Pierce Lyden, Movie Bad Guy, Dies; Wore His Hoots Proudly
In a Hollywood career that spanned the early years of sound pictures through the early days of television, he was shot, stabbed, hanged, hit with an arrow and trampled by cattle.
Pierce Lyden, one of the last of the anonymous breed of black-hatted B-western bad men who menaced the white-hatted likes of Hoppy, Roy, Gene and a string of other Saturday matinee heroes in the ‘30s and ‘40s, has died.
Lyden, 90, died Saturday of cancer in Orange, where he had bought a home after retiring from pictures in 1962.
During his three decades in Hollywood, Lyden appeared in more than 350 movies, serials and TV shows, about half of them westerns. In 1944, a movie fan poll named him “Villain of the Year.”
It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that the unassuming actor achieved name recognition, as a celebrity guest on the western film festival circuit. Whenever the slim, white-haired gentleman wearing his trademark black hat was introduced, aging western fans would greet him with an affectionate chorus of hisses and boos.
“They do that everywhere I go,” Lyden told The Times a year ago at the Lone Pine Film Festival, where he had been an annual fixture. “They’re still the kids that used to throw paper wads at me on screen and shoot off cap pistols at me, and hiss and boo when I came on, and cheer when I’d lose in a fight.”
In Lone Pine, where the annual film festival was held last weekend, guests such as Dale Evans, director Burt Kennedy and B-western heroines Peggy Stewart and Ruth Terry learned of Lyden’s death at a Sunday morning celebrity breakfast.
“I announced it and there was an immediate hush that came over everyone,” festival director Dave Holland said.
For western fans, Holland said, Lyden will be remembered as one of the bad guys who made the good guys look good: “Without someone being the archvillain, the hero has no way of showing how good he is.
“Pierce was one of that group of actors [of whom] most people did not know their real name, but for us here at the Lone Pine Film Festival we know his work and his importance to the industry, so it was always thrilling to have him as a guest. . . . Even though he had thrown a chair at their hero, the real man was a man to befriend.”
Lyden’s close friend, Costa Mesa Chief of Police David L. Snowden, described Lyden as “the antithesis” of a bad man. “He was one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever met.”
Lyden was no mere movie cowboy. He grew up in a sod house on open range land in western Nebraska, where he learned to rope and ride at an early age. But his heart wasn’t in ranching. Three days after graduating from high school, he moved to Lincoln, where he briefly attended the University of Nebraska’s School of Music.
Dropping out to pursue an acting career, he spent six years in stock companies in the Midwest and New England. In 1932, at age 24, he arrived in Hollywood with visions of becoming the next Clark Gable.
But as Lyden was fond of saying, “I found out there was one Clark Gable, and they didn’t need two.”
Although he landed bit parts at MGM driving cars and shooting tommy guns in gangster pictures, Lyden recalled, he basically “starved to death” for two years. Despite his fear of being typecast, he reluctantly turned to low-budget western films, in which he was able to tap his riding and roping skills.
“It worked out as a good living, anyway,” he recalled. “I found out, of course, it was a blessing to be a bad man.”
Unlike the often short-lived careers of leading men, Lyden said, “bad men can go on forever.”
Lyden was among some 85 actors who worked regularly as B-western bad men for Hollywood’s Poverty Row studios along Gower Street.
“You went around and got your own work in those days,” he recalled. “The casting office was sitting on the street and you just went to see what they had. In those days, you got $10 or $15 a day. That’s all. A lot of days, you got $5 a day if you worked out of Gower Gulch. They’d come out and pick out the cowboys every morning, put you on a bus and take you out to Iverson [movie ranch in Chatsworth]. You were lucky if they paid you $5 and a sack lunch. Oh, times were different in those days.”
With a few exceptions, most notably a small part in Howard Hawks’ classic “Red River,” starring John Wayne, Lyden made B movies. He went from picture to picture, working with Sunset Carson one week, Wild Bill Elliott the next.
“All westerns, to working actors, are alike,” Lyden said. “You just do a fight, a couple of horse falls and riding, and that’s it. Sometimes you have a good part; other times you only have a ‘yep’ and a ‘no’ in a picture.”
Half the time, he said, “You never got screen credit.”
For Lyden, the beginning of the end of his western bad man days came with the arrival of television in the ‘50s.
“We did those ‘Cisco Kids,’ three of them in a week,” he recalled last year. The pay for the TV westerns was poor and he’d often be asked to do stunts free. “It just wasn’t any fun anymore.”
After appearing in “The Wild Westerners,” the last feature-length western made at Columbia Pictures in 1962, Lyden retired from Hollywood and began a new career as a stagehand in Los Angeles theaters. He later manned spotlights at Disneyland and worked as property master for Shipstad & Johnson’s Ice Follies before retiring in 1973.
Lyden wrote and self-published five scrapbook-style collections of photographs and reminiscences about his movie days. Those he sold at the western film festivals, along with red T-shirts (“Stick ‘Em Up!!!”) and mugs inscribed “The Movie Bad Man--Pierce Lyden.”
Well into retirement, Lyden was honored with a Pierce Lyden Film Festival in Liberty, N.C., and he served as grand marshal of the festival parade in Lone Pine. He also won a Golden Boot Award (“the cowboy Oscar”) in recognition of his contributions to westerns, and a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.
Last year, Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson gave Lyden the Buffalo Bill Award “for outstanding contributions to quality family entertainment in the Cody tradition” during Nebraska Land Days in North Platte. Previous recipients have included Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Gene Autry and “‘Iron Eyes” Cody.
“I felt very honored--an old bad man--getting it,” Lyden said.
Lyden, whose third wife, Hazel, died in 1994, is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A graveside service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. A visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.
A memorial service is being planned at the Motion Picture and Television Fund home in Woodland Hills. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.