A great Western bad guy
Many people will think first of Forrest Tucker as Sergeant Morgan O’Rourke in ABC’s md-60s Western sitcom F Troop but he had a much longer and more distinguished career in oaters than that. You will doubtless have your favorite Tucker role in a Western as I have mine, but, helped surely by his burly physique (he was already 6’ 4” and 200 lbs in high school) and less than beauteous physiognomy (he once said, “I look in the mirror and I say, ‘Forget it: what else is new’. But I know how to do a line, do a take. Let me do the basics. Let other people care about being pretty”) he was best at bad-guy roles.
Forrest starts at the top but then…
He started right at the top by landing a decent part in The Westerner in 1940. William Wyler required a big fellow with enough presence for a fight scene with the 6’3″ superstar Gary Cooper and Forrest fit the bill admirably.
Of course you can’t start at the top and stay there, and The Westerner was followed by appearing for William Beaudine over at Poverty Row studio PRC. He progressed to work in the B unit at Columbia but he didn’t do another Western until after he returned from war service (he enlisted as a private and emerged a second lieutenant). He was in The Yearling with Gregory Peck in 1946, though that has hardly a Western, but he was sixth-billed in Columbia’s Renegades the same year. He was wasted in that though: he had no lines, was mostly seen with his back to the camera (you hardly ever see his face) and is casually killed midway through. Still, he was working, I guess.
Two oaters with Randy
The late-40s were better. He was in two Randolph Scott Westerns, Gunfighters in 1947 and the excellent Coroner Creek in ’48. In the first, Forrest was the sneering killer Ben Orcutt who fancies himself quicker on the draw than Randy. Poor fool.
In the other, he was Ernie Coombs, in fact quite a subtle figure in the source novel but in the movie version a thuggish heavy. The scene in which he stamps on hero Randy’s gun hand to break it was very brutal for the time and certainly memorable. In fact Forrest was noticeable in both movies and starting to get a good Western rep.
Building a rep
There were three other Westerns in ’48 (a golden year for the genre). He was fourth-billed in Columbia’s Robert Louis Stevenson yarn Adventures in Silverado, in which he was the stage driver rival of hero William Bishop (he forces Bishop’s coach off the road).
He was fifth-billed in Warners’ Dennis Morgan/Jack Carson ‘comedy’ Two Guys from Texas. And he was fourth-billed again in Republic’s Rod Cameron picture The Plunderers as a Robert Prestonish charming rogue type, the chief villain. This was the first of twelve times Forrest would work with director/producer Joseph Kane.
That was because towards the end of the decade he left Columbia and signed at Republic. He appeared in 1949 in two Bill Elliott features at the new studio, Hellfire and The Last Bandit, which we have recently reviewed (and by the way, you’ll find reviews of many of Forrest’s Westerns in the index). In the first, Wild Bill is reformed gambler turned preacher partnered with pretty female fugitive outlaw Marie Windsor and he runs into an old pal who’s also a marshal (that’s Forrest), and they both fall for the same bad gal. So it was a very good part.
In the other, he was the chief bad guy, the Missouri outlaw Jim Plummer, Bill’s brother, but Bill has gone straight while Jim is still all for outlawin’ and so there are fraternal ructions which Jim will not survive.
’49 was also the year of another recent review of ours, Brimstone, with an excellent Walter Brennan doing his vicious father act. In that, Forrest was a lawman again but a crooked sheriff this time, with Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams as his ever-hungry deputy.
So Forrest Tucker ended the 1940s with a pretty solid name as Western actor, especially if casting directors were looking around for a bad guy.
The 50s dawn
The great and glorious Western decade of the 1950s dawned with what may be my favorite Forrest Tucker role, back with Randolph Scott in the excellent Gordon Douglas-directed The Nevadan (released early in January 1950 it had the honor of being the first Western of that golden age). In this one he was of course the bad guy and the picture climaxes in a super-tough slugging match between Randy and Forrest in a collapsing mine. Great stuff.
Now he’s the star
Good enough, in fact, for him now to get starring roles in Westerns. He topped the billing in two later in the year: Rock Island Trail was released in April and California Passage in December. Both were directed and produced by Joe Kane. In the first, a classic stage vs. train tale, Forrest was the chief engineer of the new Rock Island line which races the stage from Chicago to Ottowa, with the winner getting the mail contract. Like a lot of these pictures, it had a strong cast. This time Bruce Cabot challenges Forrest to a duel in a saloon and Forrest chooses mops at dawn. That’s a good bit. Later he disarms Cabot of his derringer and uses it to shoot a hole plumb in the middle of the O of the HOTEL sign across the street. Bruce compliments him on his marksmanship and indeed, it was a remarkable shot, aka impossible. California Passage is the subject of an upcoming review on Jeff Arnold’s West. Bet you can hardly wait.
