Thursday, March 24, 2016

Interview with Don Collier: "The High Chaparral" Star Talks About John Wayne and His Classic TV Westerns

One of the most recognizable TV cowboys of the 1960s, Don Collier carved out a highly-successful career playing ranch foremen, lawmen, and bad guys. In addition to starring in his own TV series Outlaws (1960-62), he guest starred on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Branded, Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, and Hondo. He achieved his greatest fame as Sam Butler, the foreman on The High Chaparral (1967-71). In addition to his many TV appearances, he also starred in big-screen Westerns such as The War Wagon (1967), 5 Card Stud (1968), and The Undefeated (1969). We talked with this fine storyteller recently at the Williamsburg Film Festival.

Café:  You've appeared in Westerns directed by two of the genre's most famous directors: John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Don Collier:  I was just an extra in Fort Apache and had no dialogue. I met John Ford, but didn't get a chance to know him. I did get to work with Victor McLaglen and what a treat that was. Victor was dear to my heart. I watched him as a kid in the 1930s and I still remember him in that movie where he grabs the machine gun (The Lost Patrol). I loved him in The Quiet Man, too.

Don Collier at the 2016
Williamsburg Film Festival.
Café:  How about working with Howard Hawks?

DC:  It was quick. I did one little scene with John Wayne in El Dorado. My part was shot in the Paramount studios, while John Wayne was in Tucson. Jimmy Caan climbed up on a ladder in the studio and delivered the Duke's lines to me. Duke filmed his lines down in Arizona. We were 500 miles apart. That was my experience with Howard Hawks.

Café:  What was it like working with John Wayne on The Undefeated, and The War Wagon?

Collier in The War Wagon.
DC:  It was great working with him. In The War Wagon, I worked the whole 13 weeks. In one scene, I get out of the war wagon with two of the stunt guys. Duke's character has an argument with us and he decks the two stunt guys. He slams the coach door in my face. Before we shot the scene, he says: "Don, do you want us to get a stunt guy to do your part?" I said: "Oh, hell no, go ahead and slam the door and I'll catch it with one arm." He said: "Are you sure about that? I don't want to hit you in the face." I was still calling him "Mr. Wayne" then and he tells me to call him Duke. I said: "Duke, you slam the door and I'll make it look like you knocked me out." So, we did the scene and he slams the door on me and I catch it with my arm. No big deal...but he remembered that. About two-and-a-half years later, we're filming The High Chaparral at Paramount studios and he was working on the sound stage next door. So, I went over to see him. He says: "Collier, good to see you. Are you going with us to Mexico on The Undefeated?" I said I hadn't even heard about it. He said: "Get your butt over to Fox and talk to Andy McLaglen. I'll call him and tell him you're coming over." I talked with Andy and he hired me for the job. See, Duke liked the fact I took that stagecoach door in the face. I'd like to think that the John Wayne "school of acting" consists of three things: (1) Be on time for your call. (2) Know your dialogue; and (3) Don't leave the camera, even if you're not in the shot. So many times, especially if you're working with younger actors, the director says "cut" and, boom, they scatter like quail. They've got to go make a phone call or leave for a date. Duke usually ends up directing a picture about halfway into it and he wants his actors on the set. He doesn't want to have to look around for them at the honey wagon or in their trailer. He wants them there around the camera. If you remember those three things, you could work with John Wayne. He'd like you. Working with him was almost like going to school and learning the finer points working in the film business.

Café:  What was the premise of your 1960-62 Western TV series Outlaws?

DC:  The stories were supposed to be from the outlaws' point of view. It was a good show. The second season, the producers brought in Slim Pickens and he made it a lot better. The first year has Barton MacLane. I remember when he was a lead heavy at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a pleasure just to meet the guy. He played the marshal and there were two deputies. Jock Gaynor was one of them. He couldn't do the job and they fired him. He wore his hat rolled up on one side, like Australians sometimes do. They hired another guy and he never worked out. So, the second year, they brought in Slim Pickens and Bruce Yarnell, who was about 6' 7". He was a singer NBC had hired, hoping to put him on a variety show. They had no place for him, so they gave him to us because we needed a deputy. I tell some stories about Bruce in my one-man show. We did Outlaws for two years. NBC "owed" producer Ralph Edwards (This Is Your Life) an hour of prime time. So, in 1963, he wanted NBC to show his TV series The Wide Country (about rodeo competitors). NBC only owned two series: Bonanza and Outlaws. Bonanza was pretty well rated, so NBC decided to cancel our show for the Ralph Edwards one. The Wide Country was bad. I think it lasted one year. After Outlaws, I did several other TV Westerns like Wagon Train, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke. I did The War Wagon and then I joined The High Chaparral in 1967.

