Cowboy Co-Stars! Chill Wills

Chill Wills

Even if you never saw Chill Wills in a movie, you’d guess he was a colorful character actor by his name alone! Some say he got the nickname as a joke because he was born on the hottest day of the year. More likely, it’s a shortened version of his real middle name, Childress.

Theodore Childress Wills was born on July 18, 1902, in Seagoville, Texas. Like Ken Curtis, Wills started out as a musician. At the age of 12, he was already performing in tent shows, in vaudeville, and with stock companies. In 1928, while performing a vaudeville show in Kansas City, he married ballet dancer Bettie Chappelle. The couple had two children.

In the mid-1930s, Wills formed the vocal group, Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys (also: The Avalon Boys). An RKO executive saw their show in Hollywood, and soon the quartet was appearing in low-budget Westerns. Wills’ personal big break came when the group sang in the Laurel and Hardy film Way Out West (1937), and Wills dubbed Stan Laurel’s singing voice with his own rich bass vocals. Soon after, the band broke up, and Wills went out on his own, but not as a singer.

Wills’ distinctive, gravely southern drawl and sometimes booming voice made him stand out as a character actor. Usually, he played good-humored, well-meaning cowpokes, but as he aged, he played characters who were more ill-tempered.

Some of his early film roles include Deputy Speedy McGow in Lawless Valley (1938), leading man George O’Brien’s sidekick, Whopper Hatch in Timber Stampede (1939), and Southeast in The Westerner (1940) starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan.

His popularity grew and he worked steadily in more prominent parts in bigger movies, including Rio Grande (1950) with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; High Lonesome (1950) with John Barrymore; Cattle Drive (1951) with Joel McCrea; Tumbleweed (1953) starring Audie Murphy; The Alamo (1960) starring John Wayne and Ken Curtis, and for which Wills earned an Academy Award nomination; The Deadly Companions (1961) with Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith; Gold of the Seven Saints (1961) with Clint Walker and Roger Moore; and McLintock! (1963) with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Stephanie Powers, among many other films.

But one of his most well-known and beloved performances is a series of films in which he doesn’t even appear—except in the form of a mule! From 1950 to 1955, Wills was the deep, rough, twangy, sarcastic voice of Francis the Mule in all but the final movie of the seven-film series. You won’t find his name in the credits, though. At the time, voice actors did not receive billing for their work. However, Wills was featured in the on-screen part of General Ben Kaye in the fifth film, Francis Joins the WACS.

When he wasn’t playing the sidekick to the stars or lending his voice to a mule, Wills appeared on many popular TV shows, including Route 66, Rawhide, The Rounders, on which he was a series regular along with Patrick Wayne, Burke’s Law, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, and more.

Wills’ wife Betty died in 1971, and in 1973 he married Novadeen Googe at the MGM Grand Hotel. Their marriage lasted until Wills’ death on December 15, 1978, at age 76.