I appreciate these shows a whole lot better now than when I worked on them.
Last year, upon the release of the Warner Archive Collection’s Sugarfoot: The Complete First Season, I thought it apropos to contact my longtime pal Will Hutchins and do an overview reminiscence. Will, I remarkably discovered many years earlier, has a phenomenal memory, and had a plethora of anecdotes for each episode. He’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, so win/win.
The success of the piece was beyond my wildest dreams, cramming my email box with accolades and making me realize that we should continue this procedure as the subsequent seasons became available.
Well, THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is now out (in fact, the entire series is now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive folks, so expect a similar, rollicking treatment right down till the end of the line). In discussing the actual discs, let me emphatically state that, like Season One, all the platters utilize near-mint 35MM elements. The monochrome visuals are sharp with the audio displaying that classic Warners buoyancy and panache. SEASON TWO proves what I had surmised after Season One – that Sugarfoot was one of the best westerns ever to grace the airways. So let the games begin.
But wait, first there’s a flashback, timely to when these shows were filmed, that I must share. As Will indicates below, Warners was always looking to make a buck/save a buck, and one of the best ways to do that was to push local contractual talent into their big-screen projects. Here is a stellar example:
“I got the word that I was to appear in a WWI picture called Lafayette Escadrille. This made me extremely happy, as it was to be directed by the great ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman, a guy I idolized because of Wings, Public Enemy, the original Star is Born, The Ox-Bow Incident, Story of GI Joe, Battleground and many more. The picture didn’t turn out that great (in fact, it would be ‘Wild Bill’’s last released movie), but the experience was priceless.
“The one regret I have is that I didn’t actively seek out the wonderful actor Marcel Dalio, who had a featured role. That said, ‘Wild Bill’ pretty much made up for that. What a terrific guy he was!
“Most prominently, I recall one day when he pulled me aside and said, ‘Shelley, I have a favor to ask you.’ He always called me ‘Shelley.’ I couldn’t figure out why, except that maybe his memory was going, and, by giving folks his own personal nicknames he could remember them.
“So anyway, he says, ‘Shelley, there’s this kid in your next scene that you have a conversation with. He’s got something, and I’d like to know if it was okay to keep the camera on him while you’re doing your dialogue?’ That was it? Was he kidding? Big deal! ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘You’re the director.’ Well, he almost teared up. ‘This is a wonderful, magnanimous thing you’re doing. A lot of these fresh punks with their own series wouldn’t think of relinquishing a closeup.’ I just laughed it off. ‘Less work for me,’ I joked. ‘I won’t forget this,’ he replied.
“Long story short, that ‘kid’ was Clint Eastwood, and Wellman must have told him about my magnificent sacrifice. Years later, Clint gave me a nice bit in Magnum Force. But, better than that, I moved up the Wellman ladder to ‘friendly acquaintance.’ I also became pals with Bill, Jr., who was also in the picture (and playing his dad). This emboldened me to overcome my shyness and brazenly demand an answer to that all-important question, ‘Mr. Wellman, why do always call me ‘Shelley?’ Well, ‘Wild Bill’ looks at me pensively, smiles and then points to my head. ‘It’s your hair. You remind me of Shelley Winters.’ You can’t make this stuff up. You really can’t!”
