While eating some scrumptious lunch inside Universal Studios’ renowned green room commissary, illustrious scene stealing character actor Dan Duryea pointedly remarked to 25-year-old protégé Robert Fuller, “I know ‘Laramie’ is your first series, and I’m gonna tell you something about money. I want you to save your money. Don’t be like all these actors and run right out and buy a new car, okay?”
Duryea’s shrewdly delivered advice was shockingly not heeded by the wet-behind-the-ears Fuller during that portending early summer of 1959, as the latter proudly drove into the Universal backlot a mere three days later sporting a brand new white Thunderbird with a blue interior.
For the past seven years, the veteran of the Korean War’s 19th Infantry Regiment had diligently taken acting classes with master thespian Richard Boone of future Have Gun—Will Travel fame, danced alongside Marilyn Monroe in the legendary “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, racked up uncredited bit parts in first-rate films like Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion, Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, and Gregory Peck’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, stunt doubled Jerry Lewis in The Delicate Delinquent, and toiled in two dozen grueling guest star turns during the Golden Age of Television [e.g. Death Valley Days].
Serendipitously nabbing the plumb co-starring part of rugged fast-draw drifter Jess Harper on the one hour NBC Western series became Fuller’s big break and guaranteed that he didn’t have to scrounge for any monthly Thunderbird payments.
He soon crafted a comfortable groove on the small screen, toplining two further venerable series that kept him highly visible throughout the 1970s: Wagon Train and Emergency!, a trailblazing Chicago Fire precursor where Fuller gamely traded his dusty spurs for a distinguished white coat and matching stethoscope.
Over the course of a freewheeling interview debuting exclusively below in “Jeremy’s Classic Western Roundup” column, Fuller, who last greeted dedicated fans at the rip-roarin’ Memphis Film Festival, waxes nostalgic about an estimable 50-year celluloid career.
The Robert Fuller Interview, Part One
Do you have any ties to the state of Georgia?
I lived in Camilla for awhile when I was doing Laramie on NBC [1959-1963]. I helped start the Georgia Sheriffs’ Boys Ranch in Hahira and that was along with the high sheriff who was in Valdosta at that time and then Sheriff John Maples from Camilla. I lived with he and his wife for awhile. I think I did seven 4th of July parades in Atlanta as grand marshal. I love Georgia—it’s one of my favorite states.
I’m so glad Encore Westerns has brought Laramie back to television after all these years.
Oh I know. Everybody’s going crazy about that. I’ve received so much interest on my official website and Facebook. People all over the country are seeing it. I just love it that people are so thrilled to finally see something decent now on television.
To be honest Laramie had a good message and was a good, good western with good characters, direction, and camera work.
Our director of photography was Ray Rennahan who invented Technicolor and was the Technicolor consultant on Gone with the Wind, where he nabbed an Oscar. We had the best. All of our old directors—Lesley Selander, Joseph Kane—directed Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in various B-westerns of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They knew the business.
Has Encore Westerns reached out to you regarding any on-camera promotion for Laramie?
No, not at all. They advertised the series really well at least two months in advance of its premiere, so everybody was aware that it was coming on. If I was asked, of course I would for that show. I don’t see any reason for them to contact me. I granted an extensive on-camera interview when Laramie came out on DVD that was available as a special extra.
Since Laramie was out of syndication for so many years, I look forward to finally seeing it. I believe Ernest Borgnine, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor only four years earlier for Marty, was in one of the very first episodes.
Ernie was in the third episode [i.e. “Circle of Fire,” aired on Sept. 29, 1959] to be exact. That was the first time I ever met Ernie, and he became a great friend. I just loved that man. Dan Duryea was the guest star on the very first one [“Stage Stop,” Sept. 15, 1959], and then Nanette Fabray and Eddie Albert did the second one [“Glory Road,” Sept. 22, 1959].
Dan and I were very good friends. Dan did three episodes of Laramie [“Stage Stop,” “The Long Riders,” and “The Mountain Men”]. I knew him socially. When I first met Dan, it was in the wardrobe department on the debut Laramie episode.
I went there at Universal to get some wardrobe, and Dan Duryea was in there. Of course, I’d worked at Universal quite a bit, and I knew everybody in wardrobe. The wardrobe man said, “Bob, have you met Dan Duryea?” I said, “No, but I’m dying to.” So he introduced me to Dan. He asked me, “Would you like to have lunch with me?” I jumped at that chance [laughs].
