C.Walker : I had one advantage over most other actors: I had real-world experience

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The man known and loved by millions as Cheyenne Bodie, the straight-shooting hero of the classic Warner Bros. television series Cheyenne (1955 – 63), is supposed to be 88 years old. But it’s hard to give much credence to that factoid when you see the 6-foot-6 fellow walking toward you with a sure, steady gait and feel the firm grip of his handshake as he extends a hearty greeting. You can’t help thinking that he remains fully capable of keeping the peace and, if the situation were to require it, smiting the wicked, just like the slow-to-anger but tough-as-granite cowboy he portrayed decades ago.

So it comes as a surprise when he matter-of-factly mentions that during a recent trespass by a hungry bear, he let Susan, his wife of 18 years, shoo the beast back into the nearby woods.

“We’ve got our trash cans over on the other side of the garage there,” Clint explains as I take my seat with him and Susan in their spacious home office. “I’ve got my shop in there. I was in there about 10 one night, and all of a sudden it sounded like I had three or four Arnold Schwarzeneggers out there throwing my trash cans around.

“I came in and told Susan, ‘I think we’ve got a bear out there.’ She said, ‘Maybe it’s a big raccoon.’ I said, ‘Well, if he’s that big, I don’t want anything to do with him.’ ”

We laugh together; then he continues: “So we went out to see what was going on. I had a gun in my hip pocket and a flashlight. Susan had the little crow gun [a ‘scare gun’ that makes a loud noise to disperse birds]. And, boy, around the corner comes this bear. And he’s headed right for us.”

“He had a cookie wrapper in his mouth,” Susan adds, only half-smiling at the memory.

“Anyway,” Clint continues, “she fired once and he kept coming. She fired the second shot — and he stopped, turned around, and then ran away.”

When they’re not dispatching ursine intruders or dealing with the occasional rattlesnake — Susan usually just catches the critters, then releases them close to a nearby creek — the Walkers devote most of their time to their thriving nostalgia business. They sell T-shirts, CDs, DVDs, autographed photos and prints, and other merchandise from their ClintWalker.com website. And they sporadically make personal appearances to sell their wares at various western-themed gatherings and conventions — even though traveling requires long drives, because Clint feels cramped in conventional airline seats. Business is good — better than ever, in fact — because, thanks to repeated reruns on cable networks and the releases of DVD box sets, Cheyenne continues to attract a large and diverse viewership.

To help Cowboys & Indians celebrate the 60th anniversary of the premiere episode of Cheyenne, Walker graciously shared some of his most treasured memories about making the series that made him a star.

Cowboys & Indians: “Cheyenne” merits a place in TV history for being the first hour-long western series ever to air in prime time. Do you think the length of the show helped contribute to its success?
Clint Walker: I was blessed by being with Warner Bros., and them being willing to make it an hour-long program. I had a big advantage over the guys that were doing Gunsmoke and some of the others, because they were doing only a half-hour. In a half-hour, you can’t develop your characters adequately. And these characters make your story. Without them, and without sufficient background so people know who and what they are, you don’t get the significance of that individual like you should. We had the time to do that. It makes a far more interesting story.

Let’s take [character actor] Leo Gordon. Any time I did a picture with Leo, we showed what a no-good mean so-and-so he was. By the time he and I got into it, the audience was on my side. And the people that you want [viewers] to like — you get a chance to show your audience they’re good folks, so they’ll like them.

Also, I was with one of the biggest studios in the world. They had a heck of a film library, and they could make Cheyenne look like a feature picture. We couldn’t afford 1,000 cattle if we were doing a cattle drive. But they could go back to their big feature pictures that they spent money on, and a good [editor] could cut scenes of the cattle out of a film and put it in our Cheyenne. And you’d never know that it wasn’t all filmed at the same time when they did the Cheyenne [episode].

They had some really good cutters. At times, I had to wear different clothes or ride a different horse, because sometimes they wanted to show a rider in the distance maybe riding or being chased by Indians or boarding a moving train. That would’ve been somebody else [from a f

C&I: During the height of its popularity, Cheyenne” was one of literally dozens of westerns airing in prime time. Was it a challenge to stand out in the crowd?
Walker:
 Do you know what it reminded me of? A story I heard one time about fishermen. There’ll be a lake, and there’ll be a bunch of guys all around the lake. Then one guy catches one or two fish. And all of a sudden, everybody else rushes over to where he’s doing the fishing. Hollywood is the same way. Whatever kind of a story is making the grade and making money for them, that’s where they all head.

My gosh, there were a lot of westerns, starting with Cheyenne and Jim Garner in Maverick. Jim worked on a couple of Cheyennes before he got his own show. But then there were Cheyenne and Maverick and Lawman with Peter Brown and John Russell. They did a thing called The Alaskans, which was kind of a western set in northern regions. We had Colt .45 with Wayde Preston, and then Sugarfoot with Will Hutchins, and then Bronco with Ty Hardin.

