Exclusive interview with Robert Crawford, Jr.—Andy Sherman on Laramie.

Robert Crawford, Jr.—The Boy from Laramie
By Henry C. Parke


“I got [the part in] Laramie immediately after doing A Child of Our Time, right about the time I was nominated [for an Emmy].” Indeed, young Bobby Crawford’s acting career had taken off suddenly. At 12, he had an unbilled bit in 1956’s The Girl He Left Behind with Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood. A year later, he was delivering a telegram—and some dialog—to Hugh O’Brian in Wyatt Earp. By 1959, he had a major role in a three-episode story on Walt Disney’s Zorro, climaxing with a battle that knocks Bobby down a well. “Zorro saves me from the well!” he remembers. “I loved being at the Disney Studios and being with Zorro, Guy Williams, a wonderful man. Mary Wickes played my aunt, and the sergeant, Henry Calvin, was a wonderful roly-poly fellow. I didn’t realize [at the time] he was a great opera singer.” 

And then Crawford, Jr. got the role that would change his life—twice—in “Child of Our Time,” an episode of the prestigious live drama series, Playhouse 90. He plays Tanguy, the lead, a Spanish orphan who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. “I was there for a bit part and I read for [Director] George [Roy] Hill. He said, ‘That’s good. Why don’t you read this?’ And he gave me another scene to read, and he liked that. They wanted some [star] name value for the show; they wanted somebody who’d done a lead role, and I had just done bit parts up to that point. [But] George always liked to stick his neck out.” 

Bobby ultimately got the lead, and he was nominated for Best Actor in a Drama. “I got to sit right in front of Fred Astaire,” Bobby recalls, “And he tapped me on the shoulder and he says, ‘Oh, we’re in the same category, and that’s ridiculous.’” Bobby lost to Astaire, but then, so did the other nominees: Mickey Rooney, Christopher Plummer, Rod Steiger, and Paul Muni—Oscar winners all. Incredibly, there were two more Emmy nominations for his family that year: his father, Robert Crawford, Sr., for Best Editing for The Bob Cummings Show, and Bobby’s kid brother Johnny Crawford, star of The Rifleman, for Best Supporting Actor—though he lost to Dennis Weaver for Gunsmoke.

Robert Crawford, Jr. in LaramieLaramie is the story of the Sherman brothers, Slim (John Smith) and Andy (Bobby Crawford), who fight to keep the family ranch and stagecoach stop after their father is murdered. Jess Harper (Robert Fuller) is the cowboy with a colorful past who joins forces with the brothers. The story itself didn’t change, but turns out that wasn’t the intended casting. “Producer Robert Pirosh was the writer of the pilot. He cast me. I came out to do a reading with Bob Fuller, a screen test. Slim was the part that he had originally been cast for. And he said, ‘It’s wonderful, but the part’s wrong. I should be Jess. I can’t do it otherwise.’ John Smith was a very nice man and he said, ‘It’s fine with me.’ “Of course, I looked a lot more like Bob Fuller. John Smith was blond, and now I’m supposed to be his brother, so they dyed my hair blond for the pilot. And it grew out in like four months. I went from being a short-haired blond to brunette with long hair in the series.”

The other regular, Jonesy, a helper, cook, and “conscience” à la Jiminy Cricket, was played by Hoagy Carmichael, the legendary songwriter of “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Buttermilk Sky,” and so many others. “I adored Hoagy Carmichael. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t get to know Hoagy other than in passing. We have a couple of episodes where he’s showing me the piano, and he’s singing a cute song. Now in my later years, I find myself driving down the road singing “Stardust” in the morning. And I’m thinking, if only I’d known about that when he was playing at the piano.”

