THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee and Walker Evans

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became an overnight classic twenty-five years after Agee was given an assignment to write an article for Fortune magazine in 1936, which the magazine subsequently rejected and never published; twenty years after it was finally published as a book; and five years after its author succumbed to a heart attack in a New York taxi on his way to a doctor's appointment.

Agee was just twenty-six, a poet in the guise of a journalist, when he was given the assignment to travel into the Deep South to do a story on cotton sharecroppers. He asked that a friend of his, thirty-two year old photographer Walker Evans, be hired to accompany him. Evans at the time was working for one of the New Deal agencies, the Farm Security Administration, helping to document the Great Depression. Evans was given a leave of absence and he and Agee headed South during the summer of 1936.

They traveled around for a month before they found the subjects they wanted to photograph and write about. They spent three weeks with three families and then went back to New York to finalize the article and present it to the magazine's editor. The magazine did not publish it. It was believed for many years that Agee's unconventional rambling style was the cause for the editor's rejection of the article. However, decades later it was discovered that that was not the case.

"Isn't every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn't a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?"

At any rate, after the article was rejected, Agee then expanded it into a book and set about to find a publisher. It was five years later that it was published to a resounding sound of silence. It was a miserable failure, partly because the effects of the Great Depression had lessened and because the war in Europe and Asia dominated the news. The book sold only 600 copies the first year and there was no second printing -- not then.

"Picking cotton: it is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as fuel to it; but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier."

"...and in each private and silent heart toward that climax of one more year's work which yields so little at best, and nothing so often, and worse to so many hundreds of thousands..."

Agee went on to other things; he continued to write poetry; became an influential and highly-respected film critic; and he wrote screenplays for two classic movies: THE AFRICAN QUEEN and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

But he was a tormented man who fought off his demons with tobacco and alcohol and the combination helped bring on the heart attack that killed him at age forty-five. At the time of his death he was working on an autobiographical novel. Two years after his death, A Death in the Family was published and a year later it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Two years after that, because of Agee's untimely death and as a result of the critical acclaim for his novel, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was re-published and became an instant classic, not only due to Agee's narrative, but also because of Evans' haunting black-and-white photographs that appear uncaptioned at the beginning of the book.

In 2003, a typescript of Agee's original magazine article was discovered among his papers. It is much different from the book that grew out of the project. It is much more conventional, much more journalistic, and much less poetic. It had not been rejected due to an unconventional writing style after all, but for some other reason or reasons.

In 2013, it was published as Cotton Tenants: Three Families, the title of Agee's rejected magazine article.


The link will take you to Walker Evan' photographs:

James Agee
Walker Evans

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


ANNOUNCER (George Walsh):  "Around Dodge City and in the territory on West -- there's just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers -- and that's with a U.S. marshal and the smell of gunsmoke.  'Gunsmoke' starring William Conrad. The story of the violence that moved West with young America -- and the story of a man who moved with it."

MATT DILLON (William Conrad): "I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal -- the first man they look for and the last they want to meet.  It's a chancy job -- and it makes a man watchful -- and a little lonely."

No, the above is not a typo.  The original Matt Dillon was not James Arness, but another big man (though in a different way), William Conrad.  The program debuted on radio in 1952, three years before its inaugural TV season.  At the time there were those who said that they thought that the radio version was more realistic and therefore was superior to the TV series.  Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that the radio version was one of the best produced, best written, and best acted programs to ever grace the radio airways.

The original Matt Dillon (1952)

Gunsmoke's radio cast
Early TV Western series used as their model the B-Western movies that had been so popular among juveniles -- especially male juveniles.  In fact, three of them starred the actors who had dominated B-Western movie production during most of the sound era: Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers.  In addition, there was the Lone Ranger, who was originally a radio creation, but who easily made the transition to television.

Most radio Western series were cut out of the same cloth.  As mentioned, that's where the Lone Ranger began his adventures, soon to be joined by Boyd, Autry, Rogers, and others who geared their programs to the same youngsters who sat on the front row during Saturday matinees at the theater.

While it is also true that adults could find and enjoy Western movies at the theater that were aimed at grown-ups, that was not the case when it came to early TV or radio -- at least not until 1952.  However, that changed that year when Gunsmoke, the first "adult Western" to air on network radio, made its debut on CBS.