RING OF SAND (9/16/58, d. Les Martinson). A desperate band of killers force Tom and Job, an elderly reprobate, to lead them to a cache of desert gold, not knowing that wily Job has plans of his own. “A great cast: Will Wright, John Russell, Edd Byrnes, Rodolfo Hoyos. Sort of an Along the Great Divide plotline. The thing that irks me about that episode is that we shot the whole thing on the Warners soundstage, against a backscreen projection, and it should have been entirely done outdoors, on-location. Cheyenne got to go out once in a while, but Sugarfoot – never! The sound effects – that howling wind was from that great Warners effects library – movie buffs will probably recognized it from Petrified Forest and THEM! Of course, I loved Will Wright – we did quite a few shows together. When he died, the American Legion handled his funeral. My first wife’s grandmother had just died – so it was conflict of interest: two funerals on the same day. What to do, what to do! Well, we split the difference, my wife went to her Nana’s, and I went to Will Wright’s. Les Martinson – I thought he was a great director. Temperamental, in a crazy, funny way. For instance, he’d go ‘Umm, could you move two feet to your left?’ And the actor would oblige, and he’d scream, ‘NO! I meant MY right! Now you have to move four feet! What’s the matter with you?!!!’ He’d toss scripts around like a discus thrower. We all tried to figure out how to create a boomerang script. Would have been the perfect gift! I remember he’d get so excited that he used to bang his head on the arc lights. So another, more practical present we decided would have been rubberized arc lights. That way, we were sure he wouldn’t hurt himself. Because of confined space on that episode, we only had about two feet of breathing room either way.
“The great Ed DuPar was the cameraman. He’d keep his light meter in his back pocket. Guess it must have looked like an ice-cream cone or some edible confection, ’cause my horse kept trying to eat it. The female lead, Fintan Meyler, I remember really well for the simple reason that she would never talk to me. I pegged her as a Method Actress because every time I met someone who was of the Method school – they’d never talk to me. Later that season, we did a show called The Ghost and Martin Landau was in it. He was Method, and wouldn’t talk to me either. So it wasn’t a gender thing. Convinced to this day that Lee Strasberg had a standing rule on Day One of each new class: Never talk to Hutchins! John Russell became a real good pal of mine. You won’t believe this, but he was really a funny guy. I mean, hilarious to be around! A totally crazy Irishman, and they never let him play comedy. Edd Byrnes, big surprise, was very cocky. And I guess for good reason. For a long time, he got the most fan mail of any Warners TV star. Roger Smith used to come down to our set, ostensibly to visit Edd, but really to tell us how much better 77 Sunset Strip was than our show. This was gauged by the amount of fan mail we all got. Years later, my wife and I were at a film festival in Argentina. Lot of great folks there with us: Walter Pidgeon, Adam West, Ben Gazzara and his wife Janice Rule, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall. And, by sheer coincidence Roger and Ann-Margret arrived on vacation. I suggested that we all get together for a drink; Roger was amenable, but Ann-Margret rolled her eyes and very audibly said to him, ‘Do we REALLY have to do that?’ Haven’t been to an Ann-Margret movie since!
“Thank God for all that Warners stock footage. Because so many shots had to be matched, wardrobe worked overtime to supply the clothes from the original pictures we snatched scenes from. One time I got to wear Errol Flynn’s threads, another time Walter Brennan’s. My biggest thrill was wearing Humphrey Bogart’s pants in the Canary Kid shows. Couldn’t fill his boots, but sure could fill his pants! My dissatisfaction with the penny-pinching struck home on this show. Standing in front of that phony desert rear-screen projection, I quipped to DuPar, ‘Ya know who should be playing the Canary Kid? Bill Orr – cause he’s cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep.’ Well, one of those skeevy Warners ‘yes men’ spies reported back to Orr, who called me into his office at the end of the day. I managed to get out of it by saying that it was just my way of wanting to inject more humor into the shows, which I did want, by the way.”
