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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Mighty Fine Cowboy--And a Whole Lot More

October 04, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

At a hotel near Disneyland one night awhile back--we're talking 1986 here--Gene Autry was already being kidded about getting old. He was the guest of honor at a testimonial, so up stood his old sidekick, Pat Buttram, to say a few words about the cowboy in that voice of Pat's that sounded like a parrot with strep throat.

Everybody began laughing before Buttram said a thing. They could already see that hangdog look with those droopy jowls. They could already anticipate that corn pone dialect, the one so familiar to television viewers who knew Buttram best as Mr. Haney, a scoundrel from the "Green Acres" television program.

His first word was the screech of a fingernail across a blackboard.

"Geeeene. . . ," he said, stretching it out.

The cowboy met his gaze.

"I don't wanna say yer a-gettin' old," Buttram croaked, "but I understand yer insurance company sent ya half a calendar."

Everybody broke up. Gene Autry broke up. His wife, Jackie, broke up.

"Ya knowwww," Buttram continued, "Jackie just told me that ol' Gene, he ages like a fine wine.

"I guess that explains why she's a-keepin' him in the cellar."

*

I wrote a note to Jackie Autry a year ago September, care of their Studio City home.

In it, I proposed that with Gene's 90th birthday just around the bend, it would be a privilege if I could drop by, see how Gene was doing, reminisce about Angel baseball or his Museum of Western Heritage or anything else that struck Gene's fancy--or otherwise, if he wasn't up to it, just visit a spell.

Jackie didn't write back. She didn't call either.

Instead, she got in touch with Jim Murray, my illustrious colleague and the Autrys' trusted friend. According to Jim--who, being Jim, sounded pretty sheepish about the whole thing--Jackie told him that somebody from his newspaper was trying to do a story on Gene, and if anybody was going to do a story on Gene, she preferred that it be Jim.

Didn't bother me a bit. I pretty much considered myself to be Jim Murray's version of Pat Buttram anyway. A buffoonish fellow, mainly along for the ride.

My only regret was not getting to spend some time with Gene Autry before he died--as he did Friday at the age of 91 (only a few weeks after Jim Murray passed on).

There was so much more to this cowboy than what many people will remember now that he is gone--an innocuous Christmas ditty, a handsome horse, that kind of thing--that I always wished I'd made time to sit with Gene for a few hours when his health was robust. The stories he could have told.

There is a splendid new book called "Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western," which chronicles the history of Western film as well as its myths.

The book documents a lot of what Gene Autry knew about the genre, about pleasing an audience, about the differences between big-screen action and what worked best on television. Autry the family man worried about youngsters out there watching. Autry the businessman, though, worried about the bottom line.

Here's Gene on TV violence, for example:

"There's another reason for eliminating violence--it's expensive. If the hero shoots and kills the villain, the villain has to get paid extra for falling down, because the fall places him in the category of a stuntman. However, if the hero just wounds the villain, there's no extra pay.

"And, if you kill off too many people in the first part of your story, that means you have to have a larger cast in order to finish the 26 minutes. So, if we do have to kill somebody, we try to do the killing at the very end and limit it to one or two people at the most."

And then there was Autry's music.

I enjoyed reading about the impact of his early days, back when he was part Jimmie Rodgers, part campfire guitar strummer, part hilltop yodeler singing "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine" or crooning alongside Smiley Burnette, making beautiful Western music.

This man did a lot more than sing about reindeer.

*

We were in the locker room of the California Angels, ne Los Angeles Angels, now Anaheim Angels, one night after a game, when in walked Mr. Autry to visit the baseball team he owned.

I asked how he was, and he said, "Tolerable."

Then I asked, "How's Pat Buttram?"

"Old and ornery, same as me," said the cowboy, back when a friend was a friend.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com.

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