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Slim Pickens (Louis Burton Lindley Jr.)
(June 29, 1919 – December 8, 1983)

When we think of Slim Pickens, what comes to mind are his performances from the 60s and 70s — One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973) and more.

But before Brando and Peckinpah ever called, he’d already in a slew of stuff like William Witney’s Colorado Sundown (1952) with Rex Allen. Of course, he was a rodeo clown before that. And he was never less than terrific.

He was born 99 years ago today.

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I tend to think of things in terms of movies. Several times a day, real life suggests something in some film I’ve seen at some point.

Temperatures have been through the roof here in Raleigh the last few days. Walking across a parking lot today, I was reminded of John Wayne carrying little Robert William Pedro Hightower to safety in Three Godfathers (1948). Ford and Winton Hoch do a masterful job of conveying the oppressive heat and desolation of the desert. In a Christmas movie!

Now, on to something else, because even thinking about Three Godfathers will choke me up!

Audie Leon Murphy
(June 20, 1925 – May 28, 1971)

Audie Murphy — the most-decorated American soldier of World War II and later a major star of 50s Westerns, was born on this day in 1925. He’s seen here with Dan Duryea in Ride Clear Of Diablo (1954). it’s one of his best.

We all owe Audie a real debt. Two debts, actually. One for his service — and it certainly took its toll on him, and another for all those terrific movies.

Happy Father’s Day.

It took me about two seconds to settle on who to feature for Father’s Day. So, here’s Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford — as Lucas McCain and his son Mark — in The Rifleman.

Ben “Son” Johnson, Jr.
(June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996)

The great rodeo champion and Oscar-winning character actor Ben Johnson was born 100 years ago today.

I don’t have to tell you how great Ben was or point out how many terrific movies he’s in. All that’s kind of a given around here. So why not do yourself a favor and watch one of his movies tonight? Maybe Rebel In Town (1956), which the photo here is from.

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series for ages, and I finally got around to it. Our Character Actor Of The Day is Leo Gordon.

Leo Gordon stands tall as one of the screen’s greatest heavies. At six foot two, with a deep voice and icy stare, he’s one of the few guys around who could really come up against someone like John Wayne (Hondo, McLintock!) or Clint Walker (Cheyenne, Night Of The Grizzly) and not look silly.

Don Siegel, who directed Gordon in Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954, above), called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met.”

Leo Vincent Gordon, Jr. was born December 2, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. His family lived in poverty and he left school in the eighth grade to work in construction and demolition. Next came the Civilian Conservation Corps. After that, in 1941, Leo enlisted in the Army and served two years.

After the war, Gordon was arrested for armed robbery in southern California. During the ordeal, he pulled a gun and was shot in the stomach. Leo served five years in San Quentin, where he furthered his education by reading nearly every book in the prison library. (The mugshot was for a fight later, not the robbery arrest.)

Gordon attended the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts on the G.I. Bill — and married one of his classmates, Lynn Cartwright in 1950. They’d work together a number of times (such as Black Patch and some episodes of Adam 12 — often written by Leo) and their marriage would last until his death in 2000.

Gordon was soon cast in the London and Canadian companies of Mister Roberts. After a few years of stage work, Hollywood came calling. Lots and lots of crime pictures and Westerns.

His first Western was City Of Bad Men (1953). Then there’s Gun Fury (1953), Hondo (1954), Ten Wanted Men (1955), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Yellow Mountain (1954, up top), The Tall Stranger (1957), Quantrill’s Raiders (1958, he’s Quantrill), McLintock! (1963), Night Of The Grizzly (1966), Hostile Guns (1967, below, one of those A.C. Lyles things) and My Name Is Nobody (1973, produced by Sergio Leone). There are lots, lots more.

Gordon turned up in crime pictures like Baby Face Nelson (1957, as John Dillinger), The Big Operator (1959) and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). You’ll also find him in Tobruk (1967) and The Haunted Palace (1963). He was versatile and he stayed plenty busy.

On TV, Leo Gordon had recurring role on Maverick (below) as Big Mike McComb, and James Garner would later recruit him for several episodes of The Rockford Files. He’s terrific on The Andy Griffith Show as a guy who’s released from prison — and comes looking for Sheriff Taylor. On Cheyenne, he and Clint Walker are great in some real knock down drag out fights.