Many of the regular cast members and crew of these Westerns re-appeared in the 1951 picture Oh! Susanna. In this one Rod Cameron is the decent and savvy Westerner, Captain Calhoun, up against a stupid and arrogant senior officer, Colonel Unger (that’s Forrest). This plot was almost obligatory for cavalry Westerns; you couldn’t really make one without it. Just admire this fine portrait of Forrest from that film:
Paramount and Warners
But now it was over to Paramount, and back to supporting roles. In November ’51 the studio released Warpath, directed by Byron Haskin. It starred Edmond O’Brien and Dean Jagger, with Forrest billed third. I’m not saying that screenwriter Frank Gruber plagiarized the story from Ernest Haycox or anything but it is certainly true that both this picture and the following year’s Bugles in the Afternoon at Warners concern a former Army officer who in 1876 enlists in the 7th Cavalry for personal reasons, fights a bullying sergeant played by Forrest Tucker, is made a sergeant himself, saves the day for the cavalry with his heroics and ultimately gets the girl. Coincidence, huh. Forrest was great in both though.
The same year, ’52, it was back to Republic to team up once more with Joe Kane and Rod Cameron in the terrifically enjoyable Ride the Man Down. Brian Donlevy was actually the chief villain but Forrest was still darn good as bad guy and in the last reel he slugs it out in a The Nevadan type way, this time with Rod. Forrest would be back with Joe and Rod the following year.
First, however, he would be not miscast exactly but differently cast as upright, decent Lt Tom Blaine, second billed to Sterling Hayden’s Tex McCloud and being backed up by Edgar Buchanan’s crusty old Sergeant O’Rourke (maybe that’s where Forrest got the F Troop character name from) in Flaming Feather at Paramount. They are all trying to capture the famed bandit the Sidewinder, who turns out to be Victor Jory. And later the same year Forrest did RKO’s Jane Russell vehicle Montana Belle, directed by Allan Dwan, a Dalton gang farrago with Russell as Belle Starr and Scott Brady as the leading Dalton Bob (and my hero Ray Teal as Emmett).
The epic Western year of 1953 put Forrest in two Westerns, the rather good San Antone at Republic, directed by Joe Kane again, and the frankly pretty dreadful Pony Express at Paramount, (mis-)directed by Jerry Hopper. In San Antone, Forrest was the odious and cowardly CSA officer who is the arch-rival of Rod Cameron, and both woo the same gal (Arleen Whelan).
In the second, quite a big-budget picture, Forrest landed the supposedly plum part of Wild Bill Hickok but unfortunately Wild Bill is a mere cipher in this tale of hero Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston being all superior) as they (well, Heston, really) set up the Pony Express. Complete twaddle historically, of course, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying a Western if it’s good. Sadly, this one isn’t. Still, it was a reasonably big part for Forrest.
There was only one Western in 1954, another Vera Ralston vehicle helmed by Kane at Republic, Jubilee Trail. Forrest was the leading man in that one, though Vera got top billing (well, she was the studio boss’s wife).
In 1955 Forrest was back with Randy (they did four oaters together), in RKO’s Rage at Dawn, a Reno brothers story, as gang leader Frank Reno. Actually, he was born in Indiana, the Renos’ stamping ground, so that was appropriate. I think he looks like a bit like a young Gene Hackman in this one.
And the same year he was the bad guy again in Republic’s remake of the Zane Grey tale The Vanishing American, with Scott Brady and Audrey Totter.
The year after that he palled back up with Chuck Heston at Paramount in Three Violent People, though this wasn’t very good either. The bad guys are Commissioner Bruce Bennett, who is too bland to be the truly evil character the plot demanded, and his deputy commissioner (aka henchman) Forrest. Unfortunately, Forrest doesn’t have the lines to show his true worth, the James Edward Grant screenplay and Rudolph Maté direction being so stodgy. Still, it’s good to see him.
Also in ’56 he did Stagecoach to Fury and The Deerslayer at Fox. They weren’t great but were OK. In the first there’s a good final horseback duel with rifles between Forrest and Rodolfo Hoyos Jr.
In the colonial America yarn (vaguely based on Fenimore Cooper) The Deerslayer Forrest is the best thing about the picture, a real bad ‘un who is out for money, and doesn’t care how many Indians he has to kill to get it.
