Charles Stevens was colorful character actor of the Western. For most of his professional life he claimed to be Geronimo’s grandson, and that together with his strong-boned face got him many parts as American Indians. He even played his putative granddad –in a couple of episodes of Rin Tin Tin. He was also in the 1939 movie Geronimo – but billed 42nd as ‘Indian – uncredited’.
Actually, though, he wasn’t Apache at all. His father was a white Arizona sheriff and his mother was Mexican. Stevens père had married an Apache woman, said to be daughter of a White Mountain chief, but Geronimo wasn’t White Mountain, he was Chiricahua, and anyway that wife died eight years before Charles was born. Still, it makes a good story.
Given his claims and appearance, it’s perhaps not surprising that I remember Charles Stevens most as Indian Charlie. During the so-called Earp vendetta ride, when Wyatt Earp led a posse to hunt down the murderers of his brother Morgan and those who had maimed brother Virgil, Florentino Cruz, aka Indian Charlie, was one of those he sought – and one of his victims. The coroner’s jury investigating Morgan’s murder had concluded that Frank Spence, Frank Stilwell, a certain Fries, and “two half-breed Indians” were responsible for Morgan’s death. Spence’s wife identified one of the “half-breeds” as Cruz.
In 1939 Wyatt Earp got to be the lead character in a Western movie for the first time, in Fox’s Frontier Marshal, directed by Allan Dwan and written by Sam Hellman from Stuart Lake’s sensational Earp bio, also titled Frontier Marshal. In that, Curley Bill (Joe Sawyer) deliberately gives Indian Charlie whiskey, knowing he gets wild when he drinks, so that he will ruin the opening night of the new and rival Bella Union saloon. Charlie duly causes mayhem. Marshal Ward Bond won’t arrest him because he’s got a wife and children and doesn’t want them to become a widow and orphans. Randolph Scott is annoyed by the ruckus and deals with it. The townsfolk are amazed when Wyatt Earp (that’s Randy of course) shoots Charlie, drags him out by one leg and tells the marshal that “He ain’t dead. I just grazed ‘im. He’ll wake up in a few minutes and you can lock ‘im up.”
In 1942, Paramount had its own version of the yarn, directed by William McGann and based on Walter Noble Burns’s equally lurid book version of events, this time with Richard Dix as Wyatt. In Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die it’s Curley Bill (Edgar Buchanan) causing the mayhem and Wyatt arrests him, so Indian Charlie (or Charley in this one) doesn’t get to star in the early scene, but later it’s Charley who kills Morgan, from hiding. And who did they get to play Charley? Why Charles Stevens of course. It doesn’t end well for Charley, though. Wyatt doesn’t murder him or anything. There’s a shoot-out in the rocks and we see Charley’s shadow gunning for Earp but of course Wyatt’s too quick for him and it’s RIP, Charley.
So then, four years later, yup, you’ve guessed it, Fox returned to Tombstone, this time with none other than John Ford at the helm, and Henry Fonda as Wyatt. My Darling Clementine was in many ways a remake of Frontier Marshal, and Ford and his writers Sam Engel and Winston Miller went for the same business early in the saloon. Fonda drags Charlie (he’s back to the Charlie spelling) out by one leg again and kicks him out, none too graciously: “Indian, get outta town and stay out!” (delivering Charlie a kick in the posterior).
So I guess Stevens had the Indian Charlie role all sewn up.
But he went right back to the very early days, to 1915 in fact. In his early 20s (he was born in 1893), he got a small part in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and in a more Western vein he was a ‘Mexican soldier – uncredited’ in Christy Cabanne’s Martyrs of the Alamo. That year he also did a 4-reeler, Fatherhood, and another Western for Cabanne, The Lamb, this one starring Douglas Fairbanks – and he became a great pal of Fairbanks, appearing in many other of Doug’s pictures, 26 in fact, including The Mark of Zorro (he’d also be José in the 1940 remake), The Good Bad-Man (directed by Dwan again, all those years before), Wild and Woolly and A Modern Musketeer, all Westerns, or sort of. He was also memorable in the (regrettably non-Western) The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Iron Mask when he was the comic servant Planchet to Fairbanks’s D’Artagnan.
