I always enjoyed those "comic" interludes in various western movies. If the hero was serious, having a humorous sidekick added a lot to the "teamwork" and gave a great break in between the tense times. It's not easy adding humor to anything - whether in a book, a theater production or a movie. I'm doffing my Stetson (well, okay, it's just a knock-off) to those colorful western cowboy movie sidekicks who made me laugh. Without their presence, it just wouldn't be a classic western movie.
Dub Taylor - born 1907, Walter Clarence Taylor, Jr. in Virginia. He was the father of Buck Taylor who portrayed Newly O'Brien on TV's Gunsmoke. Dub was known for his trademark bowler hat, unruly gray hair and unshaven face, along with a particularly funny cackle. Dub portrayed 'Cannonball' as a comic sidekick in almost fifty films over a decade beginning in 1939. He also appeared as Casey Jones' fireman, Wally, in the Casey Jones television series. Dub portrayed a minister in The Wild Bunch, appeared in Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and was an ornery chuckwagon cook in The Undefeated with John Wayne and Rock Hudson. Dub played the drunken Doc Shultz in Support Your Local Gunfighter and also guest starred in television series such as Little House on the Prairie, Cheyenne, Laredo, High Chaparral, The Range Riders and Custer among many others. Taylor died in 1994.
Gabby Hayes - born 1885, George Francis Hayes in New York. Hayes and his wife were so successful in vaudeville that Gabby retired in 1928 at the age of 42 to a home in Long Island, New York. Unfortunately, the couple lost everything in the 1929 Stock Market Crash. His wife Dorothy convinced him to move to Los Angeles and try his hand in films, so they headed west. George Hayes was well-educated, always groomed and intelligent, and wasn't a fan of westerns -- but ended up in plenty of them, muttering phrases such as "dad gum it," "persnickety female," "young whippersnapper" and "yer durn tootin'." For four years, 1935 to 1939, he portrayed Windy Halliday, the sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy. He then moved to a different studio where they chose a new name, Gabby Whitaker, as a sidekick to Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Wild Bill Elliott. He also portrayed sidekicks to John Wayne and Randolph Scott. From 1950 to 1954, he hosted The Gabby Hayes Show on television, introducing the stories while often whittling. He died in 1969. In Blazing Saddles, a character named Gabby Johnson spouts off a bunch of 'western' gibberish in homage to Hayes.
Chill Wills - born 1902, Chill Theodore Wills in Texas. His unique voice (although he didn't get billing) pushed sarcastic Francis the Talking Mule to stardom in several movies with Donald O'Connor. He portrayed Uncle Bawley in Giant, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Chill Wills earned an Emmy nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Beekeeper to John Wayne's Davey Crockett in The Alamo, but after a disastrous vote-getting campaign, he lost to Peter Ustinov. Chill Wills also portrayed Drago in McLintock! He appeared in The Over-The-Hill Gang, The Over-The-Hill Gang Rides Again and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He died of cancer in 1978.
Jack Elam - born 1920, William Scott Elam in Arizona. A childhood accident left him blind in his left eye, which skewed to the side (I can personally attest that people do notice a lazy eye!). That trait led to him playing villains for the most part in his early career, and comedic roles in later films. Jack had roles in movies such as Rawhide, High Noon with Gregory Peck (Elam played a drunk in jail), Rancho Notorious with Marlene Dietrich, The Far Country with James Stewart, Wichita, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Comancheros, 4 for Texas and Firecreek. Jack got a good guy role as Deputy Marshall J. D. Smith in The Dakotas, a TV show that ran for one year in 1963. In 1968, he played a gunslinger in Once Upon A Time in the West, John Wayne's sidekick in Rio Lobo and a comical role in Support Your Local Sheriff. Jack also portrayed comic roles in The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and Hot Lead, Cold Feet. His portrayal of a thief along with Strother Martin in the TV special The Ransom of Red Chief is my personal favorite, incredibly hilarious. Jack died in 2003.