It is generally conceded that the first adult TV Western series did not appear until 1955 and therefore radio had a three year head start.  Ironically, it was the debut that year of a TV version of Gunsmoke that did more than any other program to trigger a veritable avalanche of adult Westerns that would swamp TV programming and dominate its ratings during the remainder of that decade.

Three years before the TV version's first season, however, one of the co-creators of the radio show, Norman Macdonnell (1916-1976), used the term "adult Western" in an interview describing his new program, and thus is thought to be the originator of the term.  Besides being a co-creator of the series, he also served as its producer and director.  His partner in the endeavor was writer John Meston (1914-1979). Each man was only in his thirties when the radio series was launched. 

Publicity still for Gunsmoke
John Meston grew up in Pueblo, Colorado and had worked on cattle ranches and he had spent time listening to stories told by old-time cowboys.  As a result, he was able to bring an air of authenticity to the show's scripts.

Meston and Macdonnell wanted a hero, but one who was not invincible.  They wanted him to be more human than the B-Western heroes and thus more believable.  He wouldn't always be right or certain that he was doing the right thing.  As William Conrad said about his character: "Matt Dillon isn't perfect but he is willing to try."  In other words, he would not always be the "white-hatted" hero that juvenile audiences preferred.

And the villains he faced would not always be the outright evil scoundrels that the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy or Tom Mix opposed on the airways. There would be more gray and less black-and-white when it came to the motivations of the hero as well as of those that he attempted to bring to justice.

Although it is true that Macdonnell and Meston attempted to produce a realistic Western series and for the most part succeeded in their efforts, it did fall short in one respect.  Matt Dillon was a U.S. marshal.  He enforced the law -- federal, state, and local -- with only Chester, a part time deputy, and a none too bright one at that, to assist him.  Where the heck was the sheriff that the good people of Ford County elected to enforce state law -- not to mention his deputies?  And what about the town marshal who was hired by the town to enforce municipal ordinances -- not to mention his deputies?  The truth is there would have been not one, but three layers of law enforcement in and around Dodge City.  

Dodge's notorious Front Street
I know that Meston, a man who grew up in the West, and who read widely about the history of that region, knew better and that in other ways the program was historically accurate, but I have never understood why he did not make Matt a sheriff, or a town marshal, or at least give him some help.    

Well, now that's off my chest and we can proceed.

Before Gunsmoke, Norman Macdonnell was the producer and director of Escape.  The narrator of that series was a radio actor who was not only blessed with a deep and resonant voice, but a voice that was also capable of expressing a wide range of emotions.  The actor was William Conrad (1920-1994) and he wanted the role of Matt Dillon.

At first Macdonnell was reluctant to cast Conrad as Matt Dillon.  It wasn't because he didn't think Conrad would be good in the role.  It was that he thought the actor, one of the most ubiquitous radio actors in the business and the possessor of such a distinctive voice, would be too familiar to radio audiences.  However, during Conrad's audition he became convinced that the actor would be a perfect Matt Dillon.  Macdonnell would later give Conrad much of the credit for how his character and the show evolved.

Although Conrad was not cast in the Matt Dillon role when the TV series was launched in 1955, he did eventually star in three non-Western TV series: Cannon (1971-1976); Nero Wolfe (1981); and Jake and the Fatman (1987-1992).  Even when he was not seen, his voice could be heard as the narrator of TV shows such as The Fugitive (1963-1967), The Bullwinkle Show (1959-1961), and many others.  


Parley Baer  as Chester Proudfoot
Parley Baer (1914-2002) portrayed Chester, Matt's assistant and part time deputy.  He wasn't much of a lawman, but he was a loyal friend who always addressed the marshal as either Mr. Dillon or Marshal Dillon, but never Matt.

And at first he was only Chester, no last name.  But at a rehearsal Baer adlibbed the full name of the character as Chester Wesley Proudfoot, and the name stuck.  (On the TV series, because Chester was handicapped by a stiff leg, the last name was changed to Goode.)

An extremely busy actor, during his tenure on Gunsmoke, he moonlighted from 1953-1965 on television in a recurring role as the Nelson's neighbor Darby, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  In 1962-1963, he was memorable as the prickly, persnickety, hot tempered, thorn-in-the-side, Mayor Roy Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show.

But that likes a lot of telling the whole story.  Baer enjoyed a sixty-four year career in radio, TV, and movies and was still working well into his eighties.

Howard McNear as Doc Adams
Howard McNear (1905-1969) was another busy radio actor who possessed a readily recognizable voice.  He portrayed Dodge City's only doctor, a man who was driven West by a weakness for alcohol, but one he was able to overcome.

