THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

THE RANGE RIDER





"In the summer of 1949, television sets were large and television screens were small; wrestling, quiz shows and test patterns dominated the air waves, and Milton Berle was the undisputed king of the medium.  Onto that range rode television's first cowboy hero, Hopalong Cassidy, on Friday evening, June 24.  During the years that followed nearly two hundred horse operas galloped into countless millions of American living rooms." -- Gary A. Yoggy, Riding the Video Range: The Rise and Fall of the Western on Television



Hoppy and Topper


Yep.  Hoppy was the first of many Western heroes who would come to dominate TV programming.  Just three months later he was joined by the masked rider of the plains, The Lone Ranger.  Unlike Hoppy, this hero originated on radio.  True, he had been the subject of two chapter serials made by Republic, but had never been a regular movie series hero.  But he would enjoy great success on TV and after his network run, syndication would allow him to ride the range for many more years.

Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the only two B-Western movie cowboys to surpass Hoppy in popularity.  And a year after Hoppy made his TV debut, Autry joined him on the small screen and a year after that Rogers made the transition.

Autry's Flying "A" Productions not only produced his own series, but was also responsible for launching four other series that were set in the West: Annie Oakley (1954 premier; starring Gail Davis); Buffalo Bill Jr. (1955 premier; starring Dick Jones); and even a series starring Autry's horse, The Adventures of Champion (1955 premier; starring Champion, of course, but featuring Ricky North and Jim Bannon).

Better than those three, however, was The Range Rider, which premiered in 1951, starring Jack Mahoney (for now; the name would change) as the Range Rider and Dick Jones as Dick West. 




"....and Dick West, All-American boy."


Each episode opened to the strains of "Home on the Range," followed by scenes of The Range Rider (Mahoney) mounting his buckskin horse, Rawhide, and galloping after a runaway stagecoach whose driver had been wounded.  Mahoney leaps from his horse onto the stage.  Then there is a scene of Dick West (Jones), the All-American boy, leaning out of the saddle to fire his six-shooter underneath the neck of his galloping pinto, Lucky.  While all this is occurring, an announcer is intoning the above lines.

Well, it would help if you could see all of that.  And you can, if you click on the picture below.




It is obvious in the program's intro that Mahoney is doing his own stunting.  And why not, he was one of the greatest stuntmen of all time, ranking with such notables as Yakima Canutt, Davey Sharpe, Cliff Lyons, Tom Steele, and Chuck Roberson.  In fact, he was even capable of performing stunts that were even beyond the capabilities of that inestimable group. 

His young sidekick, portrayed by native Texan Dick Jones (1927-1914), was no slouch either when it came to the action scenes.  A former child actor, billed at age six as "The World's Youngest Trick Rider," he excelled at horsemanship and like Mahoney was able to perform his own stunts. 

Mahoney (1919-1989) was born in Chicago, but grew up in Davenport, Iowa.  Of French and Irish heritage, his birth name was Jacques Joseph O'Mahoney.  He entered the University of Iowa where he participated in several varsity sports.  When WW II began, however, he left school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, eventually becoming a fighter pilot.

After the war, Mahoney moved to Los Angeles where he broke into the movie business as a stuntman.  He would eventually appear in over 200 movie and TV productions as a stuntman or actor or both.  Tall (6-4) and lanky, he was a perfect stunt double for actors such as Gregory Peck, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, and Rod Cameron.  In some of the films he also was given supporting roles, usually as a villain.

In the late '40's, billed as Jacques O'Mahoney, he signed on with Columbia Pictures, where he became the stunt double for the studio's long-time B-Western star, Charles Starrett.  By this time, Starrett was portraying a character called the Durango Kid.  Since Durango wore a mask it was possible for Mahoney to do all the stunts without anyone being the wiser.  It also made it appear that Starrett, approaching age fifty, was becoming more athletic as the years went by.


Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid


Jacques O'Mahoney as The Durango Kid


"I certainly had the best stuntman.  Jocko was just beautiful.  He was like a cat." -- Charles Starrett


"Columbia left the Starretts up to me.  I'd walk around the location and find interesting things to do, and they would plain just write them into the script." -- Jacques O'Mahoney


Mahoney was also given featured roles in these films and it was said that he was being groomed to take over the series from Starrett who was contemplating retirement.  However, it was almost the end of the B-Western, its demise hastened by the popularity of Hoppy, Roy, Gene, and the Lone Ranger, all of whom could be watched for free on TV.  Instead of continuing with a new star, the studio decided to pull the plug on the series in 1952. 

Mahoney did star in three chapter serials made by Columbia, all Westerns.  But by that time serials were also rapidly losing their audience to television and soon thereafter they too disappeared from movie screens.   


