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Acting style probably has always been a point of contention, but the arrival of movies certainly widened the gap between the classically trained actor (especially those who received that training in England) and those who went from the vaudeville stage to Hollywood stardom or came out of the Actors' Studio and were labeled "method actors."

Another divisive issue involved the stage versus movies, though very few actors resisted Hollywood forever.

However, sixty years ago there was agreement on one thing: No matter where you studied acting, if you decided to pursue a career in Hollywood, don't do it until you've learned how to ride a horse. That's because Westerns were king for many years, especially on television. And in the late 1950s movie studios tossed in the towel and began filming programs for the small screen, which in its early days depended on studio telecasts that were presented a lot of excellent dramas — and presented them live.

By the time I began interviewing actors, most of whom worked on television, the Western was the most popular kind of program. In 1962 "Bonanza" was the most-watched television show in the world.

Even actors who called in connection with non-Western shows had learned the importance of riding a horse. Michael Callan was starring in a situation comedy ("Occasional Wife") when he phoned, but the best thing he'd ever do in Hollywood was support Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin in the classic Western comedy, "Cat Ballou."

Before Richard Chamberlain found fame in "Dr. Kildare," he had spent about half his professional acting like in Westerns (small roles in TV's "Gunsmoke," "Riverboat," "The Deputy" and "Whispering Smith") and a starring role in the movie, "A Thunder of Drums." In 1978, long after "Dr. Kildare," Chamberlain delivered one of his best performances in the mini-series, "Centennial," as a fur trapper and later an early settler in Colorado.

What follows are recollections of some interviews with actors who were known mostly for their work in TV Westerns. (In addition, there also are stories from my interviews with Jack Kelly, of "Maverick" fame; Hugh O'Brian, who was TV's Wyatt Earp; Ken Curtis, who was Festus Haggen on "Gunsmoke," and Jack Elam, whose evil looks softened with age, turning him from an Old West bad guy into a laugh-generating character in the Gabby Hayes tradition.)

 

Perhaps my most memorable interview with the star of a Western series was conducted in a bar in downtown Cleveland. That's where I met actor James Drury who played the title role in "The Virginian," perhaps prime time television's most ambitious weekly series. Each episode was 90-minutes long. Drury remained with the show until the end of its 10-season run and appeared in all 249 episodes.

Drury was a relative unknown when "The Virginian" went on th air in 1962. He slowly slipped into obscurity afterward, starring in a short-lived series about firemen ("Firehouse," 1974) and afterward doing three guest spots on "Walker, Texas Ranger." He also had a cameo role in a 2000 TV movie, "The Virginian," that starred Bill Pullman in the title role. Born in New York in 1934, Drury now lives in Houston where he has been in the oil business for many years.When I met him, Drury was between marriages in 1968 and was accompanied on his publicity trip by a girl friend (who may have been Phyllis Mitchell, who became his second wife later that year) and his bodyguard, who was about my height (6-foot-3), but muscular and scary.

I made no attempt to go drink-for-drink with Drury, who enjoyed his scotch so much that our table and his right elbow remained strangers throughout the evening. Fittingly, when Drury became very, very mellow, he slipped into a Richard Burton impression. An excellent Richard Burton impression, by the way. I was convinced that had Drury been cast in a good police or medical drama that he probably would have a different, perhaps more successful career and would have been recognized as a damn fine actor.

As it was, Drury had acquired a reputation for being taciturn and frequently hostile, but he proved unusually friendly for a celebrity who was saddled with a journalist for more than three hours. It was close to midnight when I finally said goodbye, politely declining Drury's invitation for another round of drinks.

Thus I missed the most exciting part of the evening. Soon after I left, Drury's bodyguard decided to try out pick-up lines on women seated at the nearby bar. Another patron, undoubtedly fueled by liquid courage, figured out the identity of the man in the horn-rimmed glasses having drinks with the best-looking woman in the place. He approached Drury, belched the old cliche ("Well, if it isn't The Virginian! I bet you think you're sooooo tough!"), then found himself face-to-face with the lightning-quick bodyguard, who'd spotted trouble, and responded by grabbing the man and hurling him through a large window, onto the sidewalk out front.

Or so I was told the next day by someone at the Cleveland NBC affiliate, who may have exaggerated a bit. At least, I hope he did.