When the Gunsmoke radio series ended its long run, McNear didn't miss a beat.  Like Parley Baer, he moved to TV and into his most famous role, that of Floyd Lawson, the lovable barber on The Andy Griffith Show.  Thus for one season, he and Parley Baer were reunited.

McNear's tenure on the show was interrupted during its third season when he suffered a severe stroke.  He returned after a year and half absence, but because of the paralysis that he continued to experience on one side, he was always photographed sitting, usually on a bench in the front of the barber shop. He left the show in 1967, and died two years later, due to complications from another stroke.

Georgia Ellis (1917-1988) portrayed Kitty Russell.  She was a saloon girl, and not, as in the TV series, the owner of a saloon or a "hostess," but simply a working girl, primarily at the Long Branch.  She was on the show to add a little romance in the life of Matt Dillon and to give him someone to pass time with other than Chester and Doc.

Of the four principals, her character was the least developed and, unlike the other stars, her career pretty well ended with this role.   

Rex Koury composed a haunting, poignant, and strangely sad theme that was played at the beginning and the conclusion of each episode.  It fit the mood of the show perfectly.  He also wrote the interior music that was used to bridge scenes and heighten the sense of suspense.  The music added a great deal to the enjoyment of the show.

The theme also opened and closed each TV episode.  However, at some point a misguided decision was reached to use a more up tempo, more jazzed up version of the theme.  That was unfortunate, for it just did not have the same effect as the original.

Another great attribute of the program were the special effects.  Even without dialogue the listener had a good idea of what was occurring just by the sound of footsteps on a wooden walk, horses and wagons passing on the street, dogs barking in the distance, and people talking in the background.  It truly became a "theater of the mind."

Here is a link to one of the radio episodes.  If you click on the picture below you can hear a commercial from the sponsor as well as the opening with the sound effects and the music.  And if you wish, you can listen to the entire episode.

In 1955, three years after the debut of the radio show, Gunsmoke began a twenty year run on TV.  All four stars of the radio show were given auditions for the TV version.  But it was only a formality; none of them were given any serious consideration.  So they soldiered on as before, and one would hope that they were consoled by the fact that they were contributing to one of the greatest radio programs ever produced, one that lasted nine years and did not end until 1961.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


The following are some quick looks at a few books dealing with war that I think deserve a 5 out of 5 rating:

WOE TO LIVE ON, Daniel Woodrell, (originally published in 1986)


This is early Woodrell and a departure from what would come later.  Woe To Live On is a work of fiction, but is nevertheless an accurate depiction of the dirty little guerrilla conflict fought in Missouri during the Civil War in which nobody won and everybody lost.  The title of the movie based on the book was RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999). 

Woodrell, who lives in the Missouri Ozarks, knows the history and the territory.
Later he would become best known for stories and novels that he characterized as country noir.

THE YOUNG LIONS, Irwin Shaw, (originally published in 1948)


I had always believed that there were three great American World War II novels that shared the common characteristics of being written by veterans of that conflict and being published during its immediate aftermath.

They are: The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer; The Caine Mutiny (1951) by Herman Wouk; and From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones. But I need to add a fourth book that belongs in the same company: The Young Lions (l949) by Irwin Shaw, a book that was originally overshadowed by the others.

I first read The Young Lions about twenty-five years ago. Based on my memory I ranked it below the aforementioned books. However, as a result of my recent re-reading of the book, I see that it was better than I remembered.

With one exception, these novels are enriched by the fact that they are based upon the writers’ personal experiences during the war. The exception is The Naked and the Dead. Mailer did serve in the Pacific, but saw little combat and ended the war as a cook in the Philippines. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does mean that his classic story of a reconnaissance mission on a Pacific island was not based on his personal experience.

One of the ways that I judge my enjoyment of a book (or a movie) is whether or not I am willing to revisit it. Well, I have now read The Young Lions twice and the others three times each. Twenty-five years from now I plan to read Shaw’s book for a third time.

THE BIG WAR, Anton Myrer, (originally published in 1957)


 A reviewer for The Saturday Review made the claim that The Big War was "incomparably the finest novel to come out of World War II..." I don't quite agree with that evaluation (after all, I have read it only twice), but I do think it is a classic.  Like the finest novels dealing with that conflict, it was written by a veteran who was able to draw upon his personal experience.

