One of my favorite Western heavies of all was Robert J Wilke (1914 – 1989). As henchman he ranks right up there with greats like Leo Gordon, Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Bruce Dern (to name but a few of the baddest). In terms of square-jawed belligerence, physique and thuggish demeanor, probably only Leo Gordon could match him. You would not want to pick a fight with either of them and if you did, you’d lose.
Just occasionally he played a goody or semi-goody but that was rare. In no fewer than 121 feature Westerns and 132 episodes of 57 different shows on TV, from 1937 to 1979, he was almost invariably the bad guy.
One of his greatest assets was his ‘smile’, which was never more than a twisted sneer. Like many of these on-screen scary goons, he was actually the nicest guy. Henching colleague Zon Murray (66 Western features and 73 TV shows) used to refer to him as Old Ugly but they were pals, and would party all night, play a round of golf in the morning (Wilke was a highly proficient golfer) and then do a pro job on the Western of the day. Director William Witney (they worked eleven times together) said, “He was a most pleasant person … He’d classify as one of the good guys.” Fellow Western character actor Harry Lauter, who worked eight times with him, said, “He was a very dear friend of mine. He was a very versatile actor and … he looked like a bear but had a heart as big as he was.”
Robert Joseph Wilke was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1914. His father was born in Germany; his mother’s origin we don’t know, and we don’t even know his parents’ names. He attended one year of high school but left Cincinnati young to do a series of odd jobs. We know that in 1933/34 he was performing high dives at the Chicago World Fair and later was a lifeguard in a Miami hotel.
He entered films as a stuntman, and his first job was on the 1936 Clark Gable picture San Francisco. He did a lot of work at Republic, especially in Westerns, stunting and also cast in uncredited bit parts such as stagecoach shotgun guard, deputy, or generic henchman. His pal and fellow B-badman Pierce Lyden (105 feature Westerns) recalled, “Wilke was a good stuntman. Maybe too good. It paid more money than acting jobs and that was hard to turn down. You can get ‘typed’ or locked into a groove.” Bob worked in 21 Republic serials.
He started to get slightly bigger roles in Sunset Carson and Allan Lane features in the mid-40s. Then he became a regular on Charles Starrett Durango Kid oaters at Columbia. By the early 50s Wilke was a lead heavy on Tim Holt pictures at RKO. My favorite of this period was when he played Jim Younger in RKO’s Best of the Badmen. (He’d be promoted to Cole Younger in 1960 in the short-lived NBC series Overland Trail).
Wilke himself recalled of the early-50s B-Western time, “Those were rough days, calls at four o’clock in the morning, be ready to start at five-thirty, drive to locations, eat a terrible box lunch, and work 14 hours a day. But we had fun and that was the important thing.”
Then one day in 1952 Fred Zinnemann cast Bob as Pierce, one of Frank Miller’s henchmen in High Noon. It was a breakthrough role. Though it was in fact his 84th feature Western, to most people he was new. In later years Bob said, “I think High Noon was the greatest Western ever made. I am proud I was part of it. Without a doubt it is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
It was a breakthrough in the sense that now, whenever casting people were looking for a good heavy, Wilke was one of the first they thought of. There were eight other Westerns than High Noon in 1952 alone and in 1953 he got parts in Arrowhead with Charlton Heston, Powder River with Rory Calhoun, War Paint with Robert Stack and Cow Country with Edmond O’Brien. In the first he was a convincing sergeant, in the second a classic Wilkite henchman, in the third he was back in the army but demoted to a trooper, and in the last a cowhand.
The following year he was a henchman again, this time for Anthony Mann in The Far Country, one of chief villain John McIntire’s gunmen, and he also did a George Montgomery and a Wayne Morris oater.
He did four big-screen Westerns in ’55, most notably Wichita, in which he played the Texas gunman Ben Thompson.
There six features in 1956 and I especially liked the oddball Raw Edge, about a town (named Twin Peaks) in Oregon which passed a law saying that a woman was a chattel and any unwed female could be claimed by a man and she couldn’t refuse. Bob is one of the claimants and will stop at naught, including gunning down a rival, to get the dame he wants.
In ’57 he was in another James Stewart Western, Night Passage, in ’58 he was one of the ne’er-do-wells Gary Cooper had to deal with in Man of the West, and he did Return to Warbow, but that was all as far as feature oaters go. By the late 50s he was concentrating on TV, and he got a lot of work.
In fact right back in 1950 he’d started on Lone Ranger and Gene Autry Show episodes, and all through the decade he did episodes of The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Cheyenne, Have Gun – Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bonanza, in fact pretty well every Western TV show you care to name. For example, he did seven episodes of Gunsmoke, seven of Laramie and eight of The Range Rider. Nine times out of ten he was the heavy. He was goody Marshal Sam Corbett in one season of The Legend of Jesse James 1965/66 but that show wasn’t renewed. Obvious why.
Once the 60s dawned, the big-screen Western entered a period of decline but Bob started the decade with one of his most memorable performances, as the railroad bully in The Magnificent Seven who thinks he can draw and shoot faster than James Coburn can throw his knife, but is wrong. It’s one of those scenes that sticks in the memory, and though it was a very short part, if you sort Wilke Westerns by popularity on IMDB, it comes top.
But there were only four more feature Western appearances in the 1960s, and four in the 70s, the last being The Sweet Creek County War, shot in the summer of ’77, when Bob was 63, and released in 1979.
He did work in some good non-Western films, such as From Here to Eternity, Written on the Wind and Spartacus but those aren’t Westerns so are obviously beneath our radar.
He was already winding down by the mid-60s and even the TV work tailed off. He preferred to spend time in the bar of his Makato Inn, yarning, laughing and doing magic tricks. He’d also owned a bar on Ventura Blvd. Pierce Lyden said, “When Bob wasn’t working, he was back of the bar. You couldn’t go in the place that he didn’t have everyone in stitches.” And of course he was often to be seen on the golf course. He was a top-notch player, with a handicap of 4 or 5. The pro at the Riviera, Mac Hunter, is quoted as saying, “Bob Wilke used to be head and shoulders better than any of the actors and personalities.” Bob’s friend Claude Akins said that he earned more money on the golf course than he ever did in movies.
Lois Hall, who appeared in one of Bob Wilke’s early Charles Starrett Westerns, said, “He was a very nice person, a real gentleman, extremely helpful. He’d talk with the extras and stagehands and that’s always nice.”
Robert J Wilke died in March 1989 of lung cancer. To Western lovers he was always one of those actors who, when his name appeared in the introductory credits, you said, “Oh, good.”