During filming, he got to know the leads a lot better. “They were jolly. They were in their prime, just thrilled to be starring in the series. They were congenial and fun on the set, which is the only time I got to be with them for the most part. We had some publicity stunts: I did a double date with Bob Fuller once. Bob was a quick draw. What I was learning on Laramie [besides my lines] was how to be a quick draw. I got the steel holster that helped, but I could never quite out-draw him. Bob Fuller had a forearm as big as my thigh. And my ambition as a kid was to get a forearm as big as Bob Fuller’s. So, I would do my pushups and pull-ups and my fencing. 

“John Smith was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life. I don’t know what kind of [lucky] curse that was on him. He was a decent, charming man, but it was like he was backlit all the time, he just glowed in the dark. Fuller was good looking but rugged; it [didn’t have] quite the same impact.”

Robert Crawford, Jr. in LaramieOver the years, the series had an impressive roster of guest stars: Edmond O’Brien, Clu Gulager, Rod Cameron, Lloyd Nolan, and many more. Among Crawford, Jr.’s favorites, “It was just terrific fun to work with Ernie Borgnine. I remember being under the table with Ernie. I knew he was an Academy Award winner, and doing TV was still a [second-rate] gig for a movie star. But boy, he was a neat fellow. He was always playing these mean tough guys, but in person, he was just the most easygoing, charming guy who just loved being there on the set. [In] the first episode, Dan Duryea played the bad guy. He had this wonderful demeanor about him. I just remember him being a scary man. I felt he was a good casting [choice]: he was a dangerous fellow. I loved all the actors that I got to be around. Every one of them was a character, but it was true of all the grips, electricians, the prop men. Everybody on a Hollywood set is a pro, especially in the major leagues, and I was in the majors then.”

Certainly, working on the series at Universal was everything a kid could wish for, “being surrounded by cowboys, by guns, by raccoons and chickens and horses,” as Crawford, Jr. recalled. “I had a dressing room on a stage nearby and it was walking distance to the set. The stagecoach would ride down to our stagecoach stop, which was just around the corner from the wardrobe department. And when the stagecoach wasn’t on that road, the tour bus would come down and stop, and we’d go sign some autographs, and then it would go on and we’d take the next shot. You didn’t do a lot of locations. I don’t recall going out to the ranches. I remember being on the backlot for almost everything.”Of his time on the series, he remembers, “I was just kind of shy on the set. I didn’t develop relationships with the crew. I was always feeling like I was the kid on the show, not necessarily the pro on the show. My brother would get around to every member of the set, he knew everybody. I just sort of passed through my experience as a kid on Laramie, enjoying the moments and remembering some of them, but mostly just saying ‘this too will pass.’”

And suddenly, it did. “I didn’t think that I wouldn’t stay in the show, until the next season began, and they [said], ‘well, they’ve written you out,’ and I said, ‘okay.’ I was just ready to get back to school and see what happened next in my career, because I didn’t expect that I would be an actor as an adult.” 

Crawford, Jr. attended UCLA, dropping in and out to play guest TV roles throughout the 1960s, and he kept in touch with his “Child of Our Time” episode director, George Roy Hill, who gave him a part in Hawaii. In fact, Hill was so impressed with a short film Crawford, Jr. made that he wanted to work with him again, this time, behind the camera. Hill approached him saying, “I’m doing this movie, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid at Fox. Would you like to be a dialogue coach? And shoot a documentary about the making of it? People always ask what I do behind the scenes, and I tell them, ‘I don’t know.’” 

Robert Crawford, Jr. in LaramieNot only did Butch Cassidy go on to win four Oscars, but Robert Crawford, Jr.’s documentary is also widely considered the best “making of” documentary ever made. He was a production assistant on Hill’s next film, Slaughterhouse Five, but had a different credit on the following film, The Sting: Producer. “I like to think that to his Man of La Mancha, I got to be Sancho Panza.” Crawford would ultimately produce all of Hill’s subsequent films, including The Great Waldo Pepper, Slap Shot, A Little Romance, The World According to Garp, and The Little Drummer Girl.

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.


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