Sugarfoot star Will Hutchins reflects on his career.
Cowboys & Indians: Sugarfoot was almost subversive back in the day, because it was one of the very few TV westerns where the hero occasionally looked scared. Even in the first episode, when your character, Tom Brewster, faces off with Billy the Kid ...
Will Hutchins: Hey, I really was scared — because it was my first job. I was so inexperienced. And they cast Dennis Hopper as Billy the Kid. There was a guy that had just worked with James Dean. So I was really scared. That wasn’t acting.
C&I: Did the network brass ever ask the producers to make Brewster more of a badass?
Will: Well, Oren Haglund, the production manager, would come down sometimes. He was a jovial guy, but he’d say, “Make him tougher.” But, you know, it all depended on the script. Like, during the final season, we did an episode called “Shepherd With a Gun.” Obviously, the writer had seen Shane, and decided to write a low-budget version. Instead of cattle, they had sheep. I played the Shane character. And I played him tough. [Laughs.] Maybe too tough.
C&I: How so?
Will: We had a close-up of me punching this bad guy. But instead of the bad guy, they used one of the toughest stuntmen in L.A., Bear Hudkins. And he had a reputation. They said he got drunk Friday night in a bar and cleaned the bar out single-handedly, or single-fistedly. I was really in awe of this guy. Well, we were going to shoot a close-up of me giving him an uppercut. They holler, “Action!” — and, I don’t know why, or how, but I hit him. I never hit guys before. And the first time I do — it had to be Bear Hudkins. I hit the tip of his nose. It actually knocked him over. He was bleeding all over the place. Turned out I broke his nose. I said to him right on the spot: “Come on, Bear, get up. Let me have it. I deserve it. Come on.” But he wouldn’t do it. He was too much of a gentleman. Later on, I bought him a nice clock. I said, “I hope the timing is better than mine.”
C&I: Of course, that was one of the appealing things about Sugarfoot. Yes, Tom Brewster wasa hero, and good with a gun, but we were never sure whether he’d get the best of it in a fight.
Will: I got a letter once from this kid, Jimmy or somebody. He said: “Dear Sugarfoot, when you fight a guy, and he knocks you down, don’t be a sissy. Get up, fight him. Beat him up. Don’t be a sissy.” I remembered something Groucho Marx once said, so I stole a line from him when I wrote back: “Dear Jimmy, I do not like you writing letters to me that way. In fact, Jimmy, I don’t like you. Love, Sugarfoot.”
C&I: The TV westerns produced by Warner Bros. in the 1950s and ’60s — shows like yours, Cheyenne, and Bronco — had an advantage over other westerns at the time. Producers could recycle footage from the studio’s feature films and really enhance a show’s production values.
Will: I just watched an episode the other night called “Stallion Trail.” Here are these guys on top of a little rise in the studio backlot, and they’re looking off — and then it cuts to this vast panorama with horses all over the place. They really made it look snazzy. Sometimes, though, I had to change my outfit so it would match whoever was in the original movie. Like, in order to look like I was riding across the landscape, I’d be wearing Errol Flynn’s clothes to match him. [Laughs.] Or his stuntman.
C&I: Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the debut Sugarfoot episode. How does it feel to know that, all these decades later, people are still watching the show?
Will: It’s pretty amazing. When I watch Sugarfoot on TV at home now, I feel like I’m admiring my own great-grandson. The funny thing is, a few years back, a lawyer called me and said he and his partner wrote a script with Cheyenne, Bronco, and Sugarfoot in New York around the time of Teddy Roosevelt. He was trying to interest Warner Bros. in [the script]. But the guys there now, they didn’t even know who the heck he was talking about. They didn’t know anything about those shows. I came up with a title for it: Cheyenne, Bronco, and Sugarfoot Get Hip Replacements. [Laughs.] I think that would’ve sold.
C&I: After Sugarfoot ended, you made The Shooting, a small-budget western for director Monte Hellman. You were in some mighty good company, with Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates as co-stars. But at the time, because of Sugarfoot, you were probably better known to the general public than the latter two, right?
Will: [Laughs] I think I may have been the best paid. Of course, the movie only cost like $60,000 to make, so that wasn’t much. But I did get top billing. The only thing is, when they show the opening credits, they show Warren Oates down by a river or something or a stream giving his horse water. Right over it, it says “Will Hutchins.” I know that was a little confusing. When I first saw it, I thought. “Wait a minute, that doesn’t look like me.”
The funny thing is, on Sugarfoot, I never really got to ride full out. In The Shooting, I had to ride for my life. The ground there wasn’t that well examined. The wrangler warned me, “You might get a hole or two.” I thought, “Oh, boy!” He said, “Don't worry if you lose your hat, and don't feel embarrassed if you have to hold onto the pommel.” I just rode hellbent for leather, and that was a giant thrill for me. It was a great horse, and actually Jack Nicholson could never have caught me on his horse. He made one movie right after called Ride in the Whirlwind, on same location with Monte Hellman. He rode in that one — and he made sure he rode the horse that I rode in The Shooting. It was so much fun working on that.
C&I: And even though it didn’t raise too much of a ruckus when it was first released, The Shooting is now widely viewed as a classic.
Will: It's funny because both The Shooting — which by the way holds up quite well — and Ride in the Whirlwind barely got released. I think they went almost directly to television. They did release it eventually in theaters, but it wasn’t until Jack Nicholson became the star. They had the oomph to put it out then. I remember, a few years after we made it, and I happened to be in Paris, right around when the moon landing occurred.I found myself in France walking down a dark street with this gal, because I was stationed in Paris when I was in the Army, so I was reliving old haunts. There was a movie theater, and by George, they were showing The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind. So I went up to the cashier, and I said, “You know I'm in that movie. That’s me, I’m in that, but I’m not in the other one. Could I just pay half-price, and I’ll promise to leave after The Shooting’s over?” So they let me in for half-price. Me and my date got in for the price of one.
C&I: What’s your fondest memory about making The Shooting?
Will: One day, Warren Oates got up on a big pile of garbage and trash and stuff, a real mountain of it. He got up there with his guitar. Now remember, back then, we sent our rushes to Hollywood. We never got to see the rushes. We just had to listen to what they had to say, and go by that. Anyhow, Warren gets up on top of all this trash with his guitar. He makes up a song, and it goes like this. “Never was grapes. They couldn’t make wine. Never was rushes. They weren’t just fine.” I’ll never forget that. That was great.
Will Hutchins shares entertaining anecdotes with his fans in a monthly column he writes for Western Clippings.
From the October 2016 issue.