Clu Gulager, the real Oklahoma cowboy known for his tricks the big man, The Virginian, The last picture show and horror movies including Return of the Living Dead, is dead. He was 93 years old.
Gulager died Friday of natural causes at the Los Angeles home of his son John and stepdaughter Diane, they said. The Hollywood Reporter.
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Gulager also portrayed hitman protege Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) being taken away by a mob boss (Ronald Reagan) in Don Siegel’s The killers (1964), racing car mechanic opposite Paul Newman in Winner (1969) and a detective working alongside John Wayne’s character in John Sturges McQ (1974).
More recently, he’s appeared on the big screen in such critical darlings as Mandarin (2015), Blue jay (2016) and Quentin Tarantino Once upon a time in Hollywood (2019).
Gulager’s performance in The killers convinced Peter Bogdanovich to cast him as Abilene, the oilfield foreman who made love to Ellen Burstyn’s character and seduced Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in a deserted pool hall, in The last picture show (1971).
Part-Cherokee gambler Gulager burst onto the scene in September 1960 when he starred as Billy the Kid opposite Barry Sullivan as Pat Garrett in NBC’s the big man. Two seasons later, the series was canceled in part because Congress objected to notorious outlaw Billy being “incorrectly” portrayed as a hero to young viewers.
“But they left The Incorruptibles on, which was very violent,” Gulager noted in a 2015 interview. “I played a character who was called ‘Mad Dog’ Coll [in 1959] where I killed a horse in a horse race, killed a little boy in Brooklyn, and cut off a bartender’s fingers. But they left it because they thought this show was historically accurate.
After starring in two episodes of NBC The Virginian, Gulager arrived in Medicine Bow, Wyoming for the start of the show’s third season in 1964 as Deputy Sheriff Emmett Ryker. He appeared with James Drury and Doug McClure on over 50 episodes before leaving in 1968.
In Return of the Living Dead (1985), Gulager portrayed the boss of a medical supply warehouse who battles the undead. It was a job he was hesitant to take, he said. “I didn’t particularly want to do it,” he recalled in 2017. “I thought I was a little above that. And it turned out that if I’m remembered, it’s for that will be remembered… I killed 18 zombies and then they came back and bombarded me!
Gulager appeared in another scary and notable 1985 film, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. He later played a shotgun-wielding bartender in the horror movie Feast (2005) and its two straight-to-video sequels, then worked in Piranha 3DD (2012). These four films were directed by his son John.
William Martin Gulager was born on November 16, 1928, in Holdenville, a wooded town about 75 miles outside of Oklahoma City. Her father, John, was a Broadway actor who became a county judge, and her mother, Hazel, worked for the Veterans Administration. His second cousin was Will Rogers.
His father’s nickname for him was derived from the clu-clu birds – known in English as martins – which nested around the family home. After high school and service in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gulager attended Northeastern State College and Baylor University, where he received a scholarship to study in Paris with famed actor and mime artist Jean Louis Barrault (The Children of Paradise) before graduation in 1956.
He worked on live television in New York on programs such as Omnibus, The hour of steel in the United States and Goodyear Playhouse before moving to Los Angeles in 1959. He appeared on Wanted dead or alive, Have a gun – Voyageraand Laramie and was hired for the big man after MCA chief Lew Wasserman saw him play an Elvis-like character on CBS Maisonette 90.
“I was an Oklahoma cowboy. I rode the fences [around cattle] in winter and summer I was out in the field, watching rattlesnakes,” Gulager said in a 2019 interview. “And then later on you move on and something takes you, and you want Well, I could play cowboy, and it was easy for me to ride a pony and wear a hat.
Future Universal and Columbia Pictures boss Frank Price, who produced and wrote for the big manhired Gulager to The Virginian. “I was broke when I got on [that show]he said in 2014. “I had to ask Frank Price, who ran it, for a job. He fired an actor from the set and hired me. If I had known he fired someone, I wouldn’t have taken the job.
In 1970 Gulager starred with Lloyd Bridges in the NBC drama San Francisco International Airport, also produced by Price, but it only lasted six episodes. He was winemaker Chase Gioberti in the 1981 pilot for falcon crest but replaced by Robert Foxworth when the show was picked up by CBS.
Gulager said he improvised a lot while making the neo-noir classic The killers. “I was surprised that Lee Marvin let me do all that, actually,” he noted during an interview with Eddie Muller after a January 2020 screening of the film on TCM. Black Alley. “But the director wanted me to invent things to [make the character] a psychotic, really a crackpot. So I tried to go along with that.
Gulager has also appeared on shows such as Dr Kildare, Bargain, Mannix, Five-O’s from Hawaii, The Murder She Wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger and The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove and in films including The other side of midnight (1977), A force of one (1979), In the night (1985), I will make you suck (1988), The Willies (1990) and My heroes have always been cowboys (1991).
He directed A day with the boys (1969), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or for best short film at Cannes – and filmed by the great László Kovács – and taught acting in a studio in Hollywood.
In addition to John and Diane, survivors include her son Tom; Tom’s wife, Zoe; and grandson Clu.
He was married to singer-actress Miriam Byrd-Nethery from 1952 until her death in 2003.
“Clu was as caring as he was loyal and dedicated to his craft, a proud member of the Cherokee Nation, a rule breaker, quick-witted and shrewd and on the side – always – of the underdog,” his family noted. “He was in a good mood, an avid reader, tender and kind. Loud and dangerous.
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