Noah Beery Jr was born into Western royalty, really. Both his father, Noah Beery Sr, and his uncle, Wallace Beery, were famous Western actors. Young Noah appeared with both of them, in fact.
He appeared twice with Uncle Wallace, the world’s highest-paid actor by the early 30s. The first time was in the famous Viva Villa! in 1934 in which Wallace was Villa, though sadly Noah’s scenes were deleted (he’d play a Mexican again, though, later), and then in 1940 he was sixth-billed in MGM’s 20 Mule Team, in which Wallace topped the bill.
He was in seven films with his pater, four of them Westerns, starting in 1920 with the silent The Mark of Zorro, the Douglas Fairbanks one, in which Beery Sr was Sergeant Gonzalez and Beery Jr, aged 7, was Seven Year Old Boy (uncredited).
In 1933, Noah Beery was signed by Nat Levine at Mascot and was fourth-billed after his father as the Indian Nakomas in the studio’s serial Fighting with Kit Carson, starring Johnnny Mack Brown, in which his daddy was (as so often) the chief villain. Beery Jr had to fight Beery Sr.
Jerry Blake says, “Beery Jr. delivered many first-rate portrayals of cheerful bumpkins and working stiffs, mixing comic naivety with a rustic shrewdness. The serial genre gave Beery most of his major early roles, and in his cliffhangers he perfected the ingratiating persona that would serve him throughout his career.”
In 1934, he was in The Trail Beyond, one of those Lone Star Westerns directed by RN Bradbury (Bob Steele’s dad) and starring young John Wayne; Noah Jr plays Wabi, a half-breed wanted for murder (but falsely accused of course) who is an old school pal of our hero Duke and Duke helps Wabi escape from a speeding (and very modern) train. They plunge into the water (or their stunt doubles do anyway) while the train passes over a high trestle. Gripping stuff. Actually, this could be the best of all those Lone Star Westerns that Monogram put out.
And then in 1942 he was billed above his father in Universal’s 12-chapter Overland Mail, starring Lon Chaney Jr. He had a good part as Sierra Pete. Jerry Blake says he “grinned and drawled his way through the part of Sierra, providing measured comic relief without ever turning the character into a clown.”
Noah Jr didn’t take the lead in a Western all that often. Carl Laemmle at Universal (click the link for our look at him) seemed to be grooming him for stardom (the Beery name would have helped) and in the 1930s had him lead Heroes of the West (Noah was only 19) and Stormy. But in general Noah got character parts, and was very good at them, especially the amiable sidekick role.
He even had the honor of appearing, third-billed, in a Tom Mix oater, The Rustler’s Roundup, when Tom came to Universal in 1932 to do some talkies. Noah was young Danny, held prisoner by bad guy rustler Douglass Dumbrille, but he is heroically rescued by Tom.
In 1935, Noah led in two low-budget one-hour second features made by Sunset Pictures, Devil’s Canyon and Five Bad Men (the latter a semi-Western).
In 1939 he got the second-lead in a Robert Barrat Western at RKO, Bad Lands, a remake as a Western of John Ford’s The Lost Patrol, directed by Lew Landers. He was a bad ‘un in that one and not all that convincing as such but he was still good. Then in 1940, as well as 20 Mule Team mentioned above, it was back to Mr Nice Guy when he was in a Roy Rogers oater, The Carson City Kid, fourth-billed after bad guy Bob Steele (upcoming review), and the rather nice The Light of Western Stars, a Harry Sherman-produced Paramount treatment of the Zane Grey tale starring Victor Jory and directed by Lesley Selander, noted as being Alan Ladd’s first Western (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him part). Noah was Poco, Jory’s sympathetic Mexican sidekick. Noah handled the Mexican side really well.
In the early 40s Noah starred with Dick Foran and his hero Buck Jones (Riders of Death Valley) and Lon Chaney Jr (Overland Mail – Noah’s last chapter play) and three Jimmy Rogers comedies, Dudes Are Pretty People, Calaboose and Prairie Chickens, Roach Studio western ‘Streamliners’. There was also Universal’s Frontier Badmen – soon to be reviewed on Jeff Arnold’s West (yippee, I hear you cry). In fact, in those Streamliners his character’s name was Pidge, and Pidge was a boyhood nickname Noah got which stuck. For most of his life he was called Pidge.
There were two Universal Westerns in 1945, Under Western Skies, in which a traveling show arrives in a small Arizona town and the leading lady (Martha O’Driscoll), gets involved with the local school teacher (Noah) and a mysterious masked bandit (Leo Carrillo), and The Daltons Ride Again, in which Noah was the third (and fictional) Dalton brother, the cheeful badman Ben, with Alan Curtis as Emmett, Lon Chaney as Grat and Kent Taylor as Bob.
In 1948 came the Western Noah always said was his favorite, when he was the decent cowpoke Buster McGee in Red River. It was in fact a memorable part. The same year he was an Indian again, back with director Selander as Chief Red Fox in the Tim Holt oater, Indian Agent.
In 1949 he was Little Bill in The Doolins of Oklahoma.
The 50s began with three Westerns in 1950. In Fox’s excellent Two Flags West, Noah was a Confederate corporal (Arthur Hunnicutt was his sergeant) in Col. Joseph Cotten’s party of prisoners which agrees to serve alongside US Army men fighting Indians.