BRINK OF FEAR (9/30/58, d. Les Martinson). Cully Abbott, an old acquaintance of Tom’s, asks his pal to help him get a foothold in society, after serving a jail term. All goes well until his ex-cellmates ride into town, triggering Abbott’s dark, psychotic nature. “Again, why couldn’t I see how good these shows were at the time?! What’s wrong with me? That’s a rhetorical question. Man, the cast alone on that show was incredible (Venetia Stevenson, Walter Barnes, Don Gordon, Don Beddoe, Harry Antrim, Allan Case, Lane Chandler). The one who stands out was that big dude, Walter Barnes. We called him ‘Piggy’ Barnes, he was an ex-football player. Jerry Paris was the real star of that episode. I remember he was so nice to me, mostly immediately after that show. I worked with him a lot during the shoot. He was very uncomfortable with horses, so I helped him along a bit there. I’ve heard that the reason I ended up with Hey, Landlord was because of Paris being so grateful for the way I treated him during Brink of Fear. He claimed I really got him through that show. Who knows? It’s likely. Gotta say, he wasn’t so nice during Hey, Landlord, although I reckon he was more frustrated than mean. He was offered his choice of Hey, Landlord or That Girl, and he chose us. As far as I’m concerned, nothing seemed to work on that show. Michael Constantine got most of the laffs. I was more or less the straight man, and, in my estimation, a pretty good one too. I think what bothered me most about Sugarfoot was that I wasn’t given a chance to be funny. I really wanted to add more humor to the proceedings. But, again, when you look at the competition in retrospect – we were so much ahead of the curve. For instance, check out Wagon Train or The Rifleman, both good shows – but every episode is essentially the same. My problem with Wagon Train, in particular, was that I thought the writing was too soap operish, and not horse operish. Sure, they’d bring in guest stars like Bette Davis or John Wayne, even Lou Costello, but their presence doesn’t make the scripts any less lousy. Back to Brink of Fear, Don Gordon was really a hoot to work with. Ended up doing two shows with him. I also liked Venetia Stevenson a lot, worked with her a few times. We actually dated briefly. I think the best word to describe her is ‘humdinger.’ An okay-plus actress and a really terrific person.
“One of the problems I had with this and all Westerns at the time was the fact that the Western main street looked the same in every show. What I liked about this episode was that Les Martinson took pains to make this town look different. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but that was a big deal for me. Back then, TV was glutted with Westerns (Bob Hope said that NBC stood for ‘Nothing But Cowboys’). Les achieved this transformation with a lot of interesting camera angles.”
THE WIZARD (10/14/58, d. Josef Leytes). A mysterious magician and his beautiful assistant spell doom for two townsfolk during a séance, one of them Tom. Was it supernatural or pre-arranged? “Another episode I appreciate so much more now than I did then. I remember [producer] Hugh Benson was always on my case about something. He was a Jack Warner wannabe, even had the little mustache. I think his main function to follow me around and bawl me out, and, when he wasn’t doing that, to send me endless, nebulous memos. I did the Sheriff’s Rodeo at the Coliseum the last year they held it. The turnout was huge – about 75,000 people in the audience. Johnny Cash was there. Barbara Stanwyck was the Marshal Lass and I was the Marshal. I wore a checkered shirt, but refrained from wearing my Sugarfoot jacket ‘cause it was a hot day. But I did wear my chaps from the show and I had a good hat. So, as I’m riding in the parade, I see Hugh Benson in the front row. First he smiles, then gives me a dirty stare. So the inevitable memo arrives: YOU SHOULD WEAR YOUR SUGARFOOT OUTFIT. WE’RE NOT SENDING YOU OUT ON THESE THINGS (AT GREAT EXPENSE TO WARNER BROS.) FOR NOTHING! IF YOU PERSIST IN NOT WEARING YOUR SUGARFOOT OUTFIT, WE WILL STOP SENDING YOU OUT TO THESE EVENTS. YOU LOOKED LIKE HOWDY DOODY! I’ve looked at stills taken from that day, and I look fine. But, they did their work. He had the Warners publicity department contact The La-La Times who cut me out of every photograph, and even gave me a bad review regarding my appearance. I’m pretty sure I’m the only actor who ever got a bad review for a rodeo!