Some sources say Stevens worked for two years with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show before entering pictures. This could be true but also be movie business hype. He did service in World War I.
In 1918 he had a good part, sixth-billed as Mexican John (a bad guy of course) in a Tom Mix oater, Six-Shooter Andy. And in 1924 he was directed by John Ford, like Dwan, all those years before, as ‘Indian – uncredited’ in the epic The Iron Horse. Mind, the whole of Hollywood was in that picture.
There were two more big Westerns in ’25, Bill Hart’s Tumbleweeds (yup, ‘Indian – uncredited’) and Paramount’s The Vanishing American, with Dix again, with a ‘name’ part this time, Shoie. I’ll be reviewing this picture soon, so you can know more. The same year Charles was a Mexican, Pablo, in A Son of His Father, another Paramount Western, with Warner Baxter, directed by Victor Fleming.
Need a small and scrawny Mexican, Apache or half-breed? Stevens is your man.
He’d be another Mexican, Pedro (Pablo, Pedro, tomarto, tomayto) in The Virginian, again with Fleming, Gary Cooper starring, at the end of the decade, and he was in talkies now. When he got a speaking part, his voice was a very ‘cowboy’ and a rather guttural drawl, so he was good in Westerns.
That year he even got to be assistant director, on a Pathé serial, The Black Book, but it wasn’t a Western.
The year after, he was Lopez in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail at Fox, with a young John Wayne in the lead. OK, they were often bit parts as Indians or Mexicans, but still he was in some pretty good Westerns.
And we mentioned Warner Baxter, well, Charles was also in The Arizona Kid (as ‘Mexican’) in 1930 and The Cisco Kid (as ‘Lopez’ again) in 1931.
In 1932 he was in one of those talkie remakes of Paramount’s silent Zane Grey tales with Randolph Scott (so well before Frontier Marshal) as Pancho, just for a change, in Heritage of the Desert. That year too he was in the Buck Jones oater (‘Pedro’) South of the Rio Grande, and he also did a few with George O’Brien.
By the way, I’m selecting here; it isn’t a comprehensive list of his Westerns. As he was in 179 feature oaters I don’t think you want me to tell you about them all…
The same year as Frontier Marshal he was also an Indian who tried to shoot Mollie (Barbara Stanwyck) in Cecil B DeMille’s big Union Pacific and he was a certain Zavola (I’m guessing Mexican) in another Richard Dix film, Republic’s Sam Houston biopic Man of Conquest.
In 1940, more small parts in big pictures, as Ruiz in Kit Carson and ‘Half Breed Archer’ in North West Mounted Police.
In the late 1930s and early 40s, he did a lot of Universal serials – Winners of the West, Overland Mail, Oregon Trail, Flaming Frontiers and Wild West Days.
The next notable film (there were plenty of B-Westerns) was the excellent Coroner Creek in 1948, with Randy again. OK, only ‘Indian – uncredited’, but hey. He was Cherokee Hoe (actually, I remember that one) in Belle Starr’s Daughter.
He had quite a good bit in the taut Western Ambush in 1950 when he was the fearsome Apache Diablito. This can’t have been the mighty White Mountain Apache chief Heske-hldasila, known to the whites as Diablo, who sagely made peace with General Carleton in 1864. Perhaps the idea is that Diablito was a son or more bellicose follower. He’s a skilled tactician. Robert Taylor tells the Army that his “plan is based upon what Diablito should do. You better be ready for what he can’t possibly do, but probably will.”
Of course Charles was a natural for TV Western shows, when they came along, and he did wagonloads – 54 episodes of 21 different series. You name the show, he was probably in it. In fact his last appearances were in a couple of episodes of Rawhide and a Bronco, in 1961. His last feature Western was a bit part in a Bill Williams B, Oklahoma Territory, in 1960. And yes, there was (uncredited) in brackets after his role Sigh. Oh well.
He had one of those memorable faces, so you often find yourself saying, Oh, Charles Stevens.
Charles Stevens (actually, he was named Carlos at birth but everyone called him Charlie) died in August 1964, and is buried in Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.