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.

West of the Pecos

Talkie of the Week: West of the Pecos

USA 1945, 66 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Edward Killy, Written by: Norman Houston, Based on a story by Zane Grey. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Hale, Richard Martin, Thurston Hall, Rita Corday, Russell Hopton, Bill Williams

Plot summary: On their way to their ranch in the West, Colonel Lambeth, his daughter Rill and her French maid find themselves lost in the desert, requiring the help of two local cowboys, Pecos and Chito.

Review: Based on one of Zane Grey’s tales, West of the Pecos is a nice little B Western adaptation featuring Robert Mitchum and RKO starlet Barbara Hale. Designed as a genre film with a comedic, as well as romantic subplot, West of the Pecos is a fun little movie that leaves you chuckling and in a good mood.

Robert Mitchum plays Pecos Smith, a cowboy who has an entire bandwagon of adversaries to fight while he takes on the job to guide Colonel Lambeth and his daughter Rill to their final destination. Still shaky after  having been attacked by villains during their trip out West, Rill has decided to disguise herself as a boy for the rest of their journey. She manages to keep her secret from their guardians until Pecos finally discovers that the odd, goofy teenage boy who’s come to impress him is actually a young lady who’s engaged to be married.

Although the plot may sound silly and predictable, the film is highly entertaining. Barbara Hale does a beautiful job disguising her pretty self in boyish jeans and a cowboy hat. It is hilarious to watch her Rill slowly falling in love with a handsome Pecos, against her better judgment one might add (all the while, in real life, Ms Hale was falling for her future husband and brief co-star Bill Williams). She has a great match in Robert Mitchum and the rest of the cast who support her subtle and intuitive talents for this innocent kind of comedy.

All in all, West of the Pecos is not meant to be all too suspenseful, nor gritty. It’s a good hour of pure fun and games with a darling cast of characters and actors who know how to make the best of their story. My pick for a night of good laughs when all I’m looking for is some relaxation.

Available on DVD and on Hulu.