THE TALL MAN - getTV Interview with Clu Gulager
One of getTV’s most popular westerns is The Tall Man, a 1960-1962 television series starring Clu Gulager as Billy the Kid and Barry Sullivan as Sheriff Pat Garrett. Rather than adversaries, the show features the two as friends who are caught on opposite sides of the law during their adventures around Lincoln, New Mexico.
After the series, Clu continued to act in both television and film, including classics like 1971's The Last Picture Show, noir like 1964's The Killers, and horror like 1985's The Return Of The Living Dead. He is now 88-years-old and so popular that a documentary is being made of his life on screen and off.
We recently sat down with Clu in one of his favorite restaurants in Hollywood to hear how his career began and about his time on The Tall Man.
Ok Clu, here’s a question that everyone seems to have – the pronunciation of your last name.
It rhymes with mule.
That’s what I said! But some people said it’s Guh-lager or Goo-lager. You’re saying it’s Gew-lager.
Yes, it’s a Danish name. It came from something that means “fields of gold.” So when we came over [from Europe], it got changed [to Gulager] so that’s what we used.
What was it like growing up in Oklahoma? How did Oklahoma influence you?
Well, it was Indian Territory before it became Oklahoma. I was not born when it was still Indian Territory. However, I am [part Cherokee] Indian and was raised with a lot of Indians.
Indian Territory was a very rough area. There were many reasons for that. It was still there - the undercurrents, the overtones - when I grew up. And my father was Indian, so maybe that’s where I got my demeanor. And I’m somewhat of a cowboy.
Is it true that you’re related to Will Rogers?
Yes. Second cousin. He was a trick roper, very good.
And your father was also a performer, right?
My father was hired by the Keith Orpheum circuit, which was the big place for show people. But he came down with tuberculosis, so he had to stop.
So I came along. My talent is not a natural talent, it’s a developed talent, but his was very natural. Like Rogers. Will Rogers was great at acting, but he wasn’t an actor. The way he acted – he told guys, “When I stop [talking], you go ahead.” He didn’t remember lines, he improvised. It worked for him. He became the highest paid performer in the world.
When did you then decide to become an actor?
I wasn’t interested in acting until I was in the Marine Corps. One day I was running, exercising on the back lot of Camp Pendleton. Suddenly I said, “Hey, I think I want to act.” I didn’t know what acting was and I still don’t.
So to clarify - you didn’t know what acting was, or you didn’t know what the job of being an actor was about and all that entails?
All of it. All of it goes together. I had exposure to it [in grade school plays], but that was about it.
Then how did the opportunity to star on The Tall Man come to you?
When the last vestige of work happened in New York – working actors in New York needed to go West.
Wait – so you were in New York first? What were you doing in New York? Theater?
I was doing live television. One Broadway show, mostly television. I did ok, I was a working actor.
Did you like New York?
No. I loved it. That’s my home. I consider it my home. I’ll never go back – my children are out here – but [New York is] my home. We came out here and a whole bunch of stuff happened. I got with MCA – that was the biggest [media company] ever, with Lew Wasserman heading it. The Tall Man came up and it turned out that they wanted me for it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them. Motion pictures pay more, and things happen in motion pictures that don’t happen in episodic television. But I discussed it with my agent for three hours and decided to do it. I had a wife, I had a child.
It was something steady.
Yes. Probably every young actor in town wanted to play this role [in The Tall Man]. And I wasn’t even in town, I just came into town. There I was – poof. Lew Wasserman saw me on a Playhouse 90 episode where I played an Elvis Presley-type character. I became the first contract player at Universal.
Do you remember auditioning at all for the role of Billy the Kid?
When I got out here [in Los Angeles], they tested me. Do you know how they tested me? They were doing a series called Cimarron City [which is also on getTV]. After shooting one night, they put me by a bale of hay and interviewed me. I gave them my side smile, that I developed over the years for film, and answered the questions the way I thought the character would answer them. Like Billy the Kid might answer them. And they took me on. I was authentic.
While I was on The Tall Man, I was about 28 playing a 20-year-old guy. I have a baby face, as my son tells me. I was somewhat of a cowboy and rode horses as well as anyone – anyone except Ben Johnson. Not him. He was World Champion. From Oklahoma, by the way. He was really gifted. I worked with him in a movie once.
