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Forrest Tucker, Stage, TV and Film Star, Dies

October 27, 1986|JOHN KENDALL | Times Staff Writer

Actor Forrest Tucker, flamboyant veteran of burlesque, movies, and stage and television roles in a show business career spanning half a century--but perhaps best known as Sgt. O'Rourke in the old "F Troop" television series--has died in Woodland Hills.

He was 67, and family spokesman David Isham said Sunday the actor had been battling lung cancer for more than a year. Tucker had suffered a series of minor illnesses of late, but the first public notice of his worsening condition came when he collapsed and was hospitalized Aug. 22 on his way to a ceremony honoring him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Isham said Tucker died at 6:10 p.m. Saturday--just five minutes after his wife, Sheila, who had been visiting him all afternoon, left the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital to go home.

Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Church of the Hills, Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills.

A blustery 6-foot-5, Tucker thought of himself as the last of a breed of big "ugly guys" in the mode of Wallace Beery, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, who didn't care what they looked like.

"I look in the mirror and I say, 'Forget it: what else is new,' " he once told a columnist. "But I know how to do a line, do a take. Let me do the basics. Let other people care about being pretty."

Despite his performances in nearly a hundred Western and action motion pictures, starting with "The Westerner," starring Gary Cooper in 1940, Tucker considered himself more of an entertainer than an actor.

"When you put down your money at the box office, I want you to leave happy," he said.

Tucker, born Feb. 12, 1919, in Plainfield, Ind., excelled in golf and also thought he might have been a professional baseball player like his father, who once played in the minor leagues.

Guided by His Mother

Instead, he was guided by his mother, a singer, and became an entertainer, winning an after-midnight amateur show at a theater in Washington at age 15.

He subsequently became master of ceremonies for the Gayety Burlesque Theater in the same city, but after a few weeks the theater management found out he was underage and fired him--with the suggestion that he return when he was old enough.

Tucker, not willing to return to high school, joined the Army (he had lied about his age again) and, on his 18th birthday, obtained a discharge and returned to the Gayety working at night while (reluctantly, he said) completing work on his high school diploma.

He came to Hollywood in 1938 and was signed by Samuel Goldwyn. At first, he played mostly heavies and villains in the 1940s, after a second Army hitch during World War II.

But in the 1950s, he was transformed into a hero in dozens of motion pictures in both the United States and Great Britain.

First Starring Role

His first starring roll was in Republic's "Rock Island Trail" (1950).

Other films included "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "Chisum," both starring his close friend John Wayne, "Keeper of the Flame," "The Yearling," "Pony Express," "The Abominable Snowman" and "The Night They Raided Minsky's."

In 1958, he was chosen to portray "Professor" Harold Hill, the title role in a national touring company of "The Music Man," and reviewers compared him favorably to Robert Preston, who had originated the role in Meredith Willson's paean to small-town America.

Tucker married his third wife, Marilyn Fisk, in 1961; she had been a cast member of the "The Music Man."

"When we folded up 'The Music Man' after touring it for four years, I thought I would never have such fun again," Tucker said. "I figured it was all downhill the rest of my life. I was wrong."

Turned to TV

Tucker turned to television, starring with comedians Larry Storch and Ken Berry in 65 episodes of "F Troop," beginning in 1965. Tucker played Sgt. Morgan O'Rourke in a zany version of the post-Civil War cavalry.

The series, which ran for two years, involved a band of well-intentioned, but bumbling, soldiers under the command of Capt. Wilton Parmenter (Berry), who had been promoted from private to captain after leading a wrong-way charge during the final days of the Civil War.

As O'Rourke, Tucker was busier selling Indian trinkets to tourists visiting Ft. Courage than he was fighting Indians.

The show, which featured such disparate guest stars as Edward Everett Horton, Milton Berle and Henry Gibson, remains a cult favorite in syndication.

"I knew Forrest for 30 years. He was a hell of a guy," Berle said Sunday. "He was really a fine dramatic actor. Also, he was an excellent comedian."

Hard-Living, Loyal

Tucker subsequently was teamed with Bob Denver of "Gilligan's Island" for a syndicated situation comedy, "Dusty's Trail," which lasted only one season, and he was in the short-lived "Ghost Chasers" of 1976.

The actor had a reputation for hard-living and fierce loyalty to old friends.

"I am, by the messages my body sends me, an old man," he said last year. "The way I have abused my body, 66 comes out to about the age of Methuselah--roughly 969 years."

He recalled a cold day as a money-short teen-ager in Chicago, when he plunked down a quarter and saw bandleader-comedian Phil Harris turn a "dispirited and desolate audience into a happy and hopeful congregation who felt, 'Let's give it one more try.' "

From that day on, Tucker said, he tried to be an entertainer, and Harris (who later portrayed a 145-year-old Indian named Flaming Arrow on "F Troop") became his personal hero.

"If the men on both sides don't understand what hero worship is all about, and how it affects our lives, I feel deeply sorry for them," he said.

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