I loved Dan and all of his work throughout the years in both television and major motion pictures [e.g. Winchester ’73 and Flight of the Phoenix, both co-starring James Stewart]. With probably over 200 movies under his belt, Dan tended to play the heavy.
Don’t forget he did a television series himself that was a very good series that went for awhile—China Smith [syndicated for 52 episodes between 1952 and 1955, Duryea played the titular Irish American adventurer who called a Singapore bar home].
Anyway, we went to lunch at Universal Studios in the green room. That was the first time I’d been in there—the green room was where all the big actors gathered. I hadn’t really started the series yet so I hadn’t been in there.
As we walked in, the green room had about seven waitresses that had been there for years. Dan knew every one of them by name. They all just went crazy when he walked in. I thought, ‘My God, what a gentleman. He remembers all of these waitresses by first name. This is a great man that I’m about to have lunch with.’
As we sat there, he said, “Now listen, Bob. I know this is your first series, and I’m gonna tell you something about money. I want you to save your money. Don’t be like all these actors and run right out and buy a new car, okay?” I replied, “Yes sir, sure I understand.”
When I drove on the Universal lot three days later I drove on in a brand new 1959 Thunderbird—a gorgeous two-door four seater that was white with a blue interior [laughs]. It was my first brand new car. I could afford the payments on it anyway. I’d been driving an old 1950 Ford that I’d bought when I came back from Korea with my mustering-out pay.
Dan really laughed about it. He said, “Boy you just don’t listen, do you?” “I couldn’t help it, Dan.” Dan admitted, “I know, I know—it’s a beautiful car.”
I’ve always said Dan died of a broken heart [June 7, 1968; the official cause of death was cancer]. When his wife passed away [January 21, 1967 of a heart ailment], he just became a different man. He didn’t even wanna live anymore. He was not the same Dan Duryea.
Were you still working when you began attending Western festivals?
Oh I was still working. I retired from acting in 2004 when my wife and I, actress Jennifer Savidge [of St. Elsewhere and JAG television series fame], moved to Texas and got a ranch.
I probably started doing these festivals in the middle to late 1990s. The very first one that I attended was the Hollywood Collectors Show, and then I started getting invited to some of the big ones that are all over the country.
I participated at five festivals in 2015. I just happened to get trapped into five [laughs]. Three I really enjoyed doing. Jennifer and I spend time together at our ranch, I grow hay for our horses, I like to do a lot of fishing, so that’s enough traveling and whatever.
Can folks purchase an autographed photo or take a selfie with you?
Oh of course. Absolutely. I’m more than happy to do that for the fans. I always do that. I’ve got a huge Fandom fan club with over 500 people in it. Every one of these festivals I do have people from all over the world who come to it. One female Japanese fan, Atsuko Yamaguchi, comes to each one all the way from Japan.
Who prompted you to attend your debut High Chaparral Reunion in Tucson, Arizona?
When Don Collier and event organizer Penny McQueen asked me if I would come to the High Chapparal Reunion I was more than happy because Don is an old friend anyway. I’ve worked with him on television [i.e. “The Silver Lady,” the penultimate episode of Wagon Train broadcast on April 25, 1965], and also he did a Western movie with me called Incident at Phantom Hill [1966, costarring Dan Duryea].
Roberta Shore, who did Laramie [“The Replacement,” broadcast on March 27, 1962] and later co-starred for three seasons on The Virginian, attended the festival, too. I know Rudy Ramos, the half-breed Pawnee boy during The High Chaparral’s abbreviated final season. I was very, very close to Bobby Hoy, who played the mischievous, black-mustachioed ranch hand and was a fine stuntman to boot.
I thought, ‘Sure, I’d love to do it.’ The High Chaparral Reunion, held every March, is a great festival with a fantastic guest lineup—it really is. It’s been around since 2003, and the public likes it. It’s very smart of Don and Penny to pump it up a little bit and bring some more guests in that weren’t necessarily part of The High Chaparral. People wanna come meet the screen cowboys anyway.
The High Chaparral Reunion also has Charlie LeSueur. He’s Arizona’s Official Western Film Historian, and he’s been on several of these festivals that I’ve been on. He runs all of the Q&A’s for all of the actors. He is amazing because he knows more about me than I know about myself—and every other Western actor on the panel. He asks questions and brings things up that we will never, ever remember. The man is incredible. We usually pack anywhere from 50 to 100 people in the audience for these Q&A’s, and they love that. The festivals are always a lot of fun.
