Many people will remember the great Western character actor John McIntire from TV. When Ward Bond died, McIntire took over command of the Wagon Train as Christopher Hale, and remained in charge for 5 seasons, till the show’s end. Then, when Charles Bickford passed away, he moved up to Wyoming and assumed the role of Bickford’s brother, becoming the patron of The Virginian, for another four seasons of that show. So he was very well known as a Western father-figure on the small screen throughout the 1960s.
And indeed, many of those shows, in addition to being high in the ratings were very good, and McIntire was fine in them. They also benefited from some excellent writing, direction and guest stars.
But for many true Westernistas John McIntire remains one of the greatest of all character actors in feature Westerns. Depending on your definition of the genre, he appeared in 26 of them, from a smallish part seventh-billed in Black Bart in 1948 right through to his role as Judge Isaac Parker in Rooster Cogburn in 1975. It was an excellent Western career.
We have reviewed nearly all of them on this blog except two, Black Bart and Red Canyon, and they will be coming soon, so I’ll just say a few words about each here today. It’ll make the post more manageably short too!
First just a brief mention of his background. Born in 1907 in Spokane, he grew up around ranchers in Eureka, Montana before moving to California, where he dropped out of the University of California after two years. He started acting on radio: he had the title role in a Los Angeles radio station’s production of The Adventures of Bill Lance and was the first actor to play the title role in the CBS radio drama rime Doctor. He played Miss Kitty’s estranged father in a radio episode of Gunsmoke.
He was active in the theater before moving into films. He was already 41 when he appeared in his first Western, Universal’s George Sherman-directed Black Bart, an Yvonne De Carlo/Dan Duryea vehicle, in which he played a crooked banker (in Westerns there was rarely any other kind of banker), and with exceptions, as we shall see, this kind of role suited him – bad guy in a suit.
Later the same year he was back with De Carlo, Duryea and director Sherman in River Lady, this time playing a mill owner in a lumberjack yarn (though they must have done a couple of days location shooting at most and the majority of the picture is done in the studio, with very obvious back projection for ‘exterior’ shots). Mcintire, looking quite young actually, warns his daughter Helena Carter about the ruffian Rod Cameron, but it does no good.
Red Canyon came next, another Universal George Sherman-helmed picture. It was one of those very many capture-the-wild-stallion movies (I always hope the poor horse will remain free to roam but that never happens). It headlined Ann Blyth and Howard Duff (unfortunately) but it had a good supporting cast: as well as McIntire we got Edgar Buchanan, Jane Darwell, Chill Wills, Lloyd Bridges and Denver Pyle.
None of these pictures was very special, but McIntire was putting in the work for future Western greatness.
In the regrettably non-Western domain, McIntire played a police commissioner in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but that year was far more significant as three excellent Westerns came out in which McIntire figured largely, and memorably.
The first was a taut MGM Western directed by Sam Wood and starring Robert Taylor, Ambush, released in January. In it, McIntire was outstanding as a buckskin-clad scout Frank Holly (it’s a cavalry/Indians Western) modeled, I am sure on the great Al Sieber.
In June, Universal put out one of the best Westerns of the year, indeed of the decade, Winchester ’73, starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann. It would remain one of McIntire’s greatest roles: though only billed seventh, he was one of the strongest characters in the story, the sinister gambler/arms dealer Joe Lamont, who acquires the famous rifle in an undoubtedly crooked card game. It does him little good, though, for Indian Rock Hudson becomes the next owner and Lamont perished memorably at the camp fire.
And then in September, the not quite so magnificent Saddle Tramp was released, directed by Hugo Fregonese and starring Joel McCrea. It was a fairly unremarkable and slightly juvenile color Western but it had undoubted charm. McIntire is entertaining a crusty, irascible old rancher who has John Russell as his less-than-scrupulous foreman.
So 1950 was a very good year.
Even greater things were to come the following year when he paired with Robert Taylor once again in a superb picture, Westward the Women, directed by William A Wellman. McIntire is Roy Whitman, a kind of visionary who in Chicago recruits cynical trail guide Buck Wyatt (Taylor) to boss a wagon train of women to make the perilous trip out to California to marry men that have recently begun settling there. It was a film full of fine performances but few were as good as McIntire’s.
1952 was the year of two Westerns. In September Universal released Horizons West, directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Robert Ryan, and in December the studio put out The Lawless Breed, helmed by Raoul Walsh.
In Horizons West McIntire played Ryan’s father – though in fact he was only two years older than his ‘son’. He was already becoming a regular in paternal or father-figure type roles. Indeed, in The Lawless Breed, a biopic (in fact a whitewash) of the Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, McIntire got to play both Hardin’s rigid Methodist preacher father and his rather more louche uncle – with a shorter and darker beard. Rock Hudson, whom Walsh had under contract, was Hardin. As daddy, McIntire doesn’t approve when his son buys a gun, using his winnings at cards as well. He whips the boy – and McIntire really seems to lay into Rock on the set!
