Hollywood stuntman and actor
I am grateful to Gene Freese for his book Jock Mahoney: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Stuntman (McFarland, 2014), which I have freely plundered for this post. Freese is also author of Hollywood Stunt Performers: A Dictionary and Filmography of over 600 Men and Women 1922 – 1996 (1998).
For someone who was involved in a massive 87 feature Westerns and 122 episodes of Western TV shows it is perhaps surprising that Jock Mahoney is best known for being Tarzan. But for me, and for many Western fans, Jocko, as he was universally known, was the Western action man par excellence.
Joseph Jacques O’Mahoney was born in Chicago, Illinois in February 1919, his father being of Irish extraction and his mother French. There was also, apparently, a dash of Cherokee blood in his veins. His father was a laborer. But Joseph Jacques stayed in Chicago, as he later said, “only long enough for three diaper changes.” The family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where O’Mahoney Sr worked on the railroad.
At school, his name seeming a bit dandified, the boy went by Jack Mahoney. Over the years he became known as Jocko, a sort of reduction of Jacques and the O’ part of his proper name, perhaps also because of his sports jock status, for from the outset he was an extraordinarily talented athlete. He was especially good at swimming and diving, and basketball too, but also did baseball, tennis, running, gymnastics and riding – all excellent groundwork for his future career. Jocko’s mother also insisted he learn piano and dancing. In 1934 he started following the hugely popular Charles Atlas method.
Like many of us, as a boy Jocko was fascinated by the screen cowboys and spent as much time as he could at the movie theater. He was also a fan of Tarzan and Zorro. At the age of nine Jocko had the chance to see the Tom Mix Circus, and met the great hero himself (and Tony).
At high school he was already over six foot and 200 pounds and played all the major sports for his school. He was a letterman in football and the tallest man on the basketball team, growing to 6’ 4”. He also sang lead tenor in a school production of The Gondoliers. His athletic prowess got him a scholarship to the University of Iowa (which had the world’s largest competition pool).
Jocko was drafted into the Detroit Lions football team, though because he did so many sports he never really specialized in one and did not hit the big time. His grades also began to suffer. His parents divorced in 1938. He got a variety of dead-end jobs. In the end he dropped out of school and moved to LA in early 1940, with $5 in his pocket.
He got work at the trendy Los Angeles Athletic Club, and set about training in earnest for the 1944 Olympics, though of course there was no guarantee they would be held. He picked up a bit of part-time work at Paramount as a stand-in for Russell Hayden (Hopalong’s sidekick).
Jocko was learning to fly and became an experienced pilot. With the war raging he was a natural for the US Marines Air Corps. With his athletic skills he sailed through basic training and was rapidly made an assistant instructor. He learned hand-to-hand combat techniques and judo moves that would later serve him well. He was soon flying off aircraft carriers but this was 1945 and the war was winding down.
At this time Jocko fell in love and married Lorraine O’Donnell and they had two children. Once mustered out he set about buying and selling surplus war planes, and also raising horses, but he started acting lessons. Through his Paramount experience he got bit parts in a couple of Charles Starrett Westerns. Then the studio offered him regular stunt work on the Durango Kid series at $250 a week. He later said, “When you’re not good enough to be an actor – which I found out I wasn’t after two quick pictures for Starrett – then you stay in the business any way you can.” But at stunt work he was a natural.
Jocko stunted on Durango Kid movies from 1946 to 1951, doing nearly 50 pictures in total. Luckily Durango wore a black bandanna over his face, and Starrett was 6’ 2”, so Jocko could pass for the star well. Still as Starrett was born in 1903, audiences may have been surprised at his sprightliness in the action scenes…
Mahoney was indeed amazingly spry. He could jump like a cat, for example from a standing start over a 15-hand horse. He could leap aboard a horse without using any hands. He once jumped over three horses standing side by side, landed in the saddle of the fourth and galloped off. The other stuntmen didn’t believe it could be done and gathered round to watch. Peggy Stewart said that he could balance a glass of water on his head while riding and not spill a drop. On one Durango picture Jocko dove through the window of a moving stagecoach. Jumping down from second-story balconies was child’s play to him. He once jumped between two rooftops 20 feet apart when the then Olympic long jump record was 26’ 8”. This stunt was so good it was recycled in a later Durango movie, The Kid from Broken Gun. Starrett jokingly said, “I was only around to do Jock’s dialogue.”
