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George Montgomery; Actor, Sculptor, Furniture Maker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Montgomery, the boxer, cowboy, actor, screenwriter, director, producer, custom furniture maker, architect, sculptor, art collector and world traveler who always said that for him “everything has come easy,” has died. He was 84.

“He just turned to look out the window and went to meet his maker,” his friend Patrick Curtis told Associated Press, describing Montgomery’s death from heart failure Tuesday night at his desert home in Rancho Mirage.

Melissa Montgomery Hime--the actor’s daughter from his long marriage to the late singer Dinah Shore--companion Ann Lindberg and Curtis were with Montgomery at his death.

A tall-in-the-saddle cowboy star of B-plus horse operas of the late 1930s and a credible leading man in better pictures during the 1940s, Montgomery was Western to the core. Strikingly handsome in white tie and tails, he was better remembered in fringed buckskin and a cowboy hat.

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He earned wealth and fame from acting and even more attention from his storybook 18-year marriage to Shore, often called America’s nightingale. But nothing could change Montgomery one whit from Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s 1947 assessment that he was “as unaffected as an old shoe.”

Montgomery appeared in 87 motion pictures, starred in the 1958-60 television series “Cimarron City” and had major guest roles on “Wagon Train,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Bonanza,” “I Spy” and “Alias Smith and Jones.”

He enjoyed acting and, in the 1960s, writing, directing and producing low-budget films abroad. But he considered art his enduring legacy.

Montgomery designed and built 11 houses, including four for friends. He built his daughter’s custom pine and oak crib, which later cradled his grandchildren. He built Queen Anne dining room furniture for shoe millionaire Harry Karl and Marie McDonald in 1951 and bought it back after the businessman died in 1982. He made so much custom furniture for other friends (Gregory Peck, Van Johnson and Jack Benny among them) that he had to build a factory for the process in Van Nuys.

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After he took up sculpture in 1975, he made about 50 pieces--horses, cowboys and Indians--in the first 10 years. Among those is a five-foot-long bronze titled “Custer’s Last Stand,” which took a year of 12-hour days to complete. “It isn’t two guys,” he once said. “It’s the whole group of the whole bloody troop.”

His bronzes include cowboy friends--Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne--on horseback.

He also made a bronze statue of Shore--who died in 1994--with Montgomery and their two children at her side. That statue stands near the 18th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club, which named its golf course in her honor.

Montgomery, who told The Times that he and Shore took two art classes in the early 1950s, also painted in recent decades. And he collected even more valuable Western art by Frederick Remington and Charles Russell.

The 1981 book, “The Years of George Montgomery,” chronicled the various arts of Montgomery’s life--filmmaking, furniture, architecture, painting, sculpture. “This isn’t a Hollywood personality book,” he told The Times in 1985, pointing out the more than 100 pages of color photos, replicas and reproductions from his collection.

Montgomery the artist staged his first one-man show at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in 1976. He later exhibited at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Charles Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont. and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.

“These things will last long after I’m gone. You will always be able to touch them,” he told The Times when the Autry exhibit, “George Montgomery: Actor, Artist, Collector,” opened in 1991. Montgomery, a longtime friend of the late Autry, has been a major supporter of the museum, and the space for its traveling exhibitions is named the George Montgomery Gallery.

For the eclectic Montgomery, it all began in Brady, Mont., Aug. 29, 1916. Born Gorge Montgomery Letz, he was the 15th child of Ukrainian immigrant parents who later adopted four more. He grew up on the family’s 20,000-acre ranch, building barns, herding cattle and painting Western scenes on the window shades. At age 8 he saw his first movie and was hooked.

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After a short heavyweight boxing stint and a year studying interior decorating at the University of Montana, he headed to Hollywood.

His second day in town, he landed a job, making his debut, billed as George Letz, as a stuntman in “The Singing Vagabond” in 1935. Montgomery performed more stunts and bit parts in Autry’s “Springtime in the Rockies” in 1937 and “Gold Mine in the Sky” in 1938. At Republic, he appeared in his first major role as one of five men suspected of wearing the black mask in the top-budgeted, serial “The Lone Ranger.”

By the turn of the decade, the promising actor had changed his name to George Montgomery and was being groomed for stardom at 20th Century Fox.

Montgomery initially remained in Westerns even at Fox--"The Cisco Kid and the Lady” in 1940 and “Riders of the Purple Sage” in 1941.

But over the next couple of years, he starred in A pictures--"Orchestra Wives,” “Ten Gentlemen from West Point,” “China Girl” and “Roxie Hart,” all in 1942, and “Coney Island” in 1943 opposite Betty Grable.

Montgomery interrupted his career to serve three years in the Army Air Force during World War II, only to find fewer plum roles when he returned. Despite a solid performance as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Brasher Doubloon” in 1947, Montgomery largely went back to Westerns.

Shore entered his life in 1941 when she fell in love with his screen image while watching “The Cowboy and the Blonde.” They married in Las Vegas on Dec. 5, 1943, and divorced May 9, 1962. Daughter Melissa was born in 1958, and they adopted son John David as an infant in 1954.

Moving from acting in the 1960s to writing, directing and producing, Montgomery often said he made films so he could to travel. He found he could spend a couple of years in the Philippines with a picture like the 1966 “From Hell to Borneo.” Other films made abroad were “The Steel Claw,” “Samar” and “Guerrillas in Pink Lace.”

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He acted only occasionally in later years, in dinner theaters and in the films “The Wild Wind” in 1986 and “Blood, Money and Tears” in 1989.

In addition to his daughter and son, Montgomery is survived by three grandchildren.

A public memorial service is planned Saturday at the Palm Springs Desert Museum’s Annenberg Theater. After a private family funeral service, Montgomery will be buried in Great Falls, Mont.


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