Claude Akins, the rugged actor with a Dixie drawl who was best known for his television roles as a truck driver, a colorful rural sheriff and a pitchman for a chain of automobile transmission repair shops, died of cancer Thursday afternoon at his home in Altadena. He was 75.
Julian Myers, Akins’ publicist, said the actor had been seriously ill for about a year.
Although he appeared, mostly in supporting roles, in more than 50 movies and 400 television shows, the burly, weather-beaten part-Cherokee from Nelson, Ga., considered himself “the highest-paid unknown” in Hollywood.
“I feel like an outsider in a business I have been a part of for 37 years,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “For some reason, Hollywood’s mainstream has eluded me. . . .
“A guy who looks like Robert Redford will most often be cast as a hero. A guy like me or Ernie Borgnine plays a lot of heavies. If you’re big, they think you’re tough. And if you’re tough, they think you’re dumb.”
Dumb he wasn’t.
A graduate of Northwestern University who was trained in Shakespeare, Akins moved to Broadway in the late 1940s, where he had a part in the hit play “The Rose Tattoo.”
His success on Broadway led him to Hollywood in 1953 and a role in the Academy Award-winning film, “From Here to Eternity.” More hit films were quick to follow--"The Caine Mutiny” in 1954, “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, “Inherit the Wind” in 1960, “How the West Was Won” in 1962 and “The Killers” in 1964.
By the 1970s, he was co-starring with Frank Converse in “Movin’ On,” a television series about a pair of gypsy truck drivers who plied the nation’s highways. The show was a success, numbering then-President Gerald R. Ford among its fans.
After “Movin’ On,” Akins played the title character in “Lobo,” a series about a sheriff. His other television credits included “Cannon,” “Police Story,” “McCloud,” “Mannix” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”
“Hell, acting is acting, whether it’s for the movies, TV or the stage,” he said.
In recent years, as the roles became less frequent, Akins did radio and television commercials for a variety of products, including Polygrip, AM/PM Mini-Market and perhaps most familiarly, Aamco, the transmission repair chain.
Akins leaves his wife of 42 years, Theresa; a son, Claude Jr., and two daughters, Wendy and Michelle.
A funeral Mass is scheduled Saturday at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Altadena.