The Quiet Gun (1957) was one of those low-budget Regal Films pictures released by Fox, black & white but in CinemaScope. Like Stagecoach to Fury it was directed by William Claxton, more of a TV guy really. I really like it, though, and good acting, especially by Forrest, lifts it from ordinariness to the status of a rather dark psychological Western of some quality. Forrest is the decent sheriff of a small Western town. Tucker was a much better Western actor than many of his villain roles warranted and this was one of his best performances, minor movie or no. He manages to convey decency and courage while at the same time being conflicted and far from certain of himself. He reminds us of Gary Cooper, even, and indeed, there are similarities to High Noon in the plot as the lawman of a Western town (most is shot on sound stages) is obliged because of pusillanimous townsfolk to stand alone against the bad guys – though of course The Quiet Gun is far from High Noon in quality.
Allied Artists’ Gunsmoke in Tucson in 1958 wasn’t bad. It was directed by lackluster Thomas Carr and led by Mark Stevens who was not perhaps in the very top rank of Western stars, and never an especially imposing or handsome lead. He did have the excellent Forrest to back him up as his brother in this movie, so that’s good, but sadly Forrest is written out of the whole middle part of the film. It would have been better with him as the central character and Stevens backing him up.
The Joel McCrea picture Fort Massacre the same year was a much classier affair, an intense drama involving relatively few men (and no women really, despite Susan Cabot being second-billed) and it rather reminds me of a 1960s or even 1970s Western, being tough, cynical and unromantic. Forrest was the leading bolshie trooper (others were John Russell, Denver Pyle and Anthony Caruso). Forrest essays a Dublin accent, which was probably a mistake. The picture has a very downbeat ending and has a grim tone. Perhaps that contributed to its lack of box-office success.
And that was pretty well that, as far as big-screen Westerns go. Forrest made none all through the 1960s, confining himself to TV.
He did a 1958 episode of Wagon Train, as Rex Montana in The Rex Montana Story, five years later he did an episode each of Rawhide, Death Valley Days and Wide Country, and in 1964 he did one of The Virginian. But that was all, till F Troop started.
The show was created by Green Hornet writer Richard M Bluel (though a final arbitration by the Writers Guild of America eventually gave Seaman Jacobs, Ed James, and Jim Barnett credit) and written mostly by Arthur Julian. Many directors were used, but mostly Charles R Rondeau and Seymour Robbie. None of these people were really Western experts and the show was more of a satirical army sitcom that happened to be set in the West more than a true Western. The show deliberately parodied historical events and people, and first aired on ABC in the fall of 1965 when a kind of humor was prevalent, especially physical comedy. There were 60s gags such as the Playbrave Club and 60s rock music too.
Forrest always enjoyed comedy, appearing in vaudeville at the age of fifteen and later being invited onto many American comedy TV shows, as well as doing features such as Auntie Mame and The Night They Raided Minsky’s. There was maybe something Phil Silvers-ish about his role in F Troop and the show revolved a lot around shady deals put together by non-commissioned officers. There were also some similarities to the Glenn Ford comedy Western Advance to the Rear.
The show did well in the ratings but was axed after two seasons. According to Tucker, Warners’ new owners Seven Arts discontinued production because they thought it was wasteful for so much of the Warner Ranch to be taken up by a single half-hour TV show. Producer William Orr said the studio was also unhappy with the added costs of producing the show in color during its second season. Whatever the reason, the last episode aired in April ’67.
When F Troop folded Forrest did a couple of episodes of Daniel Boone and in 1970 two of Gunsmoke, being Sergeant Holly in The War Priest in January and taking the title role in Sergeant Holly in December. He’d return to the show in a 1972 episode, Yankton.
He did a Bonanza and an Alias Smith and Jones in 1971, then in 1973 he tried another comedy Western series, Dusty’s Trail, in which he co-starred with Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver in a Western remake of that show (Forrest took the Skipper role). It aired in syndication from September 1973 to March 1974 but didn’t do well in the ratings and was canceled after only one season. Four episodes were edited together into a theatrical film, The Wackiest Wagon Train in the West, and released in movie theaters in August 1976.
In 1971 he took the Lee Marvin role in a TV remake of Cat Ballou on NBC.
There were two late Western TV shows, a 1975 episode of Little House on the Prairie, directed by William Claxton again, and in 1977 Gold is Where You Find It, an episode of the Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.
In 1983 Forrest was one of the first recipients of the Golden Boot Award for his contribution to our noble genre.
The last big-screen Westerns
More importantly there were two last Western feature appearances, both in 1970, when Forrest was in his fifties. He worked again with Gordon Douglas on the spaghetti-influenced Lee Van Cleef picture Barquero and then with John Wayne (a drinking buddy) on Duke’s big commercial picture Chisum. Forrest was splendid in the first as Mountain Phil, definitely one of the best things about the picture.
And he ended in glory in Chisum, appropriately villainous (and clearly enjoying it) as chief bad guy LG Murphy. Really, he went out on a high.