I don’t know if you know Boyd Magers, but he is a dear friend who I’ve known for years. And Ray Nielsen, too. They’re in charge of the Memphis Film Festival: A Gathering of Guns—A TV Western Reunion held annually each June. I did seven of the last MFF’s in a row. I will be there again this year. They have been great [Author’s Note: Magers officially retired as co-organizer of the Memphis Film Festival after the 2015 edition].
Boyd was involved with The High Chaparral Reunion’s 2016 event. I think he was invited because of his Western Clippings magazine. On top of that he’s a fine researcher, author, publisher, and interviewer.
During The High Chaparral’s original run [1967—1971], you weren’t involved with a television series and were instead focused on your film career. Were you ever offered a guest role on Chaparral?
No. In fact I did a movie called What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?  in Tucson while they were shooting The High Chaparral. I wasn’t that far away from the guys. We’d all get together at the local watering hole and shoot the breeze over drinks.
If I wasn’t working, I’d go over to the set and visit them, or they’d come over where I was working with big time producer-director Robert Aldrich [e.g. The Dirty Dozen], who had his own film production studio.
Was Robert Aldrich dictatorial, or did he seek your input on certain scenes?
If Bob liked the rehearsal, he wouldn’t mess with you at all. If he had some suggestions, he would make suggestions. Good directors are like that.
I don’t like working for directors that the second you’re in a rehearsal they start telling you what to do—“Don’t do this, do that, do that”—without at least giving you a chance to show what you’ve brought to the plate. Then it’s much easier to move that plate around. Bob Aldrich let people go and so did my old Western directors. They were fabulous like that.
At any point in your career did you consider directing or producing?
I would have loved to have been a director. I had an opportunity to direct on Emergency! Jack Webb [best known as the no-nonsense Los Angeles police detective Joe Friday on the classic Dragnet TV series, Webb co-created and co-produced Emergency! from 1972-1977 in addition to six TV movies wrapping up the series broadcast through 1979] gave it to me in my contract to direct if I wanted to.
To tell you the truth, when I did Laramie [1959—1963] and Wagon Train [1963—1965], I worked 11 months out of the year. We did 32 episodes, and it took 11 months to get that all done.
When I started on Emergency!, we were only doing 22 episodes, and we would finish in seven months. I would have five months free, and the second I got that I was off on a fishing trip to my place at Lake Okeechobee, Florida. I loved to fish that lake.
I just never had the urge to say, “Well, I’m gonna stick around and direct one of these episodes.” You were given two weeks for the prep, and then a week devoted to filming the episode. I’m kinda sorry that I didn’t, but at the same time it was just so great to be able to have that time off, go fish, and relax.
When you were busy for 11 months of the year filming Laramie and Wagon Train, how many hours per day were you on the set?
For instance, on Laramie we shot that show in five days. That was an hour show. Today when you shoot an hour show they have 8 to 9 days. We shot Laramie in five days. I had a 7:30 call in the morning and could easily work until 9 or 10 at night. Generally, we got off around 7 or 7:30 at night, so on the average I worked a 12-hour day. But if we got a little behind, it got later.
My wife Jennifer played the blonde judge commander Amy Helfman on the last six seasons of JAG [in a total of 21 episodes aired on CBS between 2000 and 2005]. Of course a woman gets a much earlier call because of hair, makeup, and all of that kind of stuff. She would have to be at the studio at least by 6 if not 5:30 in the morning. I would not see her until 11 or 12:00 that night.
Those were the hours that she worked on that show. It was unbelievable. It was a whole different ballgame. A lot of those JAG actors probably didn’t know their lines good enough or thought they were too big of a star to come out of their dressing room right away. That costs a lot of time. Jennifer worked hard.
Has there been any offer since you retired in 2004 that you’ve seriously considered?
I would not consider anything. I’ve had three Western offers, and none of them could match what I wanna do.
I would only do a commercial if I believed in the product. I was the national spokesman for Teledyne Water Pik for six years, the national spokesman for Budweiser Malt Liquor, and the national spokesman for Little Friskies cat food.
I’ve done good stuff, and I have no reason to work anymore. I’m very well off as far as I’m concerned. Truthfully, the only thing that would get me back to work is if there was an incredible Western script starring Robert Duvall with a great part. I’d walk to Hollywood to do it with him.
Did you have an opportunity to work with Robert Duvall?
