WESTERN FILM VILLAIN RECALLS ‘BAD’ OLD DAYS
The hair has turned silver, but the mustache and steely blue gaze are reminders of the days when Pierce Lyden was one of Hollywood’s meanest bad guys.
In a film career that spanned 30 years and included appearances in more than 400 films, movie serials and television shows, Lyden was the quintessential Hollywood heavy. His forte was playing villains in B-grade Westerns, where the formula dictated a happy ending for the hero and an unseemly demise for the bad guy.
“There was always the good and the bad,” Lyden said in an interview at his home in Orange. “If you were good, you were rewarded in some way. If you were the bad man, like me, well I was always hung, I was stabbed, I was dragged behind a team of horses or a runaway horse, I was ridden off a cliff and run over by cattle--any way they could think of to kill me off by the end of the picture.”
Lyden, 78, is one of a vanishing breed--those who regularly played the heavies during the heyday of the B Westerns in the ‘30s and ‘40s. “There were maybe 65 of us who did this and did all the Westerns in Hollywood in those days,” Lyden estimated. “There are about five of us left.”
While it was Hollywood that nurtured him during those 30 years, it also was Hollywood, Lyden said, that took from him his first love--theater. Lyden was a leading man on stage in companies that toured the country in the late 1920s, but many of those companies died when talking pictures came along in 1929. Lyden headed to Hollywood in hopes of extending his career as a leading man into the movies, but things didn’t turn out as he had planned.
“After about two years of struggling and starving, I decided that one Clark Gable was enough; they didn’t need two,” Lyden said. “So then I started doing the thing I do best, which I had avoided, and that was Westerns.”
He had initially eschewed Westerns for fear of jeopardizing his chances at more “serious” roles. But finally he parlayed his skills as a rider--he grew up on his father’s Nebraska ranch--and his acting experience into a successful career, which lasted from 1932 to 1962.
“I knew how to ride and rope and shoot and a lot of things they needed, and besides that I had acting experience, which most cowboys didn’t have,” he said. “I could do anything the cowboys could do, and besides that I didn’t muff my lines.
“So then I got stuck. I always say it’s because I had a mustache, you know, that they made me a heavy. And once you get in Westerns, that’s where you stay. You’re a cowboy; you can’t go to MGM and say, ‘I want this tuxedo part.’ You get typed as a heavy, and you get typed in a certain branch of the business, and that’s pretty much where you stay.”
During his career, Lyden acted with most of the major Western stars, including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Hoot Gibson, Don (Red) Barry, Wild Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson and Charles Starritt. He appeared in one John Wayne film--the classic “Red River.”
At the beginning of his career, Lyden would tour the studio casting offices every day, looking for day assignments that paid from $5 to $10. As he became better established, he was able to insist on longer assignments, and he eventually hired an agent. At his peak, Lyden, who did his own stunts, averaged several hundred dollars a week, depending on the number and difficulty of the stunts involved.
According to Lyden, the work was decidedly unglamorous.
“As long as the sun is up, why, you shoot, in those Western and action pictures,” Lyden recalled. “If you’re running around those rocks, up at Iverson’s (a ranch in Chatsworth that became a favorite location for Westerns) or out in the desert where it’s 120 in the shade, or if you’re in the saddle riding forth and back and up and down all day long, it becomes work, believe me. That takes most of the glamour out of it, but not the fun.”
Lyden made his last film, “The Wild Westerners,” for Columbia Pictures in 1962. He said goodby to Hollywood, he said, “when TV started coming in.”
“Along comes TV, which I started doing in the beginning,” he remembered. “ ‘The Cisco Kid,’ for instance, was one of the first series I did. We made one (episode) every two days, three of them a week. There was no money--they weren’t paying much in those days. And doing three a week, you use yourself up pretty quick with that series. Then, you’ve got to find another series.
“I worked 40 different (TV) series in the beginning: ‘Cowboy G-Men,’ ‘The Law West of the Pecos,’ ‘Kit Carson,’ ‘Wild Bill Hickok,’ They were series that nobody’d ever heard of. It got to be such a rat race that I decided to drop out.”
Lyden became a property master with a traveling ice show in 1962 and retired to his house in a pleasant, older section of Orange in 1973. The walls of his bedroom are lined with studio photographs featuring Lyden along with many of the Western stars of the day. They were used to promote such films as “Shadows of the West,” “Covered Wagon Raid,” “Dead Man’s Gulch” and “Whistling Hills.”
Much of the memorabilia in his home is sent by fans who meet Lyden at Western film festivals, which he attends every year, primarily in the South and the East. “I get more recognition than I ever did when I was in motion pictures,” he said.
Lyden also keeps busy writing. He recounts anecdotes from his career in a column for Classic Images magazine. He also has written two books: “Pierce Lyden--The Movie Bad Man” is a scrapbook-style collection of photos and reminiscences; the recently published “Camera! Roll ‘Em! Action!” is about the disappearance of many of the old Western movie locations.
Often asked at panel discussions about the possible return of the old-style Westerns, Lyden insists that “they’ll never come back.
“Westerns were clean, and they were a good lesson for the kids of those days,” Lyden said. “You’ll always have a Western once in a while, but they’ll never come back like they used to, in series with a star like Tom Mix or Buck Jones or Ken Maynard or Hoot Gibson, for instance. Those boys are gone, and they’re going to stay gone. Besides, there just aren’t any companies left that can make them like they used to.”