 

"Bonanza" was the world's most popular television program in 1962. It was about a thrice-widowed rancher, Ben Cartwright, who lived on a spread called The Ponderosa. He had a son by each of his ill-fated wives. "Bonanza" was shown in 20 countries, which at that time was an impressive number. To me, the setting of the Cartwright ranch — Nevada, which, as far as I'm concerned, is like living on the surface of the moon — made the family's wealth and status seem ridiculous. Almost any other Western state would have been more appealing. But that was something I kept to myself in August of that year.

That's when Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene, center, above) and two of his sons, Hoss (Dan Blocker, left) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) attended the Soap Box Derby in Akron. Chevrolet sponsored both "Bonanza" and the Soap Box Derby, so the actors were, in a way, employees of the automobile company. Like good employees they went to Ohio where they were received a warm and wild welcome. (Pernell Roberts, who played Adam, the eldest son, chose not to make the trip, a hint of things to come two years later when he left the series.)

When I met the "Bonanza" stars in a suite on the 12th floor of a downtown hotel, they didn’t have much to say. They were cordial, but in a meet-the-public mode, their brains and mouths on autopilot, their statements fluffed up for public consumption. My most vivid memory of the occasion had nothing to do with meeting them; it was when I drifted away from the crowd to a window and briefly stared down at the street. Suddenly I was queasy; shades of James Stewart in “Vertigo.”

Greene was the most gregarious of the "Bonanza" boys, saying the show would have been just as big a hit if he weren’t in the show, which, he added, was almost the case. Seems that a few months before the show was cast, Greene had an offer to go to New York City to work on the "Ominbus" TV series.

"However, I didn't like the part and decided not to do it. Four days later I got an offer to do a guest shot on 'Wagon Train.' "

Greene says it was his role on "Wagon Train" that attracted the attention of David Dortort, creator of "Bonanza."

"If I had taken that 'Omnibus' job Dortort probably would have spotted someone else for the father."

Greene also felt "Bonanza" would have been a hit as a contemporary drama about doctors, lawyers, policemen or businessmen. "First and foremost, ours is a show about family."

Greene had worked a lot before "Bonanza" and would do the same afterward until his death in 1987 at the age of 72. His best-known post-"Bonanza" series was "Battlestar Galactica" (1978-79) which morphed into "Galactica" in 1980. The actor had a knack for convincingly playing men older than he really was. My favorite Lorne Greene role was in the campy 1974 disaster movie, "Earthquake" when the 59-year-old Greene played the father of 52-year-old Ava Gardner, who was married to a character played by the then-51-year-old Charlton Heston.

DAN BLOCKER, who played huge son Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, was a Texas teacher who had done some acting at Sul Ross State Teachers College. His life changed after he decided to go to UCLA to earn his doctorate. While there he did some acting in his spare time. His size – six-feet-four-inches, 300 pounds – worked in his favor, getting him small, but noticeable roles in television shows. One of those rules, a recurring character named Tiny Budinger in “Cimarron City,” the old George Montgomery series, attracted the attention of Dortort, who offered Blocker the part of “Hoss.”

Blocker died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism after gall bladder surgery in May, 1972. He was only 43. "Bonanza" was still on the air. It began is 14th season that fall, but it concluded its run in mid-January, 1973. Many felt his death could and should have been avoided; some also speculated about the career he would have had after Bonanza. Given his size, it might have been difficult to find good roles, without repeating himself. He did have a featured role in the 1968 Frank Sinatra movie, "Lady in Cement" (1968), but it was an example of the hulking guy typecasting that he probably wanted to escape.

Landon, born Eugene Orowitz in Forest Hills, New York, grew up near Camden, New Jersey. He threw the javelin in high school and was good enough to receive an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, but was injured in his freshman year.

“One of my friends was interested in acting,” said Landon, “and he talked me into doing a scene with him before some movie scouts.”

As seems to be the case with other stars who told a similar story, the friend never became a successful actor..

Landon's first movie, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” didn’t help his career, but he got a boost from a supporting role in “God’s Little Acre.” After "Bonanza" Landon enjoyed even greater success with "Little House on the Prairie," and did very well after that with "Highway to Heaven."

Landon was married three times and fathered nine children. In early 1991 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he did in July of that year. He was 54 years old.

