Dale Robertson, a Horse-Savvy Actor in Westerns, Is Dead at 89
Published: February 27, 2013
Dale Robertson, who parlayed his Oklahoma drawl and a way with horses into a long career as a popular, strong-minded star of westerns on television and in the movies, died on Wednesday in San Diego. He was 89.
NBC, via Photofest
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The cause was complications of lung cancer and pneumonia, his wife, Susan, said. He had been hospitalized near his home in San Diego.
Mr. Robertson was a skilled rider at 10 and training polo ponies by the time he was a teenager. He often said that the only reason he acted professionally was to save money to start his own horse farm in Oklahoma, which he eventually did.
In between, he appeared in more than 60 films and 430 television episodes. In the movies he was a ruggedly handsome counterpart to leading ladies like Betty Grable, Mitzi Gaynor and Jeanne Crain. On television he had starring roles in popular westerns like “Tales of Wells Fargo,” which appeared from 1957 to 1961; “Iron Horse,” from 1966 to 1968; and “Death Valley Days,” which he hosted from 1968 to 1972.
In 1981 he played an oil wildcatter in early episodes of “Dynasty.” The next year he had a recurring role in another glitzy nighttime soap opera, “Dallas,” and later in the decade he starred in the short-lived “J. J. Starbuck.”
Mr. Robertson refused to call himself an actor. Rather, he said, he was a personality with a distinctive style, not unlike that of the actor he most admired, John Wayne.
“An actor can change himself to fit a part, whereas a personality has to change the part to fit himself,” he said in an interview in 1988. He added, “The personality has to say it his own way.”
Acting or not, he failed to impress some critics, who found his performances understated to the point of woodenness. But others saw him as an embodiment of the stoic frontier virtues that made westerns one of America’s most popular genres for decades.
He was born Dayle Lymoine Robertson in Harrah, Okla., about 30 miles east of Oklahoma City, on July 14, 1923, to Melvin and Varval Robertson. He starred in sports in high school, boxed professionally as a young man and attended the Oklahoma Military Academy. In World War II, he served in the Army in Africa and Europe and was wounded twice, earning bronze and silver stars.
Before being sent overseas, Mr. Robertson, then stationed in California, wanted to give a portrait of himself to his mother. He and some buddies went to Hollywood and picked a photographer at random. The photographer liked his picture of Mr. Robertson so much, he blew it up and put in his window. Talent agents started calling.
Mr. Robertson’s first movie role, an uncredited one, was in “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948). His first significant role was that of Jesse James in “Fighting Man of the Plains” (1949). He figured that about 70 percent of his films were westerns and said he did his own stunts.
Among the other westerns he starred in were “Devils Canyon” and “City of Bad Men,” both in 1953; “Sitting Bull” (1954); “Dakota Incident” (1956); and “Hell Canyon Outlaws,” which was released in 1957.
That was the year he gravitated to television, liking its faster pace of production. He developed, owned and starred in the “Wells Fargo” series, playing Jim Hardie, a troubleshooter for the stagecoach company. To make the character distinctive, he had the otherwise right-handed Hardie draw his gun and shoot left-handed.
“Wells Fargo” was originally shown in black and white and in half-hour episodes. In 1961, however, the producers wanted to turn it into a full-hour show, broadcast it in color and expand the ensemble of characters. Mr. Robertson refused, and sold the show to them.
In “Iron Horse,” he played a man who runs a railroad that he had won in a poker game. In “Death Valley Days,” he followed Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor as host. In “J. J. Starbuck,” Mr. Robertson was a bereaved billionaire who finds meaning in life by solving complex criminal cases and charging no fee.
Mr. Robertson was married four times. In addition to his wife, the former Susan Robbins, whom he married in 1980, he is survived by his daughters, Rochelle Robertson and Rebel Lee, and a granddaughter.
Mr. Robertson never made any bones about his desire to get out of show business one day. He said movies had gotten too sexy for his tastes. He said he got tired of having to hold his stomach in. Mostly, he wanted a ranch. He bought one in Yukon, Okla., about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City.
Mr. Robertson never lost his disdain for Eastern actors, who he thought just played at being cowboys. He said you could spot them by the way they walked around a horse. As for himself, he heeded advice given to him by Will Rogers Jr., son of the Oklahoma humorist.
“Don’t ever take a dramatic lesson,” Mr. Rogers told Mr. Robertson. “They will try to put your voice in a dinner jacket, and people like their hominy and grits in everyday clothes.”