What a voice! What a mustache!
John Dehner was one of the very best character actors in Westerns. He only led in one feature, topping the billing in Revolt at Fort Laramie in 1957,but he was present, and usually high up the cast list, in no fewer than 152 Westerns altogether, comprising 43 features and 109 episodes of Western TV shows, between 1946 and 1981. He was also a leading participant in the radio Western. It’s a great record.
The IMDb bio says of him that he was a “tall and distinguished looking man with a rich voice and somewhat flamboyant demeanor”. His suave appearance (one of the best mustaches in the business) and craggy, instantly recognizable face, as well as great acting talent, made him an authoritative presence in our noble genre, above all through the 50s. He could play the goody well but for me he was supreme at the droll bad guy.
John Dehner Forkum (I’m not quite sure why he chose the rather unusual name of Dehner; perhaps it was in the family) was born in 1915 in Staten Island, NY. His father was an artist and John evidently inherited and learned some artistic skills. He studied in Paris, France, Norway and New York, studied art at the University of California and after working as a disc jockey, professional pianist and bandleader he became an animator for Walt Disney in Burbank at the princely salary of $18 a week. He contributed to several classic feature sequences on Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942), as well as a few Donald Duck epics. He was a champion fencer and spoke four languages.
After leaving the Disney art department, Dehner did a stint as a public relations officer in the army during World War II and then returned to California as a radio announcer and news editor for stations KMBC and KFWB. He and his colleagues earned his radio station a Peabody Award for his coverage of the UN conference in San Francisco.
So you see John Dehner had a rich and varied career well before he took up acting in radio, movies and TV.
He started in Westerns in 1946 with smallish parts in Republic oaters with Monte Hale and Allan Lane, directed by the likes of Lesley Selander and RG Springsteen, moving on to Charles Starrett Durango Kid pictures. In 1951 he played a kind of Temple Houston character in Columbia’s Al Jennings of Oklahoma, trying to get the drop on Dan Duryea with a hidden gun but perishing in the attempt. Several pictures with George Montgomery followed, notably The Texas Rangers in 1951, in which he played the Texas killer John Wesley Hardin, rather duded up. He was Ringo (though Matt Ringo, not Johnny), in Montgomery’s Gun Belt (1953). It was an excellent start.
Also in 1953 Dehner was nicely cast as the crooked saloon owner in Fox’s kind-of remake of My Darling Clementine, Powder River, with Rory Calhoun. The following year he was the corrupt Indian Agent in Apache, and a really nasty bad guy in Southwest Passage. He was developing nicely as the villain.
He cemented this characterization when he appeared in four Westerns in 1955, a good year, Warners’ Tall Man Riding (crooked lawyer), United Artists’ Top Gun (outlaw), Universal’s The Man from Bitter Ridge (chief bad guy with Ray Teal as henchman) and Columbia’s Duel on the Mississippi (bad guy). He was actually superb in the last-named, playing a Louisiana sugar planter with very passable French accent and very dashing goatee and imperial.
Three more feature Westerns followed in ’56, including one of his best-ever bad-guy performances as Broderick Crawford’s henchman Taylor Swope in The Fastest Gun Alive – in fact he almost stole the show in that one – as well as A Day of Fury (slimy preacher) and Tension at Table Rock (ruthless cattleman).
In 1957 he was especially nasty in the very good Trooper Hook as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband who spurns her because she has been living with the Indians, rejecting her ‘half-breed’ child, and then he conveniently dies so that Joel McCrea and Stanwyck can get it together.
He was also excellent as an alcoholic, cynical, laid-back attorney in The Iron Sheriff. And this was the year he finally topped the billing, in Revolt at Fort Laramie, a Bel-Air production, in which he was back under the command of Lesley Selander. Dehner is a US Army major, out West in 1861 as the Civil War looms, and conflicted because he is a Virginian and his heart is with the Confederacy but he has taken an oath and his honor obliges him to, well, hold the fort. Actually, it was rather an uninspired Western but Dehner made it.
1958 was the year of The Left-Handed Gun, a Billy the Kid pic directed by Arthur Penn and starring Paul Newman, in which Dehner was Pat Garrett, and in fact one of the best Pat Garretts ever (I think). The same year he was Claude, the vicious thuggish nephew of outlaw Lee J Cobb, and cousin of Gary Cooper, in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West. Dehner was also the unworthy fiancé of Rory Calhoun’s former-amour in Apache Territory. Once again he will perish, making the hero morally free to renew the lovey-dovey.
1958 was also the year in which Dehner was cast as Paladin in CBS’s radio version of Have Gun – Will Travel, which, unusually, started on TV and migrated to radio afterwards (it was more often the other way round). He would do 106 episodes, between November 23, 1958, and November 27, 1960.But before Have Gun Dehner was also an experienced radio Western hand. He figured in no fewer than 234 of the 480 episodes of Gunsmoke, which ran on CBS for nine seasons from 1952 to 1961. It is said that he auditioned more than once for the role of Matt Dillon, but this went to William Conrad.
Dehner was also featured in Fort Laramie, another CBS radio show that aired on Sunday afternoons from January to October 1956. Again he was considered for the lead part of Lee Quince but that went to a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Perhaps Dehner’s lead role in the movie Revolt at Fort Laramie was a kind of consolation prize, who knows.
From February thru November 1958 Dehner was also the star of another CBS show. The intro announced: “Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in The West. As a reporter for The Times of London, he writes his colorful and unusual accounts. But as a man with a gun, he lives and becomes a part of the violent years in the new territories. Now, starring John Dehner, this is the story of JB Kendall, Frontier Gentleman.” Dehner’s accent is far from English but with e-nun-ci-ation he gets away with it. You can try an episode here if you wish (external link).