The film adaptation is titled IN LOVE AND WAR (1958).

QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, George MacDonald Fraser, (originally published in 1994)


A memoir written about a young British soldier's experiences in the Burma campaign during World War II. Skillfully written, it reads like a novel. And no wonder. It was written by the author of the hugely popular and critically acclaimed "Flashman" series of historical novels.

 THE FORGOTTEN SOLDIER, Guy Sajer, (originally published in 1965)

 Forgotten Soldier.jpg

The author makes the claim that The Forgotten Soldier is an account of his experiences as a teenager in the German army fighting on the Eastern front against Soviet Russia.  Some experts believe that it is an authentic memoir while others dispute that claim and insist that it is a novel. Whether memoir or novel, it is a powerful book.

Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles, William Prochnau (originally published in 1996)

 Front Cover

The following individuals should read this book: 1) anyone interested in the Vietnam War; 2) anyone interested in journalism; 3) anyone not interested in the Vietnam War; 4) anyone not interested in journalism; 4) everyone.


Sunday, July 19, 2015


The following are some quick looks at a few books set in the American West  that I think deserve a 5 out of 5 rating:

THE COURT MARTIAL OF GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER, Douglas C. Jones (originally published in 1976)


Douglas C. Jones has long been one of my favorite writers.  This was the first of many fine novels to be written by the native Arkansan and retired military officer.  In 1976, it was the winner of the Western Writers of America's prestigious Spur Award for best Western novel.

Publisher's blurb: Suppose that George Armstrong Custer did not die at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suppose that, instead, he was found close to death at the scene of the defeat and was brought to trial for his actions. With a masterful blend of fact and fiction, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer tells us what might have happened at that trial as it brings to life the most exciting period in the history of the American West.

SEASON OF YELLOW LEAF, Douglas C. Jones (originally published in 1983)


Based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, this is the story of ten-year-old Chosen who was taken captive by the Comanches and whose son later became the last war chief of that tribe.

GONE THE DREAMS AND DANCING, Douglas C. Jones  (originally published in 1984)

Quanah Parker

This is a sequel to Season of Yellow Leaf.  Based on the life of Quanah Parker, it is a fictional account of his efforts to save his people.  In 1984, it was the recipient of the Western Writers of America's Spur Award for best Western historical novel. 

FOOL'S CROW, James Welch (originally published in 1986) 


Dee Brown says this about James Welch's Fool's Crow: "Remarkable for its beauty of language...May be the closest we will ever come in literature to an understanding of what life was like for a western Indian." That is high praise indeed and even more meaningful since it comes from the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and who is also one of the most respected of all historians of the American West.

THE LAST CROSSING, Guy Vanderhaeghe (originally published in 2002)


The Last Crossing is a big, sprawling epic Western novel. Some critics have compared it to the Western novels of Cormac McCarthy. I can't agree. It is true that it does share some similarities with McCarthy's novels, but it isn't nearly as dark.

I think a better comparison would be Larry McMurtry. Both writers have a better sense of humor than McCarthy (who seems to have none at all), and their writing, though often characterized by scenes of graphic violence, also have moments of humor which help lighten the mood.

The Last Crossing is as almost good as McMurtry's best and far superior to his worst. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

SILAS MARNER by George Eliot

Dear Ms Park,

I finally finished reading Silas Marner.  Yes, I know you assigned it during my sophomore year in high school, but I didn't finish it until this past February.  I know I passed the test you gave us on the story and I even made a passing grade on the paper that I wrote about the story.  But I have to confess that it was Jake D.'s Classic Illustrated Comics version of the story that allowed me to make those grades.  Poor Jake.  Even after reading the comic book  from cover to cover he still failed both assignments.

Since I'm confessing and apologizing I suppose I should add one more thing.  I'm sorry you caught me that day in class reading a paperback copy of Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre that I had tucked inside my lit book when I was supposed to have been reading about Silas.  Now there was a writer.  Erskine Caldwell, I mean.  He could tell a story and, unlike Silas Marner, things happened in his books.
I had just gotten to a really interesting scene in this one when you caught me, the one with Darlin' Jill and the albino.  I can still see your hand dart across my shoulder and snatch the book away.  And then with everybody in the class looking, and while you held the book between your thumb and forefinger like it was a dead mouse, you looked at me and said one word, "Trash." Boy, was my face red.  I never did know if you were talking about the book or me -- or both.