In the final years of his movie career, Autry's B-Westerns were independently produced by his Flying "A" production unit, but were released through and distributed by Columbia Pictures.  It was this association that made Autry aware of Mahoney and led him to use him in a number of his films as both an actor and a stunt double.  Therefore, when Autry decided to launch The Range Rider series in 1951, he knew who he wanted to play the role.  However, he did request that Jacques O'Mahoney change his name to Jack Mahoney.


He agreed, for now.

With the exception of the anthology series, Death Valley Days (1952 premier), all the early TV Western series shared in common the fact that they, like the B-Western movies that they were replacing, were aimed at a juvenile audience.  Hoppy, Roy, and Gene portrayed the same characters on television that had appealed to juvenile audiences in the movie theaters and the TV Lone Ranger was very much the same character that had attracted juvenile listeners during its long tenure on radio.

It was a winning formula for now, and Autry and his Flying "A" Productions staff did not intend to drastically depart from that formula as it prepared to launch its other TV series.  However, since the cast of one series was headed by a female and another by a horse, there was at least some new ground being broken.  And although The Range Rider series was produced with that formula in mind, it did differ in some respects from the other Western series of that period. 

For example, there was the hero's sidekick.  During the B-Western movie era it became mandatory that the hero have a sidekick, somebody to offer humor, since it wasn't considered dignified for the actions of the hero to be a laughing matter.  The sidekick was nearly always older than the hero, too.  If, however, the sidekick was young, he would also have to be the one who wooed the ladies, because that was also out of bounds for nearly all the heroes.

Dick Jones, as Dick West, filled the bill.  Although he was twenty-four years old when the series began, because of his small stature (5-7) and boyish looks, he easily passed for the nineteen-year old that he portrayed.  His character also had an eye for the ladies.  The fact that Mahoney towered over Jones made it easy to believe that he was much older and more mature than his young friend, while in fact he was only eight years his senior.

As mentioned earlier, Jones had been a trick rider at age six.  He ended up in California due to performing in a rodeo that also featured the old cowboy, Hoot Gibson.  After watching Jones perform, Hoot told the boy's mother that her boy should be in the movies.  She thought that was a good idea and she and her young son headed to Hollywood.  After arriving, Dickie Jones, as he was billed, became a very busy little actor.

The young actor's most famous movie role was one in which he wasn't even seen on the screen.  It happened in 1940 when at age ten he provided the voice of Pinochio in the Disney animated feature of the same name.

As a sidekick, Jones was responsible for more than humor or the romantic angle.  Unlike many of the other Western sidekicks, he could handle the action and thus was able to chip in and provide the support the Range Rider needed to best the baddies.


 



I have to admire the actor holding the pistol.  He knows that a big galoot is about to jump on his back, but he can't even flinch.

The hero was different, too.  His horse wasn't a white or black stallion and there was no fancy bridle or saddle.  He wore buckskins and his belt and holster were as plain as could be.  Nor did he sport fancy boots and spurs.  He didn't even wear boots; he wore moccasins.  Perhaps that was to look different, but it was also because that particular footwear made it easier to perform stunts.

He was unconventional in another way, too.  He rarely mounted or dismounted his horse in a conventional fashion.  He nearly always created some little piece of business in making his mounts and dismounts even when the horse was at a standstill, and did so with an effortless leonine grace.

Seventy-nine episodes were filmed in 1951-1953.  The show didn't end there; it went into syndication and ran for many years afterwards.  

When Gene Autry decided to produce a new series to be called Buffalo Bill Jr, he did so with Dick Jones in mind to portray the lead character.  Forty-two episodes were filmed and were aired in 1955.  Jones continued to act throughout the '50's before calling it quits to pursue a career in business.


Buffalo Bill Jr.
 
Meanwhile, one final time Mahoney changed his name.  He now became Jock Mahoney, though his friends always called him Jocko.  After filming ended on The Range Rider, he went on to star in a number of Western features, mainly at Universal.  But he also realized one of his fondest dreams when he became the thirteenth actor to portray Tarzan.  And it almost killed him.

Back in 1949, he had auditioned to replace Johnny Weissmuller in the role.  It was not to be, however, for the role went to Lex Barker instead.

But now at age forty-two for the first film and forty-four for the second, he became the oldest actor to ever portray the character.  But that wasn't the problem.  On location during the second filming, he battled dysentery, dengue fever, and pneumonia.  His weight plummeted, which became apparent to movie viewers, and yet he persevered to the end and finished the film.


"I loved the role of Tarzan because it was such a distinct challenge. I remember being 40 feet up in a tree, sunburned as hell. And I thought to myself, 'What is a 42-year-old man doing 40 feet up in a tree, getting ready to swing out over a bunch of thorn bushes that if you ever fell into you would be cut to ribbons and damned near killing myself to get up there?' So I laughed and thought, 'Well now, who wouldn't want to play Tarzan??!'" -- Jock Mahoney


     















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