Dehner certainly had a great radio voice. Out of the 667 combined network episodes in the four CBS radio series Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, Frontier Gentleman and Fort Laramie, he either appeared in an incredible 394 episodes – nearly 60% of the total.
Back on the big screen, he was Audie Murphy’s dad in Cast a Long Shadow in 1959, but Western roles were fewer and farther between in the 60s and 70s. He appeared in The Canadians (1961) and was the narrator on The Hallelujah Trail (1965). He had a small part in The Cheyenne Social Club in 1970 and the same year was in the dire Sinatra vehicle Dirty Dingus Magee (like The Canadians, a Burt Kennedy picture) as a senior Army officer. He was a colonel in the fun Support Your Local Gunfighter in 1971, and finished with a TV movie in which he co-starred with Denver Pyle, NBC’s Guardian of the Wilderness.
In fact he had been appearing on the small screen ever since an Adventures of Kit Carson episode in 1953, and from then on appeared in almost any TV show you care to name, often more than once. For example, he was in 12 episodes of Gunsmoke, 5 of Rawhide, 5 of Maverick, 4 of Tales of Wells Fargo, and 4 of The Rifleman. In The Westerner, Sam Peckinpah’s highly regarded series with Brian Keith, he was the colorful repeat character Burgundy Smith, another ‘juicy’ role. In 1967 he was ‘High Spade Johnny Dean’ (rather a combination name) in the TV remake of Winchester ’73.
He would go on in non-Western roles all through the 1980s, dying from complications of emphysema and diabetes in 1992, at the age of 76.
As much as I like James Coburn, I think John Dehner's portrayal of Pat Garrett was probably closer to the historical truth; and certainly closer than Paul Newman's Billy the Kid.
A very classy actor, he was excellent and always credible no matter how he looks, wether a tired 7 days beard outlaw-soldier on the run or a handsome stylish immaculately dressed up saloon keeper-sherif-killer. Certainly one of the best asset of The Left Handed Gun, as Claude in Man of the West, he was absolutely enormous facing Cooper, giving us one of his best performance with his typical minimal play which makes him still so good and moderne today.
Jeff thank you for bringing to light the lesser known but essential contributors to the genre.
Jeff, an outstanding tribute to an extraordinary actor in Westerns and any other genre for that matter. John Dehner was one of the busiest and most popular character actors, because he gave superb portraits of every character he ever portrayed. With his wonderfully distinctive baritone voice he made every movie, TV show, and radio show that much better for having his presence.
Count me in! One of my favourite character actors in any genre but westerns seem to have been his specialty, which is good news for us westernistas.
When Lee J. Cobb decided to leave his role as owner of Shiloh Ranch in "THE VIRGINIAN" TV series in 1964 the ranch passed into the hands of John Dehner as Morgan Starr. For whatever reason Dehner only made a handful of episodes in the role and ownership passed to Charles Bickford. I would like to have seen more time with Dehner as he was (naturally) superb in it.
Jerry, I was an avid fan of THE VIRGINIAN during its original run on NBC-TV and I still continue to be. I remember when all of a sudden, Judge Henry Garth(Lee J. Cobb) wasn't on the show anymore and Morgan Star(John Dehner) was brought in as ranch manager, because Judge Garth had been appointed governor of Wyoming Territory. This didn't make much sense too me at the time. Why wasn't the Virginian made ranch manager? I think most of the fans, at that time probably felt the same way.
Through no fault of his own John Dehner portrayed the part as it was written for him and Norman MacDonnell the executive producer was the one in charge of the show. I don't think the abrupt change worked and Lee J. Cobb was hard to replace. Earlier in the season Betsy Garth(Roberta Shore) had left the show and she had been very popular and she was missed. Jennifer Sommers(Diane Roter) came to live with her Uncle Judge Henry Garth at Shiloh after her parents were killed in an accident. Through no fault of her own, she just had a hard time of filling Roberta Shore's boots.
At the time, as a fan, I didn't know anything about what was going on during the behind the scenes backstory of the show. Lee J. Cobb hated doing the show and thought it was beneath him, although he took the money and when he signed on to play Judge Garth he was the highest paid actor on TV. Would the show have worked with John Dehner, if they had given him more than four episodes? The NBC-TV executives got nervous when they saw the Nielsen Ratings going down and as we know the entertainment business is first and foremost a business. So, they sacked producer Norman MacDonnell and brought back FranK Price(executive producer the previous season) to oversee the show.
With the new fifth season came aboard Charles Bickford, as John Grainger, the new ranch owner, along with his grandchildren Elizabeth(Sara Lane) and Stacey(Don Quine). The show finished tenth in the Nielson Ratings.
Personally, I think John Dehner would have worked out if given more of a chance and that goes for Diane Roter also. That said, I liked the show with Charles Bickford, Sara Lane, and Don Quine. I'm a fan.
Thanks for the expansion of info, Walter. It stands up very well today still, I think because of its high production values for a TV series. It's a shame Lee J. Cobb felt that way. Apparently, Pernell Roberts had the same attitude about "BONANZA".
Jerry, I agree about the high production values on THE VIRGINIAN TV series. I've been watching some of the show's episodes recently, while we were having to stay in St. louis, Missouri. This series is so good and I highly recommend to anyone, who hasn't seen this series to seek it out.
Personally, I think Lee J. Cobb and Pernell Roberts didn't realize what a good thing they had going.
Thank you Jeff for spotlighting this fine actor. And I do smile when he unexpectedly appears in a film I'm watching. He also showed a comedic talent as a mad scientist, Dr. Gravesend, in THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS. One of the better entries in the series.