Two more Westerns followed in ’53, The Mississippi Gambler, released in January, a Tyrone Power picture directed by Rudolph Maté, and War Arrow, which came out in December, directed once more by Sherman, which headlined Maureen O’Hara and Jeff Chandler, in which McIntire got third billing. The first, only a Western by a stretch of the definition, is a romantic costume-drama which is quite enjoyable in an old-fashioned way. I think McIntire basically steals the show with his performance as Kansas John Polly, gambler, who teams up with Power.
War Arrow was a bit of an also-ran, I fear, but McIntire was excellent as the formidable by-the-book (and jealous) Colonel Meade.
54 saw McIntire appear in no fewer than four Westerns: The Far Country, released in February, Apache (June), and two in November, Four Guns to the Border and The Yellow Mountain. Apache was released by United Artists and all the others were again Universal pictures.
McIntire’s Judge Gannon in Anthony Mann’s The Far Country may have been his finest Western role I just love this performance. The character is based on the highly disreputable conman and gangster Soapy Smith. McIntire’s version is the vicious, smiling, sadistic mayor-cum-hanging-judge boss of Skagway, on Judge Roy Bean lines. “I’m gonna like you,” he smiles creepily to James Stewart. “I’m gonna hang you but I’m gonna like you.” His silk hat was a costuming master-stroke: it gives faux-respectability to a corrupt, grasping and murderous non-gentleman. The New York Times agreed: “Credit John McIntire with the top characterization as the silk-hatted, bearded bad man, who is as cheerful about killing as he is about drinking and claim-jumping.” McIntire is charming as well as deadly, and intelligent too. It’s a wonderful portrayal, and once more he stole the show, overshadowing even Stewart and Walter Brennan.
In Apache, a Robert Aldrich picture, McIntire, who had in an early Western, Ambush, played a very Al Sieber-like character, now played Sieber himself. It’s another really strong performance. He is again crusty, charismatic and really memorable.
Four Guns to the Border is an enjoyable classic 50s Universal color Western about four (not very competent) bank robbers who head for the safety of the Mexico line after a job. The four of the title are led by Rory Calhoun and with McIntire are George Nader (not a Western regular) and Jay Silverheels. Walter Brennan is a father very protective of his tomboy daughter: “She ain’t gonna marry no gunslinger,” he warns the four, to which the gal tartly replies that her mother did.
The Yellow Mountain, directed by Jesse Hibbs, had Lex Barker and Howard Duff in the lead, so wasn’t as strong. But McIntire is the lead villain, this time not Gannon but Bannon, and the splendid Leo Gordon is his chief henchman. Bannon is the chief rival to Duff as saloon and mine owner, and he acts the socks off a rather insipid Duff, who doesn’t stand a chance. McIntire and Gordon save the picture from nonentity status and McIntire pulls it off again: memorable.
Three Westerns came in 1955. There were two United Artists pictures, Stranger on Horseback (March) and The Kentuckian (July) and The Spoilers in December for Universal again.
The first paired him with Joel McCrea again and was quite a classy Jacques Tourneur-directed picture. At only 65 minutes, it’s a little gem. McCrea is a judge determined to clean up a town treed by a ruthless rancher with a murderous son. McIntire as the rancher is he is one of those classic ranchers in Westerns, hard as nails, who wrested the land from the Indians, fought for it and built up the huge spread until he became the power in the land, and is determined to go to any lengths to keep hold of it. At this point McIntire was entering the ranks of the truly great Western bad guys.
The Kentuckian was produced and, for the first time, directed by Burt Lancaster and is another ‘early Western’. McIntire plays Lancaster’s brother, the tobacco merchant Zack, but it’s a curiously ‘staid’ part. He and his wife are rather conventional figures who disapprove of the footloose Lancaster, his young son and, especially, their scruffy dog.
The Spoilers was another remake of the old standard done from the Rex Beach novel, first filmed in 1914, remade in 1923 and then as talkie with Gary Cooper (a film now tragically lost) in 1930, and then again in 1942 starring John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich. The 1955 version was in color but otherwise was honestly no improvement on its forebears. It starred Jeff Chandler, Rory Calhoun and Anne Baxter and McIntire took the part of the hero’s older partner Dextry (Frank Clark in 1914, Robert Edeson in 1923, James Kirkwood in 1930, Harry Carey Sr (probably the best) in 1942).
There was only one Western for McIntire in 1956, when he was the chief bad guy (again) in one of John Sturges’s and Richard Widmark’s weaker efforts, perhaps, Backlash, but as so often McIntire raised the picture to memorable status.
The following year, though, gave him a role to rival his Judge Gannon in The Far Country, one which would be a candidate for ‘Best John McIntire Western’, when he was the benevolent old doc in The Tin Star, once more helmed by Anthony Mann. It’s an outstanding performance and his arrival in his buggy at the town’s celebrations for him – or rather the arrival of his corpse, because Lee Van Cleef has just shot him – is a genuinely moving moment. McIntire would repeat the amiable old doc role two years later in yet another Joel McCrea Western, The Gunfight at Dodge City. He has some great lines and is an irreverent physician who likes to drink and gamble and tease the preacher. There’s a great scene of him presiding at the roulette table. It’s worth watching the movie just for him.
