Frank Ferguson, Western character actor (1899 - 1978)
Good old Frank Ferguson. Many people will see that craggy, familiar face and think of Eli in Peyton Place but to us Western fans, the Westernistas, los aficionados, the true folk, the beautiful people, he means much more than some cheesy soap opera. Frank was in 214 Westerns: A, B and TV, though thankfully not spaghetti. He was one of those Western character actors like Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan or Slim Pickens whom you recognized instantly, and knew that the Western would be, if not good (one couldn’t guarantee that), at least better for his appearance in it.
Frank often played the lawman, leading townsman or judge. Something about that craggy brow, mustache and downward-sloping eyebrows gave him a certain gravitas, although he could also act the pompous or self-important type. He was Judge Roy Bean in the 1959 episode Law West of the Pecos of the ABC Western series Colt .45 and Governor Lew Wallace in the NBC series The Tall Man, starring Barry Sullivan as Sheriff Pat Garrett and Clu Galager as Billy the Kid.
In fact he did a huge amount of TV work. He was of course the ranch handyman Gus on the CBS series My Friend Flicka and the Calverton veterinarian in Lassie. But if I tell you that he appeared in sometimes multiple episodes of Alias Smith and Jones, Bat Masterson, Bonanza, Bronco, Cheyenne, Colt .45, Death Valley Days, Destry, Frontier Circus, Frontier Justice, Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel, Hopalong Cassidy, How the West was Won, Klondike, Kung Fu, Laramie, Lawman, Little House on the Prairie, Maverick, Overland Trail, Riverboat, Sheriff of Cochise, Shotgun Slade, Stagecoach West, Sugarfoot, Tales of Texas Rangers, Tales of Wells Fargo, Temple Houston, The Deputy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger, The Restless Gun, The Restless Gun, The Rifleman, The Tall Man, The Texan, The Virginian, The Westerner, US Marshal, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wichita Town, Wide Country and Zane Grey Theatre, and I may have missed a couple, you will understand that as a Western character actor, Frank Ferguson verged on the ubiquitous.
It’s in big-screen Western movies, though, that I prefer to see Frank. He debuted in They Died With Their Boots On, one of my favorite Errol Flynn/Raoul Walsh pictures, in 1941 as Grant’s secretary, uncredited, but we all have to start somewhere. In Canyon Passage, another fave of mine, he was Preacher, but still uncredited, and he was uncredited again in a 1947 Bill Elliott oater, The Fabulous Texan, and yet again as a cavalry lieutenant in California, but it was fame at last in 1948 as seventh-billed “Mr. Green” in the quality William Holden/Robert Mitchum film Rachel and the Stranger.
After that you can spot him as a newspaperman in JohnFord ’s Fort Apache and as Jim Dobbs in Universal’s remake of Destry Rides Again, Frenchie, with Joel McCrea and Shelley Winters, in 1950. He was Dr. Grieve in the Anthony Mann-directed The Furies in the same year and, finally a ‘proper’ role, he was Bat Masterson in the 1951 Randolph Scott oater Santa Fe.
Highlights afterwards included his Tom Grundy in the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western Bend of the River,
cattleman John Britton in the interesting John Ireland picture Hannah Lee: An American Primitive (1953), Mr. Dyar in the Delmer Daves/Alan Ladd effort Drum Beat (1954) and his patriarch rancher Chad Polsen in the underrated The Outcast, also 1954.
He was in both those odd Westerns Rancho Notorious (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954), the preacher in the first and the sheriff in the second. In fact he was in no fewer than 23 Westerns 1952 – 54, quite an achievement.
My Friend Flicka started in 1955 and that kept him busy. The rest of his Western career was mostly given over to TV work but he was also in some feature Westerns. He was sheriff yet again in a George Montgomery oater Gun Duel in Durango and the DA in a Sterling Hayden one, The Iron Sheriff, both in 1957. The following year he was a marshal again in the 1958 Gary Cooper Western Man of the West and a clergyman again in another Sterling Hayden effort, the interesting little Terror in a Texas Town.
He appeared in the Audie oater The Quick Gun (1964) and as General Terry in The Great Sioux Massacre (1965).
Wherever Frank Ferguson pops up in the credits, you always say, oh good, Frank Ferguson. He’s one of those actors. He’s certainly in my dream Western, in a thick gray suit, in the saloon, urging caution on lynch-minded townsmen or maybe as a kindly lawyer helping the dispossessed rancher’s daughter. His walrus mustache and crinkly face smile gravely.