Mailbag: Boots, saddles and ‘Father Knows Best’

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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The cast of "Father Knows Best' poses in this undated file photo. Robert Young (center) with "wife" Jane Wyatt (top right), clockwise are their "children" Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin and Elinor Donahue. Young, loved by millions of viewers as television's all-knowing dad Jim Anderson and compassionate doctor Marcus Welby died July 21, 1998, at 91. (AP Photo/Movie Star News)

If it’s Thursday, this must be the mailbag, and it comes with boots and saddles.

Q: I watch Encore’s Westerns channel a lot. Robert J. Wilke is not a well-known name, but his face is very recognizable. Can you give me a condensed bio on this terrific bad guy?

A: Like you, I did not know the name but had an “Oh, yeah, that guy” reaction to the face. He was part of the villainous three waiting at the train station in High Noon (the others were Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley). According to the All Movie Guide (via nytimes.com), the Cincinnati native’s “first taste of popularity came while he was performing with a high-dive act at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Encouraged to give Hollywood a try, Wilke entered films as a stunt man and bit player in 1936. He spent most of his movie career in Westerns ... generally playing bad-guy roles which required both menace and physical dexterity.”

He worked frequently; the Internet Movie Database’s long list of his credits includes five different guest-starring roles on Bonanza, five others in Laramie (also part of the next question) and four on Wagon Train. Besides High Noon, you may also have spotted him in the original Magnificent Seven, the ’50s TV series The Untouchables (where, according to IMDB, he played both Bugs Moran and Dutch Schultz) or as a general in the Bill Murray comedy Stripes. He died in 1989 at the age of 74.

Q: What’s Robert Fuller of “Laramie” up to and how is he doing? Are “Laramie” episodes available on DVD or VHS?

A: At 79, Fuller — also known for his work on the TV series Emergency and Wagon Train — has put acting behind him but still makes public appearances. At the annual Western Heritage Awards by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma in April, he presented four awards — all for printed works — in tandem with Anita La Cava Swift, a granddaughter of John Wayne. (Fuller was inducted into the hall in 2008.) He is also expected along with a host of other cowboy stars at the Memphis Film Festival in June.

Laramie, which aired from 1959 to 1963 on NBC, has been released on DVD by Timeless Media in sets consisting of each of its four seasons and in a complete-series box. If your local retailer cannot get them, try online sellers like Amazon.com

Q: What was the name of the TV show in the early to middle ’50s that Robert Young was in? Are any of the cast members still alive?

A: I think you are remembering Father Knows Best, the family comedy starring Young, which originally ran from 1954 to 1960. According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, the show was unsuccessful at first, with CBS canceling it after a single season. But viewer protests prompted NBC to renew the show and air it for three seasons before it returned to CBS for two more. By then it was so popular, CBS aired reruns in prime time for two seasons, and ABC for another season after CBS. And, of course, there were daytime repeats, where I discovered the show.

The core cast included Young as insurance man Jim Anderson, Jane Wyatt as his wife, Margaret, and Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin as their children Betty (also known as Princess), Bud and Kathy (or Kitten). Young died in 1998, and Wyatt in 2006. But the three younger actors are still with us at this writing.

Q: What’s the deal with Nick Turturro being gone from “Blue Bloods?”

a: You may have missed seeing him in the May 3 episode. But Turturro is not a regular on the series; from the beginning, he has been a recurring player, meaning that he appears more than once but not in every episode. He has been in about half a dozen of the telecasts in the current season, which wraps up Friday. The series has been renewed for 2013-14.

Do you have a question or comment for the mailbag? Write to the Akron Beacon Journal, 44 E. Exchange St., Akron, OH 44309 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com. Please mark the email or envelope with “mailbag.” Letters may be edited for publication. Please do not phone in questions. Individual replies cannot be guaranteed.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.


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