Although I’ve enjoyed Morgan’s work since then, I hadn’t seen him in person for more than thirty years, when I ran into him at an autograph show in Burbank a few weeks ago. He kindly agreed to sit down and talk about his long screen career in the saddle. Not surprisingly, he’s a Texan by birth, born September 16th, 1925. “I was born in Fort Worth, only because we didn’t have a hospital in Arlington, fourteen miles away.” Naturally, I assumed he plays a cowboy so well because, being a Texan, he did so much riding as a kid. “Nope, I did not. I learned to ride when I came to California.” Well, at least I was right about his always liking western movies. “Oh sure – every kid likes westerns! Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones.”
Interestingly, his first love was not acting, but aviation. “We had an Army airfield six or seven miles from Arlington and my family would go out there on weekends, and watch the weekend warriors fly the airplanes, and I was just always interested in airplanes. Most kids my age were interested in planes, back in the 1930s.” He first flew a plane when he was sixteen, and continued to fly until just a few years ago.
Graduating from High School in 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Training Program. “We went through basic training, ready to go to pre-flight. But they didn’t have room for us, so they sent us to CTD – College Training Detachment. I went to the University of Arkansas for about six months, and they still didn’t have room in preflight, so they sent us to Pampa Army Airfield, to do all the jobs the enlisted men wouldn’t do. (laughs) We saw the handwriting on the wall, because a lot of flyers were coming back from overseas, they had nothing more to do than chase pretty girls in West Texas. One morning we were told that the commanding General of the Flying Training Command said all flying training had stopped. The war was going too well, and they didn’t need any more pilots. That was the end of my hope for getting my wings in the Army Air Corps. I was sent to Scott Field, Illinois, to radio school, and I stayed until they decided we aviation cadets were just surplus, so they got rid of us just before Christmas of 1945.”
After the war he entered Arlington State, majoring in music and drama, planning on a career in opera. “I gave it up because I had a sinus condition, still do, that would not allow me to be a consistent singer. So I traded Grand Opera for Horse Opera.” In 1948, he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, a drama and music minor, majoring in business administration. Among his classmates were Fess Parker, Jayne Mansfield, Rip Torn, L.Q. Jones, and Pat Hingle. Not all of them seemed marked for greatness. “Jayne Mansfield certainly didn’t stand out at the time. L.Q. wasn’t in the drama department – L.Q. was the cheerleader. He didn’t get into movies until Fess Parker sneaked him in to see a director. L.Q. is so crazy; he convinced the director that he ought to be in the picture. Pat Hingle was a fine actor. Rip Torn was a good actor. Then he was Elmore Torn.”
In 1951, just as he was entering law school, Morgan was recalled to active duty. He finally got overseas. “I was in the Military Transport Command; we were flying between Japan and Korea. I was happy to be up in the air, and we didn’t get shot at.” When he was back stateside, he decided against going back to law school. “World War II and the Korean War, I thought, Hell, although I was only about 26 years old, I’m getting too old to go to school. Fess Parker at that time was Davy Crockett. And Disney was getting ready to do THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE. So Fess told Disney he knew this guy who would be just absolutely great as this wild-eyed Confederate Master Sergeant. So that’s how I got my ‘in’. I went to California to do a screen test for Walt Disney, and I was signed to a three-picture contract.”
Henry: Did you meet Walt, himself?
Morgan: Yes, as a matter of fact, the first day of shooting, when I went on the set, he came down to see this guy who had come out from Texas and was going to be in his first motion picture job. He was a great guy, great guy. Anybody’s a great guy who’ll sign me to a three-picture contract!
H: The next one was WESTWARD HO, THE WAGONS!
M: Right, and then ALONG THE OREGON TRAIL, a short film.
H: With WESTAWARD HO, you were with Fess Parker and Iron Eyes Cody.
M: Oh yes, Iron Eyes was a great friend of mine, just a splendid guy. In the words of the Indians, a straight arrow.
H: Your director, William Beaudine, used to be Mary Pickford’s personal director in silent movies.
M: That’s right, Bill Beaudine was just great. No bullshit, and he was terrific.
H: From 1958 through 1961 you had your first regular character, on WYATT EARP, as Shotgun Gibbs. How did you get that role?
M: I did an episode of WYATT EARP the year before, as Captain Langley of the Texas Rangers. The producers loved the character, so they had Stuart Lake write in a character somewhat like this Ranger Captain, Shotgun Gibbs, and I was on that until 1961. He was a wonderful writer.
(Note: Stuart N. Lake, a writer in the film business at least as far back as 1916, wrote the book WYATT EARP, FRONTIER MARSHAL, on which virtually all Wyatt Earp films, and the TV series, were based. He was nominated for a Best Story Oscar for THE WESTERNER (1940), about Judge Roy Bean.)
H: How did you like playing a recurring role, as opposed to playing a different character each time?