Jocko always prepared his stunts meticulously. There was nothing casual or devil-may-care about his work. He prepared the ground for falls and shrewdly sized up the difficulty of each gag.
Other actors began to demand Jocko’s services. Errol Flynn was so impressed that he shook Jocko’s hand and offered him his dressing room whenever he wanted it. You can see Jocko doubling Flynn in Silver River and Montana. Then Jocko landed a plum assignment doubling for Randolph Scott, for example when ‘Scott’ was doing that brutal fight with Forrest Tucker in Coroner Creek. Scott would be quietly reading The Wall Street Journal on the set and when Jocko came by after some dramatic stunt Randy would casually ask, “How did I do?”
He also doubled Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory and Gary Cooper in Dallas. A stunt which cemented his reputation was when he doubled Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky, riding down a steep decline, and to add even more speed he had the crew grease the slide. Stuntwoman Martha Cantarini, who also worked on the picture, said Jock Mahoney was “considered by his peers to be one of the greatest stuntmen in the business.”
Peck broke his ankle on that movie so Jocko got to double him a lot more than usual. That’s Jocko who pounces on Anne Baxter and rolls around in the hay with her. Well, we all have to make sacrifices. Peck and Mahoney became friends, and Jocko would be back to double Gregory in Only the Valiant.
Gene Autry was especially taken with Jocko, calling him “one of the finest stuntmen and action men in the movies.” Although Jocko and Gene were close in age, Gene was shortish and paunchy, so the match wasn’t too good. Jocko tended to stunt-double Gene’s opponents, or play the heavy.
Jocko was to have doubled John Wayne at one point but Duke took one look at the ultra-slim Mahoney waistline and shook his head. Jocko used to say that Wayne sent him home because he was too pretty. But with Wayne too Jocko remained friends.
Mahoney had risen to the top of the business in only two years and by 1950 was reportedly making $30,000 a year. He wanted to act, though. He said, “In every stuntman there is an actor trying to get out.” Starrett had given him roles, bigger and bigger ones too, often as the lead heavy. He worked with the Three Stooges and was the dumb Arizona Kid in two of their pictures, specializing in pratfalls.
His marriage ended in divorce and he started dating Durango Kid leading lady Virginia Hunter, then Shelley Winters. But in 1949 he became engaged to Yvonne De Carlo. They had met on the set of The Gal Who Took the West. He did a mega fight in that one. He had learned screen punches from a master, Yakima Canutt. Jocko and Yvonne were a hot item for over a year but when she miscarried the engagement ended. They briefly reconciled at the end of 1950 but it was not to be. For Jocko, affairs with a succession of glam stars and starlets followed.
In 1950 Columbia thought they might be onto something by taking the aw-shucks Arizona Kid character from the Three Stooges and putting him in a feature, Hoedown, directed by Ray Nazarro (who did a lot of the Durango epics). Jocko got to sing a song to his horse (though the voice was Autry’s, dubbed on). Variety noted that “O’Mahoney does as best he can with a ridiculous role” but Boxoffice was politer, saying, “Jock O’Mahoney may seem overly dim-witted as a bashful cowboy star … but he gives an ingratiating performance nevertheless.” The best review came from The Hollywood Reporter which opined, “Jock O’Mahoney practically steals the show.”
Columbia followed that up by giving Jocko a leading role in their new serial Cody of the Pony Express (1950), directed by vet Spencer Gordon Bennet and produced by Sam Katzman, so not exactly big-budget. As Jock O’Mahoney, he got top billing as hero Jim Archer, undercover agent. Young Buffalo Bill was played by Dickie Moore, then 25 but looking younger. The serial was actually pretty dull, and Jocko had few action scenes to do. Still, it was a leading role.
Better was the next serial he did, with the lengthy title of Roar of the Iron Horse – Rail-Blazer of the Apache Trail (1951), directed for Columbia again by Spencer Gordon Bennet, this time with Thomas Carr. Jocko did more stunts and the whole thing was livelier.
