ReelGuru.com founder, Catrine McGregor, shares some of her favorite stories from the business.
I remember evenings in the 1980’s when I would be coming home from a small get-together of Western actors, and I thought I could die content right then and there. Westerns are in Americans’ DNA. They carry tales that reflect the wild west that our ancestors hons, and most of us feel some comfort in that. Most of the old Western stars reflected that quiet honesty and ruggedness. It was a generation where a handshake meant more than any paper a contract could have been written upon.
I had the great privilege of being dear friends with Academy-Award-winner Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Harry (Dobe) Carey, Jr., John Agar, Monty Montana, Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), and many more. You many not recognize many of the names – you may not recognize any of the names, but these were the folks that were little boys’ heroes, and many were the stable of actors (excuse the pun) that were John Wayne’s supporting players. I have fond memories of each of them.
I think my husband, Bob, married me because he found out on our first date that I had known Ben Johnson. I didn’t just know him. Like many of the other people whose life he influenced deeply, he was “Uncle Ben” to me. I cried for days when he died. Ben was a massive man, maybe more in spirit than in stature. He was gentle, patient, and strong, and you wouldn’t want to cross him. These are attributes worthy of all the people I’ve mentioned.Ben may have won an Academy Awards for his work in The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdonavich, but it never went to his head, and he could not have been kinder to his fans. He was humbled each time someone recognized him.
He was working on a film once when I lived in Utah, and he called me and started in with his Oklahoma drawl: “They gave me damned per diem and it’s weighin’ down my pocket. We’d better do somethin’ about it. Whadda ya say we have dinner?” So we had dinner at the amazing New Yorker restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City, which can certainly alleviate the weight of cash in one’s pocket. As we ate, a man in his thirties approached the table gingerly and said “Mr. Johnson, I’m your absolute biggest fan. I’m sorry to bother you while you’re having dinner, but could I get your autograph?” Ben never made eye contact with the man. He put his arm in the air and summoned the manager. I was mortified. Was he going to get this fan kicked out of the restaurant? As the manager approached, Ben finally made eye contact with the fan and said “Son, you have a seat here with us.” He moved his attention to the manager and said, “You get this young man anything he wants. He recognized me.”
I went to his house one night for a home-cooked meal. Ben’s wife, Carol, was a wonderful cook and it was an offer I never passed up. When I got there, Ben wasn’t back from his doctor’s appointment, so Carol and I sat and chatted. These seemingly simple folk were instrumental in developing Westlake, a very wealthy part of the San Fernando Valley, just outside of LA. Ben finally meandered in and dinner was served. As we ate quietly, Carol asked Ben what the doctor said and he replied “He told me I need to quit eating puddin’.”
Besides Carol, the love of Ben’s life when I knew him was his poodle. He once took his dog to the vet, and when he walked into the waiting room, he ran into an actor he knew who had his Golden Retriever with him. Their eyes made contact. The actor looked from Ben to his dog and back to Ben, who was seemingly a bit embarrassed. The actor laughed and said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
Ben was great friends with actor Wilford Brimley, best known for his walrus mustache and his oatmeal commercials. God knows why they were such good friends, because Brimley has not only the mustache of a walrus, but the personality of one as well. He is gruff, often unkind, and most always politically incorrect. When he was filming the TV series The Boys of Twilight with Richard Farnsworth, another kind cowboy spirit, Farnsworth would often follow in Brinley’s path of destruction and go to people that Brimley had just offended, saying “ Sorry. I’m sure he didn’t mean it.” And that was without even knowing what had transpired.
