Western tough guy
Neville Brand has pride of place in the center of the cover photo of the enjoyable book Television Western Players by Everett Aaker (I wonder if he’s a relation of Lee). Neville’s between Peter Brown and William Smith, in a publicity still from NBC’s Laredo, which ran from 1965 to 1967.
This seems to me right for a number of reasons. Neville was the tough guy of the TV Western. And his character of Reese Bennett on Laredo was the most memorable and sympathetic of them all. As Mr Aaker says, “While Neville Brand was not universally villainous in films and television, he was always tough. His appearance was enhanced by his belligerent demeanor and his rasping voice.”
Crime and noir enthusiasts will probably think of Neville mostly as Al Capone in The Untouchables on TV or, on the big screen, as Chester in DOA in 1950, or maybe as Dunn, leader of the insurgents in Riot in Cell Block 11 with Don Siegel in 1954. But Western buffs will probably first picture him as the loud-mouthed and none-too-bright Texas Ranger Reese Bennett.
In fact it wasn’t plain sailing on Laredo. By the mid-sixties Neville was pretty well a full-on alcoholic (he would later clean up but he said in an interview in 1975 that his addiction had cost him most of his fortune) and his behavior on the set of the TV show wasn’t always exemplary. He’d be absent when shooting started, argumentative and surly when he did turn up, and once when they were filming the three of the actors riding, the other two turned round after a while and just saw an empty saddle; Neville had drunkenly fallen off some way back.
But I, your Jeff, say that as a lifetime Western watcher, big screen and small, Neville Brand has often appeared unto me, and he’s one of those actors who, when you see his name in the intro credits, you say, “Oh, good.”
I’m not 100% sure of the syntax of that last sentence but let’s move rapidly on.
Lawrence Neville Brand was born in 1920 in Iowa and raised in Illinois, one of seven children of Leo Brand and his wife Helen. Father Leo was a bridge-building ironworker. Neville had a fairly rudimentary schooling (he later self-educated as a voracious reader) and helped support the family, working as a bootblack, soda jerk, waiter, and shoe salesman.
In 1939 Brand added a year to his age and enlisted in the Illinois National Guard. He then joined the US Army as an infantryman in March, 1941, before Pearl Harbor. He landed in Normandy in 1944 and served in the Ardennes, Rhineland and Central European campaigns. A sergeant now, he was wounded in action in April, 1945. He was highly decorated for gallantry.
His plan had been to remain in the Army as a career but he got bitten by the bug when he was in a couple of training films and after the war he used the GI Bill to enroll in acting school. His first credited film part was in the crime drama DOA (1949) as a henchman named Chester. As the IMDb bio says, “His hulking physique, rough-hewn, craggy-faced looks and gravelly voice led to his largely playing gangsters, Western outlaws and various screen ‘heavies’, cops and other tough-guy roles throughout his career.” That’s right, and Neville himself once told a reporter, “With this kisser, I knew early in the game I wasn’t going to make the world forget Clark Gable.” Yup.
His entrée into the wonderful world of the Western came in 1951, when he was, appropriately, a sergeant in Only the Valiant, a William Cagney production for Warners. It was a Dirty Dozenish plot of hero Capt. Gregory Peck recruiting a bunch of cowards, drunkards and other ne’er-do-wells for a virtually impossible mission. Neville, sixth-billed, was one of the recruits. Later the same year Neville was promoted, if in a different army, because it was a Quantrill story (with John Ireland as Quantrill) and he was one of William Quantrill’s lieutenants in the Alan Ladd Western Red Mountain, a Hal Wallis production for Paramount. It was quite a good start in the genre for Neville, all in all.
1953 was a big year for him because he was Duke in Stalag 17 but that was a mere non-Western, so far more crucial to his career were the three oaters he did, The Charge at Feather River, The Man from the Alamo and Gun Fury.