Now he landed another. He again led in The Kangaroo Kid, a British-Australian-American picture shot down under and directed by Lesley Selander. Tex Kinnane (Jocko, again as Jock O’Mahoney), posing as a stage driver, goes to Australia to investigate a series of robberies. He finds time to romance Veda Ann Borg (replacing Dorothy Malone, another Jocko ex). Jocko got to do more stunts this time. There was talk of a couple of sequels but Jocko got other parts back home and they never happened.
At 46, Charles Starrett was, Columbia thought, getting a bit long in the tooth for Durango Kid roles and the studio execs offered Jocko, whom they considered the natural successor, the part, but he turned it down out of respect for Starrett, who continued in the role for another couple of years. Still, Jocko did get co-star status on the remaining Durango pictures, playing a recurring character named Jack Mahoney. Jocko said it was because “I was young and good-looking enough to kiss the girl.” (He added that Starrett only got to kiss his horse).
If you remember the good bit in Santa Fe (1951) when Randolph Scott knocks the bad guy into a wheelbarrow and dumps him in a ditch, that was Jocko he dumped. In the climactic fight on a train in that picture Jocko got to punch himself out because he traded blows with Bob Morgan, doubling for Scott, until it was time to fall off the speeding train when Jocko doubled Scott and Morgan doubled Jocko. Variety said of his performance, “O’Mahoney delivers nicely.”
In late 1950 the syndicated series The Range Rider went into production, with Jocko towering over his sidekick Dick West (Dickie Jones), giving the impression that Dick was a kid (actually he was 24). It would run three seasons for a total of 78 black & white half-hour episodes. The show came from Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions, and Autry himself was the executive producer. Now I loved this show as a boy, and especially admired (and envied) Mahoney’s way of mounting his horse (Rawhide). Also his buckskins. I must have seen re-runs because I was only three when it started and five at the end. All the usual suspects appeared as guest stars, as they did in most of these shows, and some were regular appearers such as Harry Lauter, William Fawcett and Stanley Andrews. But you also got to see John Doucette, Alan Hale Jr, James Griffith, Clayton Moore, Lee Van Cleef, Denver Pyle, and so on. There are various DVD releases of selected episodes but not, as far as I know, a complete set. Of course Murdock in The A-Team was frequently seen wearing a mask of the Range Rider he cut from a cereal box, so that sent that show up in my estimation (not hard).
Variety called it “a top flight sagebrush vidpic series” while The Chicago Tribune gushed hyperbolically that Mahoney had “everything John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea have, and he’s roughly twenty years younger.”
Both Mahoney and Jones did their own stunts (Jones was pretty accomplished in that regard too and had at the age of 4 gained the title ‘The World’s Youngest trick Rider’. Jocko said of Jones, “Dick was a fantastic partner … It got to the point where we worked together so much that we thought alike.” And in 1990 Jones was quoted as saying, “There’ll never be anyone else like him. He was one of a kind in his field and one of the nicest men I’ve ever known.”
Guest actors felt sort of obliged to do their own stunts too but of course weren’t necessarily expert in the art. Bob Wilke broke Jocko’s nose in one fight. Oops.
Jocko graced the cover of the TV Guide. He and Dick received thousands of fan letters a week. The pair toured rodeos and Western Days celebrations, doing a ten-minute fight skit and earning up to $1500 an appearance each. There were Range Rider coloring books, cap pistols, jigsaw puzzles and a series of Dell comics to match. The show made him a household name (even if it was Jack Mahoney).
In 1952 Jocko married Maggie Field, one of the Range Rider female leads he had romanced (there were several) in Tijuana, Mexico. The couple became best friends with actor husband and wife Bill Williams (then doing Kit Carson) and Barbara Hale. Maggie and Jocko starred in an episode of Death Valley Days.
Range Rider had at least taught him some more acting skills, though one critic said he only had two modes, “smile, and don’t smile.” But he said, “I was learning lmy trade at that point. TV was a marvelous school.”
