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Chris Robinson: From Columbus to cowboy

by Jim Longworth

Ina few weeks from now, a number of notable actors will descend upon Winston-Salem for the annual Western Film Fair. One of them is Chris Robinson.

Robinson is most famous for playing Dr. Rick Webber on “General Hospital” from 1980 to 2002.

In fact, he was so convincing in that role, that in 1984, Vicks Formula 44 hired him to be their spokesperson. It was in that series of commercials that Chris uttered the now iconic and much imitated line, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

Faux physician or not, Robinson told me that his journey to “GH” began when he was just 10 years old, and found himself volunteering for a class project.

“Our teacher said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do little skits, and I need someone to play Christopher Columbus,’ and my hand shot up in the air. ‘I’ll play Columbus,’ I said. ‘Alright then, go put something together about him discovering America,’ she said. So I got three tables, and made ships out of them in the classroom. I knew then I wanted to be an actor,” A year later, the young explorer padded his thespian resume by volunteering to play another famous figure.

“The teacher said, ‘Who wants to play William Tell?’ and you know whose hand went up. Well I hadn’t done anything since Santa Maria, so I pulled a pretty wild one. I got a kid to stand in front of the class with an apple on his head. Then I had him back out into the hall, and I shot a real arrow into the hallway. He came back in with another apple on his head which we had already put an arrow through. The teacher freaked out!” Eventually Chris’ grade school acting experience led him to Hollywood, where his first job was in a pilot for a TV Western titled “Barbed Wire,” starring Walter Brennan. Though the oater didn’t make it to air, Chris found himself acting in a lot of successful TV Western series, like “Wagon Train” and “The Virginian.” But Robinson, who grew up “in the swamps of Florida,” was not exactly prepared to be a cowboy.

“I didn’t know how to wrangle or ride a horse, or shoot a six-gun. Arvo Ojala taught me how to shoot. He was the king of the fast draw and the gunman who appeared on every opening of ‘Gunsmoke.’ I also learned how to ride a horse. I had a ball. It was an absolute dream. The first night we were shooting on a sound stage, I walked outside and looked up at the moon and thought, ‘They are paying me to do this. Please don’t let them know you’d do it for free.’” Though Westerns were Robinson’s first love, he played a variety of roles, including a WW II bomber pilot in 12 O’Clock High. Then, in 1979 he appeared in a drama pilot for CBS which would accidentally land him the job on “General Hospital.”

“My agent wanted to let everyone know to watch the pilot, so we printed up color postcards which said, ‘Watch “The Wilds of 10,000 Islands.”’ And my secretary said, ‘Why don’t we send one of those cards to the top producers of daytime television?’ My agent and I told her, ‘Absolutely not, we don’t want to do daytime.’ “But she did it behind my back, and Gloria Monty at ‘General Hospital’ received a postcard and watched the pilot. She started calling my agent saying, ‘Chris would be great as the new lead on “GH,”’ She also said she would make it worth my while, so we met, and that’s how it all came about.”

I asked Robinson which genre was the tougher to work in, primetime or daytime. Said Chris, “Daytime is by far more taxing, more demanding, more difficult, and more rewarding. It’s the best form of acting there is because you’re doing an hour show each day. In primetime you’ve got a day to do seven pages, and maybe seven or eight days to do an hour.”

Robinson made a cameo appearance in this year’s “General Hospital” 50th anniversary special as the ghost of Rick Webber. Not surprisingly, though, he’s back working on another Western where he can get back to ridin’, ropin’ and shootin’. That will please the fans at next month’s Western Film Fair which is being held at the Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center from July 10-13. For more information on Chris and the other stars attending, visit westernfilmfair.com.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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