Michael McGreevey: From Actor to Writer

Michael McGreevey: From Actor to Writer
By Henry C. Park


As a child and as a teen, Michael McGreevey co-starred in Burt Reynolds’ first Western series, and co-starred in big-screen Westerns with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Richard Widmark. Of course, if you know that his father was screenwriter John McGreevey, who won an Emmy for The Waltons, who created the Western series Black Saddle, you’d probably guess that Michael had a gentle “push” into showbiz. But you’d be mistaken. In fact, while Michael appeared on an episode of Black Saddle his father wrote, “What’s so funny is, he didn’t know that they were casting me.”

Growing up in Connecticut, “I was five, my sister, Kathy, was six or seven when we saw a Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers movie on television. And we went to Mom and said, we want to dance! So, my mom took us to dance school.” After a brief time writing radio, “My dad moved into television in New York. And [when] all the television started to move to the West Coast,” the McGreeveys moved with it.

In Los Angeles, “I went to a dance studio that was owned by Marge and Gower Champion.” Gower was choreographing a Jane Powell musical, The Girl Most Likely, and he cast nine kids from his school for a dream sequence, including Michael, “because I was a cute little red-headed kid. And Gower became my mentor.” Soon he was one of the Curfew Kids on The Gisele Mackenzie Show, “that was produced by Jack Benny, [who] decided that I had comic timing, and they started giving me little bits on the show.”


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Michael was soon a very busy young actor and played roles with more substance than most kids. “Black Saddle, that’s where I made my mark. They found out I could cry on cue without glycerin tears. I started doing a lot of very heavy, dramatic, guest-star stuff on television because I could do the emotional things. And looking back, I realize my mom was a wonderful director. As a kid, the night before I would work, she’d go over the scenes with me, and I didn’t know it at the time, [but] she was a better director than the people I was working with. As a kid, you were only as good as your director, and I was lucky enough to have this really good director that nobody knew about at home.”

His first Western was 1959’s Day of the Outlaw, “and some people consider it the best noir Western.” In a snowbound town, Robert Ryan faces down outlaw leader Burl Ives, who can barely keep his gang in check. “[Director] Andrew de Toth was cool. I had just come off Man in the Net with Alan Ladd, directed by Michael Curtiz, so I thought all directors had thick Hungarian accents. But the contrast between them—Curtiz was an awful man; he terrorized me. And de Toth was just the opposite; he was very gentle with me. I didn’t really understand the movie at 10. It had a lot of violence in it, very scary stuff.”


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It seemed almost pre-ordained that Michael would become a regular on a Western series like Riverboat. “I loved westerns: I wanted to be Mark on The Rifleman. I’d look in the mirror and practice saying, ‘Pa!’ Johnny Crawford was so good in it, and late in life, we became best friends again.” Riverboat starred Darren McGavin as the captain and Burt Reynolds as the pilot. Fifteen episodes in, Michael was added as Chip, whose parents are killed when the Sioux attack, and signs on as cabin boy. “I had a ball. Bill Whitney was a wonderful director. He could have a full cavalry charge, with Indians, flaming arrows, burning houses, the riverboat pulling away, and cavalry guys getting shot with arrows—and shoot the whole thing by 10 o’clock in the morning.”

Then there were the stars. “The only sad part was that Burt and Darren didn’t get along.  Burt was like the big brother I never had. He bought me my first football. And Darren was sort of a father figure to me; we had marvelous chemistry. They got into an exchange in front of all of us, and Burt just picked Darren up and threw him in the lake. Burt was fired.”

The 1960s were very busy years for Michael, who was guesting on everything from Naked City to Lassie. Then in 1967, he was cast in a Western epic. “Probably my favorite movie. I graduated Notre Dame High School on a Saturday, got on a plane to Oregon on Sunday, and started shooting The Way West on Monday Morning. What a great experience: Richard Widmark, Bob Mitchum, and Kirk Douglas. That’s where I finally met Dobe Carey (Harry Carey, Jr.), spent the whole summer with him and Jack Elam, and (Western villain) Roy Barcroft, and Study Kaye—a lot of my heroes. My dad had written Gidget episodes, and like a lot of 18-year-old boys, I fell in love with Sally Field. And the next thing I know, I’m playing her love interest! It was a dream come true. And what a talent, what a great lady.

“You couldn’t have three more different personalities than Widmark, Mitchum, and Douglas on the same set. And to his credit, [director] Andrew McLaglen handled them all very well.”

Two years later, Widmark would request Michael for his film Death of a Gunfighter. He plays the young man who idolizes lawman Widmark, then sees that the great man’s power has corrupted him. Daringly, Widmark’s love interest was Lena Horne. in the story, “Rosey Grier worked in the saloon, the muscle part of Lena Horne’s entourage. And he said to all of us, ‘You guys are all invited to come to the Ambassador Hotel tonight, and I’ll introduce you to Bobby Kennedy.’ I didn’t go because I had a 6:45 make-up call.” Michael went to bed early and didn’t hear about the assassination until he came to work in the morning. “I found out later that Rosey actually wrestled the guy to the ground. Rosey never came back to the set. The other weird thing, if you go to the very end [of the film] when he’s walking out in the street, and they have quick shots of people with guns watching him, a man comes out of a barn. And it’s O.J. Simpson. He spent the summer as an extra on Death of a Gunfighter.”

While Michael’s father kept their careers separate, “I came to him when I was at UCLA in the film department, and said, ‘I want to start writing.’ He said, ‘I’ll help you any way I can.’ And I ended up collaborating with him on a TV movie called Ruby and Oswald, about the Kennedy assassination. It was really a breaking point for me in terms of getting a chance. And I couldn’t have gotten it without him.” Soon Michael was as busy a screenwriter as he had been an actor, writing episodes of Quincy and Wonder Woman.


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He had the unusual experience of returning to shows as a writer that he’d acted in. He wrote four episodes of The Waltons. “By actually doing scenes with Richard Thomas or with Michael Learned as an actor, you have an insight into their approach to the character that you probably wouldn’t have if you just came in cold.” He wrote an episode of Father Murphy for Michael Landon, whom he’d first acted with on Bonanza when he was 13. “We became friends over the years, and he said, ‘Was I nice to you?’ I said, ‘You were really nice.’ And he goes, ‘Thank God. I was such a jerk to most people in those days.’ He wanted me to be the story editor on Highway to Heaven. That was one of the best days of my life: I was offered three shows in one day: story editor on Cagney and Lacey, Fame, and Highway to Heaven. I took Fame because I wanted to be a dancer.” Michael would become a producer on Fame, Born Free, and Tarzan: The Epic Adventures. He wrote the TV movie Bonanza: The Return, which was meant as a back-door pilot but was not crushed that it didn’t go to series. “You can’t bring ’em back, you know? Bonanza was Bonanza, and it was really hard to recapture any of that without any of those people.”

He’s recently made a pair of documentaries: Earl Hamner Storyteller, and A Gun, a Hat, and a Horse, about the people who made and loved Westerns. which won Best Documentary and Best Director at the 2022 Wild Bunch Film Festival.

INSP is a Proud Sponsor of Television WestFest.
Michael McGreevey is a guest speaker at the first annual Television WestFest in Tucson, Arizona, March 16-19. For info and tickets, click here.

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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