By: Jim Longworth
As the lead character in the T.V. series “Cheyenne,” Clint Walker was often called upon to rescue a damsel in distress. It was a gesture that came easily to the 6-foot-6-inches bodybuilder. But for Clint, helping people wasn’t just an act, it was in his DNA. So much so that he once rescued a real damsel in distress, and risked losing out on the chance of a lifetime in the process. On that fateful day, Clint, then a security guard in Las Vegas, was scheduled to meet with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille to see about a bit part in The Ten Commandments. A job such as that could be the big break Clint had been waiting for, and no one in his right mind would do anything to jeopardize an opportunity like that. No one, that is, except Clint Walker, a man who always put others first.
A few years ago I asked Clint to recount that incident for a column I was writing about him.
“I was driving down the Hollywood freeway on the way to Paramount Studios, and I saw an elderly woman on the freeway trying to change a tire, and it was obvious she couldn’t handle it,” he told me. “So I stopped and changed the tire for her. Afterwards, she said, ‘What do I owe you?’ And I said, ‘You don’t owe me anything, ma’am; I’m glad to do it.’ And she said, ‘Well I hope I haven’t made you late for anything.’ And I said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I have an appointment at Paramount which may lead to an acting job, but I’m sure it will work out fine.’ When I got to Paramount I was very late, and had to sit outside Mr. DeMille’s office waiting, then I finally got called in. He was a commanding individual. He looked me up and down and said, ‘You’re late young man!’ And I thought this is probably the beginning and the end of my career. I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m sorry. I stopped to help someone on the freeway.’ And he said, ‘Yes I know all about that. That was my secretary you helped.’”
Needless to say Clint got the part, and later that same year he was hired by Warner Brothers to star in what was to be the first hour-long, filmed drama on television. Cheyenne ran for seven seasons, from 1955 to 1963, and was a huge success. Clint became a hot property and was sought after for a number of big-screen action movies, such as Yellowstone Kelly, Night of the Grizzly, Sinatra’s None But the Brave and The Dirty Dozen. Later he went on to star in a number of T.V. movies, then landed the lead in ABC’s short-lived drama, Kodiak. More films and guest starring roles would follow until he retired from acting in 1998. Ron Ely (T.V.’s Tarzan) who co-starred with Walker in Night of the Grizzly, was once asked to describe the big man. “Clint was a simple, straight-forward guy who always told the truth. He was a wonderful, terrific human being.”
I first met that wonderful human being at an event in which he was being honored by the Paley Center in Los Angeles. I was excited to meet my boyhood hero and discover that he was just as nice in person as he was on screen. We stayed in touch several times a year after that, including my annual birthday call to him, which I had just put on my to-do list when a friend told me that my idol had passed away. Clint died on May 21 from congestive heart failure, just nine days shy of his 91st birthday. He is survived by wife Susan and his daughter Valerie.
On occasions when Clint and I would visit by phone, we often talked about his career. Here are a few excerpts from those conversations.
JL: How did you catch the acting bug?
CW: I thought that acting was kind of a silly way to make a living, but then I was approached by Henry Wilson at the Sands Hotel where I was working as a security guard, and I realized that carrying a gun and a badge the rest of my life wouldn’t get me very far.
JL: But you ended up carrying a gun and a badge a lot on T.V. anyway.
CW: Yeah, but the bullets weren’t real, and you get to kiss a pretty girl now and then. And I got paid better (laughs).
JL: Why did you enjoy working in Westerns so much?
CW: Well I felt at home with them. I like the out of doors, especially the West. The mountains and the deserts, and the lore behind it, and the kind of people associated with it.
JL: If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
CW: Maybe an inventor. As a matter of fact, at one time while I was doing Cheyenne, I designed a piece of exercise equipment, and also a camper tent to go on a pick-up truck.
JL: Cheyenne DVDs are still big sellers, the show still airs every day, and you still get fan mail. Why are you and the show still so popular?
CW: I have stacks and stacks of letters that are so wonderful. A lot of them say things like, “I lost my Dad at an early age”, or, “My folks went through a divorce, and you’ve become my surrogate father.” Some say, “I watched Cheyenne and wanted to grow up to be just like him.”
Well, that’s a heck of a compliment. Maybe I did something that has had a positive effect on other people’s lives, and I thank God for blessing me with that opportunity. I wish I was as perfect as the Cheyenne character, but I try to live up to those kinds of expectations.
By all accounts, Clint lived up to those expectations and then some.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).