Victorio, Sitting Bull, Watanka, Crazy Horse? Need an Indian chief? Call Pate.
Michael Pate was an Australian, born in a suburb of Sydney in 1920. His dad trained horses and as a boy he loved Western movies and to dress up as a cowboy or Indian. He started his career on ABC radio. He also wrote for newspapers and had short stories published in magazines, as well as working as a book and drama critic. After service in the Australian Army in World War II, he produced, wrote, directed and adapted plays for the Australian stage and radio. One of the shows he produced was Bonaventure by Charlotte Hastings and it was this which drew him to the USA when Universal made a film noir version of it, Thunder Hill, in 1951, and Pate took the part of the character Willie.
Why is this of interest to readers of a Western blog? Well, dear e-pards, the thing is that surprisingly, perhaps, Pate then proceeded to corner the market in Indian chiefs in Western movies.
In 1953, a classic year for the genre, Warner Brothers brought out a Batjac Western, starring John Wayne, naturally, Hondo, written by James Edward Grant from a Louis L’Amour story. It was actually an excellent film. In it, Pate played Vittorio, clearly based on Bidu-ya, Beduiat, known as Victorio, a chief of the Warm Springs band of the Tchihendeh (or Chihenne, often called Mimbreño) division of the central Apaches. Victorio appeared quite often in Westerns, and was killed in various movies by different players, Stephen McNally, Ben Johnson et al. In reality he was killed in 1880 by soldiers of the Mexican Army under Colonel Joaquin Terrazas in the Battle of Tres Castillos but that isn’t very Hollywood. This time it’s Duke and Ward Bond who do him in. Pate’s Vittorio was a sympathetic character, a fierce but noble foe.
He’d be Victorio again in a 1959 episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive, and when the TV version of Hondo appeared, there too.
It is said that he was in such demand in 1953 that Columbia Pictures wrote to the director of the film El Alamein, in which the actor was appearing, asking him to “Please kill Michael Pate before noon”. Casting directors started to call him up whenever they wanted an Indian. It was a time when Native Americans were not cast in such parts, and a white actor who had anything like strong facial bone structure and a tanned skin would be eligible. In an early TV movie, Indian Agent in 1955, Pate was Indian on warpath (uncredited) so that wasn’t exactly a noble chief but I guess he was putting in the time and getting into character. He was Gokliya (Geronimo) in three episodes of Broken Arrow in 1956 and he was Indian Charley, a kind man who nurses Virginia Mayo’s injured son in a rather good Allied Artists Joel McCrea oater of 1957, The Tall Stranger. He was also Indian Charlie in another AA McCrea Western that year, The Oklahoman, so he was beginning to get the hang of it.
He was a Sioux, this time, called Strongbow, in an episode of Cheyenne that year and in 1958 he was Yellow Robe in the Wagon Train treatment of the Dorothy Johnson story A Man Called Horse. Branded (Chief Crazy Horse this time), The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Gunsmoke, Zane Grey Theatre, Rawhide, Wichita Town, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman, Rango, Laramie, Death Valley Days, Daniel Boone, and of course the TV verion of Hondo, in which he reprised his movie part, there was hardly a TV Western he wasn’t an Indian in at one time or another.
In 1961 he was back to being an Indian chief on the big screen, Chief Four Horns this time, in Burt Kennedy’s The Canadians, and the following year he was Watanka, no less, in Sergeants 3. Unfortunately, both these Westerns were lousy but never mind.
In ‘63 was Puma in McLintock! (which I think was also lousy but many people love it).
In 1964 he was cast (we’d almost say by now typecast) as Thin Elk in Advance to the Rear. In 1965, when producer Leon Fromkess and director Sidney Salkow were looking to cast the Custer story The Great Sioux Massacre, who did they first think of for Sitting Bull? Why, Michael Pate, of course. And when, the same year, Sam Peckinpah wanted a Sierra Charriba (a very Victorio-like figure) for his Major Dundee, naturally he called up Michael.
At the same time, as a kind of parallel career, Pate could also be a (white) gunman and he was good enough (by which I mean bad enough) to deserve a place in the ranks of Western badmen we love to hate. Pate said, “Everyone enjoys playing that kind of role; it’s always fun to do a really good villain.” He also said, “I remember one critic, who used to write for a magazine in New York, who said I played the most likable villains that he’d ever seen in the movies. Well, what may have accounted for it was the fact that I always played my villains as if I was the hero and all the others were the villains!”
Especially notable was his ruthless gunfighter Harvey Bascom in the 1955 Randolph Scott oater A Lawless Street and as the sinister vampire gunman Drake Robey in the horror-Western Curse of the Undead in ’59. In 1956 he was in Reprisal! with Guy Madison and 7th Cavalry with Randy again (a soldier this time, wearing Union blue) and yet again with Scott in Westbound in ’58. Not only that, all those TV shows were almost as likely have him as a bad guy as an Indian (after all, bad guy/Indian, pretty interchangeable in Westerns of the era).
Having said that, as often as not Pate was a ‘good Indian’ (not just a dead one). Several times on TV he played an Indian who rescues our heroes from painful punishments: in the Rawhide episode Incident of the Power and the Plow (1959), he intervened to keep Gil and Rowdy from being flogged while tied to tree trunks; in Hondo and the War Cry (1967), he saved Ralph Taeger from having hot coals poured on his bare chest while lying staked out on the ground (like in the film); in the Gunsmoke show Renegade White (1959), he saved Matt Dillon from a grisly death at the hand of renegades and in another Gunsmoke, The Violators (1964), he was Chief Buffalo Calf (Comanche now) who saved Matt Dillon again, this time from being shot with a rifle at close range by Caleb Nash. I mean, saving Matt Dillon twice? He deserved a medal.
In real life Pate was very knowledgeable about the Old West, especially the military side.
He started young. In the preface he wrote to Boyd Magers’s book Best of the Badmen, Pate said, “In the mid-20s, when I was about six or seven, my beloved father, Barney, himself a well-known, highly respected horseman … and a man confessedly addicted to westerns, would take me almost every Saturday afternoon to the matinees at a picture-house in our neighborhood to see a William S Hart, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson or Buck Jones movie. There … I saw the most wonderful happenings flickering up there on that huge silver screen. I saw all the giants of the western screen of those times gallop by. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy!”
And as if all that wasn’t enough to give Michael Pate a well-deserved and coveted place in the Jeff Arnold’s West Hall of Fame (eat your heart out, Oscars), in the same year as the big-screen Hondo, MGM released another outstanding Western, starring William Holden, Escape from Fort Bravo, and Michael Pate was one of the writers! He also wrote one of the Rawhide episodes.
In 1959, after nearly nine years in the USA, Pate returned home to Australia but was soon back Stateside, being an Indian again. But in 1968 he went back to Oz again, this time permanently, and continued a distinguished career, especially as a producer. In 1970 his textbook The Film Actor was published and in ’71 he began starring in the popular Australian police TV series Matlock Police. In 1978 he wrote, produced and directed Tim, the film that launched Mel Gibson. Michael Pate died in Sydney in 2008.