Friday, October 29, 2010

Now I'll Really Have to Stop Judging Books by Their Covers

There are two actors I've seen for several years, but just this week found out some things about their personal lives and history that just floored me.

First up is... well how bout I let you try and guess who this singer is. If you don't already know, I'm confident you'll never guess:

His name is Ken Curtis. You'll probably recognize him best in this next video sporting a scraggly beard and dressed in the attire you know him best in:

Yep, that's the feller who played Festus Haggen for over a decade on Gunsmoke. Turns out he was a singer and actor long before Gunsmoke. He even took over Frank Sinatra's old job singing with Tommy Dorsey's band for a while. He was also the son-in-law of John Ford and had small roles in many of his best films. If you look close you'll see him sometimes singing in them too. He was a member of a famous western group called The Sons Of The Pioneers. Here he is singing lead with them in Ford's movie--The Rio Grand--with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara:

That was fun! Would you have ever thought.... Let's do one more. I bet you've seen this face in a bunch of old TV shows and B-movies but didn't know the name that went with it:

That's William Smith. Don't worry if you don't know the name. I guarantee you've seen his work. He did a string of motorcycle films in the 60/70s. Before that he was known for playing Joe Riley on Laredo. Actually, he's been acting in films since he was eight. (He was born in 1933, so you do the math). In real life he was a sports fanatic and body builder. He was a terrific amateur boxer (he only lost one fight), and held the Air Force Weightlifting Championship. He also won the 200 pound arm-wrestling championship of the world several times over.

With the notable exception of Laredo, he almost always played a bad guy and did a bunch of fight scenes, some of them quite famous. You may remember the one between him and Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can. His most well-known one was probably with Nick Nolte in Rich Man, Poor Man:

Unfortunately I couldn't find any video of it, but I did find a few stills from what I (and apparently a few others) consider to be his portrayal of the best bad guy character of all-time, and that was in the role of Jude Bonner on a special 2-hour episode of Gunsmoke entitled "Hostage". If you watched Gunsmoke, then you probably remember this episode as the one where Miss Kitty gets kidnapped, raped, shot in the back, and left for dead because Marshall Dillon wouldn't turn over Bonner's younger brother who was sentenced to be hanged after being found guilty of murder. The show ended with Marshall Dillon taking off his badge (the only time he ever did) and going after Bonner with the strict intention of killing him. The fistfight between Dillon and Bonner (Smith) was probably the best fight scene ever in a western. Dillon nearly tossed a boulder on Bonner's head at the end, but his streak of decency brought him to his senses, and he relented from killing him. It was truly a great, maybe the greatest, episode in the annals of TV Westerns.

Well, if you're like me and used to seeing William Smith in almost nothing but tough guy roles, usually playing a rather doltish sort (often a downright idiot), then you're going to be as surprised as I was to find that this guy went to Syracuse; was fluent in English, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, French, and German; taught Russian at UCLA; and was a Russian Intercept Interrogator during the Korean War who flew secret ferret missions over Russia. He had both CIA and NSA clearance. Turns out this guy is like a freakin' genius....

Sometimes you just never know about people.

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