With Hollywood ridin’ the range once more, PREMIERE revisits some old cowhands and other unsung heroes of the movie West.
By Martha Southgate/Anthony Reilly
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark
If all the best cowboys have Chinese eyes, then Jack Palance is Confucius. Possessing a steely gaze to go along with his coffee‑and‑cigarettes growl and leathery visage (the result of a bomber accident in World War II that burned his face), the coal miner's son from Lattimer, Pennsylvania (born Walter Jack Palahnuik in 1919), solidified his reputation as one of the movie West's great villains in Shane (1953). Best remembered by young fans for City Slickers and his 1992 Oscar acceptance speech ("Billy Crystal? I crap bigger than him"), complete with those infamous one‑armed push‑ups, Palance is back later this year in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold, in which he plays the late leatherneck's twin brother. "The first guy, his life was cows," Palance says. "The other guy's a sailor, lived on the sea for 45 years. He hates horses, hates cows, hates all of that crap. He eventually forms a partnership with Billy Crystal and there's a treasure map and off they go."
"He's the man in terms of the black western," says Mario Van Peebles of Woody Strode, whom he hired to play "The Historian" in Posse. "Woody had broken down doors way before anybody else. I couldn't have done it without him." The first door was John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge. "I can't make you a star because you're black," Ford is said to have told him, "but I can make you the best character actor around." Some might say he succeeded: Strode has appeared in Spartacus, Genghis Khan, and a number of spaghetti westerns –including an unforgettable cameo in Once Upon A Time In The West- and recently completed The Quick And The Dead, with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman.
"I knew that there had been many black cowboys," says Herb Jeffries, "and I was curious as to why no one had ever made a black cowboy picture." He took that curiosity to Hollywood, and beginning with 1937's Harlem on the Prairie, he starred in five of "the first all-black singing cowboy pictures on planet Earth," which were shown primarily in the segregated theaters of the south. Two years later, he hung up his spurs and returned to full-time crooning, and he's still at it: the 82-year-old Jeffries recently signed with Warner Western Records. The secret of his longevity? "It’s just a matter of being able to outlive everyone else,” he says. Jeffries is pictured here with his wife, Regina.
"The Lone Ranger means a great deal to me," says Clayton Moore, who played anonymous good guys and bad guys in countless B westerns before galloping into cowboy history as TV's masked man from 1949 to 1957. The character means so much to Moore, in fact, that he insists on being photographed wearing his mask -even when, in 1979, the wrather corp., which owned the rights to the Lone Ranger, obtained a court order forbidding him to do so. After six years of legal wrangling, Moore prevailed -just as the lone ranger always did. "He was a very helpful man," Moore says. "Fighting on the side of justice, fair play, and honesty. That kind of covers it." Hi-ho, silver, away!
Say "Gene Autry" to most people, and their first response will be, "Is he still alive?" At 86, he sure is. He first saddled up, guitar in hand, for 1934's In Old Santa Fe, and before long he was the top box office draw in the country. "He was the epitome not only of the singing cowboy," says John Langellier, director of publications and publishing at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, "but of the kind of guy who would duke it out with the heavy rather than blow him away." Nowadays, Autry spends most of his time with the California Angels, the baseball team he bought in 1960.
At five foot nine, Marie Windsor was a few inches too grand for stardom. "Bob Cummings had a mark on his door," she says, "and if a woman was taller than that, she couldn't get a job. Alan Ladd was the same way." Windsor made her mark instead as the wicked woman in scores of films noirs and B westerns (Force of Evil, Hellfire, The Tall Texan). "I'm happy with the work I did," she says. "But when I was growing up, I always dreamed of being another Joan Crawford or Greer Garson."
IRON EYES CODY
"She left me," says Iron Eyes Cody of his wife, Wendy, who had sat with him for the picture above. Not to worry: this apparently wouldn't be the first time that appearance and reality haven't quite jibed for Cody, who claims to be part Cherokee and Cree but is officially neither. "Many Native Americans say that to be an Indian comes from the heart," says Bonnie Paradise, executive director of The American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts. "Iron Eyes Cody would agree with that." Whatever the truth about his identity, Cody, who has played strong, silent braves in more than 100 films, takes his native American activism seriously (such as raising money for the St. Joseph's Indian School in South Dakota). Besides, who said westerns had anything to do with reality?
Her first movie job was a 25-foot fall for a film she can't remember. "I thought, boy, this is a gravy lick," says former rodeo rider Polly Burson. "I made as much in an hour as I did in two days of rodeoing. " Burson remained one of Hollywood's premier stuntwomen for more than twenty years. In countless films, she doubled for such stars as Sophia Loren, Betty Hutton, Barbara Stanwyck, and even Kim Darby in True Grit. "When I started," she says, "I thought I would get photos of all the stars I worked with. I got about ten or fifteen and I gave up after that..”
When Sam the Lion died in The Last Picture Show, it seemed that everything heroic about America died with him. Ben Johnson won an Oscar for the part, but he thinks the movie has too many cusswords in it. That's a cowboy for you. Johnson went from tending horses to doing stunts to acting; today he has scores of films under his belt (among them She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Wild Bunch) and has just finished work on Angels in the Outfield, with Danny Glover. "I think he is one of those people who represents what we like to think of as the best values of the West," says critic Richard Schickel. "They're mythic values, but when you meet somebody like Johnson, you think maybe they aren't such a myth after all."