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February 2008

Howdy Folks! Ahoy, Boyd! Thanks for having me aboard. May the online WESTERN CLIPPINGS have a long and smooth sail. In 1993, I played a gambler for three weeks on the big screen “Maverick”. Yup, I’m the face on the cutting room floor. First time I’d worked at my Alma Mater, Warner Brothers, in thirty-two years. Nowadaze, the joint is jumping. I could almost see the ghost of Col. Jack L. Warner, ever alert, patrolling the halls, turning out lights.

Back in ‘61, all of us contract players gathered at the midway for a group photo. I was surprised to see Col. Warner show up to pose with us. In years past, he’d have his picture superimposed. I remarked to Clint Walker that in my five years under contract, I’d never met J. L. I was sort of like Ensign Pulver in “Mr. Roberts”, hiding from the Captain. Before I could stop him, Clint guided me to our boss of bosses and said, “Mr. Warner, Will here says he’s never met you.” Without missing a beat, the Colonel looked straight at Clint and replied, “Really? I’ve seen him in enough rushes!” Then we all assumed the pose.

Within a week I was shipped overseas to re-fight WWII in Sam Fuller’s “Merrill’s Marauders”. We were supposed to be in Burma, but a jungle is a jungle; we shot it in the Philippines. Sam Fuller was our Commander-in-Chief. He directed by the seat of his pants. He followed his guts more than the script. Sometimes, instead of yelling Action, he’d shoot off a pistol. His constant companion, his cigar, worked double duty as a baton. Sam’s one hell of a fellow and one of my favorite directors. He made it fun, exciting and dangerous, and he brought us back alive.

In one scene, he told me to fix bayonet and charge. I let out my fiercest war whoop and galumped over a knoll. Sam said it sounded like a cheap hotel in Chicago.

He enlisted the aid of Special Forces troops to work in the flick and he expected us actors to keep up with them. I suddenly discovered why war is hell. Many of those soldiers eventually fought in Vietnam. Some never returned. Some, I still get Christmas cards from.

It took a while to get acclimatized. I got dysentery, which made my character of the emaciated, delirious, starving Chowhound more believable. At first, we stepped gingerly as we went, keeping a wary eye out for snakes. Sam hired the Negritos to protect us. Pygmy-like in stature, they lived in the jungle long before the arrival of the Conquistadors. Through the ages the Negritos and the snakes have learned to co-exist. During WWII, the Negritos practiced psychological warfare. They’d sneak up on the Japanese sentries at night and paint “X’s” on their boots. The Negritos could play hard ball as well. They’d crawl into the barracks of the Japanese as they slept and slit the throat of every other man. Whatta way to wake up in the morning: Eyes right; eyes left—Arghhh... Hmmm!!

Instead of WESTERN CLIPPINGS, this seems to be more of an “Eastern Drippings”. Well, “Merrill’s Marauders” is an Eastern Western. We used more ammo than “The Alamo”. Our body count was higher than “The Wild Bunch”. The Japanese are the Indians. The Marauders are the cowboys. Sam Fuller is John Ford. Jeff Chandler is John Wayne. Ty Hardin, Peter Brown, Andy Duggan, Claude Akins and I are the Ford Stock Company. The rest of “The Marauders” double as the cavalry. Sorry, no part for Maureen O’Hara.

We imported our own stuntmen to work with the locals. A hearty band of soldiers of fortune: Fred Williams and the Chucks, Hayward, Hicks and Roberson. Real gentlemen, they politely took my per diem meal money at Hearts. Chuck Hicks is a fascinating guy. At the time he was trying to evolve so he could give up food and live off the sun’s energy. Don’t know if he made it, but I know that whenever I go to the movies and see Chuck Hicks on the screen, there’s a brawl in the offing.

In one scene, a stuntman picked me up and heaved me into the river for swiping his rations. Claude Akins, who played Sarge, drew me aside and admonished me to get a stuntman to take the splash. “That’s what they’re paid for.” Shucks, it was a hot day. Did it myself; felt good. Years later, I worked with Claude again on the TV series, “Movin’ On”. You guessed it. Claude did his own stunts.

I loved working on “Merrill’s Marauders”. Cast and crew developed great camaraderie, much more than if we’d shot it back in Hollywood and gone home at each work day’s end. Location work often produces a better, more authentic product. You get closer to your fellow workers, the surrounding community, and your character. Jeff Chandler was warm, compassionate, generous, with a trace of deep down sadness. At night, during hotly contested Charades games, he’d make the lemonade and kibitz.

Andy Duggan was great to pal around with on night jaunts to Manila. We were GI’s on a pass. He was a lot funnier than any of the roles he inhabited. He did dead-on impressions of Karloff and Lugosi in “The Black Cat”. Despite his tallness, he also did a great Claude Rains.

It was fun to play soldier with Ty Hardin and Peter Brown from the Warner Bros. stable of cowboys. Ty did an exceptionally fine job in the flick. Too bad that back home the Warner empire was undergoing traumatic times. Phhhhht! went the contract players. Pete was my roomie, and because of my hacking cough, which would rear its ugly head in the middle of the night, he’d seek alternate avenues of sweet repose.

Ol’ Chowhound got killed off halfway through the shoot. Next day, I was taken off salary. J. L. drove a hard bargain. I was in no hurry to leave. I’d fallen in love with Lucy, Manila’s leading gossip columnist. Sam Fuller and our ace director of photography, Bill Clothier, conspired to get me back on salary briefly by giving me an added close-up. Best danged close-up I’ve ever had. I hung around until the wrap party.

One night our company played softball with the lads of Clark Air Force Base, where we were billeted. Jeff Chandler, first base, strrretched to catch an  errant  toss  from  the short  stop and  wrenched  his back. He was wracked with pain for the duration of our stay overseas. This lent authenticity to his closing scenes of exhaustion, hunger, disease, wounds and despair.

Returning stateside, Jeff checked into a hospital. I sent him a telegram, echoing one of his lines: “General, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” He died on the operating table.

After the shoot we all shook hands, and I flew to Hong Kong, and later, Japan for more adventures. I ran out of money and returned home to L.A. I called Warner Bros., and they informed me they would no longer avail themselves of my services. Hi ho, and so it goes.

All in all, I learned one big lesson in the Philippines: when acting in a scene, get as close to the center of the frame as possible, lest you be cropped off the screen when the flick hits TV; lest you be heard and not seen. You can buy “Merrill’s Marauders” at your local video shop. I did.