In the first, he was busted to private, a bolshie one too. It was a cavalry Western, starring Guy Madison and directed by Gordon Douglas – and it was a surprise hit, in fact. Released in July ’53 by Warners, five months before the studio’s bigger hit Hondo, The Charge at Feather River grossed $3.65m, more even than the fine Anthony Mann/James Stewart picture The Naked Spur ($2.25m) and considerably more than MGM’s ‘big’ Westerns of the year Escape from Fort Bravo ($2m) and Ride, Vaquero! ($1.65m), according to a Variety listing of January 13, 1954.
In Universal’s The Man from the Alamo, produced by Aaron Rosenberg, our hero Glenn Ford finds himself in a cell awaiting hanging with, as luck would have it, a member of a gang of bandits (Neville). Now, if only they can escape together and Glenn can infiltrate the gang… Gripping stuff, you will agree.
And in Columbia’s Gun Fury, a Raoul Walsh picture, Neville was Blinky, a bolshie (obviously) member of Philip Carey’s gang (he has rather a 1950s haircut) who resents the glam Donna Reed being brought along for the ride.
They weren’t bad Westerns, these three, and Neville Brand cut quite a dash as memorable and unangelic tough guys in all of them.
1954 saw Neville in the Edward Small-produced and Ray Nazarro-directed George Montgomery Western The Lone Gun, fourth-billed after George, Dorothy Malone and Frank Faylen. Neville was (very) bad guy Tray Moran, and Marshal Montgomery has to face Tray and his murderous brothers (Douglas Kennedy and Robert J Wilke) alone when the town won’t back him up. Standard stuff plotwise, but very well done and a lot of fun.
The following year he was promoted still further, third-billed now, in Allied Artists’ The Return of Jack Slade, a Lindsley Parsons production. It was a ‘son of’ picture, with John Ericson playing Jack Slade’s offspring, and Slade Jr is hired by the Pinkerton detective agency to help wipe out a gang of outlaws and train robbers led by, yup, Neville Brand. This picture has, shamefully, not yet been reviewed on Jeff Arnold’s West but you will be thrilled to hear that this high crime and misdemeanor is soon to be remedied.
1956 was a stellar Western year for our Neville. He appeared in no fewer than six big-screen oaters.
Most famously that year he killed Elvis Presley. Now, many people think that bad guy Bruce Dern killing John Wayne in The Cowboys was the bit of Western action that, Duke warned Bruce, would make him the most hated actor in the USA (though Dern himself said that they’d love him in Berkeley) but killing Elvis? I mean, come on. The movie Love Me Tender was the singer’s film debut, and though, to be impartial, it’s rather a plodding picture all in all, it was hugely popular, making back its $1m budget in the first weekend of release. It is said that often movie-goers could not hear the dialogue for all the screams of the teeny-boppers in the audience. So Neville didn’t make himself flavor of the month with teenage girls that year.
Columbia’s Fury at Gunsight Pass, released in February ’56, was produced by Wallace MacDonald and directed by good old Fred F Sears. It starred David Brian, who has to deal with a slight problem: when the loot from a botched bank robbery disappears, the Hogan gang takes over the whole town and threatens to kill everyone if the loot is not found. And who is Dirk Hogan, leader of the thugs? Why, Neville Brand, naturally.
Raw Edge was a Rory Calhoun oater produced by the colorful Albert Zugsmith and Universal brought it out in March. JAW reader John Knight said that Raw Edge “is possibly the most anachronistic Western ever. Herbert Rudley turns 1840’s Oregon into a medieval fiefdom whereby any ‘unattached’ woman becomes the ‘property’ of the first man to claim her. With the likes of Neville Brand, Emile Meyer and Robert Wilke slugging it out, no Western gal ever had it so bad.” It’s certainly an oddball Western, but Neville is good (i.e. bad). The town boss has a glam wife, Hannah (Yvonne De Carlo), first seen with a daring glimpse of ankle and leered over by Neville. Emile Meyer is Neville’s dad and just as full of lust. Actually Emile was only ten years older than Neville but anyway. Hannah is discreetly raped in a stable. Can you be discreetly raped? Well, you could in 50s movies, with much done in shadows and much suggested. Odds are that it was Neville, Emile or maybe Bob Wilke, but we don’t see. Rory will sort it out. Gripping stuff again, huh?