M: I loved it: I got a check every Friday.
H: Obviously, you worked a lot with Hugh O’Brien. What was he like?
M: He was a nice fellah. He was not the easiest fellah in the world to get along with, but he and I got along – we were together for over three years, got along fine.
H: What sort of a shooting schedule would you have for an episode?
M: We shot five days a week, Monday through Friday, usually shot three days on the set, at Desilu Studios, two days on location, out at Melody Ranch.
H: There were a lot of interesting guest stars on WYATT EARP, like Andy Clyde, and semi-regulars like Lash LaRue.
M: Well, Lash is a real character. And I working with Andy Clyde, because Andy Clyde was an icon. I also worked with Anna Mae Wong on WYATT EARP. I worked with Kermit Maynard, a lot of guys who weren’t stars anymore, and they were old, but it was quite something to work with them.
H: What are your best memories of working on that show?
M: It was the first time I had a regular series, and the producers of WYATT EARP were going to do a series on Sam Houston, called THE RAVEN, and they selected me to do Sam Houston. Unfortunately, the producer had a heart attack, and the show was put on hold for a while. Then he got better, we started to get into production, he had a another heart attack and died, and that was the end of that.
H: In the late 1950s you were doing a lot of western TV episodes. ZANE GREY THEATRE, CHEYENNE, SUGARFOOT, BROKEN ARROW, RESTLESS GUN, BAT MASTERSON –
M: That’s right, I think I did every western there was.
H: Were any of them particularly memorable?
M: They were all memorable because I got paid, I had a job. I remember all of them – I’ve never forgotten anything I ever did. Because actors never know when they’re going to work again.
H: You did GUNSIGHT RIDGE with Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens and one of my favorites, L.Q. Jones.
M: Mark Stevens – he had a fairly good career going at that time. Why is L.Q. Jones one of your favorites?
H: Because he’s one of those actors that just grabs the eye and makes you follow him.
M: Always playing crazy guys. (laughs) That’s what L.Q. does. We’ve been friends for over sixty years.
H: How did you like working with Joel McCrea?
M: He was terrific.
H: You did a couple of films with Audie Murphy – RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL and GUNPOINT. GUNPOINT was directed by Earl Bellamy, who we both know from SPEEDTRAP. What was Audie Murphy like?
M: Well, very distant. He was so distant it was hard to figure him out. He had a few very close friends, and that was it. I guess they were close. I remember GUNPOINT. In RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL I don’t think I had that great of a part. Walter Matthau was in it. He was very amenable. Henry Silva they brought from New York – it was popular at that time to bring New York actors out to California. Henry got his start on Broadway, you know. In ‘A HATFUL OF RAIN’, he played a character called ‘Mother.’ He and I became good friends.
H: You did about a dozen episodes of WAGON TRAIN. In the ALEXANDER PORTLASS STORY, you kidnap Robert Horton and help Peter Lorre search for Maximillian’s gold. And you got killed by Peter Lorre for your trouble. What was Lorre like by this time in his career?
M: Well, I didn’t get to know Peter very well. When we were not working together, we weren’t social. (laughs) All I can tell you is he was kind of a strange little man.
H: That’s what he played to perfection.
M: Himself, I think.
H: Because you were playing different characters in a dozen episodes of the same show, was there ever concern about your becoming too recognizable? Sometimes you had big scars, and sometimes you had an eye-patch. Was that to try and make you look different?
M: Well, it concerned me. I certainly didn’t want people recognizing me, saying, ‘There’s that character again.’ I hope I got away with playing the different characters.
H: You were usually a bad guy, but not always. In the JED POLK STORY, you’re a survivor of Andersonville Prison Camp. It was a very emotional part – very intense. Any particular memories of doing that episode?
M: Not really. I have all my scripts – I’d have to go back and read the scripts.
H: You did so many – which were your favorite WAGON TRAINs?
M: Well, I got to work with Polly Bergen, and that was interesting. We got to know each other, and as a matter of fact saw each other socially a few times after that.
H: What was Ward Bond like?
M: Very rough, very gruff, very profane. But in a kind of a lovable, likable way.
H: Kind of like his characters in John Ford westerns?
M: That’s right – that was Ward Bond.
H: Of course, in the middle of the series, he died, and was replaced by John McIntire. Did that change the show a lot?
M: Yuh, because they were two different types. McIntire was a very different type than Ward Bond. So it changed the character of the wagon master, but I don’t know that it changed the show a lot.
H: Over the years there were a lot of regulars who came and went. There was Robert Horton, Terry Wilson, Frank McGrath, Robert Fuller, Denny Miller.
M: Bob Fuller is one of my best friends. He’s bought a ranch in Texas, and he came out for that big autograph show two weeks ago. We were sitting side-by-side. Peter Brown was just down the row.