But in my defense, neither I nor any other fourteen-year old boy should have been required to read Silas Marner, unless, of course, the goal was to instill a hatred of reading.  I say this as someone who always loved to read from the time that he first learned to read.  Discounting comic books, poor old Jake, on the other hand,  despised reading and had never read an entire book in his whole life.  He might have been enticed to read about the Three Musketeers or Robin Hood or Huck Finn, but never Silas Marner.
One of the problems that I had at first with the story was the fact that you told us that the author's name wasn't really George Eliot.  I remember thinking that I didn't blame him for not using his real name.  I wouldn't have either.  But then you told us that George's real name was Mary Ann Evans!  Well, as far as I was concerned that made George a lot more interesting than Silas.

I also remember you telling us that Eliot/Evans' most famous quote was: "It is never too late to be what you might have been."  Even at age fourteen, I found that to be profound and inspiring, much more so than the few pages I read in Silas Marner.  But I recently discovered that the quote does not appear in anything that she wrote and that there is no evidence that she ever said it. I am no longer inspired, just disappointed.

But, as I say, I finally read the whole story.  Here's my review: "It was better than I expected."

By the way, if you read my copy of God's Little Acre, the one you never returned, I bet you found it to be better than you expected, too.

Your former student,

Sunday, July 12, 2015

YOU HAVE SEEN THEIR FACES by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White

The sharecropping system was born of the plantation system, and the new was anything but an improvement over the old. The old produced numerous families of wealth who developed a culture that was questionable. The new concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families who are determined that no culture shall exist. -- Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (Viking Press, 1937)

The idea for this book originated with Erskine Caldwell, who wanted "to show that the fiction I was writing was authentically based on contemporary life in the South." Needing a photographer to accompany him on a tour of the South to document through words and pictures the lives of southern tenant farmers, his agent suggested Margaret Bourke-White, already famous for her photos that had appeared in Fortune and Life.

During the summer of 1936 and early 1937, the two traveled from South Carolina to Arkansas interviewing and photographing poor white and black tenant farmers and their families.

Historian Alan Trachtenberg writes in the introduction of my copy of the book that when it was first published that it "struck viewers as a new kind of book, one in which pictures appeared on an equal basis with words" and that through Caldwell's prose and Bourke-White's images it can be viewed as "a long-lost moment of artistic protest against economic injustice and suffering" and that "whatever shortcomings new readers may find in the book, its evidence of a passion for justice joined with a passion for artistic communication makes an irresistible claim on our respect." As such, it was very much considered to be radical for its time.

Readers then and now have been confused by Caldwell's fiction. While he claimed to sympathize with the poor sharecroppers and their families, he nevertheless seemed to be poking fun at them in his novels. Readers searching for stories about the suffering of the noble poor during the Great Depression had to look elsewhere. The poor in Caldwell's novels were anything but noble.

So, what was his personal opinion of poor sharecroppers? And who did he really blame for their poverty and their ignorance?

The answer to those questions may not be clear in his novels, but he makes it crystal clear in this book. It was the landowners, he wrote, "who are to be held responsible, and in the end to be called upon to answer for the degeneration of men as well as the rape of the soil in the South."

Conversely, the sharecroppers, the people who shared in the risk, but not the control, "are the wasted human beings whose blood made the cotton leaves green and the blossoms red. To the cost of raising cotton add the value of lives."

Many of the Bourke-White photos that appear in the book can be viewed at the link below along with some that appeared in Agee and Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Erskine Caldwell
Margaret Bourke-White

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


"In the summer of 1949, television sets were large and television screens were small; wrestling, quiz shows and test patterns dominated the air waves, and Milton Berle was the undisputed king of the medium.  Onto that range rode television's first cowboy hero, Hopalong Cassidy, on Friday evening, June 24.  During the years that followed nearly two hundred horse operas galloped into countless millions of American living rooms." -- Gary A. Yoggy, Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television

Hoppy and Topper

Yep.  Hoppy was the first of many Western heroes who would come to dominate TV programming.  Just three months later he was joined by the masked rider of the plains, The Lone Ranger.  Unlike Hoppy, this hero originated on radio.  True, he had been the subject of two chapter serials made by Republic, but had never been a regular movie series hero.  But he would enjoy great success on TV and after his network run, syndication would allow him to ride the range for many more years.

Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the only two B-Western movie cowboys to surpass Hoppy in popularity.  And a year after Hoppy made his TV debut, Autry joined him on the small screen and a year after that Rogers made the transition.