Strother Martin - born 1919, Strother Martin, Jr. in Indiana. He's best known for his role of the prison 'captain' in Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman, when he uttered the famous line, "What we've got here is... failure to communicate." His unique voice and way of speaking is what I remember best of the actor in many western films. Martin played the comical incompetent Indian agent in McLintock! and the beleaguered horse trader in 1969's True Grit -- where the dialogue, his cantankerous manner and voice seemed to match perfectly! Martin also appeared in numerous other film and television westerns, such as The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Flim-Flam Man, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rooster Cogburn and The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday. Martin died in 1980.
Slim Pickens - born 1919, Louis Burton Lindley, Jr. in California. An excellent rider, he worked in rodeo for twenty years despite a salary of "slim pickings" - which led to his name. Slim also worked as a rodeo clown. He'd developed a unique Oklahoma-Texas drawl that earned him roles in many westerns, the first being Rocky Mountain with Errol Flynn. He also appeared in The Story of Will Rogers, The Sheepman, One-Eyed Jacks, Stagecoach, Will Penny, The Cowboys, The Sacketts, The Apple Dumpling Gang and Tom Horn plus numerous TV episodes like Annie Oakley, The Wide Country which was a rodeo style show, Outlaws, The Lone Ranger, Alias Smith and Jones, Daniel Boone, The Virginian, Kung Fu and Bonanza. Slim noticed a huge difference in his career after he starred as Major "King" Kong in Dr. Strangelove. Instead of "hey you," he was now called "Mr. Pickens." Stanley Kubrick re-shot the bomb-riding scene in over 100 takes, which didn't sit well with Slim. He turned down a role in Kubrick's The Shining due to the multiple takes Kubrick had demanded. Slim was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1982, and also the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame for his rodeo clown work. He died in 1983 after surgery for a brain tumor.
Walter Brennan - born in 1894, Walter Andrew Brennan in Massachusetts. After serving in World War I, Brennan raised pineapples in Guatemala and then became rich from the real estate market in California. After he lost his fortune during the Great Depression, he took bit film parts such as 1938's role of Muff Potter, the murderer, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In 1932 Walter lost several teeth in an accident, and that along with his thinning hair, slim build and shuffling gait led to playing much older men in roles. He also took on a "gee whiz, shucks" speech pattern perfect for westerns, and not always as the sidekick. Walter played a shop owner in Sergeant York with Gary Cooper, but also a few villains such as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner, 'Old Man' Clanton in My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda and Colonel Jeb Hawkins in How the West Was Won. He starred in the six-year television series The Real McCoys and the two-year series, The Guns of Will Sonnett. Walter played the cranky sidekick to John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, co-starred with James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff, and got top billing in The Over-The-Hill Gang and The Over-The-Hill Gang Rides Again. Deservedly so, since Walter won three Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards for his work - and he is still the only actor to reach that level. He died in 1974.
Don Knotts and Tim Conway - Jesse Donald Knotts, born 1924 in West Virginia, and Thomas Daniel Conway, born 1933 in Ohio, made a formidable comedy team in The Apple Dumpling Gang and its sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Don is best known as Barney Fife, sidekick to Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. He also played Mr. Furley in Three's Company, plus starred in the films The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, Hot Lead and Cold Feet and The Shakiest Gun in the West. Tim is far better known as Ernest Borgnine's sidekick on McHale's Navy, but he did star as an inept Texas Ranger in 1967's brief western television series, Rango. Tim's work on The Carol Burnett Show, however, as Mr. Tudball and 'The Old Man' plus his skits with co-stars Carol, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner, remain fan favorites. Don died in 2006, although Tim is still toodling along in retirement. Who doesn't love Tim Conway?
Add your favorite sidekicks in the comments below!
Meg Mims is the award-winning author of Double Crossing (WWA Spur Award - Best First Novel, 2012) and Double or Nothing, the sequel. She also writes contemporary romance novellas. Meg loves westerns on film and TV despite her lack of enthusiasm for riding a real horse -- a mutual feeling in the few instances they've attempted to pair up. Meg prefers her sofa while watching cowboys at work. Less dust, bugs and sunburn, too.
Meg is also one half of the team D.E. Ireland, contracted for a cozy mystery series featuring G.B. Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle - coming in 2014 from St. Martin's Press.