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Walter Craig; Actor's Apex Was Valentino Role

April 05, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walter Craig, who acted under the stage name Anthony Dexter and rocketed to fame when he was selected from 75,000 applicants as a Rudolph Valentino look-alike for the 1951 biopic "Valentino," has died. He was 88.

Craig died March 27 in Greeley, Colo., where he had lived in retirement, said Joe Walker, a former student who is now a Los Angeles criminal analyst.

"He was kind of a one-hit wonder, but a heck of a nice guy and an inspiration to his students," said Walker, who met Craig when the actor taught public speaking and drama at Eagle Rock High School from 1971 to 1978.

As Dexter, Craig was groomed to reincarnate the silent screen lover in early 1950s epics akin to those Valentino had made 30 years earlier. Craig starred as John Smith in "Captain John Smith and Pocahontas," as Kidd in "Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl," as the pirate chief in "The Black Pirates" and as Christopher Columbus in "The Story of Mankind."

But nothing garnered as much publicity for Craig as his selection as a new Valentino, and he later slipped into smaller and smaller roles in minor science fiction films. His final screen performance was a bit part in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 1967.

The "Valentino" film, which also starred Eleanor Parker, Patricia Medina and Richard Carlson, never quite lived up to its hype. Producer Edward Small claimed to have searched for 11 years, considered 75,000 men and made 400 screen tests to find the perfect copy of the renowned Valentino, who died in 1926 at age 31. Small touted the search, and his grooming of a handful of top prospects, as the "greatest talent hunt in the history of motion pictures."

The producer announced with great fanfare and myriad publicity photos that he had found his celluloid clone in Craig. Members of Valentino fan clubs across the country praised the choice.

"It's incredible! The same eyes, ears, mouth--the same grace in dancing," George Melford told The Times in 1950, comparing Craig to the real thing. Melford, who had an acting role in Small's "Valentino" and had directed Valentino in "The Sheik," said the uncanny resemblance was most profound in the look in both men's eyes.

A farm boy from Talmadge, Neb., Craig earned a football scholarship to St. Olaf's College in Minnesota, where he sang with the school's choir. He went on to earn a master's degree in speech and drama from the University of Iowa.

During World War II, Craig was a sergeant in Army Special Services, touring England and other war zones in the show "Claudia."

He later acted on Broadway in such shows as "The Three Sisters," "Ah, Wilderness!" and "The Barretts of Wimpole Street." During his motion picture career, he acted occasionally on television and starred in San Francisco summer theater in "The King and I."

Craig is survived by two daughters, Kimberly and Claudia, and four grandchildren.

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