H: I saw Peter Brown – maybe Robert Fuller was at lunch when I came by.
M: He probably was in the bar (laughs). And Denny Miller was there. I was hoping Clint Walker would be there. I like to see those guys that are still alive. We’re all getting old.
H: In the 60s you did a lot of western series, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, BIG VALLEY, RAWHIDE, BRANDED, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, IRON HORSE, CIMMARON STRIP, VIRGINIAN, HIGH CHAPPARRAL – like you said, you did all the westerns.
M: Yuh, I did.
H: What were your favorites?
M: Oh, GUNSMOKE, of course. I did more GUNSMOKES than any other actor in the world. I say in the world because they had people come over from Europe to do the show. I did nineteen. Plus the GUNSMOKE movie in ’91 or ’92. It seems like yesterday but, my God, it’s been twenty years!
H: I was just watching MATT DILLON MUST DIE; that’s a terrific show.
M: I enjoyed making that particular show. We shot that in Utah, in the mountains.
H: The story is a variation on MOST DANGEROUS GAME. (SPOILER ALERT) And your wife’s death fills you with such overpowering rage that you’re murdering indiscriminately. Eventually your own sons. It’s a real heartbreaker of an episode, and you bring great humanity to a character that could have seemed very one-dimensional. How do you prepare to play a role like that?
M: I just read the scripts and conjure the character in my mind. I read the script until I almost read the print right off the page. I spend hours and hours and hours, over and over and over reading the script, filming the show in my mind.
H: I was just talking to Earl Holliman last week –
M: He was at the autograph show. We spoke. I remember I worked with Earl several times, in the show with Angie Dickinson, POLICE WOMAN, and then GUNSMOKE.
H: He said there was an episode that you two did on GUNSMOKE called HACKETT. He said that it was one of his favorite shows because you switched roles.
M: Yeah, two or three days before we were to shoot the show, the producer called and said, “Look, you guys are gonna switch parts. I want Morgan the bad guy to play the coward, and I want Earl Holliman to play the bad guy.” That may have been one of the few times that Earl got to play a bad guy.
H: Which episodes are your favorites?
M: There was a segment called LOBO. I was watching it in my home, by myself, and all of a sudden I realized that I was watching me, and I didn’t know that I was watching myself. I was so engrossed in the show, then all of a sudden I snapped to, and I thought, “But that’s me!” So I figure, if I can fool myself, that I might be pretty good.
H: Any other episodes?”
M: Well, HACKETT, and then MATT DILLON MUST DIE.
H: How’d you like working with Jim Arness?
M: No better person to work with in the world than Jim Arness! He’s a good friend of mine, and I still call him about every week.
H: I understand he had a wonderful deal on the show where they would shoot his scenes for several episodes back to back, and he’d go off surfing, and they’d shoot around him. Did you have to deal with that kind of a situation, or was he usually on the set?
M: I never had to deal with that, and if it would inconvenience any other actor I don’t think Jim would allow that.
H: How about the other actors? Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone.
M: Oh, they were all great characters. GUNSMOKE was a dream to work on. The producers were great, the actors were great, they always had great cast members. They were all good scripts. Great show to work on – a happy show.
H: How many times did Matt Dillon kill you?
M: (Laughs) You know, I don’t remember. But I usually got shot. Or beat up.
H: You also did eight episodes of BONANZA.
M: Yes, I did. I liked it very much. David Dortort (the show’s creator and producer) was a favorite of mine. Dan Blocker was a good friend of mine – fellow Texan.
H: Did you have a favorite episode?
M: Oh, it may have been FOUR SISTERS FROM BOSTON, with Vera Miles.
H: In 1966 you guested on THE LUCY SHOW, in the famous LUCY AND JOHN
M: That was great fun.
H: Had you worked with John Wayne before?
M: No, I had not. I liked working with him very much. I had an opportunity to work with him again, but I screwed that deal up because I didn’t like the part that they offered me, and I turned it down. And that was one of the few mistakes – because I almost never turn down a part. But I just didn’t like that part at all.
H: What movie was that?
M: I think it was TRUE GRIT.
H: Well they’re doing that one again. I think they just wrapped shooting, with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.
M: Jeff’s a good actor, but I’m sorry they’re doing TRUE GRIT again.
H: How did you like working with Lucille Ball?
M: She was wonderful. Very professional, but at the same time, a great lady.
H: Had you done much comedy at that point?
M: No, but L.Q. Jones and I did a comedy on WAGON TRAIN. CHARLIE WOOSTER: OUTLAW. It’s the one where Charlie (Frank McGrath) gets kidnapped by this woman, and L.Q. and I play her two crazy sons.
H: In 1968 you did FIRECREEK with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
M: Great cast, Jack Elam – just look at the cast list on that picture. God, it was just amazing to get all those people together.