At one point, I think they were shooting four different Warner Bros. westerns on the backlot. And I remember one particular day, we were trying to do a burial scene where we’re all standing around looking sad and somebody’s reading over this gravesite.

All of a sudden, here comes a bunch of guys from Jim Garner’s picture, a bunch of Indians whooping and hollering and being chased by a bunch of soldiers. Well, that killed our picture. [Laughs.] We almost had a fistfight between two directors that afternoon as to who was going to shoot next.

C&I: Sixty years after the show’s premiere episode — “Mountain Fortress,” featuring James Garner in a supporting role — “Cheyenne” continues to be popular with longtime fans and first-time viewers. What do you think is the secret of the show’s enduring success?
Walker:
 First, you’ve got to have a good story. If you haven’t got a decent story, with a good beginning, middle, and an end, and it ends in an interesting manner — like where the boy and the girl finally get together, or something like that — people aren’t going to enjoy it.

There were times [while making Cheyenne] I’d get a bad script and it’d have some holes in it. I’d go through it to see if it could be patched up. They’d say, “Clint, we don’t have time to rewrite it.” I said, “Well, you better make time.” They said, “How many people are going to notice that?” I said, “Enough to make it worth fixing.” I’m so glad I did it, because it made the pictures far more believable.

After you’ve got a good story, then you’ve got to have good actors for the part. They’ve got to be believable, so they can make the parts believable and interesting.

I’ll never forget a guy, a New York actor they sent out. He was supposed to be one of the bad guys. OK, number one, he didn’t look like a bad guy. And number two … well, I’ll never forget we were in a kind of pole barn, where the sides were open. There were hay bales around and posts and what have you. He pulled a gun and said something like, “You do this or that, Cheyenne, or I’ll shoot.” So I had to shoot him.

And my God, that guy died all over the place for five minutes. [Laughs.] He was up and he was down. He was hanging on the posts and swinging around them and falling over a bale of hay. The director finally said, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” He goes over and tells the guy, “You’re taking too long to die.” We went back and shot it again. And the guy died a lot faster that time.

C&I: Some say Cheyenne” has always been a favorite of female viewers because you often appeared shirtless …
Walker:
 I remember on one of the episodes, I was the sheriff. I come into the hotel room and because I’ve been riding a long distance, I’m dusty. I take my coat off. I hang it in the closet. And then I take my shirt off.

I don’t know why I had to take my shirt off to wash my face, but that’s what I did. There was a mirror and a stand and the pitcher with the water in it. I pour the water out of the pitcher into the bowl. And I’m waiting. And waiting. They’re having trouble with the camera. And that’s when I got an idea.

I got a piece of the black tape from one of the guys on the camera car — just big enough so I can put it on my chest right about where the badge would go. And then I take the badge and place it on that piece of black tape. Then I’m just standing there. And, of course, the director is still waiting. Finally, he says, “All right, let’s get this thing in the can. OK: camera, action, roll ’em.”

I’m watching him watching some of the other guys. They’re grinning — because they’ve already seen what I’ve done — and he’s got the most puzzled look on his face. And then all of a sudden, he realizes that I’ve got this star pinned on my chest. [Laughs.] So he yells, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Everybody in the room had a good laugh out of it.

C&I: Thanks to cable television and home video, “Cheyenne” doesn’t merely survive — it thrives. Do you have any thoughts as to why it continues to be so relevant to younger viewers today?
Walker: 
I’ve got new generations of people that’ve discovered it in reruns. And our website has grown. I tell you, some of the letters we get, you wouldn’t believe how nice they are.

There’s a thing about the shows right now that is reassuring, I think. It isn’t just here in this country, it’s around the world. People are scared. They’re worried. They’re insecure. They may be out of a job, or may be about to lose their job, and they don’t know what they can depend on, what they can count on. They’re hearing all of these terrible stories about awful things that are going on in the world. And it would seem that people that we’ve hired to look out for our best interests aren’t doing that, aren’t doing the job that they were supposed to do.

People want to go back to the old shows like Cheyenne because, number one, the stories are so much better than the ones on TV now. And number two, it’s clean. The whole family can watch it. And number three, it always has a message to it. The show takes people back to a time when they didn’t have all of these rules and regulations and problems facing them that we have now.

I get many letters from grandmothers and grandfathers who say, “When I was a child, I watched Cheyenne.” And I’ll get letters from boys who’ll say, “I want to be like Cheyenne.” And from women, who write things like, “When I was a little girl, I wanted to marry Cheyenne when I grew up” or “I wanted a guy that was just like him.”

BY JOE LEYDON

proc. BY MOVIES

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