In April, Neville was in Fox’s Mohawk and this time, he was an Indian. He’s very bearish and all out for the warpath. It was entertaining junk.
Also amusing was The Three Outlaws, a Sigmund Neufeld production directed by his brother Sam Newfield which was a (highly) fictional account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Neville top-billed as Butch and the equally entertaining Alan Hale Jr as Sundance. (The third outlaw of the title was Bill Carver, played by Robert Christopher, but he has a minor part). Calling it a B-Western is probably generous but never mind, Neville got to be Butch Cassidy.
And then lastly for the epic year’s big-screen oaters, was Gun Brothers, another Edward Small effort, this time directed by Sidney Salkow, with Buster Crabbe and Neville as the fraternal pistoleers of the title. Chad Santee (Buster) heads West to join his brother, Jubal (Neville), who supposedly has a large cattle ranch. But Chad finds that Jubal is really a rustler and outlaw (well, it’s Neville). It had a good cast, including Walter Sande as Yellowstone Kelly.
There were two feature Westerns in 1957. First came Paramount’s black & white pyschowestern The Lonely Man, directed by Henry Levin, with Neville third billed, after father and son Jack Palance and Anthony Perkins, as King Fisher. So now he added another famed gunslinger to his list of roles. An outlaw band headed by ruthless Neville, thirsts for revenge on ex-outlaw Palance, and in Neville’s gang are Lee Van Cleef and Elisha Cook Jr. Excellent. Elisha is fond of a drop and Lee is a slick frock-coated gambler named Faro. Lee and Neville cook up a low-down scheme to shoot Wade from hiding. And Neville has a derringer! So that one’s a must-see.
But really 1957 is more important for the role I most remember Neville for, that of wannabe sheriff Bart Bogardus in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star. This was again with Anthony Perkins, who only really did these two in the genre at all. Tony is the young sheriff, Ben Owens, and Henry Fonda teaches him to shoot for he knows the day will come when Owens and Bogardus will have a fatal (for one of them) quick-draw showdown on Main Street. Neville was looking pretty stocky by now and he does look a bit silly in his low-slung two-gun rig (but then so does Tony and it was the late 50s after all). Bogardus is a pushy, aggressive loudmouth. I wonder why they thought of Neville for the role.
Badman’s Country was a Robert E Kent production of 1958 which reunited Neville with director Fred F Sears and actors George Montgomery and Buster Crabbe. It was a repeat in another way too: Neville was Butch Cassidy again! It was one of those movies that gathered together as many lawmen as possible (they did the same with outlaws, and with horror characters) and in this case Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill all join forces to beat the Wild Bunch, with Neville’s Butch at their head. There’s a mega-showdown in Abilene. Once again, enjoyable junk.
There wouldn’t be another feature oater till 1961 but it was in this period, the late 50s, that Neville Brand started to make his name on Western TV shows. As Everett Aaker says in his book, “Television was his preferred medium and the one which he claimed made him a star.”
In 1958 he was in Law of the Gun, an episode of Rory Calhoun’s The Texan, in which he was a ruthless rancher engaged in a range war (Bill Longley’s on the other side, natch). In ’59 he did the Zane Grey Theatre episode, Trouble at Las Cruces, directed and written by Sam Peckinpah, which would be spun off into the series The Westerner (click here for our article on that). And in 1960 he appeared in both a Bonanza, titled The Last Viking, and a Rawhide, Incident of the Devil and his Due. In the first, Neville was the eponymous Scandinavian, Gunnar, the brother to one of Ben Cartwright’s late wives, Inger. Unbeknownst to the Cartwright family, Gunnar is also the leader of a band of Comancheros. Little Joe is visiting his girlfriend away from the ranch but when he and his gal are kidnapped by the Comancheros, the Cartwrights and Gunnar are forced into an awkward situation.
In Rawhide, Neville was surprisingly low-billed as one of the outlaws, led by Sheb Wooley, who scheme to steal church funds from a priest befriended by Gil and Rowdy.
