"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Edgar Buchanan's Western career

Need a judge?
Judge character
One of my favorite character actors in Westerns was Edgar Buchanan.

He was one of those fellows who always played the crusty old timer, regardless of his age. His first Western was When the Daltons Rode, in 1940. In that, though (disgracefully) uncredited, he had a short but strong part as the garrulous blacksmith, ‘bracketing’ the movie with an introductory chat with Randolph Scott, the lawyer looking for the Daltons’ place, and then the same at the end. Though his demeanor and gravelly voice made him out to be old, he was in fact only 37 at the time (he was born in Missouri in 1903).

In one of his last Western appearances, in the rather good made-for-TV Western Yuma with Clint Walker in 1971, he was pushing 70 yet didn’t look any different at all. He was Mules McNeil, still a crusty old-timer. Dry, amusing, slightly cranky, in every Western he was, well, he was Edgar Buchanan.

He had in fact been a dentist. A bit like Doc Holliday, a dental surgeon who ended up in the West? Well, not really. He’d moved with his family from Missouri to Oregon and followed his pa’s footsteps into the tooth pulling trade. He gave up the business in the 1930s when he took up acting but was still occasionally called upon to deal with toothache on the set. A nice story tells how he went to work on the teeth of his old pal Glenn Ford and fed him whiskey as an anesthetic, taking one drink himself for every three of Glenn’s. Probably too good a story to be actually true, but fun.

On the set of The Sheepman

He often worked with Glenn Ford on Westerns. The lovely photograph above shows them on the set of The Sheepman and it was clear that they had a whale of a time. They also acted together in Cimarron, The Rounders and The Man from Colorado. Edgar was in a total of 13 films with Ford. He even did a couple of noirs with him, Framed (1947), and Human Desire (1954). Buchanan's own favorite was Texas (Columbia, 1941) in which he played an hilariously villainous frontier dentist.

Edgar Buchanan was often a professional man in Westerns, for example a doctor a judge. He portrayed the rascally Doc Black in Wichita, with Joel McCrea, and he was Doc Merriam in The Man from Colorado. He was the rascally mayor in the Destry remake in 1954.

But we chiefly remember him as a judge. He was outstanding as the sad, broken-down, drunk Judge Tolliver in Ride the High Country, again with McCrea and Randolph Scott, and he was Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen in The Comancheros with John Wayne. He was rather touching as Judge Neal Hefner in Cimarron and excellently comic/rascally again as Judge Bogardus in Arizona in 1940. He was a downright crooked one in Rage at Dawn.

Most famously, he was a judge in the 39-episode 1955/56 TV series Judge Roy Bean. Of course the series was complete hooey historically speaking, and far from the real Roy Bean, but so were all the other versions, such as The Westerner (Walter Brennan as the judge) or The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Paul Newman this time). Buchanan went for the ‘cheerful rogue’ approach and the real drunken sadism was quietly left out of a family show. Assisting the judge at his general store was his tomboy niece, Letty Bean (Jackie Lougherty) who arrived on the judge's doorstep after her parents died. Letty was blonde, beautiful and fast with a gun. Her romantic interest was Deputy Jeff Taggart (Jack Buetel, the wooden Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) who chased down all the bad guys that were brought before Judge Roy Bean.
Cheerful eccentric, not drunken criminal

After Roy Bean, he was much in demand whenever a Western needed a judge, especially a judge with strong character (Cimarron, The Comancheros, Ride the High Country).

Judge or marshal, yes, but he could also be on the other side of the law. In Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die he was Curly Bill, and it was the chief villain part too. He perishes trying out the border roll once too often.

But he could also do the ‘amusing town character’ part, such as Milt in The Sheepman or the blacksmith, as we have said, in When the Daltons Rode. He was Vince Moore, the moonshiner with “eligible” daughters in the amusing The Rounders. He was the rascally and bibulous keeper of the jail and narrator of the story in Four Fast Guns. He was the mean white-trash Pappy with mentally deficient sons in Gunpoint.

He was an old-timer prospector or miner in The Walking Hills and McLintock! as well as in Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford again - in fact Glenn shoots him).

