The veteran character actor has ridden with John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Josh Brolin and other notables.
On May 20, 1936, Anthony Zerbe was born in Long Beach, California. To celebrate the occasion, we went back in our archives to retrieve an interview we conducted with the veteran character actor at the 2012 Nashville Film Festival.
Cowboys & Indians: Most of our readers remember you best as Teaspoon for three seasons of The Young Riders. Do you remember the last time you were on a horse?
Anthony Zerbe: Yes, I remember it clearly. It was in Ireland. I was doing a pilot that you never saw – nor should you ever see. It was about medieval people who were at war with each other. How they ever planned to make it a series, I’ll never know. Patrick McGoohan was going to be the star, and I was this rough guy who was with him. And we were riding around on these horses with saddles that were just impossible to sit on. And we’d gallop here, gallop there.
C&I: Not as much fun as when you rode in westerns, huh?
Anthony: Oh, I used to love it when I did Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. I had this shot where I had to ride this beautiful quarter horse down this hill and spin him around right in front of the camera. And I used to hope that the takes would screw up and we’d have to do it again, because I just loved that. The quarter horse was so well trained that all you’d have to do is just shift your weight and he’d move, or stop.
C&I: But that wasn’t your first time on horseback, was it?
Anthony: That’s right. The second movie I was in, right after Cool Hand Luke, was Will Penny. I think it was one of the best things that Charlton Heston ever did. And there was that great supporting cast: Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors…
C&I: And you as a cowboy riding alongside Heston and Majors on a cattle drive.
Anthony: Well, when I went in to interview for the role, they asked me if I could ride, and I told them, “Oh, sure, I was born in the saddle.” And of course, I’d never ridden before. So I went down this place by a river in Los Angeles where they rented horses. And I got this really gentle horse – I think his name was Sominex or something like that – and I figured, “Hey, I can do this.” But then we went up to Bishop, California, to actually shoot the movie.
C&I: And then?
Anthony: Well, we did this scene where Lee Majors and I are around this campfire. I was doing this bad Dutch accent, because I was playing this character called Duchy. I would say things like, “Vell, ve haff to go out dere.” And then somebody said, “Mount up,” and all of us, one by one, sequentially, get on our horses. And I couldn’t figure out why all these horses had such long hair – I’d never seen anything like that before. So I asked, and they told me, “Oh, they’ve been out on the range all winter.” That made me a little, well, spooky. And, you know, horses know when you can’t ride. And this one I was supposed to ride – well, he saw me coming.
It was rough at first. But after a while, I kind of established a nonaggression pact with him. Like, “I won’t do anything to you if you don’t do anything to me.”
C&I: You obviously were a lot more comfortable in the saddle by the time you made Rooster Cogburn. What was it like to work with The Duke?
Anthony: My most vivid memory of John Wayne involves Roscoe Lee Brown, my dear late friend. Roscoe had done The Cowboys with Wayne – which I thought was a wonderful movie – and when I got on Rooster Cogburn, I found Roscoe had apparently talked to Wayne about me. So when I meet him for the first time – I didn’t know him well enough then to call him Duke, so I didn’t. But he came over to shake my hand. And I’d grown up watching this guy – he was probably in the first movie I ever saw. But I guess Roscoe had told him that I was an experienced stage actor, because he started doing this speech. Not like he was talking to me, but giving this speech. And then when he finished, he looked at me, and said, “Well?” And I just looked back at him, and put my hands up on his shoulders, and said, “You’re John Wayne, man. What do you mean, ‘Well?’” Because, really, what else could I say? “You need a little work on that?”
HORSING AROUND: The producers of The Young Riders originally offered the role of Teaspoon to a much better-known TV actor. “But he turned them down,” Anthony Zerbe recalls, “because in the opening scene of the pilot, Teaspoon is taking a bath in a horse trough. And he didn’t want to be seen taking a bath in a horse trough.”
FATHER FIGURE: “I sometimes think they should have called it The Young Studs,” Zerbe jokes, referring to Josh Brolin, Stephen Baldwin and his other hunky co-stars. “But I loved playing Teaspoon. I would have done that show for another ten years. I just a pig in mud out there. We were all compatible as hell, and it was really a good time with all these young kids.”
Here is a scene From an episode of The Young Riders featuring Anthony Zerbe and Josh Brolin.