Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

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Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.

Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.

Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.

In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.

In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.

In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.

After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area  since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.

After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.

* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.

Jolson Sings Again

Talkie of the Week: Jolson Sings Again

USA 1949, 96 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Henry Levin, Producer: Sidney Buchman, Written by: Sidney Buchman. Cast: Larry Parks, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Tamara Shayne,

Plot summary: Al Jolson’s success story continues after the divorce from his first wife. He has to learn to come to terms with life outside of show business and the struggles to return to it.

Review: Jolson Sings Again is one of those rare examples of a sequel that lives up to the original film it is based on. The film does not only pick up where The Jolson Story left us, it also continues to charm us with its many convincing performances, Al Jolson’s memorable music and its predecessor’s fairytale quality.

Jolson Sings Again shows an aging and changed Al Jolson who throws himself into work after his wife has left him, only to retreat himself to a jet set life after his many shows start to wear him out. Primarily a star of gossip sections for many years, he finally decides to return to what he does best and is one of the first performers to entertain the troops abroad, starting as early as 1942. Although deeply committed to his assignment, Al Jolson is sent home from Europe after he is struck down by a fever and collapses. He wakes up in an Army hospital to the tender care of Ellen Clark, a hearty young nurse from Arkansas. The story continues as it should: Al falls in love with Ellen and marries her. Her earthy wisdom and classic beauty complement his restlessness with utmost patience and care. It is her, in contrast to his first wife, who supports his passion for singing and the stage. Although commanding him to rest enough to cure his fever, she also encourages him to resume his career in order to kill the boredom and frustration he is struggling with by sitting home all day. It is apparent that his second wife is very different from his first.

Jolson Sings Again ends on a happy note as a good Hollywood fairytale should. It is bittersweet in essence, but very inspiring. Larry Parks gives another breathtaking performance as Al Jolson, lip-synching the master to perfection and adding a believable tranquility to his otherwise lively character. Parks has a sparkling on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hale who plays good-natured, beautiful and savvy Ellen Clark. Based on Al Jolson’s fourth wife in real life, fictitious Ellen Clark adds to the skillful depiction of authentic characters, performed with ease and graceful sweetness by Baby Face Barbara Hale.

Available on VHS and DVD.

The Jolson Story

Talkie of the Week: The Jolson Story

USA 1946, 128 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Alfred E. Green, Producer: Sidney Sklolsky, Written by: Stephen Longstreet, Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Andrew Solt. Cast: Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Scotty Beckett, Tamara Shayne, Jo-Carroll Dennison, John Alexander

Plot summary: A young Jewish boy called Asa Yoelson stumbles into show business at the beginning of the 20th century and becomes a star of his own making as Al Jolson.

Review: The Jolson Story is modeled on the life of performer Al Jolson, famous singer, actor and comedian. The film, though partly fictionalized, shows Al Jolson’s roots in Vaudeville and Burlesque theater at the beginning of the 20th century and paints a rather dazzling picture of the rise of America’s famous Broadway, movie and Jazz star from the 1920s and 30s.

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson and does a beautiful job merging his own acting with original sound recordings made by Al Jolson himself. He was rightly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for this film which features a lot of Al Jolson’s popular songs in an always exciting 128 minutes. Larry Parks is supported by a sparkling Evelyn Keyes and a highly entertaining William Demarest. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne play Jolson’s parents and only add to the charm of this colorful tour de force. Originally a black & white feature, the film’s opulent scenery and production convinced studio chief Harry Cohn to re-shoot the already existing material in color – a mastermind decision, especially for the stage scenes and the overall musical appeal of the film.

All in all, The Jolson Story is a delicious example of 1940s commercial cinema. With its mixture of great acting and catchy tunes, the film is a perfect piece of nostalgia in our entertainment-hungry times. It’s an excellent lesson in the art of story-telling that uplifts the audience, as well as its protagonist and stars. Watched in combination with its sequel Jolson Sings Again (released in 1949), this  double feature package is a rhythmic treat on a relaxed Sunday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and a pot of hot tea. A great reminder of “the good old days” when Hollywood still knew how to sell fairytales.

Available on VHS and DVD.