“Concerning the episode, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., was a good egg, just a wonderful guy to work with. He had such a beautiful voice. Norma Moore was, I thought, cool to work with. I was fond of a movie she costarred in at the time, Fear Strikes Out, opposite Tony Perkins. I was actually in awe of her. We got along fine. Warners even did a ‘Look Who’s Dating’ layout for the teen magazines. But look at that episode. It’s so far off the beaten track. That’s what’s so amazing about this show. No template. We went off in so many different directions. I worked with Ed Kemmer several times, including on the show where I got my start, Matinee Theater. He later married Fran Sharon, with whom I worked on Broadway in Never Too Late. She played my wife. Ed was a good, solid actor, and, I believe, was also in the following episode, The Ghost.
“Hugh Benson was truly my nemesis at Warners – I mean he really tried to make life difficult for me. I remember I took two dates to the Warners premiere of Sayonara, and I pull up to the theater in my 1952 Volkswagen, and had no idea where to park. Well, Benson sees this and starts screaming like hell at me. I’m sure the fans looked upon that as a valiant display of professional attitude. It wasn’t long after that The Wizard had been shot, and Benson couldn’t stop with the superlatives about how ground-breaking it was, particularly the acting…by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. Not a word about me, it’s like I wasn’t even on the show. You see how folks in this business get complexes? I look at myself now in that show, and proudly boast, ‘That’s my grandson up there, and he’s damn good!’” [laughs].
THE GHOST (10/28/58, d. Lee Sholem). Tom is assigned to locate a boy due an inheritance. The troubled youth is the victim of child abuse, and his violent behavior links him to murder in a supposed haunted house. “Ah, yes, the episode we briefly spoke of earlier, the one where Martin Landau wouldn’t talk to me. On the other hand, Tommy Rettig and I got to be real good pals. Tommy also ended up doing the last Sugarfoot episode, Trouble at Sand Springs. This show was directed by the ubiquitous Lee “Roll ‘em” Sholem. Another guy I never appreciated, mostly because he did everything in one take. He got that nickname because he would never shout ‘Action!,’ but a long, drawn out, ‘Rrrrrrollllemmmm!,’as if it was one, never-ending word. More like an abdominal, gastric sound, than a word. He’d do anything that was asked and fast, so you can see how valuable he was to the folks at Warners. I once sarcastically said that when someone called ‘lunch,’ he automatically shot it. We used to play golf once in a while, and we got to be buddies. When he got set to putt, I’d say, ‘Roll‘emmm!’ It’s the camera people I had total respect for, then and now. We had the greatest cameramen in Hollywood. Pretty sure they would influence the directors a lot.
“A big regret was not hanging out more with Michael Pate, but, in all due respect, we didn’t have much screen time together, so there ya go. Later on, we became great pen-pals. Right up until the end of his life, he’d send me scripts that he was trying to launch (with parts for me in them). Love those Aussies!”
THE CANARY KID (11/11/58, d. Montgomery Pittman). A visit to a judge turns hellish for Tom when he’s kidnapped by two outlaws whose vicious boss is Brewster’s cousin…and dead-ringer lookalike. “The first Canary Kid – God, I loved doing that! Said it before, and I’ll say it again: Monty Pittman was the most talented guy I ever worked with! I cherish the fact that we became great pals. You could never possibly write enough about him, in my opinion. Let me tell you a bit about [costar] Wayde Preston. My favorite Maverick was The Legend of Waco Williams, starring Wayde. What made the show and him stand out was that he played it totally straight, as opposed to the rest of the cast, who played in tongue-and-cheek. Ironically, he could always make me laugh and we would constantly break each other up. Frank Albertson, was, of course, terrific. It was a Hollywood history lesson just being around that guy. And Don ‘Red’ Barry, also wonderful. I used to call him the World’s Best Die-er. When someone shot Don Barry in a movie or TV show, it was akin to a pageant. He’d bite down on a cigarette and suck it into pure ash, then crumble and flick it out into the audience. It was a thing of beauty to behold. William Phipps, there’s another fine actor. Ever see him in Julius Caesar? Just great. Used to run into him at the beach occasionally, he was quite an athlete. That came in handy during The Trial of the Canary Kid, where he had to do a running mount.
