By Scott Meeker
Globe Features Editor
There's no cracking of bones or unnatural popping of joints as Dean Walker's legs are turned backward.
But that's not to say that he doesn't need a little help getting them that way.
As the Riverton, Kan., resident leaned back against a pole Friday inside Joplin's Northstar Cinema, Dale Crane, a lifelong friend, delivered a few solid kicks to Walker's feet to help get them turned the wrong direction.
"You're getting stiff, Dean," Crane laughed. "You're not limbered up yet this morning."
Walker, the president of the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association, says that he's also known as "Crazy Legs Walker, the Ambassador of Crazy Feet on Route 66."
"I'm famous for turning my feet around on Route 66," he said.
It's an ability that the makers of the new Disney/Pixar film "Cars" took note of when they met Walker five years ago, and they have incorporated it into the film. Walker appeared at the theater Friday morning to sign autographs and talk about the "Cars" character called Mater.
Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, Mater is a "good ol' boy tow truck" and the "self-proclaimed 'world's best backwards driver,'" according to the film's production notes.
Historian and author Michael Wallis - who also provides the voice of Sheriff, a 1949 Mercury police cruiser - led "Cars" director John Lasseter and other members of the movie's production team on a nine-day trip along the Mother Road in 2001.
"Dean is one of the great characters of the road," Wallis said in a phone interview Friday.
"Whenever my wife, Suzanne, and I go out on the road, people will ask, 'Don't you get bored?' But you know, it's never boring," he said, "because two things happen. We see the familiar and the comfortable. I know I'm going to see the storefronts of Galena (Kan.). I know I'm going to see Wilder's in Joplin. I know I'm going to see that sweet little arch bridge near Baxter Springs (Kan.). I know all that's there. But I'm also going to find something or someone new every time.
"Every time I turn over a rock, another genie emerges. And I turned over a rock one day and out came this frowning, blustering character named Dean Walker."
Wallis, whose works include "Route 66: The Mother Road" and "Songdog Diary: 66 Stories from the Road," also helped author "The Art of 'Cars'," a book released last week that offers a look at the making of the movie.
As he served as the production team's guide during their Route 66 trip, he said one of his goals was to make sure they met people they wouldn't ordinarily meet.
"As luck would have it, we had just eaten a sandwich at the Eisler Brothers (Old Riverton Store) when we met Dean," Wallis said. "He was proud as punch to show them his exorcist feet and regale them with stories of the Ghost Light, and so forth."
Many of the characters seen in the film were based on the people they met during their trip, he said. Dawn Welch, the owner of the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla., helped inspire the character of Sally Carrera, a Porsche 911 voiced in the movie by Bonnie Hunt.
"I made sure we gently reached into their hearts and took a little sliver, and then put it in the chassis of these fine cars so that they'll become very human for (the audience)," he said.
Wallis said that some aspects of Mater's personality also came from meeting Harley Russell, "a troubadour in Erick, Okla., who wears a redneck tuxedo."
But it wasn't just meeting Walker and Russell that helped define Mater, Wallis said. The character's entire appearance was also a direct result of their trip through the area.
"The morning we slipped out of Joplin and across the state line into Galena, there, on a grassy, vacant lot, we found a rusty old tow truck and I knew that vehicle was going to end up in the movie," he said.
In April, a crew from the Disney Channel filmed an interview with Walker on the Rainbow Bridge in Riverton for the program "Movie Surfers." Some of the footage may end up among the extras when "Cars" is rolled out onto DVD.
Walker said that he's been featured on commercials for the episode of "Movie Surfers," which debuted last week on the Disney Channel.
"It has me turning my feet around backward on Rainbow Bridge, with the cartoon image (of Mater) beside me."
After signing autographs at the theater, Walker got his first look at "Cars" during a Friday matinee.
"It's fantastic, I loved it," he said, after the movie ended. "It's the best thing you're ever going to see."
Meet 'Crazy Legs'
Dean Walker, whose unusual ability helped inspire the backward-driving character of Mater in "Cars," will be signing autographs Sunday evening before a screening of the film at the Route 66 Drive-In.
By Scott Meeker
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