Advertisement
 
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Dick Simmons, 89; Played Sgt. Preston in 1950s Television Series

Obituaries

January 14, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Richard "Dick" Simmons, an actor best known for playing the Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who tracked down bad guys across the frozen North in the 1950s television series "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," has died. He was 89.

Simmons, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Saturday at a rest home in Oceanside, said his wife, Billie.

A onetime MGM contract player who had small parts in more than 50 films by the mid-1950s, the handsome, square-jawed actor with the pencil-thin mustache did not become a star until he donned the broad-brimmed hat and red uniform of a Canadian Mountie.

Driving a dog sled with Yukon King, the "swiftest and strongest lead dog, breaking the trail in relentless pursuit of lawbreakers in the wild days of the Yukon," Simmons played Sergeant Preston for three seasons on CBS, from 1955 to 1958. The show continued to air in syndication around the world for decades.

"On King! On you huskies," Preston would cry as he set off on a mission.

At the end of an episode, he'd turn to his faithful furry companion and say, "Well, King, this case is closed."

The half-hour adventure series -- which was shot in color at a time when most viewers still had black-and-white televisions -- became a popular, snowbound version of the sagebrush sagas that dominated the era's airwaves.

"Like Clayton Moore was the Lone Ranger, Dick Simmons was Sergeant Preston," said Boyd Magers, editor and publisher of Western Clippings magazine, who knew Simmons.

"It was perfect casting," said Magers. "He had a mustache, and he just looked like what you'd think a typical Mountie would look like. Dick had a military bearing from World War II, where he had been a pilot, and the deep, authoritative voice."

Born in St. Paul, Minn., Simmons grew up in neighboring Minneapolis. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he studied drama and became adept at swimming, diving, fencing and horseback riding.

Struck by wanderlust, Simmons left school and spent the Depression riding the rails and working a variety of jobs -- among them ranch hand, rodeo rider and hand on board tankers and freighters that took him to Mexico and South America.

Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, he continued working odd jobs, including landing a bit part in "A Million to One," a 1937 movie starring Joan Fontaine.

In 1942, while vacationing at a dude ranch, he became friends with an MGM studio executive, which led to his being signed, without a screen test, to a long-term contract.

After serving as a pilot in the Air Transport Command during World War II, Simmons returned to Hollywood, where he continued playing small roles in movies, among them "Love Laughs at Andy Hardy," "Lady in the Lake" and "The Three Musketeers."

In the 1950s, he appeared on various television shows and played the lead in a 1954 Republic western serial, "The Man With the Steel Whip."

Then came "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," the TV version of the radio show created in 1947 by the same team responsible for "The Lone Ranger" and "The Green Hornet."

Beating out 40 other actors for the starring role, Simmons was called on to ski, snowshoe, drive a dog team, ride a horse, swim, wrestle, fistfight, paddle a canoe and climb mountains. Although his producers wanted him to use a double, the still-athletic actor refused.

Although the series included footage shot on location in Colorado, most episodes were filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, where pulverized rock stood in for snow.

"Our homemade snow even fooled the dogs when they were brought into the studio for the first time," Simmons told The Times in 1956. "They're used to eating snow for moisture. They took big mouthfuls of this rock and were in trouble. They haven't touched it since."

In 1978, Simmons shattered the image of his heroic malamute, King, who was known to bring the bad guys to their knees.

"The CBS people wanted to take some promotional pictures over at my house, and they brought King along," he told The Times. "Well, I had a dachshund as my own personal pet, and she ran King right out of the house."

As his acting career ran down in the 1970s, Simmons managed a mobile home park in Carlsbad. His last TV appearance was in a 1982 episode of "CHiPs."

Simmons, who lived in Prescott, Ariz., in recent years, was preceded in death by his first two wives.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Michael, of Thousand Oaks; and daughter, Sue Bryar, of Woodland Hills; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|