Jocko was offered the Lloyd Bridges part of Gary Cooper’s deputy in High Noon but turned it down because he didn’t like the character. He may have regretted that, though he said he didn’t. Some newspapers said that Jocko stunt-doubled for Coop on that picture but there’s no hard evidence of that (stuntmen were often close-mouthed about who did what in action scenes). Jocko was only making $250 a week on Range Rider but could easily double that in an afternoon by stunting on features.
In 1953 Jocko starred in Panhandle Territory, directed by Fred F Sears, but for some odd reason Columbia never released it. Some say that studio boss Harry Cohn shelved it after disagreeing with Jocko. Certainly the studio preferred to go with Rock Hudson, George Montgomery and even Philip Carey rather than Mahoney. He and Columbia parted ways.
Fox considered him as a cheaper alternative to Dale Robertson but in the end The Gambler from Natchez went to Dale. So Jocko signed with producer Edward Small, but in the end, for another unknown reason, the collaboration only produced one Western, Overland Pacific (1954), with Jocko as a railroad investigator trying to find the reason behind constant Indian attacks on the railroad (one of the oldest plots in the business). It was more adult than previous outings. Variety noted that “Mahoney has authority in his heroics and gives the picture an action-plus touch.”
In 1954 Jocko taught Barbara Stanwyck horses stunts for her Cattle Queen of Montana, then did a war film with Richard Boone, who became a lifelong friend and later gave him a black Paladin holster, which Jocko passed down to his son Jim (lucky boy). More importantly Universal signed him for a series of their well-produced Westerns similar to what Rory Calhoun and Audie Murphy were doing. He would now officially be billed as Jock Mahoney. First he co-starred with Dale Robertson in Universal’s A Day of Fury. It’s the old one about two guys on opposite sides; one, Burnett (Mahoney) pins on a badge and is about to marry in church, while the other, Jagade (Robertson) continues as gunslinger, though he knows his profession is on the verge of extinction. Robertson enjoys his charming-rogue part but Jocko is, I’m afraid, a bit wooden. He is stiff and just says his lines. The action was limited so the picture didn’t play to Jocko’s strength. In Showdown at Abilene (1956 also) Jocko is once again a bit wooden, and once again there isn’t enough action for him to shine.
He was still attending acting classes at Universal City and working hard to improve.
In 1957, however, came a much better Western, Joe Dakota. For the first time really (for me anyway) Mahoney comes across as a convincing Western lead. It’s an almost Bad Day at Black Rocky plot as a mysterious stranger turns up in a remote Western town looking for an Indian friend. There’s a good bit when Jocko slugs it out with heavies Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef. Jocko even gets to sing, while bathing in the horse trough. Jocko was especially pleased that Variety called him “a relaxed, accomplished actor” and indeed, he is vastly better in this one. Director Richard Bartlett also helmed the light Slim Carter, released a month later, in which Jocko was also relaxed as a movie singing cowboy and handled the comedy well. Amusingly, the great Ben Johnson plays the role of Jocko’s stuntman.
Mahoney followed those up in 1958 by leading in two more Universal Westerns, an almost classic The Last of the Fast Guns (July) and the rather luridly-titled Money, Women and Guns (October). The Last of the Fast Guns, whose working title had been The Western Story but whose final one appealed to both the popular quick-on-the-draw myth and the ‘end of the West’ notion which had always marked the genre out, was a fun oater with Jocko at the top of his game. It was shot down in Mexico and directed by experienced hand George Sherman. The reviews at the time were not at all bad. Variety wrote that “Mahoney makes a sympathetic and interesting character of his role” and The Hollywood Reporter said it was “a grade A western that goes a long way toward establishing Jock Mahoney as a full-fledged star.” And in fact Jocko was beginning to reap the rewards of this modest stardom. While he was in Mexico he bought a 24-foot cabin cruiser. He also bought his wife Maggie a wedding ring. They’d been married for seven years already but he hadn’t gotten round to it.
Money, Women and Guns, shot in the fall of ’57 but not released till a year later, directed by Richard Bartlett again, was a Western whodunit. Jocko is “the greatest detective in the West”, Silver Ward Hogan, who wears a fancy rig decked out in the precious metal and uses Lone Rangerish silver bullets as well. The film is episodic, a series of barely related sketches. It was supposed originally to be a Capra-esque Christmas tale with the word dreams replacing guns, and indeed, there are residues of the Christmas spirit with the storekeeper’s sign announcing MERY CRISMAS to his customers and the boy hoping Santa will bring him some red boots (Santa obliges). But I prefer it as it is. It’s a bit short on action but I found it all rather enjoyable, I must say.
