Bud Kennedy

Oil, riches and a Fort Worth family secret: How a great Texas tale became a movie

When a banker from Fort Worth’s prominent Van Zandt family wrote a tell-all story of West Texas oilmen in 1966, he used a fake name so nobody would know.

Half a century later, Edmund P. Van Zandt’s “The Iron Orchard” is a rare Texas novel selling for $500 and more online, and a son, “Marvel’s Daredevil” actor Ned Van Zandt, brings the long-overdue movie version here this week.

“He was afraid of the country-club crowd ,” Ned Van Zandt said from New York. So his father, a grandson of city pioneer K.M. Van Zandt, wrote under the pen name Tom Pendleton.

“But they loved it.”

Instead of taking offense at the depiction of Texas’ grandiose, freewheeling oil families, Fort Worth embraced it. Society parties used “The Iron Orchard” as a theme.

The new independent film — shot in West Texas with Austin as a stand-in for Fort Worth — will show Friday at 7 p.m. at the AMC Palace theater in Sundance Square at the annual Lone Star Film Festival.

Ned Van Zandt and director Ty Roberts, from a Midland oil family, describe the book and movie as a classic Fort Worth and Texas story of a big state, big money and big personalities.

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Lane Garrison plays Fort Worth roustabout-turned-oil millionaire Jim McNeely in “Iron Orchard.” Handout photo

Young wildcatter Jim McNeely (actor Lane Garrison of “Prison Break”) can’t marry the Fort Worth girl he wants, so he strikes out to make a fortune in the West Texas oil patch.

“He came from the wrong side of the tracks, and my dad didn’t, but in a lot of ways this is my dad’s story,” Ned Van Zandt said.

“It’s a lost classic.”

Roberts said he wanted to make a true-to-life movie about the 1930s and ‘40s Texas oil business, when flat-broke wildcatters drilled holes in the ground and produced the fortunes that now pay for today’s Texas universities, arts and museums.

“It was a gold-rush fever,” Roberts said.

“We still have one of the leading oil-producing regions. But I think the mythic wildcatter is fading. It’s all about hedge funds, private-equity capital — it’s a different game now.”

“The Iron Orchard” premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival and showed last month at the Austin Film Festival, where one review described it as “a film so steeped in the Lone Star State that audiences from all over will leave the theater saying ‘Howdy’ and hankering for brisket.”

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Actor Ned Van Zandt of Fort Worth, currently in “Daredevil,” has a role in the movie taken from his father’s book, “The Iron Orchard.” Courtesy Ned Van Zandt

Ned Van Zandt hasn’t been home to Fort Worth in more than 25 years, since an Arlington Heights High School class reunion.

Once a Casa Manana Musicals child actor, he’s on video now as New York crime boss Everett Starr in “Daredevil.”

(Most profiles inevitably mention that he is a second cousin to late singer Townes Van Zandt and also related to late actor Van Williams, all from the same extended Fort Worth and Saginaw-area Van Zandt family.)

In the movie, Ned Van Zandt plays McNeely’s father-in-law, renamed “Thomas Van Zandt,” and delivers classic lines about how the oil business is a “disease that drives men crazy — or crooked — and rewards a few lucky ones with wealth and power beyond their deserving.”

“This story was almost a Paul Newman movie,” he said.

The late Star-Telegram movie critic Elston Brooks wrote often about how this or that star was lined up.

“They talked about Elvis Presley,” Van Zandt said.

“George Peppard and Samantha Eggar came to the house. Then it would all fall apart over something, and then Dad died.”

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Edmund Van Zandt wrote “The Iron Orchard” in 1966 under the assumed name Tom Pendleton. He’s seen here with his wife, Durelle, a former big-band vocalist, and daughter, Eden, later a Star-Telegram columnist. Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection UT Arlington Library Special Collections

Edmund P. Van Zandt, a Marine intelligence officer in World War II, lawyer, oilman and banker, died in 1972 at age 56. He and his wife, former New York big-band vocalist Durelle Alexander, lived on Western Avenue near River Crest Country Club and then on Bryce Avenue.

Not until his Star-Telegram obituary did he publicly reveal that he wrote “The Iron Orchard.”

But his good friend, late Fort Worth author John Graves, knew and delivered him the 1966 prize for the best Texas novel of the year. “Tom Pendleton” shared the prize with Archer City novelist Larry McMurtry for “The Last Picture Show.”

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A 1937 gusher at an undentified Texas location. Fort Worth Star-Telegram collection UT Arlington Special Collections

Some of the new movie’s characters have great West Texas names like Dent Paxton or Ort Cooley.

“I never expected anything to happen with the book,” Ned Van Zandt said.

“Then along came this great chance. This movie has all the great West Texas scenery and the sweeping view of the oil fields. It looks like a $30 million movie, but it’s not.”

Roberts said Edmund Van Zandt “was a brilliant guy.”

“The research in the book, the geology, the engineering — everything is true-to-life. You can tell this guy really knew the oil business, and it’s such a great story.”

It’s worth telling all over again for West Texas and Fort Worth.

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