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Happy birthday to a TV pioneer

by Jim Longworth

If you’re a fan of shows like “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad,” then you should send a thank you note to Clint Walker. If you’re the creator of a TV drama, then you should send a royalty check to Clint. That’s because had it not been for Clint Walker, the evolution of adult television dramas would have been significantly altered.

In 1955, the primetime television landscape was replete with comedies, variety shows and live studio plays. But ABC and Warner Brothers changed all that with “Cheyenne,” the first weekly, hour-long, filmed TV drama. “Cheyenne” was the story of a loner (Cheyenne Bodie) who roamed the West, helping those in need. The man they chose to star in this groundbreaking show was a 6-foot-6, broad shouldered embodiment of the character he would portray.

Born Norman Eugene Walker on May 30, 1927 in Hartford, Ill., Clint struck out on his own after high school, and held a variety of jobs, ranging from riverboat crewman to sheet-metal worker. Later, while Clint was working as a security guard in Las Vegas, a number of visiting celebrities suggested he move to Hollywood to seek work as an actor. His big break came when Cecil B. DeMille was looking for tall men to play Sardinian guards in The Ten Commandments. DeMille agreed to interview Clint in person, and what happened next reads like a movie script. It will also tell you a lot about Clint as a person. Clint recounted the story during a phone conversation we had a few weeks ago.

“I was driving down the Hollywood Freeway on my way to Paramount studios, and I saw an elderly woman trying to change a tire. It was obvious that she couldn’t handle it, so I stopped and changed the tire for her. She asked me, ‘What do I owe you?’ and I said, ‘You don’t owe me a thing, I was happy to do it.’ She then said. ‘I hope I haven’t made you late for anything.’ and I said, ‘Well as a matter of fact I have an appointment with Mr. DeMille at Paramount which may lead to an acting job, but I’m sure it will work out.’ I arrived at Paramount over an hour late and was made to sit just outside Mr. DeMille’s door. Then he said in a commanding voice, ‘You’re late young man.’ I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is probably the beginning and end of my career in Hollywood.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, but I stopped to help someone on the freeway.’ DeMille smiled and said, ‘Yes, I know all about that. That was my secretary you helped.’” Clint landed the role in The Ten Commandments, and from that point on, a kind of positive karma followed the big man around. And why not? Who else do you know would risk their career and a much needed paycheck by stopping to help a stranger? Cheyenne Bodie would, and so would his alter ego.

Walker made “Cheyenne” a rousing success. so much so that Warner Brothers cranked out dozens more hour dramas (most of them Westerns), and ABC became competitive for the first time in its young history. Clint stayed with “Cheyenne” for six seasons, then, in 1962, left to make movies.

Walker’s film credits include: Fort Dobbs, Yellowstone Kelly, Night of the Grizzly, None But the Brave, The Dirty Dozen and White Buffalo. He also starred in “Kodiak,” a short-lived series for ABC, as well as in several TV movies.

Though he denies it, Clint was a sex symbol throughout much of his career. In his modest manner, Clint told me, “Well, everybody admires someone who takes care of himself.” In fact Clint was a fitness fanatic, and even designed his own exercise machines which were marketed and sold by Fabergé at a time when that company operated a sporting-goods division.

Today Walker lives in northern California with his wife Susan, who accompanies him to film festivals and special tributes, like last Fall’s Paley Center salute. She also helps him respond to the thousands of requests he receives through his website clintwalker.com, where fans can follow Clint’s activities, and purchase autographed DVDs and photos.

This week, Clint celebrates his 86 th birthday, and while he has enjoyed a successful career, the thing he finds most gratifying are the e-mails and letters he receives.

“I have stacks and stacks of letters that are so wonderful….

Most of them say things like, ‘My Dad wasn’t home much,’ or, ‘I lost my Dad at an early age,’ or, ‘My folks just went through a divorce.’ Then they say, ‘You’ve become my surrogate father.’ Others would simply write and say, ‘I watched “Cheyenne,” and I wanted to grow up to be just like him.’” My sentiments exactly. Happy birthday, big guy.

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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