“I need to do a sidebar here, and discuss someone I admired so much, Sheldon Leonard. He directed the Hey, Landlord pilot, and it was obvious from Day One that he didn’t want me for the part. Well, I told him that in this one episode The Canary Kid, my evil twin character had to beat up one of the town locals. Well, he goes down, and I kick him hard. A female onlooker screams, and I’m about to kick him again, and I tell her, ‘Hey, what are you screaming about? One more kick, and he won’t have to worry about waking up with a headache.’ Well, I told him that I stole that from Lucky Jordan, a movie I had seen during its initial run in 1942, and one that I absolutely loved. I added, ‘And I remembered that when Alan Ladd kicked you, he said that line or a reasonable facsimile. Unfortunately, the censor was visiting our set that day, and they ended up cutting it out. So I didn’t stand a chance.’ Well, all of a sudden, Sheldon Leonard’s eyes lit up, he got all excited and gregarious and happily remarked, ‘You know what made that scene? Not the actual violence. Not Ladd kicking.’ And he defiantly pointed to himself, thumb into his chest, ‘It was the way I TOOK it.’ [laughs]. And, I must say, that we had a much nicer relationship after that.
“But I gotta talk about the women in that episode. Sandra Edwards, I liked her a lot. I think she had a kid out of wedlock, which was a big tragedy in those days. She eventually got married to someone who turned out to be a maniac. One night, he broke through their window from the outside, and threatened her and her child, and she shot him dead. She was acquitted. And then Yvonne Schubert, she was one of Howard Hughes’s girlfriends. I remember she lived up in the Hollywood Hills near us, my mom and I. She had essentially become a one-woman call-girl. She had to wait until Hughes called her, and was told to do nothing else. So she was very lonely, and would sometimes come over to talk to my mother. At one point in her life, she had gone out on a date with a boyfriend, they went skeet shooting, and she accidentally killed him. So I had two lethal leading ladies in the same show! I was living dangerously!
“I had read this book by Robert Lewis, who was big shot from The Actors Studio, and he stipulated that it was imperative for an actor to develop a unique stance when performing. This will make you true to the core whenever you are called upon to impersonate a specific character. Well, this was all new to me, but I’d thought I’d give it a try. So, for the Canary Kid, I decided I’d be a bear. So that was my secret stance! Well, [Harry] Tatelman [the producer] came down to the set one day and asked what I was doing. Rather than get down to the ‘bear facts,’ I told him I was using Alan Ladd as a role model [from Lucky Jordan], which also was true.
“Another interesting thing about this episode was that Howard Hughes was desperate to see the show because of Schubert. So a private print was air-dropped to his home in Vegas. I used to think about this giant plane with only the Captain and cans of Sugarfoot on-board. And I was amused.”
THE HUNTED (11/25/58, d. Josef Leytes). When Tom nurses a near-dead wounded man back to health, he becomes enveloped in a maze of intrigue and murder. The ex-soldier is wanted, and being hunted by The Outlaw Exterminators, a sadistic band of bounty hunters. “Ah, that was our Of Mice and Men episode. It was a treat working with Mike Lane – you know, that big dude from the last Bogie film, The Harder They Fall. I was always a big boxing fan, so you can understand what a thrill it was to work with him. Years later, when I was doing a Perry Mason, Mike turned up to wish me well. Just a very personable guy. The Warners penchant for economy (aka, cheapness) was the spur behind this show, as they used tons of footage from Valley of the Giants, that 1937 logging picture they had done with Wayne Morris. Funny thing, I think THAT movie used stock footage from yet an earlier lumberjack picture. So I was wearing Wayne Morris’s shirt to match the library footage. I did get to do some stunt work – running along the top of the lumberjack train. They actually had me jump from the top of the train into the caboose. I was terrified that I was going to bash my head open, but I did it okay [laughs]. Obviously. I worked with R.G. Armstrong a couple of times. I liked him a lot. He had just undergone a cancer operation, and they had removed part of his lower lip. They used some kind of innovative plastic surgery or grafting to replace it. I thought that was quite remarkable, especially for the way it didn’t seem to faze him. A real trouper. I have to say I got along with most of the costars I worked with. And, again, I’m really proud of the roles Sugarfoot had for actresses. I mean really good parts for women, often non-traditional characters, many fiercely independent who didn’t rely upon the likes of me to rescue them. They could handle themselves! Love that.