Leif Erickson, Collier, and Cameron
Mitchell in The High Chaparral.
Café:  Speaking of The High Chaparral, when I interviewed Henry Darrow last year, he noted it was a challenge acting with Cameron Mitchell because he rarely knew his lines.

DC:  That is absolutely true. I never cared for Cam too much. He was good at what he did and he could improvise, but he was always trying to steal scenes from you. I never thought that was right. You don't tread on somebody else's feet. He was kind of a loud mouth and a slob. Of course, a lot of us were slobs. He accused me of wanting his part (Buck Cannon). Physically, I would have made a better brother to Leif Erickson than Cam did. But I was tickled to death with the part I had (ranch foreman Sam Butler). I didn't have too much dialogue and could spend more time in the bar. We had good times on that show.

Café:  I've read where it was a pretty hard shoot because of the Arizona temperatures.

DC:  There's a remedy for that heat. It happens every Friday and it's called payday. If the heat wasn't tolerable, you could quit. So, even if it was 120 degrees, we smiled and kept going.

Café:  The High Chaparral was a different Western in that it featured a multi-ethnic family.

Pernell Roberts and Collier on Bonanza.
DC:  It was one of the first shows that explored that thoroughly. We had a lot of fine Hispanic actors. The show did well dealing with the problems within the family and with the Indians. It was a good show and I can't think of another like it on TV at that time. Gunsmoke had its good points and bad points. Bonanza was ridiculous sometimes. I might be a little prejudiced, but I thought ours was the best ranch show.

Café:  How did you come to join the cast of The High Chaparral?

DC:  I had done Outlaws and several Bonanza episodes on NBC. I knew all the guys there. A lot of the crew from Outlaws went with Bonanza after we folded, including our production manager Kent McCray. So, when they got around to casting The High Chaparral, Kent suggested me for Sam Butler. They asked me if I wanted to do the part and I said: "You bet."

Café:  Other than The High Chaparral, what were some of your favorite roles?

DC:  The ones I did with John Wayne on The Undefeated and The War Wagon. That was the top of the heap right there. Once you climbed that mountain, you knew you were as high as you could go. He was a real icon in the business.

Café:  You starred with Robert Mitchum in a couple of movies like Five Card Stud. What was he like?

DC:  Robert Mitchum was a great actor. I have a lot of respect for that man. He was one of those guys who had a photographic memory. He could look at the script and then throw it away. He knew it. He seldom had to do two takes. He was kind of a loner. He'd socialize with his driver--they'd go out and drink. But he wouldn't join the groups.

Café:  Can you tell us about your one-man show?

DC:  The one-man show that Penny McQueen convinced me to do is a lot of these stories about all these shows and how I got into the picture business. I'm not going to tell you much about it--because you've got to come and see the show. It's a pretty good hour-and-a-half and audiences get a lot of laughs out of it. There's some serious stuff, too. It's a lot of fun doing it.

Café:  What are some of your upcoming appearances?

DC:  The High Chaparral reunion is March 17-20. I've got several more shows this years, which are listed on my website (

Café:  Thanks so much for doing this interview.

DC:  It was a pleasure, Rick.


  1. I think the Duke would have liked me! This was very entertaining. I thought I was listening to him live. What a character!

  2. Whoa! Don Collier - looking good! He show must be a great time.

  3. What a great interview! Thanks so much for sharing. I love the stories about John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. I would really love to see his one-man show.

  4. Wow! What a fascinating interview! Don Collier has a way of saying things that make his memories come to life and jump off the page. I think his show would be incredible to see! Thanks to Mr. Collier for a most enjoyable visit to the Cafe.

  5. Great stuff. Love HIGH CHAPARRAL, which is airing on INSP (ch 259 on Dish Network) every weekday at 7 AM Central.

    I'd be interested to hear his thoughts on the HONDO appearance if there's ever a chance to follow up. He was the villain in the re-creation of the "walk around him" scene, for the 2nd episode, "Hondo and the War Cry". Most of that episode was the second half of the "Hondo and the Apaches" pilot feature that was released theatrically overseas. The exception was that one scene, filmed specifically for the ABC airing on 9/15/67.

  6. Great interview, Rick! Some wonderful stories here. I really liked the three rules that John Wayne had about being in films – they make a lot of sense.

    The one-man show sounds fascinating.

  7. I agree that his one-man show would be a blast! He was a marvelous storyteller. Hal, I probably won't get to interview him again, but you might try contacting him through his website and asking about HONDO.