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Obituaries

Rory Calhoun; Handsome Actor Starred in 1950s Westerns, TV Series

April 29, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rory Calhoun, the handsome, lanky actor, producer, writer and rancher best remembered for his 1950s Western films and television series "The Texan," died Wednesday. He was 76.

Calhoun had been hospitalized for the last 10 days with advanced stages of emphysema and diabetes, said his longtime friend Paul Dean.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 30, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 32 Metro Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Rory Calhoun--An obituary on actor Rory Calhoun in Thursday's Times incorrectly said that he was no longer married to his second wife, Sue Rhodes Calhoun. They married in 1971, were divorced in 1979 and remarried in 1982. She survives along with four daughters.

He worked with screen queens Marilyn Monroe in "River of No Return," Betty Grable in "Meet Me After the Show" and Susan Hayward in his longtime favorite film, "With a Song in My Heart." He could sing and dance a little, and performed in some movie musicals, including his debut film, "Something for the Boys," in 1944 with Carmen Miranda and Vivian Blaine.

But Calhoun's breakthrough film was the 1952 Western "Way of a Gaucho," filmed in Argentina, and it was Westerns for which Calhoun was best remembered. Among them were "The Silver Whip," "Four Guns to the Border," "Powder River," "Utah Blaine" and "Black Spurs." In 1984, long after the era of Western entertainment had waned, Calhoun was asked to play frontier scout Kit Carson in the Hollywood fantasy film "Angel."

"By and large, I suppose my image is Western," he told The Times in 1979. "If the two or three dozen Western features I made didn't do it, the 79 episodes of my television series, 'The Texan,' certainly set it. You could say there were more B Westerns than A Westerns, but even so, I always enjoyed putting on the hat, strapping on the gun and feeling like a kid again."

The 6-foot-3, half Irish and half Spanish onetime matinee idol was born Francis Timothy McCown (he sometimes used the surname Durgin) on Aug. 8, 1922, in Los Angeles. The unintentional actor was convinced to try a screen test by actor Alan Ladd, whom he encountered on a Hollywood Hills bridle trail. He made his first few films under the name Frank McCown.

It was legendary producer David O. Selznick who gave Calhoun the permanent screen name. The first name should be "Rory," Selznick explained, "because you're a Leo, Leos are lions, and lions roar." Selznick suggested either Donahue, Calhoun or Callahan as a surname, and the actor's choice began showing up in movie credits.

Calhoun's nickname, "Smoky," has been attributed either to his sexy gray eyes or to his frequent disappearing acts in his youth.

He grew up in Santa Cruz, and frequently ran away from home to escape beatings by his father, a professional gambler. He left for good at 17, hopped a freight train to Los Angeles, and began hot-wiring cars.

"I guess you could classify me as a thief with a pure joy of stealing," the reformed car thief told Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1957. "I enjoyed it because I knew I was doing something that I shouldn't be doing."

But it landed him in the federal reformatory at El Reno, Okla., for "three years, three months and four days," during which he learned "never to do anything like that again," he told The Times 20 years ago.

The prison background was the subject of 1950s articles in popular scandal magazines such as Confidential. Calhoun somewhat mitigated the impact by sharing the true story with Hopper, who touted him nationally as a reformed bad boy.

Calhoun had what he described as "a yo-yo career." Beginning in his early teens, he worked as a grease monkey, a logger in California's redwoods, a hard-rock miner in Nevada, a cowpuncher in Arizona, a net hauler for fishing boats, a dump truck driver, a crane operator and a forest firefighter with ambitions to become a forest ranger--anything that kept him outdoors.

After he learned to like what he originally considered "the sissy's game" of acting and the "easy money" it brought, he became an astute businessman. He owned several saloons, a hotel rug business in Beverly Hills with his screen name on the side of its vans, and a huge ranch near Ojai.

Calhoun also went far beyond acting in the entertainment business. He produced, directed and scripted the 1957 motion picture "Domino Kid," produced and directed "The Hired Gun" the same year, and co-wrote the screenplay for a 1955 Sterling Hayden Western, "Shotgun."

The eclectic Calhoun also wrote novels, including "The Man From Padera" and "Cerrado."

As an actor, he occasionally performed on stage, including in a London production of "Belle Starr" in 1969 and 1970. On television, he also appeared in several 1950s and early 1960s anthology series, including "Ford Television Theater," "Death Valley Days" and "Zane Grey Theater," and hosted the syndicated "Western Star Theater."

Calhoun's personal life was no less colorful than his career. Described by Hopper in 1952 as "one of the handsomest men in the industry, all male," Calhoun was linked romantically with such pinup girls as Lana Turner and Betty Grable--often during his 21-year marriage to singer Lita Baron or his six-year marriage to Australian journalist Susan Langley. He settled at least one paternity suit, and when Baron countersued him for divorce in the late 1960s, she accused him of "adultery with 79 women."

His marriage to Baron produced three daughters, Cindy, Tami and Lorri, and the marriage to Langley produced a fourth daughter, Rory Patricia.

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