Cheyenne’ was among the first television series produced by Warner Bros., and it had the lavish look of a big-screen movie. As shooting of the show’s first season began, Mr. Walker confessed to the crew that he did not have a great deal of experience on horseback. He later recalled the response: ‘You’ll either be a good rider, or a dead one.’ ‘There were a few times I wondered which one it was going to be,’ he said.
Many episodes of ‘Cheyenne’ called for Walker to be shirtless, revealing a bodybuilder’s 48-inch chest and a 32-inch waist in onscreen moments that, while maybe not essential to the plot, helped make the handsome, blue-eyed Mr. Walker a star. At 6 feet 6 inches, he was tall not only in the saddle; one reporter joked that ‘he has snow on his shoulders six months of the year.’
His size forced him to restrict his movements to stay within camera range, which could be a challenge during onscreen fistfights. But he pressed for more of those. ‘I feel action is what I owe the public,’ he once told an interviewer. ‘When I see a hero yak-yak-yakkin’ I lose all interest.’
He was appearing on ‘Cheyenne’ when he began making films, including ‘Fort Dobbs’ (1958), with Virginia Mayo. Howard Thompson, reviewing that movie for The New York Times, called him ‘about the biggest, finest-looking western hero ever to sag a horse, with a pair of shoulders rivaling King Kong’s.’
In ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ released in 1967, he played the meek Samson Posey alongside a crew of hardened military convicts — played by Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland and others — who were recruited for an assassination mission behind German lines during World War II. His last film was Joe Dante’s ‘Small Soldiers’ (1998), about high-tech toy soldiers that go on a rampage, in which he had a voice role along with some of his ‘Dirty Dozen’ co-stars.
Mr. Walker came close to dying in a freak accident on a ski trip in 1973 when he stumbled and a ski pole pierced his heart. He survived and recovered quickly. He worked as a port security guard and a nightclub bouncer, and then as a deputy sheriff providing security at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. It was there that the actor Van Johnson suggested that he explore acting. Mr. Walker would later recall thinking: ‘I’m not going to get that far carrying a gun and a badge. It doesn’t pay that well. If you make movies, you make some pretty good money — plus, the bullets aren’t real!’”