Autry's Flying "A" Productions not only produced his own series, but was also responsible for launching four other series that were set in the West: Annie Oakley (1954 premier; starring Gail Davis); Buffalo Bill Jr. (1955 premier; starring Dick Jones); and even a series starring Autry's horse, The Adventures of Champion (1955 premier; starring Champion, of course, but featuring Ricky North and Jim Bannon).

Better than those three, however, was The Range Rider, which premiered in 1951, starring Jack Mahoney (for now; the name would change) and Dick Jones. 

"Home, home on the range/ Where the deer and the antelope play...."

"....and who could be more at home on the range than 'The Range Rider' with his thrilling adventures of the great outdoors, his exciting experiences rivaling those of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill and other pioneers of this wonderful country of ours?"

"....and Dick West, All-American boy."

Each episode opened to the strains of "Home on the Range," followed by scenes of The Range Rider (Mahoney) mounting his buckskin horse, Rawhide, and galloping after a runaway stagecoach whose driver had been wounded.  Mahoney leaps from his horse onto the stage.  Then there is a scene of Dick West (Jones), the All-American boy, leaning out of the saddle to fire his six-shooter underneath the neck of his galloping pinto, Lucky.  While all this is occurring, an announcer is intoning the above lines.

Well, it would help if you could see all of that.  And you can, if you click on the picture below.

It is obvious in the program's intro that Mahoney is doing his own stunting.  And why not, he was one of the greatest stuntmen of all time, ranking with such notables as Yakima Canutt, Davey Sharpe, Cliff Lyons, Tom Steele, and Chuck Roberson.  In fact, he was even capable of performing stunts that were even beyond the capabilities of that inestimable group. 

His young sidekick, portrayed by native Texan Dick Jones (1927-1914), was no slouch either when it came to the action scenes.  A former child actor, billed at age six as "The World's Youngest Trick Rider," he excelled at horsemanship and like Mahoney was able to perform his own stunts. 

Mahoney (1919-1989) was born in Chicago, but grew up in Davenport, Iowa.  Of French and Irish heritage, his birth name was Jacques Joseph O'Mahoney.  He entered the University of Iowa where he participated in several varsity sports.  When WW II began, however, he left school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, eventually becoming a fighter pilot.

After the war, Mahoney moved to Los Angeles where he broke into the movie business as a stuntman.  He would eventually appear in over 200 movie and TV productions as a stuntman or actor or both.  Tall (6-4) and lanky, he was a perfect stunt double for actors such as Gregory Peck, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, and Rod Cameron.  In some of the films he also was given supporting roles, usually as a villain.

In the late '40's, billed as Jacques O'Mahoney, he signed on with Columbia Pictures, where he became the stunt double for the studio's long-time B-Western star, Charles Starrett.  By this time, Starrett was portraying a character called the Durango Kid.  Since Durango wore a mask it was possible for Mahoney to do all the stunts without anyone being the wiser.  It also made it appear that Starrett, approaching age fifty, was becoming more athletic as the years went by.

Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid

Jacques O'Mahoney as The Durango Kid

"I certainly had the best stuntman.  Jocko was just beautiful.  He was like a cat." -- Charles Starrett

"Columbia left the Starretts up to me.  I'd walk around the location and find interesting things to do, and they would plain just write them into the script." -- Jacques O'Mahoney

Mahoney was also given featured roles in these films and it was said that he was being groomed to take over the series from Starrett who was contemplating retirement.  However, it was almost the end of the B-Western, its demise hastened by the popularity of Hoppy, Roy, Gene, and the Lone Ranger, all of whom could be watched for free on TV.  Instead of continuing with a new star, the studio decided to pull the plug on the series in 1952. 

Mahoney did star in three chapter serials made by Columbia, all Westerns.  But by that time serials were also rapidly losing their audience to television and soon thereafter they too disappeared from movie screens.   

In the final years of his movie career, Autry's B-Westerns were independently produced by his Flying "A" production unit, but were released through and distributed by Columbia Pictures.  It was this association that made Autry aware of Mahoney and led him to use him in a number of his films as both an actor and a stunt double.  Therefore, when Autry decided to launch The Range Rider series in 1951, he knew who he wanted to play the role.  However, he did request that Jacques O'Mahoney change his name to Jack Mahoney.

He agreed, for now.