He was fourth-billed as wheelchair-bound rancher Dan Wells in The Lonesome Trail.

He often did sidekick/helper. He voiced the old-timer factotum Sorry in Dale Robertson's The Man from Button Willow and was Judge Fred MacMurray's helper in Day of the Badman, in a pink apron, and he also wore an apron as the nurse-housekeeper in The Sea of Grass. Of course as Red Connors he sidekicked Hoppy on TV in the mid-50s.

Quite a few times he was the sheriff, as in Abilene Town in 1946 where he was the cowardly Sheriff Bravo Trimble (great name, nice little film) or Coroner Creek in 1948, a Luke Short story, both Randolph Scott pictures, and he was the marshal in The Big Trees with Kirk Douglas (he had quite a big part there). He was a kindly marshal in Devil's Doorway and a shrewd, rather unwilling one in the excellent Dawn at Socorro. Not technically a sheriff but still a kind of lawman, a wily Wells, Fargo detective, in Cave of Outlaws, he used a derringer, secreted in his derby, so that was especially good.

Or he could be an Army sergeant as in the 1944 Buffalo Bill (McCrea again) where he was Sgt. Chips McGraw in a wonderful comic/moving performance, and again in Flaming Feather in 1952. I thought he was great as the stage post manager in Fox's underrated but quality little Western, Rawhide, with Tyrone Power in 1951. And of course famously he was the farmer Fred Lewis in Shane.
Sheriff again

He did loads of TV work, appearing again and again in any number of shows. He was Old Dan, then Old York in Gunsmoke in 1962 and 1963. He was in four Laramie episodes and six of The Rifleman. Tales of Wells Fargo, Maverick, Wagon Train, the list goes on. He was so recognizable, so strong in those (good or bad) crusty old-timer parts. He was often called “Old” Something or “Uncle” Something. These TV programs as much as the movies made him a stock character of Westerns (no fewer than 79 are listed on IMDb, 1940 - 1971). That round face and gravelly voice only had to appear on the screen for you to say ‘Oh good, Edgar Buchanan’.

Late in life he did the entertaining The Over the Hill Gang and The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again with other Western old-timers, in which he could make the most of his age.
Fred Lewis in Shane

He only topped the billing once in a Western, in Lippert's The Silver Star in 1955 (not yet reviewed).

In his last ever Western, Burt Kennedy's Welcome to Hard Times in 1967, he pretty well stole the show in a tiny cameo as a clerk sent out from the territorial capital to register Hard Times as an official town.

William Edgar Buchanan died after a stroke in 1979. He has been sorely missed.

Next time you’re watching Westerns, have fun Edgar-spotting.


  1. I remember this chap .. a career character actor - in supporting roles for the most part. He looks a bit like Burl Ives who I was just doing a bio on for The Big Country (1958). Many of these old timers (I'm no spring chicken myself) have extraordinary backgrounds in all sorts of things they did from bygone eras - the 30's and 40's in particular. It's very interesting - and an education.

  2. Yes, Westerns are full of character actors like this who turn up again and again. Sometimes you say, "I know that fellow" but can't remember his name. Other times, like Edgar, you know him right away.
    You are right, he does look a bit like Burl Ives! Ives was actually in 8 Westerns, notably the William Wyler/Gregory Peck movie The Big Country in 1958 and the André de Toth/Robert Ryan picture Day of the Outlaw in 1959. Not bad either!
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. There is an other nice anecdot about Buchanan who was never forgetting his dentist past, found in the book
    Talk's Cheap, Action's Expensive - The Films of Robert L. Lippert by Mark Thomas McGee :
    Arriving on the set of The Silver Star in 1955, a very low budget film - not a single extra seen in it... It would surely deserve your keen attention...-, on the very first day of production, he raised the director Richard Bartlett's lip and looked at his teeth saying :
    "I think you need a filling here."
    It could have been one of his best lines!

    1. Most amusing!
      Sadly, THE SILVER STAR is not on YouTube and not available from amazon on DVD. I'd love to see it!

  4. Jeff, it is a little old but look at