All in all, he’d go on to appear in more than 170 movies and TV shows from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s. His last feature was Maverick (1994), and his tiny part is the only reason to sit through that thing.

Gordon was a screenwriter, too. He wrote for shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Cheyenne and Adam 12 (right). And he penned features like Black Patch (1957), Hot Car Girl (1958), Escort West (1959), The Wasp Woman (1959), Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959), Bounty Killer (1965) and Tobruk. There were several novels, too, including the historical Western Powderkeg.

Though often the heavy, Leo Gordon had a way of not just making his presence known, but turning in a real performance. (He’s really terrific in The Intruder.) There’s an odd sympathetic angle to a lot of his villains. He was one of the best.

Tumbleweed (1953).

Directed by Nathan Juran
Screenplay by John Meredyth Lucas
From a novel by Kenneth Perkins
Director Of Photography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Virgil W. Vogel

Cast: Audie Murphy (Jim Harvey), Lori Nelson (Laura Saunders), Chill Wills (Sheriff Murchoree), Roy Roberts (Nick Buckley), Russell Johnson (Lam Blanden), K.T. Stevens (Louella Buckley), Madge Meredith (Sarah Blanden), Lee Van Cleef (Marv), I. Stanford Jolley (Ted), Ross Elliott (Seth Blandon), Ralph Moody (Aguila), Eugene Iglesias (Tigre), Phil Chambers (Trapper Ross), Lyle Talbot (Weber), King Donovan (Wrangler), Harry Harvey (Prospector)

__________

Tumbleweed (1953) is one of my favorite Audie Murphy movies.

Once they got him figured out, Universal-International did a great job of developing pictures that played to Audie Murphy’s strengths. As his confidence grew, the movies just got better and better, leading to really good performances in things like Night Passage (1957) and No Name On The Bullet (1959).

In this one, Audie’s a trail guide leading a small wagon train through Indian territory. When the Indians attack and almost everyone is killed (Lori Nelson and K.T. Stevens survive), Murphy’s branded a deserter and jailed. He’s sprung by Tigre (Eugene Iglesias), an Indian he befriends right after the credits, and pursued into the desert by a posse lead by Chill Wills.

Along the way, he’s given a scraggly horse by a sympathetic rancher (Roy Roberts). This is Tumbleweed, and Murphy’s relationship with the horse — Tumbleweed saves Murphy again and again — is one of the best things about the movie. In a way, you could say the horse saves the movie, too, since his place in the story helps it deviate from convention in some really terrific ways. And, as we all know, that really sets these movies apart, when they zig instead of zag like all the rest.

Nathan Juran, the director of Tumbleweed, started out as an art director. He made the transition to director with The Black Castle (1952).

Nathan Juran: “I was just a technician who could transfer the script from the page to the stage and could get it shot on schedule and on budget. I never became caught up in the ‘romance’ of the movies.”

Russell Metty shot the film at Vasquez Rocks, Red Rock Canyon and Death Valley, and it looks great. Metty also shot Touch Of Evil (1958), Spartacus (1960) and Madigan (1968). He doesn’t get his due, if you ask me.

The cast is made up of some great character actors, many from U-I’s own roster. The lovely Lori Nelson had a good run at U-I — two Ma and Pa Kettle pictures, Bend Of The River (1952), a Francis movie, Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and more — before working at AIP on stuff like Day The World Ended and Hot Rod Girl (both 1956). She’d work extensively on TV, with a guest spot in Audie Murphy’s series Whispering Smith.

Lee Van Cleef is appropriately nasty as Marv. Roy Roberts is good as the rancher who comes to Murphy’s aide. And Russell Johnson has a terrific fight with Murphy in the last reel, running all over Vasquez Rocks. My only complaint would be Chill Wills, who I’ve never cared for. Of course, the strongest member of the supporting cast is Tumbleweed himself. He’s really something.

You can really see Audie Murphy coming into his own in Tumbleweed. It’s a good 50s Western from Universal. And that’s about as good as it gets.

Source: Nathan Juran interview from Starlog