With his slight build, soft voice, and sweet, round boyish face, Audie Murphy’s unassuming demeanor was hardly the standard picture of a war hero—or a Western movie star. But Audie was exactly that, brave, rugged, and just, but with a humble heart.
“I can’t ever remember being young in my life,” Audie once said, and he had good reason to feel that way. His life prior to World War II and Hollywood was one of poverty and neglect. As a young boy, he shouldered responsibilities that would burden adults twice his age.
Born Audie Leon Murphy on June 20, 1924 to sharecropper Emmett Berry Murphy and Josie Bell Killian in Kingston, Texas, he was the seventh of twelve children. As a boy, Audie was shy, a loner and given to bursts of temper and radical mood swings. His father drifted in and out of their lives, and finally, abandoned them altogether. At just 10 years old, a fifth grader, Audie left school to help support his mother and siblings. He worked picking cotton, earning one dollar a day for his effort. The income helped, but feeding 11 brothers and sisters and his mother was a challenge. In order to put food on the table, Audie learned to hunt. Little did he know, his accuracy with a rifle would serve him well when the rumblings of war called him to the front lines. As the war advanced in Europe, he followed the news and was eager to get into the fight, but tragedy was about to strike much closer to home.
For years, Audie worked hard to support his family, and he was devoted to his mother, Josie Bell. In 1941, his beloved mother, passed away from pneumonia and heart failure. An older married sister wasn’t able to care for all the kids. Devastated, Audie watched as three of his youngest siblings were taken from the Murphy home and placed in a Christian orphanage. The others, old enough to get along on their own, went their separate ways. The loss of his mother hit Audie so deep, it plagued him for the rest of his life.
“She died when I was sixteen. She had the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen. It reached almost to the floor,” he said, later in life, “She rarely talked, and always seemed to be searching for something. What it was I don’t know. We didn’t discuss our feelings. But when she passed away, she took something of me with her. It seems I’ve been searching for it ever since.”
Now, on his own, Audie moved into a boarding house and found work at a radio repair shop and a gas station that doubled as a general store, but he still dreamed of getting into the action overseas. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was determined, more than ever, to join The Marines, but he didn’t meet their weight and height requirements. Nor did the Paratroopers or Navy feel he was fighting material. Reluctantly, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, and even if he had a birth certificate, he would have been turned away, as he was underage. Desperate, he convinced his older sister to sign an affidavit stating he was a year older than his actual age, and soon he was off to boot camp, but with the intention of transferring to a more prestigious branch of the military. He set his sights on, eventually, becoming a glider pilot.
When James Cagney saw the baby-faced warrior’s photo on the cover of Life magazine, he contacted Audie, and invited him to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. He arrived in California with just his good looks and a willingness to give it a shot.
“I’m working under a great handicap,” Audie once said, “…no talent.”
James Cagney’s production company financed acting and dancing lessons for Audie, but still his new career practically stalled. He had signed on as a contract player with Cagney for $150 per week, but hadn’t been cast in one film. In 1947, a disagreement with Cagney’s brother, William, co-owner of the film company, ended Audie’s contract. Cut loose and on his own in a town where careers were built on coveted contracts, and “who you knew,” and destroyed by gossip, rumor, and innuendo, Audie took a room in Terry Hunt’s Athletic Club and lived on his army pension, $113 per week.
A fighter all his life, Audie wasn’t about to give up. He may not have had that inner calling or that flash of brilliance that many famous stars display from a young age, but one thing he did have: determination. In 1948, he met writer David McClure, who helped him get a bit part in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, and the agent of Audie’s then girlfriend, actress Wanda Hendrix, got him a small part in Beyond Glory, a film starring Alan Ladd. Things were looking up. In 1949, Audie landed his first lead role in Bad Boy, in spite of the production company president’s concern about Audie’s lack of experience.
That same year, Audie and Wanda married, but their marriage was tumultuous, haunted by Audie’s ongoing struggles with PTSD. They divorced in 1951. In contrast to difficult times at home, Audie signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios now earning $2,500 a week. In his first film for U
niversal, Audie played Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas. He portrayed Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, and Ring Hassard, an outlaw’s son, opposite his wife in Sierra. Ironically, by the time Sierra was released, Audie and Wanda had already split up. Just four days after his divorce from Wanda, Audie married airline stewardess, Pamela Archer. They had two sons, Terry and James
The unlikely war hero had become the unlikely Western movie star. He’d transformed himself into an actor, writer and songwriter, and had come a long way from Kingston, Texas. But Audie started his life in poverty, and, sadly, he would end it in poverty.
In spite of his dire financial situation, he refused to make an easy buck appearing in cigarette or alcohol commercials, claiming it would be a bad influence on the nation’s youth. His concerns for society extended to veteran issues. He was an advocate for Vietnam War veterans. He lobbied the government for resources to help returning service members cope with the psychological issues in the aftermath of combat, as they adjusted to life at home, a situation he knew firsthand.
PROC. BY MOVIES