When Brimley was working on the series Our House, he and Ben went fishing in an ice-cold lake. In the middle of the lake, Brimley’s boat overturned. They only had two life vests on board, and he tossed them to his nephews. Sadly, Brimley’s dog drowned. Johnson and Brimley were holding on to either side of a floating cooler, but with the temperatures the way they were, it would not be long before the two succumbed to hypothermia if someone did not find them – fast. Ben told me that he looked up at Brimley, who didn’t lose his cowboy hat in the accident. Brimley had black dye running down his face – a cheap Tijuana purchase for sure. Despite the conditions, Ben couldn’t help but laugh. Brinley looked up at Ben, wistfully. Ben was sure that they were about to have one of those moments that go something like this: “Ben, I know I’ve never told you this, but you sure have been a good friend to me.” Instead, Brimley said, “Do you suppose they’ll recast my part?”
I co-chaired a Western Film Festival back around 1985. The group wanted me because they knew that I could pick up the phone and get just about anyone there. And I did. We had a blast. I wasn’t so sure that the City of Ogden would let the festival last an entire weekend after the opening ceremonies, when actor Pat Buttram, Mr. Haney on Green Acres, stood at the podium and said, “Utah’s the only state where you can’t smoke or drink in a whorehouse,” referring to Mormon prohibitions.
One of the attendees that year was rodeo superstar Casey Tibbs. Those who knew Casey were well aware of his inimitable quirkiness, like, say, riding a bull while on acid. He had an infectious sense of humor that backfired on him. One of Casey’s favorite pranks was to use a pen with invisible ink while signing autographs. He would shake the pen, as if to make it work, and ink would fly all over the other person. One of the cowboy stars thought that it would be funny to replace his pen with invisible ink with a pen with real ink. The idea seemed pretty funny until a woman in a white fur coat approached Casey for an autograph. He shook his pen and ink flew all over. As the woman was flipping out, he was laughing so hard, he had tears running down his cheeks. “Hold on,” he said, “It will go away.” We waited. It didn’t go away. Casey bought a coat.
Another celebrity guest was renown boxing color commentator Al Bernstein. Yes, Al Bernstein happens to be a complete Western dweeb. He’s watched every Western known to man, actually rides a horse, and does team penning in celebrity rodeos. He is a huge fan. That weekend was the first time I met Al, and he has become like a brother to me. Why he even still talks to me is beyond me. One of the events at the film festival was a trail ride into the beautiful Uinta mountains. The ride was for celebrities only and included all of the people I mentioned above, plus Rusty Richards of The Sons of the Pioneers. Rusty had his guitar with him and was going to serenade the riders around a campfire with some of the group’s more well known songs, such as Tumblin’ Tumbleweed. It was a Western lover’s dream come true. Al couldn’t wait to go, but I talked him into going to play miniature golf with me. Twenty-two years later, it is still a joke between us. We have played every miniature golf course in sight when we’re together.
I’m not saying that I’m competitive, but I do remember at least one night when Al Bernstein, Don Shanks, and I stayed up all night playing Trivial Pursuit. I was not going to quit until someone (me) won. Amazingly, I won on a sports question. It had to be the only sports question in the deck that I could have answered, too.
Al, Don Shanks, and I were a sort of Three Musketeers for a while, meeting up in the most random of places. Their favorite, which they will never let me forget, was when we were in LA together and I got laryngitis. Total laryngitis. I couldn’t speak. Al and Don were in heaven.
It’s appropriate that I write about Don Shanks now – I wrote about the cowboys in my life – now is time for the Indian. Yes, I know that the correct term is “Native American,” but the 60’s birthed the American Indian Movement, and Don is comfortable with the nomenclature, so I mean no disrespect. Over the years, Don, his wife, Vickie, and I have spent many Thanksgivings together, a holiday that Don calls “the original boat people day.”
To me, Don is one of my dearest friends on Earth. He is also the man who married my husband, Bob, and me, and is the godfather of one of my grandchildren. To most, he is Michael Myers of Halloween V, Nakoma of Grizzly Adams, along with hundreds of other credits. None that I can be acknowledged for, as I’ve never put Don in a movie, a fact he will never let me forget.
– Catrine McGregor
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Last modified: August 12, 2017