Walter Reed; Longtime Actor in Film, TV
Walter Reed, one of Hollywood’s premier character actors from the 1940s through the ‘60s who was best known for his work in movie and television westerns, has died. He was 85.
Reed died of kidney failure Monday at his home in Santa Cruz, where he had moved in 1967 while phasing out his acting career and pursuing a new role as a real estate investor and broker.
Beginning in 1941, he appeared in nearly 100 feature films and several hundred TV shows. On the big screen, he appeared in “The High and the Mighty,” “Fighter Squadron” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” But the majority of his film credits were westerns, including small parts in John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn,” “The Horse Soldiers,” “Sergeant Rutledge” and in Ford’s segment of “How the West Was Won.”
During the heyday of television horse operas in the 1950s and early ‘60s, Reed showed up in such series as “Gunsmoke,” “Cheyenne,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” and “Annie Oakley.”
In 1951, he broke from the character ranks and starred in two Republic serials, “Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion” and the cult favorite “Flying Disc Man from Mars.”
“He was a character man who could do it all, from comedy to action and everything in between,” said Boyd Magers, a friend of Reed’s and editor-publisher of Western Clippings, a western-film publication.
Reed was leading man material in his earlier years, Magers said. “He was a good-looking guy, but he’d stick a stogie in his mouth, grow a few days’ stubble, put on an old slouch hat and he’d be a character person.”
A year ago, Reed received a Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture and Television Fund, the western-movie equivalent of an Oscar.
“The award is given to people who have dedicated their life’s work to western movies, mostly the Bs,” said Dick Jones, star of television’s “Buffalo Bill Jr.” series in the ‘50s, who worked with Reed on that show and in other westerns.
“The superstars get all kinds of recognition, but the character actors, the backbone of the Bs, don’t get the recognition. You see their faces, but you don’t know their names.”
Born on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in 1916, Reed was the son of an Army artillery major. His family moved to Los Angeles from Hawaii when Reed was 7.
He attended Beverly Hills High School, “but I don’t know that he graduated because he was always going to be an actor,” said Reed’s brother, “Smiling” Jack Smith, who had his own career in show business as a popular singer and host of TV’s “You Asked for It.”
Reed began his movie career at age 13 in 1929 when he went to a cattle call for extras and was chosen to play an Indian boy in “Redskin,” starring Richard Dix.
A few years later, Reed met actor Joel McCrea at the old Santa Monica Beach Club and the actor asked him to do some stand-in work for him.
To gain acting experience, Reed moved to New York while still a teenager. While he was appearing in a stock company production in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1941, McCrea happened to be in the audience and afterward told him, “You’re ready.”
Two weeks later, Reed was under contract to RKO.
Reed’s first picture for the studio was “Army Surgeon,” starring James Ellison. He played the juvenile lead in a couple of RKO’s popular “Mexican Spitfire” comedies starring Leon Errol and Lupe Velez. And he received notice for his role as a crew member in “Bombardier” starring Randolph Scott in 1943.
“That was getting him toward leading-man status,” said Magers, “but along came World War II and that was a setback not only for him but a lot of actors.”
While serving in the Army, Reed appeared in “Winged Victory,” Moss Hart’s Army Air Corps play on Broadway, and he continued with a touring company of the show.
With his career momentum curtailed during the war, Magers said, Reed returned to Hollywood and “more or less drifted into character parts.”
In his later years, Reed was a frequent guest at western film festivals around the country, the old character actor receiving the recognition that had eluded him during his Hollywood years.
In July, the city of Santa Cruz declared Walter Reed Day.
A large crowd greeted Reed’s arrival at a movie theater in a white horse-drawn carriage for a showing of “Seven Men from Now,” director Budd Boetticher’s 1956 western, which was recently restored by UCLA. In the film, Reed plays Gail Russell’s tenderfoot husband, who is menaced by Lee Marvin.
In front of the theater, Reed imprinted his hands and feet in a slab of wet cement.
With that honor fresh in his mind, Reed’s brother said, “It couldn’t have been a better time for him to go. He got all the accolades you could possibly want.”
Reed is survived by his three children, Peggy Reed, Kirk Reed and Kim Tice; and his brother.