On the occasion of Cheyenne’s 60th anniversary, Clint Walker reminisces about making the classic western that made him a star.
In a quiet corner of eastern California’s Nevada County, just off a winding road that requires a careful driver to keep a light foot on the pedal, you will find — if you’re fortunate enough to be invited, and given detailed directions — the place Clint Walker, a living legend from the golden age of TV westerns, calls home.
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 feature film]. I would wear clothing that would match his, to make it look like that was me when the cutter cut that film in.
Of course, once in a while, the cutters could really screw you up. Whenever there was a scene where I was doing a lot of shooting, I’d always try to have it so that there’d be one point where they’d pan over to me, and I’d be putting new bullets in my gun, so it would be more believable. Well, the doggone cutters would cut that scene out, and here I’d be shooting a six-shooter about 16 times without reloading. [Laughs.] Oh, those 16-shooters. Nothing like them.
C&I: Prior to “Cheyenne,” your acting experience was — well, limited. But you were a quick learner.
Walker: I started out playing Tarzan in a Bowery Boys comedy called Jungle Gents. At one point near the end, [the Bowery Boys] are going back to civilization, and they’re going to take Jane with them. About the time they’re starting to get onboard the ship, I come out of the jungle and I beat on my chest. I give the Tarzan yell and I say, “You no take Jane.” [Laughs.] These guys get together nose-to-nose and shake their heads. And then they say, “We no take Jane.”
After that, I wound up with a part in The Ten Commandments. Fortunately, all I had to do was stand by the throne as the silent Sardinian guard. See, the Sardinian guard guarded the pharaoh, so I’m standing by the throne all the time with a horned helmet and a long Mongolian mustache and a big red cape and some armor. I have a huge sword in my hand, looking mean. Here I was, just a beginner. But I’m working with Anne Baxter, Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Woody Strode — all these greats. And when I saw them make some mistakes, I thought, Woo! Maybe there’s hope for me. [Laughs.] I began to see what acting was really all about. I know Sir Cedric Hardwicke had a line in there somewhere and he meant to say “these halls” and he said “these balls.” Everybody had a heck of a laugh.
I actually was supposed to have a line in one scene where the pestilence of death comes in like a gas, a vapor. I was supposed to be standing there with Henry Wilcoxon and Yul Brynner and all of the biggies, and say, “Look, some devil’s curse.” Well, at that time, my name was Norman — it was [Jack Warner] who gave me the name Clint — and after I did the scene, [director] Cecil B. DeMille took me aside and said, “Norman, you did fine with your line, but I’ve got to take you out of the scene. You look like a tree with a bunch of stumps around you.”
C&I: How did you go from a silent Sardinian guard to a bona fide cowboy star?
Walker: As soon as I finished up what I was doing on The Ten Commandments, [Warner Bros.] started testing me — along with every other leading male in Hollywood — or the part of Cheyenne.
The first day, I thought this was silly. Here are all of these guys and they’re pros. They had all of this experience. I’d seen a lot of them in pictures. I was nervous when I did my screen test. But then they decided to do another bunch of screen tests the following day. And they tested me again.
Well, by that time, I figured, Hey, I’m not going to get it, so why not just relax? Just relax and not worry about it. So that’s what I did. And then Jack Warner went through those two days of screen tests. And when they showed mine, he just said, “That is Cheyenne,” and that was it. And like I said, he changed my name to Clint.
C&I: What do you think it was that made you so perfect for the role?
Walker: I had one advantage over most other actors: I had real-world experience. I’d worked in security. I’d worked as a deputy sheriff. I’d carried a gun and a badge. And I felt right at home with it. That probably helped me some.
Also, I had worked as a bouncer for four years — but I was a good bouncer. I tried to avoid ever hurting anyone if I could possibly avoid it. I got a reputation for that, because that’s what people wanted.
But right off, I told them, “I haven’t been on a horse much.” They said, “Well, don’t worry about it. After this first year, you’ll either be a good rider or a dead one.” [Laughs.] There were a few times I wondered which one I was going to be. Fortunately, around the third or fourth episode, they put me on Brandy, a horse that had belonged to Ace Hudkins’ stable. He was 16 hands tall — a big horse, but a good horse.
In addition to Cheyenne, I did three features [Fort Dobbs (1958), Yellowstone Kelly (1959), and Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)] with Brandy. In one of them, I was pulling packhorses and being chased by 90 Indians while the camera car was on the road. I was off the road about 50 feet, running with the packhorses, and they were filming me. We were going so fast, they said, “Clint, slow down, slow down.” Because we were going faster than the camera car could go.
I was just praying that Brandy didn’t step into the gopher holes somewhere, or a prairie dog hole. But he didn’t. He just never let me down in any way, shape, or form.
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.”
I had one man write me and say, “You have no idea the effect you had on me and my family. Even now that I’m a grandfather, there’s still times when something will come up and I’ll say, ‘What would Clint Walker do?’ Or ‘What would Cheyenne do?’ ”
That’s quite a compliment.
From the August/September 2015 issue.