High-Flying Past


Quick, what was the name of Sky King’s nephew?

If you’re a baby boomer who grew up watching television in the 1950s and ‘60s, the answer will come as easily as channel surfing: Clipper King.

Now the stumper: Who played Clipper?

If you said Ron Hagerthy, your mother was right: You spent way too much time in front of the Motorola.

Hagerthy, now 64 and owner of a Newport Beach real estate investment company, co-starred with Kirby Grant (Sky King) and Gloria Winters (niece Penny) in the half-hour contemporary Western series about an Arizona rancher who used his twin-engine Cessna to patrol his spread and chase down bad guys. The show, which aired on NBC in the 1950s, also ran for more than a decade in reruns on both ABC and CBS.


Although Hagerthy appeared in less than a third of the “Sky King” episodes, his role as Clipper ensured him a small place in TV trivia.

“I was in the [Screen Actors] Guild 18 years and probably did a hundred television shows and motion pictures beyond ‘Sky King,’ but because of the nostalgic quality of ‘Sky King,’ 40 years later I’m back to where I started, with ‘Sky King.’ ”

Since leaving films in the ‘60s, Hagerthy has kept a profile lower than a sleeping prairie dog. Still, his name surfaces from time to time. He gets several calls a year from “Sky King” fans who have tracked him down. There are the occasional mentions in print, such as the recent one in a “Whatever Happened to . . .” column in Western Clippings, a New Mexico-based newsletter for Western-film fans. Or the reference to him in an aviation magazine seen by a man who worked for seven years in the same office building as Hagerthy. When he saw the article about an upcoming tribute to “Sky King,” the man immediately brought the article down to Hagerthy’s office.

“He was absolutely stunned,” Hagerthy says. “I don’t admit to this business very often.”

Hagerthy’s acting career is not something he usually brings up. He’s lived in Corona del Mar since 1982, but many Orange County friends and acquaintances are not aware of his “Sky King” connection.

Except for a couple of photographs in his office, the home of Hagerthy and his wife, Judy, is absent mementos from his years in Hollywood.

A Glendale native, Hagerthy was 18 and playing the gentleman caller in a Glendale College production of “The Glass Menagerie” in 1950 when he was invited to Warner Bros. for an interview.

During a year under contract to the studio, he played Frank Lovejoy’s son in “I Was a Communist for the FBI” and he co-starred with Janice Rule in “Starlift,” a Korean War version of “Stage Door Canteen,” in which everyone on the Warner Bros. lot from James Cagney to Doris Day appeared. He also had a feature role in the first 3-D Western, “The Charge at Feather River,” starring Guy Madison.

“Sky King” had been a popular radio show since 1947 when Hagerthy went in to interview for the TV version in 1951.

He tested with Gloria Winters, an established young actress who had played the daughter in an early version of TV’s “The Life of Riley,” starring Jackie Gleason.

Hagerthy, Winters and Grant, a B-movie actor, were sent to Nudie, the flamboyant cowboy clothier in North Hollywood, who custom-made their stylish Western duds for the show.

Interior scenes were shot at General Service Studios in Hollywood, the same independent studio where “The Lone Ranger” and “I Love Lucy” were shot. Exteriors were filmed at the Iverson movie ranch in Chatsworth and in the desert near Indio. Although Grant was a licensed pilot, he didn’t fly on the show. The flying was done by veteran movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz. (In 1961, Mantz teamed with fellow movie stunt pilot Frank Tallman and formed the Orange County Airport-based Tallmantz Aviation.)

“Sky King” was made on a 2 1/2-day shooting schedule. Retakes were rare.

The show’s budget was so low--about $9,000 per episode--that instead of the standard motion picture practice of rear-screen projection showing the sky outside of the mock airplane’s windows, the crew relied on a technique left over from the silent movie days: a scrim. A huge piece of canvas on a metal frame with clouds painted on it would be rolled past the cockpit windows. And if it was a long scene, Hagerthy says, the same clouds would pass by in the other direction.

His most vivid memory of making “Sky King” is being tied up on a sofa and having one of the bad guys hit him on the head with a gun. It was a rubber gun, but the actor hit him so hard, Hagerthy recalls, “it just about knocked me out.” Although his hands and feet were bound, Hagerthy leaped to his feet screaming.

Both Hagerthy and Winters recall their days with the show warmly--especially the genuineness of their co-star Grant and the camaraderie on the set.

Winters, now a resident of Vista in San Diego County, recalls a day on the set in which she was tied up: Grant arranged to have lunch called early and the entire crew, who were in on the prank, left her tied up on the set.

Hagerthy was drafted into the Army after appearing in only the first 19 of the show’s 72 episodes. Subsequent scripts explained his absence by saying Clipper had joined the Air Force.

“For 30 years, Kirby used to answer the question, ‘Where’s Clipper?’ by saying, ‘Well, he’s a captain in the Air Force.’ Which would have made me the oldest captain in history,” Hagerthy says with a laugh. “Either that or the worst captain in history because he never got beyond that rank.”

When Hagerthy got out of the service in 1955, he was more interested in pursuing motion pictures than rejoining the “Sky King” cast. He never made personal appearances for “Sky King,” but Grant and Winters did for many years.

“We’d land in an airport, and thousands of kids would be there,” says Winters. “They’d come up and hug you and say, ‘Come over to our house for dinner.’ ”

Over the years, many fans have told Hagerthy and Winters that watching “Sky King” prompted their interest in learning to fly. Often, when Winters and Grant were flying to a personal appearance, the plane’s pilot would announce that Sky King was on board and then turn over the controls and come back to the cabin to meet them.

Grant died in a car accident in Florida in 1985 when he was 73. He had been driving to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger. He was going at the invitation of an astronaut whose interest in aviation had been sparked by “Sky King.”

Hagerthy’s career went on for about 20 movies, and he did a “ton” of television--everything from “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide” to “Twilight Zone” and “The Untouchables.”

But there came a point where he got too old to play the younger parts for which he was known. And, in time, he also realized he wasn’t going to become a star.

Hagerthy views his acting career as that of a featured player, a “working” actor. “But it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I mean, I fought the Civil War, I was on submarines and carriers and airplanes. I used to say this is a tough way to make an easy living.”

Hagerthy phased out his acting career in the late ‘60s and became division president of a real estate investment company in Century City before quitting and starting a small company in Newport Beach in 1982.

But while his Clipper King days are far behind him, Hagerthy concedes he gets a kick out of being a bit of TV trivia.

“I’ve gotten the question myself when we’re playing trivia,” he says. “The other question is, ‘What is the name of the plane?’ It’s the Songbird.”

And what is the name of Sky King’s ranch?

“The Flying Crown Ranch,” he quickly responds.

How about the name of the nearby town?

Hagerthy, frowning, is clearly stumped.

Was it Grover?

“Grover, you’re right!” he says, chuckling. “I was going to have to call Penny on that one.”