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The Life of a Cowboy Is Knowing the Ropes

May 29, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For champion trick roper Gene McLaughlin, the world is a target.

His 3-year-old grandson speeds past. McLaughlin draws a bead and lets fly. In seconds, the boy is roped like a calf. A visitor taking notes finds his hands roped. McLaughlin's son, Cliff, is lassoed around the neck.

"Now you see what growing up was like," Cliff sighs.

The 71-year-old Simi Valley cowboy, stuntman and roper to the stars smiles. "I love targets," says McLaughlin, who once roped a man during a job interview. "The key to roping is not to hurt nobody."

Rope has been the one constant in McLaughlin's colorful life. At age 3, he began spinning loops on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., later appearing in numerous movies and television shows.

McLaughlin says he's taught roping and riding to actors Jon Voight, John Travolta and Patrick Swayze, to name a few. His show business career has included stunt work on television shows "Bonanza," "Wild Wild West" and "Gunsmoke," and movies "Urban Cowboy," "Running Scared" and "Ghost."

He is also a sort of cowboy guru for those searching for masculine simplicity in a sedentary and complex world.

"Gene is my philosopher king," said actor Peter Strauss, who learned how to rope calves from McLaughlin while working on a television movie. "He didn't just teach me how to rope, but taught me what being a cowboy is all about. He had to turn an actor into a calf roper, he had to turn a New York Jew into a calf roper, and that just doesn't happen."

Strauss, 54, fell in love with calf roping and the whole cowboy ethos. He plans on taking more lessons from McLaughlin.

"He turned me on to the best thing I ever did," Strauss said. "And Gene is so at peace with himself that anyone who meets him succumbs to him instantly."

Despite his Hollywood career, McLaughlin seems to be a man out of time, spending the twilight hours of each day roping calves on his son's Moorpark ranch.

Small and compact with hands as strong as nutcrackers, McLaughlin rides tall in the saddle. This evening he is on Digger, a sleek, responsive horse who can turn on a dime.

As the sunlight wanes over the distant hills, a dozen calves wait in a pen. One is placed in a holding area. McLaughlin gives the signal and the calf bolts. Galloping behind, he ropes the 175-pound animal, jumps off his horse, tackles it and ties it up. The whole thing takes about 10 seconds.

"Not bad for a 71-year-old," his son says proudly.

Born in suburban Philadelphia, McLaughlin's knack for roping was spotted early by his father. He sent 3-year-old Gene and his 5-year-old brother, Don, to Atlantic City to perform rope tricks for money. The cash helped the family through the Depression and led to a 12-year engagement for the boys at Madison Square Garden.

"Now that was the cat's meow, that was the big time," McLaughlin recalls. "I was only 5 and didn't have any hips. My pants would fall down when I roped."

By then, the family had moved to Fort Worth, and McLaughlin was performing at rodeos all over the country.

"Life was normal to a point," he says. "My father would come by the school and say, 'It's time to go to the rodeo,' and we went."

Trick roping took him to all 50 states, Canada and Japan. He even roped on ice skates and performed in "The Midget Circus" in San Antonio. McLaughlin came to California in 1961 and did shows at Knott's Berry Farm before getting into stunt work.

In 1981, he won the trick roping world championship in Oklahoma against tough competition from Mexico. He is still the reigning world champion.

McLaughlin prefers cotton rope, which he has spun into 86-foot-wide loops. He can slow a spinning rope down, make it climb over his shoulders and then make it fly over his head like a corkscrew.

"When I first met him, I thought this was some sort of hobby he had," says his wife, Betty, 62, who makes all his outfits. "It's a wonderful life and a great way to keep kids out of trouble."

Their son, Cliff, 41, is also a top-flight roper and stuntman. Daughter Valerie, 42, sings in a country music band.

McLaughlin, who has been married for 44 years, doesn't embody every cowboy stereotype.

"I never had a drink of beer or smoked a cigarette," he says. "Some of my heroes went down to drinking."

A cowboy, he says, is all about independence and integrity, and not about hats and boots.

"Ask a cowboy to do anything and he will," he says. "But tell him to and he'll never do it."

And he hints at a certain cowboy karma. "Amazing how things go around in life," he says. "Just like this rope."

On many evenings, actors and locals interested in roping come to the hilltop ranch. "It's such a rush, such an addiction," enthuses Terry Pfankuchen, 30, of Simi Valley, who is learning to rope calves. "This is a workout. I can wring my shirt out at the end of the day. These guys make it look easy."

As for slowing down, McLaughlin just shrugs.

"Long as I can handle a rope and get on and off a horse without help," he said, "then I'm going to keep roping."

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