Yes, The Last Picture Show. He won the Oscar for it.
Yes, he did. There’s a scene where we just look at each other, while I’m chalking my cue. It’s not bad being with an Academy Award winner.
The Tall Man was a big opportunity for a young actor. You were playing opposite Barry Sullivan and the series ran for two seasons – 1960 to 1962.
I can’t remember my middle name and I had to do 75 shows – that’s a lot. Especially for a guy that has a hard time remembering lines.
You've always had trouble memorizing your lines?
Well, the role of Billy the Kid meant you needed to do more than just dialogue, too. What kinds of things do you remember from the set?
One day we were doing a shooting contest.
What kind of gun were you using?
I had a Lightning .41 Colt – that’s what we think Billy the Kid used.
Is that right? Historians know that was his type of gun?
It’s all legend. The legend has it that they found a weapon one time in a fork of a tree and thought it was his.
So we were shooting and someone said, “Wait a minute.” We said, “This is ridiculous, but I think we have seen this [scene before].” My heart sank and we said, “Let’s look it up.” Borden [Chase] had been assigned to write the episode. He had taken 19 pages out of an old Jimmy Stewart western that he had written. It was a good film - Anthony Mann directed it, I think…
…and they said you can’t use it. And he said, “ I can. I wrote it.” [Universal] said, “You can’t, we own it.” In those days, as a writer, you didn’t have any artistic ownership. You still don’t.
So we took many hours off and wrote 19 pages. Different than Borden had done it. Put us way behind.
But what about the gun fight?
Billy the Kid won. [laughs]
[Laughs] Billy the Kid won. I figured.
What else do you remember from The Tall Man? As a young actor, there must have been a lot to take in.
There are a lot of departments in film, and television series are no different. Like for instance, they can cast someone like me who might be really right for a role, but who is going to capture it to show? You have to have a great cinematographer. We had a great guy named Curly [Lionel] Lindon, who was an Academy Award winner [for Around the World in 80 Days]. He was a little man, used to wear a 10 gallon Stetson the days he shot. The hat was as tall as he was. But he was really good.
Every department requires something, like for instance the music. Esquivel wrote the music [for The Tall Man] out of Mexico – and it’s BEAUTIFUL. Worked really well for this stuff we had to do.
That’s interesting because I know Esquivel, and I didn’t realize he wrote the music for your show.
Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music.
Yes! Speaking of talented people, there were a lot of great directors and actors on your series – everyone from directors Tay Garnett and Sydney Pollack to actors Martin Landau and James Coburn. Any stories you remember that you’d like to share?
How about one about Ronald Reagan?
Ronald Reagan? Sure.
See his wife played with me on The Tall Man - twice – and she’s very good.
Jane Wyman? Or you mean Nancy?
Nancy. She was good on my show. He came out one day to see her. I was tired…they had given me a new horse because my old horse fell on me. He was Randolph Scott’s old pony. Luckily I had taken tumbling when I was younger, so I could tumble out and not get crushed. So they gave me another horse with a flaxen mane and tail, but it happened to be a skyscraper. I mean, really high. And I was about as agile as a broken feather.
So what happened at the end of a day - Ronald was out there watching us all. Very nice, really sweet man. And I did a lot to get on that horse, with my foot way up in the stirrup. Finally, I just fell…just flat. And he said [imitating Reagan], “Clu…Clu… listen to me, I can tell you how I did it.” And I said “Oh yeah?” I mean, I was a cowboy. He said, “Look, what I did, I started to get on the horse and I said, ‘Cut.’ And they cut. And then they’d show me on the horse. Then ‘Action!’ and I rode off.” And I said, “Well, that’s nice.” What am I gonna tell him? This nice guy trying to help me out. That’s before he became Governor and President – a real sweet man.
Well, you’re a real sweet man, too, Clu. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. So do our viewers. You have a lot of fans.
I know The Tall Man entertains millions of people. Asia, Europe, United States, all over. I know it does. And that’s good, makes me feel good about that.
Photo of Clu Gulager courtesy of Patrick Francis