With the exception of the anthology series, Death Valley Days (1952 premier), all the early TV Western series shared in common the fact that they, like the B-Western movies that they were replacing, were aimed at a juvenile audience.  Hoppy, Roy, and Gene portrayed the same characters on television that had appealed to juvenile audiences in the movie theaters and the TV Lone Ranger was very much the same character that had attracted juvenile listeners during its long tenure on radio.

It was a winning formula for now, and Autry and his Flying "A" Productions staff did not intend to drastically depart from that formula as it prepared to launch its other TV series.  However, since the cast of one series was headed by a female and another by a horse, there was at least some new ground being broken.  And although The Range Rider series was produced with that formula in mind, it did differ in some respects from the other Western series of that period. 

For example, there was the hero's sidekick.  During the B-Western movie era it became mandatory that the hero have a sidekick, somebody to offer humor, since it wasn't considered dignified for the actions of the hero to be a laughing matter.  The sidekick was nearly always older than the hero, too.  If, however, the sidekick was young, he would also have to be the one who wooed the ladies, because that was also out of bounds for nearly all the heroes.

Dick Jones, as Dick West, filled the bill.  Although he was twenty-four years old when the series began, because of his small stature (5-7) and boyish looks, he easily passed for the nineteen-year old that he portrayed.  His character also had an eye for the ladies.  The fact that Mahoney towered over Jones made it easy to believe that he was much older and more mature than his young friend, while in fact he was only eight years his senior.

As mentioned earlier, Jones had been a trick rider at age six.  He ended up in California due to performing in a rodeo that also featured the old cowboy, Hoot Gibson.  After watching Jones perform, Hoot told the boy's mother that her boy should be in the movies.  She thought that was a good idea and she and her young son headed to Hollywood.  After arriving, Dickie Jones, as he was billed, became a very busy little actor.

The young actor's most famous movie role was one in which he wasn't even seen on the screen.  It happened in 1940 when at age ten he provided the voice of Pinochio in the Disney animated feature of the same name.

As a sidekick, Jones was responsible for more than humor or the romantic angle.  Unlike many of the other Western sidekicks, he could handle the action and thus was able to chip in and provide the support the Range Rider needed to best the baddies.


I have to admire the actor holding the pistol.  He knows that a big galoot is about to jump on his back, but he can't even flinch.

The hero was different, too.  His horse wasn't a white or black stallion and there was no fancy bridle or saddle.  He wore buckskins and his belt and holster were as plain as could be.  Nor did he sport fancy boots and spurs.  He didn't even wear boots; he wore moccasins.  Perhaps that was to look different, but it was also because that particular footwear made it easier to perform stunts.

He was unconventional in another way, too.  He rarely mounted or dismounted his horse in a conventional fashion.  He nearly always created some little piece of business in making his mounts and dismounts even when the horse was at a standstill, and did so with an effortless leonine grace.

Seventy-nine episodes were filmed in 1951-1953.  The show didn't end there; it went into syndication and ran for many years afterwards.  

When Gene Autry decided to produce a new series to be called Buffalo Bill Jr, he did so with Dick Jones in mind to portray the lead character.  Forty-two episodes were filmed and were aired in 1955.  Jones continued to act throughout the '50's before calling it quits to pursue a career in business.

Buffalo Bill Jr.
Meanwhile, one final time Mahoney changed his name.  He now became Jock Mahoney, though his friends always called him Jocko.  After filming ended on The Range Rider, he went on to star in a number of Western features, mainly at Universal.  But he also realized one of his fondest dreams when he became the thirteenth actor to portray Tarzan.  And it almost killed him.

Back in 1949, he had auditioned to replace Johnny Weissmuller in the role.  It was not to be, however, for the role went to Lex Barker instead.

But now at age forty-two for the first film and forty-four for the second, he became the oldest actor to ever portray the character.  But that wasn't the problem.  On location during the second filming, he battled dysentery, dengue fever, and pneumonia.  His weight plummeted, which became apparent to movie viewers, and yet he persevered to the end and finished the film.

"I loved the role of Tarzan because it was such a distinct challenge. I remember being 40 feet up in a tree, sunburned as hell. And I thought to myself, 'What is a 42-year-old man doing 40 feet up in a tree, getting ready to swing out over a bunch of thorn bushes that if you ever fell into you would be cut to ribbons and damned near killing myself to get up there?' So I laughed and thought, 'Well now, who wouldn't want to play Tarzan??!'" -- Jock Mahoney