In ’61 it was back to the big screen when he was Frank Hobbs in The Last Sunset, Kirk Douglas’s quite big-budget production for Universal which starred himself and Rock Hudson. It wasn’t a huge part but Neville and Jack Elam were cowhand-crooks.
In 1962 he did a Death Valley Days, when he was a Preacher with a Past. He did indeed have a past because forget Butch Cassidy and King Fisher, Neville now played John Wesley Hardin. The following year Mr Brand took on another Rawhide episode, this time Incident of the Red Wind. There would be more TV in ’64, an episode of Destry, The Solid Gold Girl, directed by Don Siegel, and two of Wagon Train, The Jed Whitmore Story and The Zebedee Titus Story. In the first Neville was Jed Whitmore, one of three brothers that committed an infamous train robbery, who is now town sheriff Frank Lewis. In the other one, Barnaby and Charlie talk Chris Hale into hiring legendary mountain man Zebedee Titus (Neville, naturally) as a scout. The nearly 80 year old Zeb’s failing eyesight leads to problems including Coop’s being captured by the Comanche Zeb couldn’t see. So now he was into old-timer roles.
In 1965 Neville did Kioga, a Gunsmoke episode, and then it was Laredo – see above.
1969 was the year Neville came back to the feature Western, with Henry Levin at the helm again, but it was not the high point of the Western movie by then – far from it. In fact The Desperados was downright bad, with an embarrassingly overacting Jack Palance, a weak lead in Vince Edwards and Neville way down the cast list in a small part as a lawman.
Also that year there was a Universal theatrical release of blended Laredo/The Virginian footage, directed by Earl Bellamy and written by Borden Chase. It was titled Backtrack. Neville got top billing.
He got a bigger and better part on the next Bonanza he did, when he was the titular colorful rogue Shannon in The Luck of Pepper Shannon in 1970. There was too Gun Quest that year, an episode of The Virginian starring Joseph Cotten as a roguish judge, with Neville as a sheriff again.
He did a couple of Alias Smith and Jones shows, in ’71 and ’72. In the first, Shootout at Diablo Station, Heyes and Curry are among seven people ambushed by outlaws and held hostage in a way station. The gang leader is the mercurial Chuck Gorman (Neville, of course). In the second, Which Way to the OK Corral?, he is a drifter who steals a rifle from a corpse and the boys follow him to Tombstone. Cameron Mitchell is Wyatt Earp.
He did a final Bonanza in 1971 too, The Rattlesnake Brigade, in which he was leader of the nefarious Doyle gang who kidnaps Jamie and some schoolmates to use as bargaining chips to ensure his getaway.
Neville’s last Western TV show was the pilot of Barbary Coast in 1975. He did do a few TV movies in the 70s, the comedy Hitched in 1971, and The Quest in 1976. He was as well one of the many in the saloon presided over by Glenn Ford in the special When the West Was Fun: A Western Reunion in 1979.
There were three final feature Westerns, all in 1973. Two were lousy, Kirk Douglas’s Scalawag, a semi-Western retelling of the Treasure Island yarn, with Neville giving it plenty, and the (originally) Samuel Fuller project The Deadly Trackers, in which he was the sidekick of the confusingly named hero Brand (Rod Taylor) who goes under the nomenclature of Choo-Choo. He is a very base type, ready to commit any crime, and he has a bit of railroad track instead of a right hand, probably to explain his nickname. It comes in handy for bonking people on the head and such. It really was an awful film.
Luckily though, Neville Brand could go out on a relative high when he was Lightfoot, an Indian again, in Cahill, US Marshal, one of the better films of director AV McLaglen (though that’s not saying too much). He helps hero John Wayne by being an expert tracker. Sadly, he comes to a sticky end.
And that, dear readers, was that, as far as oaters went. He died of emphysema in 1992, aged 71.
Neville Brand was one of those recognizable faces (and builds) that didn’t exactly grace Westerns, one probably wouldn’t say that, but that certainly did improve them. What’s your favorite Neville Western?