He was a mountain of a man and a western legend thanks mainly to playing TV’s favorite wandering adventurer, Cheyenne. He parlayed that role into movie westerns playing heroes as taciturn and emotionless as western folk are thought to have been. But those same traits kept him rather pigeon-holed as an actor and his overall opportunities in Hollywood were rather limited.
Thinking of his acting made me think of the piece we just did on Fred MacMurray whose acting style is similar to Walker’s. Why did I usually find MacMurray uninteresting while I paint Walker as a more fascinating creature? Well now, I wonder.
Could it be that this handsome, ultra-manly creature with his 6’6″ frame, 48″ chest and 32″ waist with a propred being an actor. He and his twin sister were born in Hartford, Illinois, in 1927. His family had little money and life became even worse as the depression hit. He was tall and good-looking from early childhood and he quickly got used to folks commenting on physical appearance. After he began working out some, he became the dreamboat to many a lass. Things turned more serious, however, when at age 16 he decided to quit school to go to work to help support the family.
He began with such jobs as a factory worker, a riverboat lackey, a carnival roustabout and a caddy. He was willing to do anything and was seemingly good at everything he undertook. His physical presence was most imposing and as he became less shy and more outgoing, employment came easier for him. He always had a need to keep moving. No wonder he understood Cheyenne.
He joined the Merchant Marines toward the end of the war and later found himself working his way west with jobs in Texas oil fields and stints in California as a sheet metal worker, nightclub bouncer, deputy sheriff and an undercover agent for a detective agency.
His wanderlust next took him to Las Vegas where he hired on as a security officer at the Sands Hotel when he ran into actor and Cecil B. DeMille bff, Henry Wilcoxon. He got hired to play a small role in the director’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but not before he had an uncredited part in a silly Bowery Boys comedy, Jungle Gents (1954).
I’ve never heard any serious rumors about Walker’s sexuality but at this point he did hire on for representation with noted gay agent, Henry Willson (Rock, Tab, Troy, Guy, Rory) whose male clientele were whispered about in Hollywood as casting couch actors.
In 1955 Warner Bros signed him on to play Cheyenne Bodie for 108 episodes and a seven-year run. Walker was set in life. For most people no matter what big-screen western he played in, he was always Cheyenne. Walker and his mega-popular show set the stage for many westerns to come at WB and elsewhere.
The western Fort Dobbs (1958) was so-so although I loved him in it. Of course, being one of those long trek things, he got dusty and had to take off his shirt and bathe. Then it went from so-so to oh-oh. Costar Virginia Mayo said in her autobiography that he was a nice guy but a terrible actor.
My favorite Clint Walker performance is in Yellowstone Kelly (1959), a highly-fictionalized story of a real-life trapper. The wide-open spaces and color of Sedona, Arizona, the skirmishes with a local Sioux tribe and the homoerotic relationship between Walker and Edd Byrnes, hired, more or less, as a houseboy for Walker, certainly captured my imagination.
He was a trapper again in Gold of the Seven Saints (1961) with Roger Moore (so unbelievable in westerns) as his partner as they try to keep their stash of gold from the bad guys. It came and went with barely a mention.
By 1962, Cheyenne, still doing well in the ratings, was no more. Most press releases said he and the notoriously cheap WB couldn’t come to any agreement over him doing more and better film work. But the truth appears to be the age-old gripe… money. He felt he wasn’t paid enough and they thought he was. So Walker said adios and by the time the brouhaha reached the news outlets, his reputation was suffering. Who does the big cowboy think he is?
He made an attempt to get off a horse and make an honest-to-goodness contemporary romantic comedy, Send Me No Flowers (1964). Walker actually gets rather lost in the third and final Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy in which he plays her former boyfriend who comes back into her life when her husband (Hudson) mistakenly thinks he’s dying. Walker’s part was too small for anyone to get excited about it and the film was not nearly as praised as Hudson & Day’s first two.
For None but the Brave (1965), Walker’s first war picture, he heads a platoon of Marines who, along with a Japanese group, are stranded on a small Pacific island and must learn to get along with one another. Frank Sinatra, in his only directorial effort, is one of Walker’s men. It was not an especially noteworthy film but I, because of Walker, enjoyed it.
Night of the Grizzly (1966) was the first of three family-oriented films he made. They all have that Disney feel and yet they were made elsewhere. Walker, wife Martha Hyer and their son move to Wyoming to start a new life living on and working the land. In addition to two familiar and expert villains, Jack Elam and Leo Gordon, the family is terrorized by a giant grizzly. There are some genuinely scary scenes but who better to fend off the beast than Clint Walker. I mean, come on!