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May 30, 2021 2 min read

Released in 1980, the film Urban Cowboy was on a cultural cusp. We were stepping out of the hippie decade into the “Me Generation”. Wealth was starting to be idolized and thanks to the oil boom, the blue-collar American now had hopes of getting his hands on some. For a West Texas wannabe cowboy, Houston, Texas was the promised land.

Licensed images by Alamy

If you’ve ever met a roughneck, you know they work hard and play hard. So, if Houston was the promised land, then Gilley’s was Disneyland – the beer-drinking, boot-scootin’, bull-riding “happiest place on earth”. Longneck bottles and long-legged blondes, and in 1980, nary a bra in sight. That was the scene. Honky-tonk heaven, a setting rife with temptation of every sort. That was the backdrop for the lop-sided love story of Bud and Sissy.

The film, originally an article by Aaron Latham written for Esquire in 1978, was loosely based on real-life couple and Gilley’s patrons, Donald “Dew” Westbrook and Betty Jo Helmer (now Jones). When studio heads wanted to take Gilley’s to Hollywood, co-owner Sherwood Cryer gave them a Texas-sized “hell no”, and Hollywood came to Gilley’s. And the rest, as they say, is honky-tonk history.

Wanna know some other fun facts about Urban Cowboy? This film is full of them!

  • He may have mastered the disco for Saturday Night Fever, but John Travolta had to be taught how to two-step for this movie. And who would have the honors? None other than Patsy Swayze, a Houston native and the mother of everyone’s favorite “Dirty Dancer”, Patrick Swayze, who is said to have also assisted in the dance lessons.
  • Author of the original article and co-author of the screenplay, Aaron Latham, is arguably the lesser-known half of the couple; he’s married to Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutesfame.
  • Both of the lead roles were written with other actors in mind; Bud was originally intended to be played by Dennis Quaid and Sissy was intended for Sissy Spacek.
  • The prison rodeo was real! That was filmed at the prison in Huntsville, just north of Houston, where they actually hosted real convict rodeos for years.
  • The real-life ‘Gilley rats’ that served as the inspiration for Bud and Sissy met at the famed bar when they were just 18 years old and they were actually already separated before filming even began.

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