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DECEMBER 2017

Howdy! Tom Sawyer, entrepreneur—Aunt Polly wanted the garden fence white washed. Before you could say Huckleberry Finn, Aunt Polly beheld a masterpiece, a mural of shimmering alabaster. Master Tom supervised the mammoth undertaking from a safe distance, under a shady tree, shouting encouragement to his playmates who stroked their way to a work of art. Invoking Tom’s spirit, I hand my brush—er, pen—to Bill Ruehlmann. Bill and I have been pards o’ the pen since we met at a fest o’ the west in Williamsburg, VA. Dr. Bill’s a retired professor of journalism and communications at Virginia Wesleyan College. Bill shares his love of books (he’s written three) in newspaper columns. Over the years he’s sent me his columns and a slew of books.

Recently, my heart danced. Bill sent me two classics from my boyhood, H. Allen Smith’s LIFE IN A PUTTY KNIFE FACTORY and LOST IN THE HORSE LATITUDES. They taught me reading can be fun. I flashed back 65 years and remembered a wild story that enlivened my adolescent imagination. Quickly, I leafed thru the pages of both books, in search of this titillating tale. No soap. Suddenly, another flashback and another book came to mind: JOE, THE WOUNDED TENNIS PLAYER. I’ll bet the following weird true story’s in there. Hot stuff for its day.

A movie crew was on location, filming a documentary at a nudist colony. The crew was welcomed with a proviso: the crew had to go about their work plum starkers. Toward the end of the first day’s shoot, the director yelled to the cameraman, high on a windy hill overlooking unclad cavorters on a meadow. “Hey, Bob! Light’s turning yeller. That’s a wrap.” Bob immediately unhitched his camera from the tripod then slammed said tripod shut with a resounding THWACK! Local lore has it the ensuing sound still echoes throughout their valley. A low wail segueing into a louder moan cresting to an all-out roar of anguish–sort of an aiiieeeowww-Araghhhhhh!

But I digress. I give you Bill Ruehlmann and his tribute, “The Outlaw Occupation of Richard Devon”.

Richard Devon.“He was mean. On the screen in the viewing room at the ‘08 Williamsburg Film Festival, Richard Devon was big-boned, ropy, leather-clad. He sported stubble and a ball-bearing stare. He carried a torch on horseback, under a hanging tree, and he was bad news for Daniel Boone’s buddy. ‘Looks like we’re going to have to teach you a lesson,’ Devon growled. Standing in back, watching the vintage show, was Devon in person almost half a century later, at 81 still big-boned and ropy but now clean-shaven and bespectacled. He retained the hat and boots. But in between them that day there were an open-necked pink shirt, a cashmere sweater, slacks and a cane. ‘I think I’m kind of a big rat in this one,’ he observed, ‘but it works out all right—Fess bumps me off.’ ‘Fess’ would be Fess Parker, strapping star of the TV series that emulated his coonskin-cap success as Davy Crockett for Disney. He was already rich even then. He owned, among other things, a wine business and a high-rise hotel in Santa Barbara. ‘Fess flew his plane,’ Devon noted. ‘That’s the way he came to work—drove in from the airport to the studio in Burbank. They’d put him in those buckskins, and away he’d go.’

“Then we were watching an episode from ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ starring laid-back Steve McQueen. So laid-back, in fact, he was almost prone. There was an outlaw kid in the story who wanted to turn himself in. McQueen was Josh Randall, the good bounty hunter. Devon was Gar Foley, the bad bounty hunter. Gar: ‘He’s going to die.’ Josh: ‘What if he doesn’t turn his back on you?’ Fistfight. Guess who won? ‘They’d build the Western town in a sound stage,’ Devon reported. ‘Put dirt down on the street. The trouble with riding on dirt over a hardwood floor is that the horses would slide. ‘At the end of the shot, Steve would drop his shirt, hat and gunbelt in the dirt where he stood. Drove the property department crazy. They had to clean that sawed-off Winchester of his.’

“Devon was the son of a real cowboy. His dad was a gang teen in New York City who headed west after a near-deadly knife fight to find a more salubrious environment. He wound up at the fabled Miller Bros. 101 Ranch of Oklahoma, which had been feeder to Buffalo Bill’s traveling troupe and alma mater to silent film star Tom Mix. The young cowboy immigrated further.

“Son Richard was born in Glendale, grew up in Hollywood; knew how to ride, naturally, and taught horsemanship at Dubrock’s Stable in Griffith Park. From there he became a messenger at Monogram and worked his way into early TV. The lad learned a few things besides how to keep his heels down in the stirrups: 1) Don’t ask for a raise in mid-season. Devon was a regular on ‘Space Patrol’, Molack the Amazing. After the request, Molack was placed in suspended animation and never heard from again. 2) Don’t do a crupper—that’s a running mount from the rear—without a trampoline to gain altitude. On an episode of ‘Trackdown’ with Robert Culp, Devon spread-eagled himself across his mount’s backside and slid to the ground like paint. ‘What was that, Dick?’ inquired director Don McDougall. ‘That,’ Devon replied, ‘was a terrible mistake.’ 3) Don’t dine with Moe, Larry and Curly. Devon was a maharajah in ‘The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze’. At the noon hour he watched the boys zero in on four secretaries who were mid-meal at a table in the studio eatery. ‘We,’ Moe informed them as chaos ensued, ‘are going to make you a Happy Lunch!’ Only in retrospect.

“But it was a long, colorful career for Richard Devon. He was with John Wayne, whom he liked, in ‘The Comancheros’. He played opposite World War II hero Audie Murphy, whom he didn’t, in TV’s ‘Whispering Smith’ (‘Audie had dead eyes’). And he was with Charles Bronson in seven pictures. ‘Charlie was really strange through all of them. He comes up on the set behind Peggy Stewart, very quietly,’ Devon noted. ‘She’s never met him; he leans over her shoulder and says, ‘I’m Lithuanian, you know.’ He leaves. They had no further conversation the entire shoot. He came up to me in line for lunch and said, ‘Don’t order the hamburger. I used to be a butcher. I know what they put in that stuff.’ I was taking trays back later and had the opportunity to observe what Bronson was wolfing down. Yep, hamburger.

“When Richard signed a photograph of himself in character, rustling cattle at Four Star or robbing stages on the Universal lot, the inscription always read: ‘I’m not so bad.’ Richard Devon passed away February 26, 2010, at 83. In fact, he was terrific.”

Gracias, Bill. You’re a peach. So was Richard Devon. So is Patty Devon.

                                        —Adios