Friday, March 27, 2015

Gregory Walcott: In Memoriam

"Now You Just Hold On, Buster"

By Ed Garea

He was an accomplished actor who appeared in such notable films as Mister RobertsThe Eiger SanctionNorma Rae, and Midway. He romanced Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady (1955), portrayed hard-as-nails drill instructors in Battle Cry (1955) and Delbert Mann’s The Outsider (1960), and was Gene Hackman’s psychopathic brother in Prime Cut (1972). He worked with such noted filmmakers as Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg.

And yet, for all that, he is probably best known among cinephiles for the role of pilot Jeff Trent in Ed Wood’s cult classic, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Gregory Walcott passed away at his home in Canoga Park, Los Angeles, California, on March 20, 2015. His son, Men in Black puppeteer Todd Mattox, announced his death, which was attributed to natural causes. Walcott was 87.

For years afterward, Walcott avoided any reference to Plan 9 like the plague. In an interview with a reporter, he stated, “I will go to my grave not remembered for those meaty roles I did for the likes of John Ford or Steven Spielberg, but as the leading man in a film that many movie historians regard as the worst of all time. It's enough to drive a Puritan to drink!”

However, in recent years, his attitude softened greatly to the point where he made a cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s 1995 biopic, Ed Wood. He explained his position to the L.A. Times in 2000, “I didn't want to be remembered for (Plan 9). But it's better to be remembered for something than for nothing, don't you think?”

How Walcott came to star in Wood’s “masterpiece” is a story that like all stories connected with the film, is decidedly offbeat. In a 1998 interview for Filmax magazine, Walcott said he was approached by a friend, fledgling producer J. Edwards Reynolds, about starring in a sci-fi film opposite Bela Lugosi. “But Ed,” I replied, “Bela Lugosi is dead.” He was told not to worry, for director Ed Wood was going to use footage he shot of Lugosi before his death, and the footage would be blended into the film.

I refused at first,” Walcott said. “I read the script, and it was gibberish. It made no sense, but I saw Ed Reynolds as a naive, sweet man. I had done some pretty good things before that, so I thought I had a little credibility in Hollywood. I thought maybe my name would give the show some credibility. … The film was made surreptitiously. My agent didn’t even know I did it.”

The road for Greg Walcott was one many actors had trod. He was born Bernard Wasdon Mattox on January 13, 1928, in Wendell, North Carolina, outside Raleigh. He was raised in the nearby town of Wilson, where his father was a furniture salesman. He enlisted in the U.S. Army toward the end of World War II, and also saw action in the Korean War.

After leaving the service, his restless spirit took over and with a $100 in his pocket, he hitchhiked from the East Coast to California to pursue a dream of an acting career. Once there he studied the craft under Ben Bard. An agent spotted Walcott in a little theater play and helped him land his first movie role in Red Skies of Montana (1952). A couple of years later, he made something of a splash as a Marine Corps drill instructor in Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry (1955), and the studio, Warner Brothers, signed him to a contract.

Aside from his role as Deputy Jess Foley in Texas Lady (1955), Walcott worked mainly in television with occasional film roles, mainly in Westerns, such as Warner Brothers’ Badman’s Country (1958), where he played Bat Masterson.

Then came Plan 9.

Walcott shot the film in late 1956 into the first part of 1957. As mentioned before, he took the role as a favor to J. Edwards Reynolds, a fellow member of his Baptist church who Wood conned into putting up the money for the film. Luckily for Walcott, the film took two years to find a distributor, and less than 20 release copies were struck, because the distributor, DCA, made Reynolds foot the cost of prints. It wouldn’t have made a difference at any rate, for the film played a week at most to empty houses. In 1961, it made its debut as late night fodder on independent TV stations. Thus, practically no one in the business knew Walcott appeared in it until the ‘70s, when the Medved Brothers gave the film a splash of publicity by naming it as the Worst Movie Ever Made in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards. Since then, Plan 9 and its director have become pop culture icons.

Regarding Walcott, in 1958, he appeared in a film almost as gruesome, critically speaking, as Plan 9. That would be Jet Attack (1958) from director Edward L. Cahn. Walcott is one of three pilots (with John Agar and James Dobson) sent behind North Korean lines to rescue a scientist held prisoner. There, they encounter a mysterious Russian nurse (Audrey Totter) who ultimately helps them in their mission, for she has fallen in love with Agar. (Yes, I know.)

In 1961, he won acclaim as drill instructor Sgt. Kiley in the Universal film The Outsider, the story of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima. Walcott was third-billed behind star Tony Curtis (as Hayes) and James Franciscus. Later that year, Walcott co-starred as Det. Roger Havilland in NBC’s police drama 87thPrecinct (1961-62), based on the novels of Ed McBain.

Other prestige films he made during the ‘60s include On the Double (1961), with Danny Kaye, and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), with Gregory Peck. Most of the paychecks during the decade were earned guest starring on television series, mainly Westerns such as Rawhide (5 appearances), The High Chaparral (2 appearances), The Big Valley, Alias Smith and Jones, and Bonanza (7 appearances).

In the ‘70s, he hooked up with Clint Eastwood, having earlier worked with the actor-director on Rawhide. He appeared in Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). He said in later interviews that he enjoyed working for Eastwood, but noted that his character was the tough guy who was beaten thoroughly to a pulp by the star in the films.

Besides the Eastwood quartet, other major pictures Walcott appeared in included Prime Cut (1971), with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), Midway (1976), with Charlton Heston, and Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1978), where he had a memorable role who hauls away Sally Field’s character during the famous protest scene.

Again, the bulk of his work in both the ‘70s and ‘80s came from television, where he frequently guest starred on series from Baretta, to The Six Million Dollar Man, to Dallas. His last appearance came in a cameo role as a potential backer in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

On the personal side, Walcott was married twice, first to Martha Garland, from 1948 to 1953, and later to Barbara May Watkins, to whom he was introduced at a party by Western legend Dale Evans. He married Barbara in 1954 and the marriage lasted for 55 years until her death in June 2010.

He also published a memoir, “Hollywood Adventures: The Gregory Walcott Story,” in 2003.

In addition to son Todd Mattox, Walcott's survivors include his daughters Jina and Pam and several grandchildren.

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