These two pictures would be Jocko’s last feature Westerns apart from two low-budget ‘geezer Westerns’ in the sixties and a (rather sad) bit part in Bandolero! in 1968.
That year (1958) though Universal ran into money troubles and suspended production of features to concentrate on the more profitable TV side. The studio offered Jocko the lead in Cimarron City with a salary of $70,000 a year. Jocko said he thought the series too ordinary and said no, and it went to George Montgomery. Jocko weighed other offers.
Jocko did an episode of the first season of Wagon Train, The Dan Hogan Story, as a former bare-knuckle prizefighter, also directed by Bartlett, but he was looking around for a series he could lead in, but a series with a difference. He found it in CBS’s primetime Yancey Derringer, in which the title character (Jocko, natch) was a New Orleans dandy who used a variety of the pocket pistols. I have reviewed this show at, ahem, length, so click the link if you want to know more. Curiously, rather, the show was not renewed, despite success in the rankings.
At this time Mahoney seems to have been overfond of a drink or two and became, in his own words, “an instant alcoholic”. The bottle would become a battle for him for the whole of the next decade. And without Universal movies or a Yancey income, he began to run into money problems. He had to sell his big house and move down-market. He took a few gigs on Rawhide, Gunslinger, Laramie, Daniel Boone and Kung Fu, as well as some non-Western shows, but he was in his 40s now, feature Westerns were in sharp decline and TV roles didn’t come that easily. He supplemented his income by doing trick shooting events with other experts, such as Rodd Redwing, his favorite trick being to balance a poker chip on the back of his hand, then suddenly draw and fire, hitting the chip before it reached the ground. He used his single-action Frontier Colt from Range Rider.
Mahoney was saved in the early 60s by Tarzan. These two pictures not being Westerns, however, we here shall spurn them, ignoring them totally, and just say that it was pretty gutsy of Jocko to take on the role of lord of the jungle at such an age. Well done him. Physically, the pictures took their toll on him, all that swinging on lianas and such, but he did a fine job. Back in proper movies and TV shows, though, i.e. the world of the Western, there was talk that Jocko might replace Eric Fleming as Clint’s boss on Rawhide, but that went to John Ireland.
Jocko took a couple of low-budget one-hour movies shot two Filipino movies made by Eddie Romero at only $5000 a week, which got a limited drive-in release in the US as second features. He decided to make his own movies there and put together a couple of Westerns, Blood in the Sky and West of the West, but they were never released in the US and it isn’t clear if the second one was even ever finished. IMDb lists an Eddie Romero Western, Cimarron, 1964, also shot in the Philippines, but Gene Freese doesn’t mention this.
Jocko got a bit-part as Raquel Welch’s husband in the ho-hum Bandolero! in 1968 but was shot in the back in the first reel. The same year he and Maggie divorced. During the final years of his life, he was a popular guest at film conventions and autograph shows. There was a kind of tribute in 1978 when Brian Keith played a retired stuntman named Jocko in Hooper.
He was one of the many screen cowboys to pop up in the TV shows When the West was Fun: A Western Reunion (1979) and The All American Cowboy (1985) – they probably meant The All-American Cowboy – but I’m afraid that was all she wrote. Really, since those 1958 Universal features and then Yancey Derringer on TV, it had been pretty well downhill. But as with many Western actors, let us not judge by these rather sad end-of-career appearances. Let us instead remember him leaping from rooftops, falling from stagecoaches and punching out the bad guy.
Jock Mahoney died of a second stroke at age 70 on December 14, 1989, two days after being involved in an automobile accident. His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.
In his book In The Nick of Time, author William C Cline wrote, “Of the rugged, rough-and-tumble heroes, none was more so than Jock Mahoney. A big, handsome fellow and an accomplished stuntman – having taken the licks and spills for many leading stars – he was a natural for serial stardom as a hero.”