“Again, this was special show for me, as it was obviously stolen from Steinbeck’s novel, which, I should mention was made into one of my all-time favorite movies. What a magical year 1939 was American movies!”
YAMPA CROSSING (12/9/58, d. Josef Leytes). A law firm hires Tom to bring in Galt Kimberly, a grizzled tough guy needed to verify his abandoned son’s inheritance. Kimberly’s refusal takes a back seat when three strangers show up, all waiting for a raging river to recede. As the men bide their time, their greed increases to murderous proportions. “Another Harder They Fall guy was in that – a wonderful New York actor, Harold J. Stone. We had a really interesting director on this one, a Polish filmmaker, Josef Leytes. He was very emotional, and had a hell of a time expressing himself in English. One of the other costars in that show was Brian Hutton, who later became a very good director. I felt like I was sort of a hovering ghost in that one. Really didn’t have much to do, sort of overseeing the narrative. Unusual, if you stop to think about it. Of course, Roger Smith was in it, and he did his usual – telling me how great Sunset Strip was, so much better than my show. But he also told me a terrific story about working with Jimmy Cagney; in fact, he was lucky enough to work with him twice, in Man of a Thousand Faces and Never Steal Anything Small. I was so envious because he and Cagney had become pretty good pals. Anyway, he was home on his day off watching Citizen Kane on TV, and Cagney just showed up at his house and got all irate at him: ‘What are you doing watching television on such a beautiful afternoon? Come on, let’s get out of here!’
‘But its Citizen Kane!’
‘I don’t care what it is! It’s a gorgeous day. Turn that off, and let’s enjoy the sunshine! Nobody needs to watch television in the daytime!’ And so off they went!
“I was so vulnerable as to my abilities that whenever Roger chided me about the show, it cut deep. ‘Sugarfoot’s too passive.’ That’s not exactly a terrible thing to say, but it bothered me. (He obviously never watched the show, or listened to the theme song: ‘Never underestimate a Sugarfoot/Once you get his dander up, ain’t no one who’s quicker on the draw!’ So, there!) I guess it’s because, like so many in this business, everyone’s ready to pounce on you, but no one ever gives out with the compliments. And that was especially hurtful when these barbs came from my so-called Hollywood friends. I remember being very down on myself during that period. Jeez, if I had only known about the wonders of coffee – I wasn’t a caffeine drinker back then – I think it would have made my life a lot easier!
“I’d like to digress for a moment and mention Cagney again, as I almost got to work with him, during the run of the show. Because of typical Warners cost-cutting, they used to push us contract folk into whatever features were being shot on the lot. I was assigned to a Natalie Wood picture called Bombers B-52. This was particularly exciting for me, as it was announced as a Cagney picture, and he was one of my idols. By the time production started, Cagney was replaced by Karl Malden. I remember coming out of the commissary one day. I was in character and uniform – as one of the fighter pilot crew – as was Malden, who played my superior officer. I knew he was a Method guy so I was appreciably respectful. I stood at attention, and he came over, gave me the once-over and said,
‘Airman, what’s an ECM operator mean?’ I know that he was part of the crew, but I didn’t know what the hell an ECM was. I flinched, and blubbered out, ‘I don’t know, sir.’ Malden nodded stoically, and replied ‘It stands for Easy Cock Master, son.’ So I replied the only way I could,
‘Sir, yes, sir!’ Feeble.”