Pernell Roberts, the man who wasn't there, was the best-known of the three actors chosen to play a Cartwright son. He had a wonderful role in the 1959 Randolph Scott Western, “Ride Lonesome.” He also was featured in several television Westerns in the months leading up to the premiere of “Bonanza” in the fall of ’59.

Roberts didn't exactly disappear after he left "Bonanza," but he worked mostly in guest star roles in other actors' series, though he enjoyed moderate success in "Trapper John, M.D.," a spin-off of sorts of "M*A*S*H." That series, which co-starred Gregory Harrison, ran seven seasons. Interestingly, Roberts played the character much longer than did Wayne Rogers in the TV version of "M*A*S*H." ("Trapper's" full name was John Francis Xavier McIntyre.)

Robert was married four times. Like Landon, he died from pancreatic cancer, but at the age of 81.

 

Some actors, even those who had been in Hollywood for many years, found their best roles in television. Milburn Stone, who made his first movie in 1935, had done more than 150 of them before he was cast as “Doc” Adams on “Gunsmoke” in 1955. He would be featured in more than 600 episodes over the next 20 years of one of television’s longest-running programs.

Stone had played every kind of role imaginable in every kind of film imaginable, but he’ll always be remembered as the Dodge City doctor and close friend of Marshal Matt Dillon. (“Gunsmoke” had been a radio series for many years. In that version “Doc” Adams was played by Howard McNear, whose best-known television role was a Floyd the barber on “The Andy Griffith Show.”)

I had the opportunity to interview Stone – well, I was one of many journalists who talked to him press-conference style – in Chicago in 1964. This type of interview, if it can be called that, is often worthless. Only a few actors can make them interesting (see Robert Conrad), and Stone’s session went off the rails when a young woman from a Wisconsin newspaper was overcome by emotion when she attempted to ask a question. Turned out Stone was a special favorite of her parents, which made the actor one of her idols, and she was reduced to tears. The press conference never recovered.

 

Tragedy awaited Eric Fleming, who starred in “Rawhide,” one of the best television Western series, in part because it was almost always on the move. Fleming was not your typical actor. He had served with the Seabees in World War 2, and his experience prepared him for a job as a stagehand doing carpentry work at a movie studio in 1946.

He told me this story during a 1962 phone interview:

“I saw a young actor flop in an audition at the studio. I told the guys I worked with, ‘I can do better than that!’ One word led to another I was goaded into making a $100 bet on my acting ability. I lost the bet,” he said. “And I was miserable.”

He said it was the first time he had tried acting, but the experience, as humiliating as it was, gave him the itch to try again. “Besides, acting cost me that $100 and I made up my mind it was going to pay me back.”

He went to New York, took acting lessons, and landed parts in Broadway plays, including “No Time for Sergeants” and “Plaint and Fancy.”

Fleming then returned to Hollywood where his previous work experience proved just as important as his more recent acting jobs. His size (a rugged six-foot-three-inches) were a plus, too. And he was offered the job as trail boss Gil Favor on “Rawhide.” Fleming’s famous cry of “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out” was heard for the first time on January 9, 1959.

“I’m convinced that Western stars are picked more for their stamina than their acting ability,” he said. “I’ve lost four teeth, have had 20 stitches for different kinds of cuts, have had several sprained wrists, ankles and ribs, and I’ve been pierced with cactus more times than I’d like to remember.”

His worst accident, however, occurred during the war while he was in the Pacific with the Seabees. A 200-pound block of steel fell from a hoist and hit him. It took 40 stitches and a battery of plastic surgeons to give Fleming a new face marked only by a few spidery scars.

“My new face is entirely different from my old one,” Fleming said, “but I prefer the new one.”

After “Rawhide” completed its six-season run in 1965, Fleming made three appearances on “Bonanza” and also played a spy in the Doris Day movie, “The Glass Bottom Boat.” Tragically, it was while filming his next project, “High Jungle,” in Peru that Fleming was drowned after his canoe overturned in the Huallaga River during filming. He was only 41.

 

Another actor who benefited from his imposing size is Clint Walker. He stands six-feet-six-inches and in his prime weighed a fit 235 pounds. He also had a background that included many jobs that required strength, endurance and athletic ability. All this turned out to be more important than acting experience.

