At six-foot-six, Clint Walker certainly rode tall in the saddle. The actor, who died yesterday at age 90, was television’s first cowboy hero developed for the medium, and his popularity opened the floodgates for a slew of TV Westerns to follow. Walker also fared well on the big screen, and while not in the same stratosphere of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, his movie career deserves a second look.
Born in Illinois in 1927, the seventeen year old Norman Walker joined the Merchant Marines for a spell, then worked a series of blue-collar jobs before being discovered by talent agent Henry Willson, who got him a small part in the 1954 Bowery Boys comedy JUNGLE GENTS, playing an ersatz Tarzan. Bit parts followed, until his burly presence and rugged good looks landed him the lead in a new TV series called CHEYENNE. Cheyenne Bodie was television’s first original Western character, raised by the Cheyenne tribe until the age of 18, when he struck out on his own, wandering the West in search of adventure. The series was part of WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS, a rotating show featuring three different series (including a TV version of CASABLANCA – blasphemy!!). The sagebrush saga proved the most popular of the trio, and CHEYENNE was a huge hit. But by 1958, Walker had grown tired of the role, and went on strike for better pay. Ty Hardin stepped in as Bronco Layne, a character similar to Cheyenne, and when Walker returned BRONCO was added to the rotation, along with Will Hutchins in SUGARFOOT.
After his strike, Walker was allowed to star in some Western films for Warners, all directed by veteran Gordon Douglas , with two written by Burt Kennedy . The first, 1958’s FORT DOBBS, is a minor effort, but the next is a personal favorite. Originally written by Kennedy as a John Wayne outing to be directed by John Ford, 1959’s YELLOWSTONE KELLY casts Walker as a fur trapper who helps avert a war between the Sioux and the Cavalry. Along for the ride are Familiar TV Faces Edd Byrnes (77 SUNSET STRIP) and John Russell (LAWMAN), Ray Danton, Claude Akins, and making his film debut, Warren Oates. While no classic in the Wayne/Ford mold, it will satisfy any Western buffs. The third Walker/Douglas film, 1961’s GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS, finds Clint teamed with Roger Moore in a tale of gold and greed.
Walker showed off his comedy talents in 1964’s SEND ME NO FLOWERS, with hypochondriac Rock Hudson, thinking he’s on the verge of death, trying to pawn off wife Doris Day to millionaire Texas oilman Walker. Clint is big and boisterous in the part, and plays off the two stars well. His next, 1965’s NONE BUT THE BRAVE, is a flawed but interesting war film directed by star Frank Sinatra. MAYA (1966) served as the pilot of a TV series about an elephant and his two young friends (Jay North, Sajid Khan). The same year’s NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY returned Walker to the saddle, as a Marshall threatened by land grabbers, a vengeful outlaw, and a killer grizzly on the loose.
1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN is probably Walker’s best screen role, as the gentle giant Posey. Posey doesn’t want to hurt anyone anymore, but he’s goaded into fighting by tough Major Lee Marvin. It’s a different take on Walker’s screen image, and he surely fits in with the rough-and-tumble ensemble cast. Next up were a trio of Westerns released in 1969: the bizarre MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE co-starring Vincent Price, the Burt Reynolds vehicle SAM WHISKEY, and the comedy Western THE GREAT BANK ROBBERY, featuring Zero Mostel, Kim Novak, and Larry Storch, that isn’t half as bad as some critics will tell you.
After a cameo in the execrable THE PHYNX , Walker was involved in a skiing accident in which a ski pole went right through his heart! Rushed to the hospital, he was officially pronounced dead, but a quick-thinking doctor did more tests and performed emergency heart surgery, saving the big man’s life. A grateful Walker went back to work in television, starring in the brief 1974 series KODIAK, and a pair of TV Movies: SCREAM OF THE WOLF cast him and Peter Graves as big game hunters tracking a werewolf, with surprising results, and KILDOZER is a cult classic with Clint a construction foreman menaced by an alien possessed bulldozer! Walker slowed down some, making appearances in the 1977 Charles Bronson epic THE WHITE BUFFALO, the TV Miniseries CENTENNIAL, and reviving his Cheyenne Bodie character for the TV Movie THE GAMBLER RETURNS: LUCK OF THE DRAW (along with RIFLEMAN Chuck Connors, BAT MASTERSON Gene Barry, THE WESTERNER Brian Keith, MAVERICK Jack Kelly, and WYATT EARP Hugh O’Brien) and an episode of KING FU: THE LEGEND CONTINUES. His last screen role was as the voice of Nick Nitro in 1998’s SMALL SOLDIERS before retiring to his ranch. Clint Walker may not have been a great actor, but his imposing presence made him ideal for the Western genre, and he proved when given the right material he could shine with the best of them. Rest in peace, Cheyenne.