, but in a better, more charming world, he would have. Perhaps he was not cast in the western because he, like Tippi Hedren, is a monohead.