The Life and Career of Robert Fuller, Star of Laramie

Robert Fuller: A No-Nonsense Cowboy


In a career that spanned 50 years, Robert Fuller starred in lots of movies, but his favorite were always Westerns. He was a popular guest star on many TV shows, including The Big Valley The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cimarron City. Tall, handsome, and known for his deep, raspy voice, Fuller was a no-nonsense actor and a familiar face to TV viewers… especially after he played Jess Harper on Laramie.

Early Life

Fuller was born on July 29, 1933, in Troy, New York. His given name was Leonard Leroy Lee, and he was the only child of Elizabeth (Betty) Lee, a dance instructor. Later in his childhood, Betty married Robert Simpson, Sr., a Naval Academy Officer, and the family moved to Key West, Florida. At this point, Leonard (who was known as Buddy) took the name Robert Simpson, Jr.

His mother and father owned and operated a dance school, where Robert Jr. became an excellent dancer. During the day, his mother taught ballet to local children, and at night, she and Robert Sr. taught ballroom dancing to Navy personnel station in Key West.

Robert admitted that he was not a great student. He didn’t like school and happily quit when he was 14. In 1950, when he was 16, his parents moved to Hollywood. Robert St. was a fantastic dancer, and for almost four decades, he went by the name of Robert Cole and danced in almost every major musical made in Hollywood. These included OklahomaJailhouse Rock, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (while a young actor named Robert Fuller also had a small role as a dancer in the chorus line).

Mostly, however, Robert Jr. worked as stuntman and held odd jobs in Hollywood. Some friends talked him into joining Screen Actors Guild so he could make more money, and at that point, Robert changed his name to Robert Fuller.

Early Career and Army Service

Robert Fuller in Laramie.In 1952, Robert started getting extra work in movies like Above and BeyondThe Harder They Fall, and The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit. He took his father’s advice and started auditioning for roles as a dancer, getting cast in I Love Melvin with Debbie Reynolds, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe, and Latin Lovers with Lana Turner.

His acting career was put on hold in 1953 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and went to Korea to fight. He served with honor and was awarded the outstanding soldier on Guard Mount three times.

When Robert returned in 1955, he thought about giving up acting, but his father and his close friend, Chuck Courtney, talked him into taking classes first. Those early classes led to him being accepted into the legendary Sanford Meisner’s class, where stars like Gregory Peck, Jon Voight, and Grace Kelly learned how to act.

In 1956, Robert got his first speaking role in Friendly Persuasion, where he also worked with his future Laramie co-star, John Smith. Small parts continued to come his way, but his big break finally came when he played the villain in Teenage Thunder. Then in 1957, he starred in the science fiction movie, The Brain from Planet Arous.

Television Calls

By the late 1950s into the 1970s, if you were watching TV, you knew and loved Robert Fuller. He was incredibly popular after guest starring on many shows, including The Big ValleyThe CaliforniansThe Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, and Highway Patrol. He was a busy character actor—and then, along came the role of Jess Harper in Laramie.

Now, things suddenly changed. Robert Fuller wasn’t only recognized in America—he was an international sensation and recognized around the world. Laramie aired in more than 70 countries and established a legion of fans for him. The show ran from 1959-1963. Immediately after, Fuller was cast in another legendary Western: Wagon Train. He starred as chief scout Cooper Smith on that show until 1965 when it ended.

Westerns Decline; Emergency! Rises; and Love Boat Beckons

Robert Fuller in Laramie.During the 1960s and 1970s, Westerns were on the decline, and Fuller’s career also began to falter. He still landed parts in movies such as Return of the Seven (the sequel to The Magnificent Seven); Incident at Phantom Hill; and co-starred with Joel McCrea (in McCrea’s last movie), Mustang Country.

In 1971, Jack Webb (the producer of Emergency!), saw Fuller’s latest movie, The Hard Ride, Webb was so certain that Fuller should play Dr. Kelly Brackett that he would not take no for an answer. Webb was very persistent, and even though Fuller declined the role twice, he relented eventually. The show was a big hit and ran for seven years—creating another generation of devoted Robert Fuller fans.

Fuller still hoped to find another Western to work on, so he was thrilled to staring the pilot of Jake’s Way in 1980. Unfortunately, the show was never picked up by the networks, and no episodes were ever made.

During the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, Fuller guest starred in over 20 television shows: The Love BoatThe Fall GuyMurder, She WroteMatt HoustonTour of Duty, and Diagnosis: Murder were just a few of them. He even played two roles in. one episode of Walker, Texas Ranger: one as an old West Town Town Sheriff, and another where he played Jess Harper’s great-great-grandson Wade Harper!

In 2001, Robert Fuller retired following his appearance on Walker, Texas Ranger. He was happy to end his career working on a Western.

Personal Life

On December 20, 1962, Robert Fuller married Patty Lee Lyon. They had three children: Rob, Christine, and Patrick. The couple divorced in 1984 after 22 years of marriage.

On May 19, 2001, Fuller married Jennifer Savidge, who starred in St. Elsewhere as Nurse Lucy and appeared regularly on the TV show, JAG. in 2004, the couple left Los Angeles and moved to Texas to live on a ranch and raise horses.

Life and Legacy

Robert Fuller in LaramieNow 89 years old, Robert Fuller still devotes a lot of time and energy to his horse ranch. Along with his wife, he enjoys his lifelong passions of shooting and fishing as often as he can.

Robert still attends Western festivals where he meets with devotees, answers their questions, and tells stories about his life in show business. He loves his fans: they come from all over the world and have been loyal to him for over 60 years!

So, to all those admirers out there, here’s something you’ll really enjoy: we’ve added all 124 episodes (64 in black and white, and 60 in color) of Laramie to our Western lineup. Join us on weeknights at 6pm and return to the Wyoming Territory in the 1870s to get your fill of action, adventure… and Robert Fuller!