April 2010
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Fascination with Primitive Weapons Led Outdoorsman to Unusual Career

 
 

Bobby Nance dressed as a scout during the filming of "The Last of the Mohicans" in 1991.

Bobby Nance has been fascinated by firearms since he was a kid and got hooked on television episodes about the frontier exploits of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

Millions of American boys couldn’t get enough of the two legendary hunters, trappers and explorers who were portrayed on television by actor Fess Parker during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nance, now 54, was one of them, but instead of working at a factory, selling insurance or spending 20 years in the military when he got older, he made a career out of his firearm fascination.

He did it by making, repairing and selling "primitive weapons" to eager purchasers —- many of whom share his love of flintlock long rifles like the ones used during Parker’s TV heyday.

His ability as a gunsmith and outdoorsman has also enabled him to branch out as a technical adviser on movie sets from time to time, even donning buckskin outfits just like those worn by Daniel and Davy, way back when.

The highlight for him has been as an assistant technical adviser on the set of the acclaimed 1992 movie, "The Last of The Mohicans."

The movie was a smash hit from its first week when it topped the box office and finished its domestic run with a take of more than $75 million — a sizable sum two decades ago for anything out of Hollywood. It was budgeted at $40 million, so it was easy to see how happy the producers were when the final returns came in.

As assistant technical adviser, it was Nance’s job to make sure the actors knew how to handle weapons of that era including flintlock rifles, tomahawks, knives and war clubs.

He worked closely with the four leading male actors, but wound up on a first-name basis with star Daniel Day-Lewis, who was on his way to becoming one of the most dominant performers in the world.

There are times actors must rely on stunt doubles to do the tricky parts themselves, but Day-Lewis was a method actor who preferred to learn and perform as would the character he was playing.

"Daniel caught on extremely fast," Nance said, as he remembered what it was like during filming near Asheville, N.C., in 1991. "He could use a flintlock rifle with the best of ’em and hit a target 100 yards away almost from the start."

That was evident from the start of the movie when Day-Lewis’ character — "Hawkeye" — stops in his tracks while stalking a deer, aims his long rifle and sends a shot toward the animal — hitting it and providing venison for a frontier family.

"If he didn’t know much about firearms prior to the film, Day-Lewis certainly made it look like he had done it all his life," Nance said.

It was a quick transformation for someone more familiar with life on the British stage and in films made in London than the woods of North Carolina. Nance said Day-Lewis showed he could adapt and adjust to any movie requirements.

"It was amazing how fast he was able to become someone who just about grew up in the woods," said Nance. "He could load and fire quickly and make it appear as though it was second nature to him."

Day-Lewis, who doesn’t make many movies but always shines in those he does, has won two Academy Awards — one for "My Left Foot" before doing "Mohicans" and "There Will be Blood" which he filmed in 2007.

 

Selma gunsmith Bobby Nance (left) with Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of "The Last of The Mohicans" in 1991.

His acting trademark is getting into character and not leaving it until the last frame is shot.
That’s what he did so convincingly in "Mohicans" when he learned how to make a canoe, track animals and skin deer as he hauled a 12-pound flintlock long rifle through the woods. Even during breaks in filming, Day-Lewis maintained his American accent.

It was all part of director Michael Mann’s insistence on backwoods authenticity and it paid off with super reviews by many of the world’s leading critics.

Nance watched him and became more impressed by the day as Day-Lewis transformed himself away from his English-Irish heritage to a frontier warrior in the James Fenimore Cooper classic.

The two men, raised in totally different backgrounds, fashioned a friendship that continues today.

After "Mohicans" wrapped, Nance received a hand-written letter from Day-Lewis who thanked him for his help as a technical adviser in the film.

"I got to know all the top male actors, but Daniel was the only one to stay in touch with me," said Nance. "I had never worked in a movie before, but had heard about all that Hollywood stuff. He wasn’t like that. He was a down-to-earth guy who listened and learned as we taught them how to use firearms and live in the woods."

The "villain" in "Mohicans" was Wes Studi, who became a popular character-actor in the two decades since the movie was completed.

Studi portrayed Magua, an Indian guide who leads an ambush against a column of British soldiers and then is killed by a Mohican warrior who becomes the last of his tribe — hence the title of the book and film.

Nance said the lead actors were taught how to use sharp-edged and blunt weapons like tomahawks, knives and war clubs in addition to long rifles.

"We had Indians from several different tribes work on the movie and they all did well," he said. "I worked on it for about three months in various capacities."

Nance isn’t ashamed to say he dropped out of school in the 7th grade. He eventually got his GED, but his expertise in primitive weaponry amounts to a "doctorate in firearms." His name is known to Hollywood producers and directors looking for someone to hire, if the occasion arises.

It’s been awhile since Nance has served as a technical adviser because his wife isn’t thrilled by the prospect of extended departures from home to work on a movie set.

Nance credits his grandfather, George Nance, with helping him understand long rifles and other weapons used during an era two centuries ago.

"He could relate to what I liked and his help was invaluable," said Nance. "As I grew older, I learned more and more, and it has helped provide a career for me."

Nance worked at Walter Craig and Walker Arms before beginning a relationship with Central Alabama Farmers Co-op.

His main job is to supervise sales at the sporting goods department, but he’s always ready to talk about long rifles and other "primitive" weapons.

Nance has worked at the Co-op for several years, but General Manager Tim Wood only recently became aware of his "entertainment" background.

"I didn’t know he had been involved in active filming until recently when he was interviewed for the documentary," said Wood. "I do know he was in a great movie. I’ve watched ‘Last of the Mohicans’ several times through the years."

Wood’s reference to "documentary" involves a trip Nance made to Columbus, GA, to be interviewed for what will be part of a Blu-Ray version of "Mohicans."

The primary actors, including Day-Lewis, had already been interviewed and those in charge of the documentary wanted to question others involved in the making of a movie that has become a cinematic classic.

Because of the movie’s continuing popularity and the millions being made with DVD transfers, not to mention the relative new technology of Blu-Ray, it wasn’t surprising to learn Michael Mann’s hit would follow the same path.

Nance said it could be another year before it comes out in Blu-Ray and he knows he might wind up on the cutting room floor, "but I’m still looking forward to it."

"It was a long interview, so maybe some of it will be kept in the documentary," said Nance, as he helped a customer examine a handgun in the display case at the Co-op sporting goods section.

Blu-Ray movies usually include a second disc for extra features, often involving personal experiences of cast and crew.

Nance assisted Chief Technical Adviser David Webster on "Mohicans" and has maintained a close friendship with him. He said Webster’s track record is "one of the best in the business and I’m ready to help him anytime he needs me."

When the Blu-Ray version, with its documentary disc, is released to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the hit movie, Nance may find himself signing autographs.

If that happens, he just might be signing some of the Blu-Ray DVDs at Central Alabama Farmers Co-op.

And, who knows, he just might bring along his coonskin cap — something he and a lot of American boys still keep close to their hearts from their days of watching Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett on television.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.