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SO SOCAL: The Best...The Beautiful...And The Bizarre : BREAKFAST BUCKAROOS : Reeling in the Years

August 29, 1999|Judy Raphael

The "Reel Cowboys" weekly breakfast club at Big Jim's Restaurant in Sun Valley will now come to order. Well, as orderly as a bunch of wranglers can get. Around the table gather a slew of rugged character actors and behind-the-camera movers whose credits comprise a history of the classic age of TV westerns: John Locke ("Gunsmoke" and "Wagon Train"), Joe Cranston ("Wyatt Earp" and "Bronco"), Mike Masters ("Wild Wild West" and "Bonanza") and veteran bad guy Mike Reynolds, who claims to have shot everyone from Ernest Borgnine to Kevin Costner. James Drury, a.k.a. "The Virginian," is out of town.

Between bites of steak and eggs, as the microphone is passed around the table, mustachioed members in Southwestern shirts and bolo ties discuss club business, engage in bits of good-humored tussling and, yes, reminisce. The announcement of a wake for Iron Eyes Cody sets off a round of "cowboys and Indians" movie mishap anecdotes, from the one about the bonnet set afire to the day a rain dance produced real rain. That reminds Masters "of the time John Ford kicked Jay Silverheels off the set." Which reminds club president Al "Big Al" Fleming, who plays Buffalo Man on CBS' "The Magnificent Seven" and comes in at 6 feet, 8 inches in his Stetson, of a Sam Peckinpah story. "Hey, we oughta do a book!" says agent Steve Stevens, who handled the late actors Slim Pickens, Amanda Blake and Chuck Connors.

Founded as the "B.S. and Grub Club" in 1972 by Jock Mahoney, star of the late '50s "Yancy Derringer" TV series, the group re-formed as Reel Cowboys after Mahoney's death in 1992. Now, with 60 members nationwide, the aim is camaraderie, charity fund-raisers for abused children via the YMCA Domestic Violence Program, and to bring back the western and celebrate its heroes.

"You look at the history of Hollywood, the starting place was the western," says Fleming, who dreams of a Western Walk of Fame at Gower Gulch, a former hangout for out-of-work cowboy actors across from Columbia Studios (where many early westerns were filmed). "But the Hollywood chamber won't touch western heroes. Heck with 'em. We'll do it ourselves. We're just trying to keep the old spirit alive."

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