Gregory Walcott, a tall, rugged character actor who appeared in Clint Eastwood films, detective shows, Westerns and "Plan 9 From Outer Space" — a terrible howler whose notoriety he came to view with graceful good humor — died Friday at his home in Canoga Park. He was 87.
Walcott had been in failing health for some time, his daughter Pamela Graves said.
His last role was a cameo as a prospective investor in "Ed Wood," the 1994 Tim Burton film about the director and writer behind "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959) and other movies that have since attained cult status. With its dime-store special effects and cheesy plot about alien grave-robbers, "Plan 9" earned Walcott the kind of attention that he never expected.
"Ed Wood has etched my name forever in the annals of film history," he said a 1998 Filmfax magazine interview with writer Dwayne Epstein. "The thing that really bugs me is I will go to my grave not remembered for those meaty roles I did for the likes of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Martin Ritt or Steven Spielberg but as the leading man in a film that many movie historians regard as the worst of all time. It's enough to drive a Puritan to drink!"
Walcott appeared in about 30 films and more than 300 TV shows. With his deep voice and North Carolina drawl, he played drill instructors, desperadoes and Southern sheriffs. In "Norma Rae," he was the police officer who hauled Sally Field's character to jail. In "Prime Cut" (1972), he was Gene Hackman's psychopathic brother.
Portraying different characters on episodes of "Bonanza," he sometimes helped the Cartwrights out of jams but also played the kind of cowboy that the Nevada territory was well rid of.
"They even hanged him once," his daughter said.
In the early 1970s, Walcott landed a role as a state patrolman in "The Sugarland Express," a Texas hostage drama that was its 26-year-old director's first big film. Walcott told his family that this young man Spielberg would probably make something of himself.
Walcott also was impressed with Eastwood, whom he met on the TV western "Rawhide." Walcott appeared in the Eastwood films "Joe Kidd" (1972), "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" (1974), "The Eiger Sanction" (1975) and "Every Which Way but Loose" (1978).
Born Jan. 13, 1928 in Wendell, N. C., Walcott grew up in nearby Wilson, where his father sold furniture. His given name was Bernard Wasdon Mattox and he was known on the high school football team as "Barnyard." He changed his name when he became an actor.
After high school, he served two years in the Army before hitchhiking to Hollywood. He had $100 in his pocket and a tennis racket in his hand — a wholesome, Joe College prop meant to reassure drivers thinking about giving him a ride.
At 6 feet 4, Walcott played the first of his numerous military roles as a drill instructor in "Battle Cry" (1955). Auditioning for another role of a drill instructor in "The Outsider" (1961), he strode into a room of decision-makers and barked commands in each person's face, leaving them stunned.
Director Delbert Mann later told him, "Greg, you were cast the minute your foot hit the door on the way out."
Walcott got involved with "Plan 9" through investor Ed Reynolds, a businessman he knew from church. As Walcott later told it, he felt sorry for Reynolds and took the leading role because "I thought maybe my name would give the show some credibility."
Barbara May Watkins Walcott, the actor's wife of 55 years, died in 2010. His survivors include daughters Pamela Graves and Jina Virtue; son Todd Mattox; and six grandchildren.
For years, he brought each grandchild to the Academy Awards, one at a time in order of age.
"It was a family event," his daughter Pamela said. "We'd all get together and send them off on their big night with Grandpa."