PENNELL, EAGLE (1952–2002). Eagle Pennell, an independent film director and inspiration for the Sundance Film Institute, was born Glenn Irwin Pinnell on July 28, 1952, in Andrews, Texas. As an adult he changed his last name to honor film director Arthur Penn and Lt. Ross Pennell, a character in the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). He grew up in College Station where his father Charles taught civil engineering at Texas A&M University. His mother June recalled him as a child filming skits performed by his sisters with a Super 8 camera. After graduating from Texas A&M Consolidated High School Pennell attended the University of Texas in Austin where he majored in radio-television-film before dropping out in his junior year. He worked for a company that produced highlights of Southwest Conference football games and as a crew member on the cult film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Determined to direct films himself, Pennell began shooting a short feature entitled Hell of a Note which premiered at the Dobie Theater in Austin in 1977. A year later he directed his first major length picture, The Whole Shootin' Match, co-produced and co-written by fellow Texan Lin Sutherland. The film, starring actors Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis, was praised at the USA Film Festival in Salt Lake City. According to film critic Louis Black, it "was a declaration that regional cinematic storytelling was as evocative as anything coming out of Hollywood." The movie won Pennell a development deal at Universal and inspired actor/director Robert Redford to start the Sundance Institute in order to "provide a guy like [Pennell] with a place to train, a place to go where he could develop his skills."
After two years Pennel tired of Hollywood and returned to Texas in 1980 and settled in Houston. He was awarded a grant from the Southwest Alternative Media Project, or SWAMP, to fund his next project, Last Night at the Alamo (1983). Pennell reunited with actors Perryman and Davis. With the help of screenwriter Kim Henkel, Pennel crafted a story of a group of friends gathering at a soon to be demolished bar for the last time. The movie completed the trilogy of doomed Texans refusing to give up on life and won praise at the New York Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. During this time Pennell also married Nanette Taylor, a relationship which ended due to his problems with alcohol.
Pennell went on to direct Ice House, starring Melissa Gilbert, for Upfront Films in 1989 and returned to independent films with Heart Full of Soul in 1990 and Doc's Full Service in 1994. These subsequent films proved unsuccessful. Pennell was in and out of rehab centers during the 1990s and was once spotted wandering homeless in Houston, waving signs at motorists requesting a rich woman or a cold beer. Pennell had been given money from the Independent Television Service in San Francisco to work on a script when he died in Houston on July 20, 2002. Although his later films failed to measure up to his earlier ones, he left a lasting legacy on independent film. King of Texas (2007), a documentary film directed by Rene Pinnell and Claire Huie and produced by Mark Rance and Chuck Pinnell, commemorates his work.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Stephanie M. Salazar, "Pennell, Eagle," accessed June 30, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpe99.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.