In Davy Crockett, Indian Scout, George Montgomery is Davy (actually, he’s the famous Davy’s nephew) who guides a wagon train through hostile territory and rescues the cavalry from ambushing Indians. Noah is a cheery scout in a coonskin cap, a pal of Davy’s. The Savage Horde was a Bill Elliott oater directed by good old Joe Kane. So Noah was busy that year.
In 1951 he was back with George in The Texas Rangers as George’s sidekick Buff Smith (on a rather fancy palomino), “a good boy in bad company” who gets religion.
In the Ronald Reagan meller The Last Outpost Noah was a Confederate soldier again, now promoted to sergeant, who dies in a tableau that Rubens would have admired.
Three more oaters in 1952: he was a Dalton again, Bob this time, in Audie Murphy’s The Cimarron Kid, a Budd Boetticher-directed picture for Universal; he was second-billed to Rod Cameron as they bossed a wagon train in Wagons West, a Silvermine production for Monogram; and, although I suppose it wasn’t really a Western, he was in Warners’ Michael Curtiz-directed biopic The Story of Will Rogers with Will Rogers Jr taking the title role.
In Universal’s War Arrow in 1953, he was a sergeant again, this time though in blue.
More interesting that year was Noah’s excellent portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary Pascual Orozco (he was getting the hang of Mexican roles by now) in Wings of the Hawk, another Budd Boetticher-helmed picture.
In The Black Dakotas in 1954 Noah was a Confederate sympathizer ready to help bad guy Gary Merrill in his plot to stir up the Sioux into open warfare, in order to divert Union troops to the frontier from their task of fighting the breakaway states (it’s an 1864 yarn). Unfortunately, though, poor old Noah can’t do much with the clunkily written lines he has, and is also obliged to enter and exit Merrill’s hotel room by the window, always a hazardous enterprise for an actor which risks (and indeed does incur) ridicule.
And the same year he was, guess what, yup, a Mexican in the Rory Calhoun picture The Yellow Tomahawk, directed by Les Selander again.
In 1955 he was up to lieutenant now, in Fox’s big Technicolor CinemaScope picture White Feather with Robert Wagner. He has a small but strong part as the canny and experienced soldier who is often seen quietly and knowingly observing the action.
And the following year he did two Westerns with Glenn Ford, The Fastest Gun Alive, in which he showed his versatility by being good as a heavy, with fellow ne’er-do-well John Dehner, and Delmer Daves’s Jubal in which he was excellent as one of the ranch hands, genuinely decent and unhappy at the bad goings on, and he succeeds in elevating his small part to be quite a prominent one. He often did that.
Noah was now being billed without the Jr as simply Noah Beery, fair enough, and he had a rep in the business as a reliable second lead or character actor in any Western. He was versatile (Mexican, Indian, soldier, whatever was required) and sympathetic. He had developed into a very good actor. In cowboy roles he always had an authentic look.
He now, as many of his screen cowboy compadres did, turned to TV. He was second-billed to young Micky Dolenz (going at the time by Mickey Braddock) on the primetime show on NBC, then ABC, Circus Boy. Noah was the clown Joey, who becomes the boy’s surrogate father. These Circus Boy shows were the first of an amazing 101 episodes of TV Westerns Noah would do, on pretty well every TV cowboy series you can name, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Virginian, and so on.
When in 1960 Burt Reynolds left NBC’s Riverboat after disagreements, Noah replaced him for the show’s less successful second season, though as he had to play a particularly ruthless character, he was probably miscast. Later, in ABC’s Hondo, spun off from the Batjac film of 1953 with John Wayne, Noah took the colorful part Ward Bond had in the movie, as Buffalo Baker. Of course later still he became enormously popular on the small screen as Jim Rockford’s dad Rocky, and he was indeed wonderful in that, but it not being a Western, we must rapidly pass on.
Noah always said the screen cowboy he most admired was Buck Jones. That’s maybe not surprising as he married Buck’s daughter Maxine. They had two daughters, Muffett and Melissa, and a son, actor Bucklind Beery. Noah disliked the encroaching urbanization of the San Fernando Valley, his home, and moved to the Clear Creek-B Ranch near Tehachapi, Cal. Apart from ranching, he was a sculptor.
Noah came back to the big-screen oater in 1957 with an appearance as Sam, the cowpoke who accompanies the hero into town and becomes a partner, in the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott picture Decision at Sundown.
In 1959 he was a lieutenant again in Escort West – commanding Troopers Harry Carey Jr, Leo Gordon and Ken Curtis with Corporal Slim Pickens – beat that! The year after, he was the logger foreman Blackie in the Alan Ladd Western Guns of the Timberland. Naturally, as foreman he is a decent, sturdy fellow. Noah did decent and sturdy.
There were a few late big-screen Westerns, the fantasy-mystery 7 Faces of Doctor Lao in 1964, the all-star Incident at Phantom Hill in 1966, with Robert Fuller, Dan Duryea, Claude Akins, Paul Fix and Denver Pyle, Journey to Shiloh in 1968 with James Caan, in which Noah was busted back down to sergeant, the 1970 comedy The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County with Dan Blocker (Noah was slipping back down the cast list by this time), and lastly The Spikes Gang, in which he had little more than a cameo.
In 1982 he was the sheriff in the TV movie The Capture of Grizzly Adams.
And that, for the Western, was that. It wasn’t a great and glorious career as Western lead. He was never going to rival John Wayne or Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck or anything like that, but he was a wonderfully steady Western character actor, from the 1920s to the 1980s, a remarkable span. I always like a Western with Noah in it.
Pidge died in 1994 aged 81 and was sorely missed.