H: Often people with small parts, like Ed Begley, Inger Stevens. It’s dark movie, not a very happy one.
M: No, it’s not. It is a dark film.
H: You and the rest of the gang are together, and Henry Fonda is off with Inger Stevens.
M: He was wounded, and Inger Stevens was taking care of him. You got the idea there was something going on between the two of them, or there could be. (SPOILER ALERT!) And then of course she winds up killing him.
H: You and your friends kill the town simpleton, you kick his dog, you get shot by Jimmy Stewart and dragged to death by your horse.
M: (laughs) I got my comeuppance!
H: Did you do any of that drag yourself?
M: No. Well, I started the drag, and then they cut to a stuntman.
H: Now your director on that was Vincent McEevety, who had done a lot of westerns and, like you, a lot of sci-fi.
M: I worked with Vince a lot on westerns – I can’t tell you which ones. I worked with him before and I worked with him afterwards. I did a STAR TREK with him, DAGGER OF THE MIND.
H: In ‘69 you were with Richard Widmark and Lena Horne in DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER. It’s quite a good film, which is a surprise considering the credited director is Alan Smithee, the
pseudonym directors use on films they’re ashamed of.
M: No. Robert Totten started directing it, and he didn’t like the fact that Lena Horne was the leading lady, and that here was a racial (element) to the story, and he kept griping. And finally Lew Wasserman fired him and Don Siegal took over. So they used the phony name Alan Smithee. Turned out pretty good.
H: For several years you were in DALLAS, sort of a modern Western. That was an incredibly popular series.
M: Yes it was.
H: Did you have a good time on that?
M: Oh, I certainly did. I was a regular on it for three years. So ’86, ’87, ‘88 I didn’t do very many (other) shows. As a matter of fact I was doing DAYS OF OUR LIVES, the daytime soap opera, at the same time.
H: I understand that with soaps, you have to learn an incredible amount of dialog with every episode. Were the pressures of doing that kind of show very different from doing a regular show?
M: I hated it. If I hadn’t have been dedicated – I simply wouldn’t walk off a show, or say I don’t want to do it anymore. But if I had to do it again I would. I didn’t like it at all. I just didn’t like daytime soap opera. I didn’t have time to prepare, I didn’t like the cue cards, I thought the dialog was asinine. But I must say I certainly met some good actors on soap opera. Some weren’t, but there were some really fine actors.
H: You’ve done THE A TEAM, where you’ve done comic western episodes. Did you enjoy that show?
M: Oh yes, oh yes. God, that was a lot of fun. George Peppard was a very nice fellow.
H: The last western-ish thing you’ve done was play bounty hunter Sam Travis in THE BOUNTY HUNTER’S CONVENTION episode of THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR.
M: That was not a favorite of mine, and it was not a favorite because I didn’t do a good job on that show. I was off-center, and I don’t know why. The show, I guess, was alright, but I was not at all satisfied with my performance.
H: I just watched it this week, and I found it very funny, and I found you very good in it.
M: Thank you – I’m happy to hear you say that.
H: In addition to Westerns, you’ve had an extensive career in science fiction. STAR TREK, PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN’S RUN, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, X-FILES, MILLENIUM. What do you prefer – science fiction or westerns or something else?
M: Well, it all depends on the script. If it’s a good show like the X-FILES, I love doing that, and I love doing westerns. It all depends on the script.
H: You’ve been acting in television for over forty years. You started near the beginning of the industry. What sort of changes, good and bad, have you seen over the years?
M: Well, I retired in 1997. My first professional job was with the Gulf Oil Theatre in Dallas, Texas. We had the first theatre-in-the-round in America. That was 1947, I was going to school in the morning, working in the afternoon and the evenings in the theatre. So in 1997 that was fifty years. And I thought, fifty years is enough, and I retired. And one of the reasons I retired is because I got tired of going in and interviewing with people who were very young, and were apparently young in the business, and they had not done their homework. And they’d say, “What have you done?” And I thought, for God’s sake, I’ve been in film for over forty years, and I have to go through the same routine all the time. It just became not that much fun, not that interesting. And some of the parts that were offered, even if I got them, they weren’t that interesting.
H: Overall, which are your own favorite Western performances?
M: Like I told you, the episode of GUNSMOKE, LOBO, when I was watching myself and didn’t realize it. And then, MATT DILLON MUST DIE, I liked that very much. I did a picture for Disney called THE WILD COUNTRY with Vera Miles and Steve Forrest.
H: Is that the one with Ron Howard and Clint Howard?
M: Yes, that was a favorite of mine. Robert Todd directed that.
H: What are your favorite westerns of other people?
M: Well, remember the series that Sam Peckinpah wrote, was it called THE WESTERNER (1960)? It didn’t last very long. With Brian Keith. That was good. THE ROUNDERS, Max Evans wrote that, with Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford.
ONE MORE THING...