By Henry C. Parke
To say that Earl Holliman was thrilled to be cast with Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea in 1957’s Trooper Hook is a vast understatement.
“I’d seen Barbara Stanwyck in a picture called Message to Garcia when I was seven. Growing up, she was one of my loves, my idols,” he says about the time he lived in Kerrville, Texas.
In Trooper Hook she plays a rescued white captive with a half-Indian child. McCrea is the soldier returning her to her husband, and Holliman is the likable young drifter who becomes their ally. “I was telling Barbara how I remembered her and Joel in Banjo on My Knee, when I was eight or nine years old. When Joel got in the stagecoach, she immediately nodded toward me and said to him, ‘Banjo on My Knee.’ They enjoyed that I remembered that movie.”
He got along well with McCrea as well, even though he wasn’t Joel’s first choice for that role. “Joel wanted his son Jody to play my part, but the director, Charles Marquis Warren, had cast me. I gotta say Joel was a sweetheart. The night they sneak-previewed Trooper Hook, I sat next to Joel, the titles came on, and it said Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman in Trooper Hook. I almost fell out of my seat: it was the first time my name appeared above the title! When Joel saw it, he said, ‘Hey, that’s good billing!’ And hit me so hard with his elbow that he could have knocked me out of my seat.”
Earl had been in Hollywood for about five years, following a hitch in the Navy. He was accepted at the Pasadena Playhouse, but that didn’t get him into the business. His way through the impenetrable studio gates came by way of a haircut: a friend revealed that you could get into Paramount, “by saying I had an appointment with Victor, the barber.” It was there he befriended casting director, and later producer of The Rainmaker, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill, Paul Nathan. “He was the one responsible for so many of the good things in my career. He was like a mentor, and my best friend.”
His first speaking role was in the 1953 Martin and Lewis comedy, Scared Stiff, “A one-line bit as the elevator operator. Dean Martin, the first actor I ever worked with, said, ‘Which way is room 1401?’ ‘Straight down the hall and turn to the left.’” A dozen years later, “I end up playing his brother in The Sons of Katie Elder. I mean, my God, another lucky thing!
“With John Wayne, so many good actors have worked with him time and again. I was the only one that John Wayne didn’t know. Acting with him, you would never have known that he’d just come back from having his lung removed, because he gave it his all every minute in front of that camera. He didn’t hold back. When we were under the bridge, when I die in his arms, he plays it beautifully. I was thinking about all the death scenes, and how many different people’s arms I’ve died in. In Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge I died in Jim Arness’ arms, after all those times he’s been shooting and killing me in Gunsmoke.”
Like Katie Elder, in Broken Lance, Earl was part of a quartet of famous sons, with Hugh O’Brian, Robert Wagner, and Richard Widmark, with whom he’d worked in Destination Gobi. Widmark, “was the first movie star that ever took me aside and gave me advice. ‘Don’t become one of these Hollywood nightclub actors, hanging out in the bars, trying to get in the movie magazines.’ Later on, when he was about to do The Trap at Paramount, Dick Widmark asked for me to play his brother.”
“In those days, when you were supporting player, on location, you were in a room for two. Hugh O’Brian was my roommate. He was very sharp about building a career, working on the press; he was on the telephone every night, or writing his letters to Louella [Parsons] and Hedda [Hopper]. He was fun. The last roommate I guess was Dennis Hopper, when we did Giant.”
Although he was an actor who didn’t pull punches, one of the kinder actors Holliman worked with was Kirk Douglas. In Last Train from Gun Hill, Holliman, the son of cattle-baron Anthony Quinn, has murdered the wife of Quinn’s best friend, Douglas. There’s a gut-wrenching scene where Quinn humiliates his son, “and I’m so needy and unloved. It was a whole different side of the character.” It wasn’t in the original script. “That was added by Kirk, and it was really generous of him.”
About Henry C. Parke
Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based screenwriter and wanna-be cowboy Henry C. Parke has been Film Editor for True West since 2015 and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti and domestic Westerns, and he’s got a saddle-bag full of Western scripts.