Between these two ‘doc’ Westerns he did the Disney family/adventure picture The Light in the Forest (1958) with Fess Parker but this was barely a Western and the New York Times remarked that “if you don’t go expecting any more than a simple homespun tale on about the 12-year-old level, you should be reasonably well entertained.” So I think we’ll leave it there.
In September 1960 Universal released another in its series of Audie Murphy Westerns, Seven Ways from Sundown, written by Clair Huffaker and directed by maybe slightly less than stellar Harry Keller. McIntire plays a Texas Ranger sergeant who takes new recruit Audie under his wing and teaches him to shoot. Unfortunately the sergeant is shot dead by villain Barry Sullivan mid-picture, which was a disappointment, but he was there long enough to leave his stamp on the picture.
Fox’s Flaming Star later the same year was, I think, a very good film, certainly better than Seven. Directed by Don Siegel and starring a remarkably good Elvis Presley, it was a powerful tale of racial hatred and discrimination. McIntire is the paterfamilias (again) who has a Kiowa wife (Dolores del Rio, splendid) and Elvis is their half-caste son. The picture was subtly written by Clair Huffaker, again, this time with Nunnally Johnson, and Siegel does an outstanding job. All the cast members are strong, including, of course, John McIntire.
In 1961 McIntire couldn’t turn down the chance of a John Ford Westerns, even if it was one of the old man’s weakest (Ford himself described it as “crap”). McIntire played the tough Army commander (again) who commissions James Stewart and Richard Widmark, the two of the title, to ride out on a rescue mission of captives taken by the Comanche. It’s not a big part but it’s well done, of course.
But there was quite a long Western pause after that – of course he was very busy on the small screen. He only did two more feature oaters, one in 1967 and the last in 1975. The ’69 picture was a goody, though, and he had quite a big part, as a lawman, Ben Hickman (maybe the brother of Morg Hickman in The Tin Star?) in the town of Jericho which has been treed by ruthless Dean Martin (in one of his best Western performances). McIntire allies with glam Jean Simmons, owner of the stage line that Dino covets – he owns most of the town but not that – and they are supported by young George Peppard. Directed by Arnold Laven, it was better than it probably had a right to be but the cast was so strong that the picture works.
John McIntire finished his big-screen Western career with a great little cameo in a not-too-great picture, when he played Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith having to deal with the difficult old Rooster Cogburn.
It really was a splendid feature Western CV, deserving of the highest praise from any lover of the genre. It is sometimes said that McIntire was something of a limelight-hogger and wasn’t the easiest colleague on the set. I don’t care if that’s even true. He was so darn charismatic in even the smallest role and often it’s his part that remains in your memory after the rest has faded.
But as I said at the start of this article, John McIntire is probably best remembered by many Western fans not for these roles at all but for what he did on the small screen.
He did four TV movies, an early one in 1960, The Yank, The New Daughters of Joshua McCabe in 1976, Lone Star in 1983 and The Cowboy and the Ballerina (his last Western appearance) in 1984.
He guested on a number of regular Western TV shows, an episode of Cimarron City, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Zane Grey Theatre, A Man Called Shenandoah, Dirty Sally, and Dundee and the Culhane, and two episodes each of Wichita Town, Laramie, Bonanza, Overland Trail, Daniel Boone and Young Maverick.
But of course he is most famous on TV for taking over as wagonmaster in March 1961 from Ward Bond, who had died in November 1960. McIntire had actually appeared in Wagon Train as a guest star in a Season 2 episode, The Andrew Hale Story, but as Christopher Hale, a widower whose family had been massacred by Indians, he took over from Major Adams bossing the train. He was a different character, wise and fair, and less blustery. He remained in charge right through to the show’s end in 1965, doing five seasons. To many, perhaps the later comers to the show, he was the boss.
Another Western patriarch died two years on from the end of Wagon Train. The great Charles Bickford, a real Western heavyweight, had, as John Grainger, owner of the Shiloh, mightily impressed. According to Paul Green, author of A History of Television’s The Virginian, 1962-1971, Bickford’s vigorous portrayal helped restore the quality of the show after what some considered a chaotic fourth season. But Bickford died in LA in November 1967, aged 76, and the Shiloh needed a new boss. McIntire took up the mantle, as Bickford’s brother Clay Grainger, for three years. The cast added Holly, Clay’s wife, played by McIntire’s real wife of many years, Jeanette Nolan, with whom he often worked. As far as Westerns go, Nolan had appeared on the big screen in Saddle Tramp and Two Rode Together.
From 1948 to 1984 John McIntire was a mainstay of the Western. He never led in a feature one but he sure dominated many – big screen and small. The phrase character actor was never more appropriate.
John McIntire died in January 1993, aged 83. He was one of those Western actors who lift your spirits when you see his name in the introductory credits. You say, “Oh, John McIntire. Good!”