At 28, he was married and the father of a five-year-old daughter. He was a deputy sheriff in Las Vegas. There he met actor Van Johnson who suggested Walker go to Hollywood and try to get into movies.

“I had always thought acting was a silly way to make a living,” he told me in a 1963 telephone interview, “but the money part of it interested me.”

The way he described what happened next had me thinking about “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Walker said he took his wife and daughter to California in the family’s old Model A Ford.

He auditioned at Universal Studios and was told, thanks . . . but no thanks. But his imposing size got him two quick jobs, neither requiring any acting ability. He showed up as a Tarzan-like character in a Bowery Boys movie, “Jungle Gents,” and was hired as an extra for Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” He played one of the Pharaoh’s guards.

An agent spotted Walker during the filming of “Ten Commandments" and took him to Warner Brothers, were he signed a seven-year contract. Warners was collecting actors like stamps, then sticking them into series that would multiply for the next several years. Walker was given the starring role in “Cheyenne,” which went on the air in September, 1955, a year before “The Ten Commandments” was released.

“Cheyenne” enjoyed a long run, finally leaving ABC-TV in 1962, though Walker waged a one-man strike during that period. He had his first starring role in a movie in a 1958 Western, "Fort Dobbs," and followed that up a year later with “Yellowstone Kelly.” He appeared in several episodes of another Warners series, “77 Sunset Strip,” in 1963, then concentrated on movies for the rest of the ‘60s with roles in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson film, “Send Me No Flowers” (1964), in which the funniest scene was watching Walker squeeze into and out of a tiny sports car; “None But the Brave” (1965), with Frank Sinatra; “The Night of the Grizzly” (1966); “The Dirty Dozen” (1967); “The Great Bank Robbery” (1969), with Kim Novak, and the Burt Reynolds Western, “Sam Whiskey” (1969).

He did another TV series, “Kodiak,” which was canceled after 13 episodes in 1974. He hasn’t been seen much since them, though in 1995 he reprised his Cheyenne Bodie character in an episode of TV’s “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”

He has his first wife, Verna Garver, whom he had married in 1948, were divorced in 1968. He has been married twice since.

 

In June, 1963, George Montgomery came to the Akron area to star in "King of Hearts" at the Canal Fulton Summer Theater. Interest in Montgomery was high, but not because of his acting. He and Dinah Shore, his wife of nearly 20 years, had just gotten a divorce. Montgomery was portrayed as the villain in the split.

"There's no doubt my divorce was one-sided," he said, "but I wouldn't want it any other way."

Miss Shore filed for divorce on grounds of mental cruelty. After the split became public Montgomery was rumored to be dating almost every eligible woman in the country.

"I've read about my dates," he said, "and most of them have been with girls I've never even met."

Meanwhile, about two weeks after the divorce became final, Dinah Shore remarried, to one Maurice F. Smith. They were divorced about a year later. Down the road for her was a long relationship with Burt Reynolds.

When I asked Montgomery why he was doing summer stock, he said, "I understood there was money in it. Besides, I wanted people to see I can do something besides ride a horse."

He said he didn't have much theater experience.

"I played George Washington crossing the Delaware when I was in third grade. That was the extent of my stage experience before last year."

Montgomery was 47 years old at the time. As a young man he majored in architecture and interior design at the University of Montana, but was more interested in boxing. That took him to Hollywood, but he never turned pro. Instead he became a movie stunt man for a Lone Ranger film. Montgomery was a rugged man, standing six-foot-three. He went from stunt man to actor, appearing in lots of Westerns in the late 1930s, but he also did a few comedies and musicals.

"I really didn't know what to do, especially in those musicals," he said. "I just sort of stood there and smiled at the camera."

Montgomery went off to war in 1942 and when he returned in 1946 he promptly fell into a cowboy rut. He had one Western TV series, "Cimarron City," which ran for 26 episodes during the 1958-59 season.

He continued to work in movies and television until the early 1970s. Among his last roles were guest appearances on "Alias Smith and Jones" (1971), "The Six Million Dollar Man" (1974) and "The Odd Couple." He had one of his best movie roles in 1965 when he played a sergeant in "Battle of the Bulge."

He also was a skilled furniture and cabinet maker and ran a cabinet shop for 40 years. He never remarried. Montgomery died in 2000 at the age of 83.

 

 

Also . . .
Don Adams Patty Duke Ricardo Montalban
Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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