No, I never did. I knew Bob. We did Hollywood Squares together a couple of times. I was a semi regular on that game show for years [1974—1980] which always had a lot of great guest stars who would come on that. That’s when I first met Bob. Nice, nice man and a great actor. Boy, can he play a Western. He’s a gentleman, very well respected, and well liked in the business.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Jump up to the top of this article to watch a video of Robert Fuller vividly describing how he stubbornly landed the plum role of Jess Harper on the classic television western Laramie in an Oct. 10, 2010 round-table interview joined by fellow screen cowboys James Drury and Don Kay Reynolds.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Imposing, intelligent, battle-scarred hombre Richard Boone rose to fame as the star of CBS’ iconic Western series, Have Gun—Will Travel. Boone was a multifaceted individual who experienced frightening Kamikaze attacks and hand-to-hand combat during World War II. The gruff cowboy was capable of gregarious carousing one evening while attending opera or art gallery openings the next. Biographer David Rothel took it upon himself to shine a light upon the thespian’s varied life and career. Fortunately, yours truly convinced Rothel to undertake his first Boone-centric interview (“A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land: Saluting Erudite Tough Guy Richard Boone”) in well over a decade.
To connect via social media with journalist Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) or Facebook.
Exclusive Interview: Kent McCray served as Michael Landon’s best man and proverbial right hand on three beloved television series: Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. In an illuminating conversation commemorating Landon’s birthday [“The Brother That He Never Had…”], McCray recalls their strained debut encounter during a location shoot for Bonanza, Landon’s burgeoning progress as a writer and director, memorable practical jokes, visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request happened, and what happened when the actor didn’t have a driver’s license at a major Los Angeles airport.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Starring James Drury in the title role, The Virginian is the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. A humble, genuine cowboy in real life with intense passions for writing and flying, the octogenarian speaks eloquently in a new feature about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne, whether he had a role model in mind for his characterization of the Virginian, the 50th anniversary of his namesake series, and why he will always appreciate his fans. Click on either installment link above to begin the enlightening ride.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Jack Kelly had an undeniable knack for making the ladies swoon. Possessing a svelte figure, the charming cowboy became a household name when he costarred with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. His biographer, Linda Alexander, recently took it upon herself to expose the actor’s body of work to a new generation, and an interview seemed like the perfect place to start. In “More Than Bret Maverick’s Brother: Remembering Jack Kelly On His 85th Birthday”], Alexander reveals Kelly’s entry into show business at the insistence of a bona fide stage mother, his quintessential Maverick episodes, the ongoing Bret versus Bart debate, how Garner’s contract negotiations with the network affected his costar, and whether the two were friends in real life.
Further Reading: Bonanza is still going strong in syndication some 55 years after its uncertain debut on NBC as television’s first 60-minute western filmed in color. A new article, “50 Years and Counting: Revisiting Bonanza, TV’s Second Longest Running Western,” gives a detailed synopsis of the show and argues why Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker gained pop culture immortality for their definitive portrayal of America’s favorite frontier family. And in case you prefer the arguably more authentic Gunsmoke, consider pulling up a chair to devour “Get Outta Dodge: Toasting ‘Gunsmoke,’ TV’s Most Critically Acclaimed Western.”
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Though not a household name, cult actor Warren Oates lit up the screen in a 25-year career cut inexplicably short by a heart attack at age 53 in April 1982. His hardscrabble Depression-era upbringing in the predominantly coal-mining community of Depoy, Kentucky, no doubt influenced his honest characterizations as the voyeuristic deputy of In the Heat of the Night, a good-natured outlaw gang member in The Wild Bunch, the psychotic pill-poppin’ villain in Lee Van Cleef’s Barquero, a tall-tale spewing car driver in Two-Lane Blacktop, the sympathetic title role of Dillinger, and Bill Murray’s constantly exasperated sergeant in the comical Stripes. His pre-eminent biographer, Susan Compo, speaks in a fascinating interview [i.e. “That Guy You’ve Seen But Can’t Remember His Name…”] about Oates’ hell-raising and humanity, best and worst movie roles, working alongside the mercurial Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and what she might have said to Oates if their paths had intertwined.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, Big Jake contains Palmer’s best work with the towering legend. In the action-packed 1971 Western, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Big Jake’s grandson with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever tangle with the Duke. In a quite rare two-part interview with the 86-year-old thespian [e.g. “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog”], the gentle giant relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
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