Monday, July 25, 2022

An Interview with Will Hutchins on Sugarfoot, Elvis, and Working at Warner Bros.

Will Hutchins in 1971.
Star of the beloved Western TV series Sugarfoot (1957-61), Will Hutchins remains a familiar face to fans of 1960s and 1970s films and television series. In addition to Sugarfoot, he starred in the 1960s TV shows Hey, Landlord (the first sitcom created by Garry Marshall) and Blondie (with Patricia Harty, Pamelyn Ferdin, and Jim Backus). On the big screen, he co-starred in the Elvis Presley musicals Spinout (1966) and Clambake (1967) and alongside Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates in the unusual Western The Shooting (1966). He also guest-starred on TV series such as Gunsmoke, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Emergency, Perry Mason, and The New Perry Mason. In 2002, Will Hutchins received the Golden Boot Award, presented by the Motion Picture & Television Fund, in recognition of his “significant contributions to the genre of Westerns in television and film.”

Café:  How did you get into show business?

Will Hutchins:  I was a student at Pomona College from 1948 to 1952, which is in Claremont, California. We were the mighty Sagehens! I was the very first drama major. I was a slow reader…if I had been an English major, I would have been drafted and suffered that most dreaded of all diseases: “Gonna Korea!” Dick (Richard) Chamberlain came along a couple of years later. He was an art major. After college, I served in the Army in the Signal Corps, where I was stationed in Paris, France, for two wonderful years. When I got out, I worked for the postal department as a special delivery messenger. I decided I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life, so I went to the UCLA film school. During my time there, they had an all-points bulletin at NBC for a live show called Matinee Theatre (1955-58). It was on every day at noon for an hour. It was like doing a play every day with a different cast and story. I tried out and got roles in several episodes. Audrey Totter played my mother in one of them (“Letter of Introduction”). I was so in awe of her that I forgot my lines coast to coast—but she pulled me though. Dick Clayton, the agent of Tab Hunter and Jimmy (James) Dean, saw me on Matinee Theatre and called me. I went to work at Warner Bros., where I didn’t cost them a lot of money. Warners put me in films like Lafayette Escadrille and No Time for Sergeants (both 1958). 

Café:  What led to your casting as the star of Sugarfoot?

Will Hutchins: Warner Bros. put me in an anthology TV series called Conflict, which was on every other week after Cheyenne. There was an episode called “Stranger on the Road” and I played the stranger on the road. I was on the lam and I went to work for Barton MacLane on his ranch, even though I was a dude. There was one scene where I get on a horse backwards. At the end of the show, Rex Reason, the foreman, beat the crap out of me, but my character keeps getting back up and the foreman just quits in exhaustion. Warner Bros. thought that was a pretty good show. So, they redid The Boy from Oklahoma (1954), which was a Will Rogers, Jr. movie, and adapted it into Sugarfoot. I didn’t appreciate how good all those shows were until now. I'm watching them all now because I’m writing my last article (at about my admiration for my female co-stars on Sugarfoot. They were just brilliant. That was a wonderful five years at Warner Bros.

Café:  What is your favorite Sugarfoot episode and why?

Will Hutchins as Tom Brewster in Sugarfoot.
Will Hutchins:  Monty Pittman, one of my heroes at Warner Bros., wrote, directed, and acted in some of the studio’s best shows and movies. Monty asked me if I had any ideas for a movie. I remembered a film I saw with Wayne Morris called The Quarterback (1940). It’s about twin brothers that go to college on a scholarship; one is a brain that goes to classes and one is a football player. One day, the football player gets hurt, so the smart brother has to play quarterback. I thought that was just great. That provided the idea for The Canary Kid episodes on Sugarfoot, in which I played Sugarfoot and The Canary Kid. There were four episodes: “The Canary Kid,” “Return of the Canary Kid,” “Trial of the Canary Kid,” and “The Canary Kid, Inc.” The Canary Kid was the direct opposite of Sugarfoot. He did everything that Sugarfoot couldn’t do. He drank, gambled, and helped bank robbers. I don’t think he murdered anybody. He was the evil cousin of Sugarfoot so I got to play both parts. “The Trial of the Canary Kid” was my very favorite because I had to defend my evil cousin because my aunt, played by Frances Bavier from The Andy Griffith Show, talked me into it. It turns out the Kid was wrongfully accused and I get him off at the trial.

Café:  TV Westerns dominated the airwaves in the 1960s, but their popularity faded in the 1970s. What do you think happened?

Will Hutchins:  There was a glut. There were too many Westerns. They kept doing the same shows over and over again. Bob Hope called NBC “Nothing But Cowboys.” There were over 134 Westerns at one time or another. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. It’s just a natural course of events. I’ve been doing my column on old-time movies at for 28 years. As Groucho Marx said: “Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like bananas.”

Café:  In the mid-1960s, you starred in two movies with Elvis Presley: Spinout and Clambake. What was it like working with the King of Rock’n’Roll?

Will Hutchins:  Working with Elvis was kinda like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, leaving a sepia-colored farm and entering the three-strip Technicolor world of Oz. It was just magnificent. I’ll never forget the first day I went on the set. I played a cop named Tracy Richards (in Spinout). That was Dick Tracy backwards—no one ever got that gag. There was Elvis gyrating up there with this group of scantily-clad dancing girls. Brandon De Wilde happened to be there and I wanted to talk to him. He didn’t want to talk with me--he just wanted to watch what was going on! Elvis couldn’t have been a nicer guy, one of my favorite actors that I ever worked with. He was so natural and so much fun. However, working on Spinout was strictly business. (Director) Norman Taurog wanted to get the thing down and didn’t care about any byplay. But when I did Clambake, we had a great director (Arthur H. Nadel), who let things just sort of happen and Elvis was all for that. Clambake had kind of a Prince and the Pauper plot, where I’m the poor guy and Elvis and I change places. There was one scene when I’m on a speedboat with Elvis and he guns the motor and I fall overboard. There I am in the water—and the director doesn’t yell cut—so I call out: “Flipper!” Everybody on the set laughs. When the film is finished, I go to see it and, at the end of that scene, there goes Flipper the dolphin zooming out of the water. Clambake was also Elvis’s de facto stag party, because he married the lovely Priscilla a couple of weeks after we finished the movie. So, it was mayhem all the time and Elvis was going around saying: “He’p us out, everybody! Calm down.” So when we had the cast party, he gave me a giant picture of himself and autographed it with: “He’p us out, Will—Elvis.” It was too big for the house, so I had it in the garage. A few years later, the house was robbed and, of course, they took that portrait of Elvis.

Café:  Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966), which co-starred Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson, is often described as an existential Western (!). What do you recall about the making of that film?

Will Hutchins:  It was a de facto honeymoon. I had married my first wife (Carol Burnett's younger sister, Chrissie Burnett) in New York when I was doing the play Never Too Late. I had replaced Orson Bean in the lead role. I did it for two years and when it folded, I went right into The Shooting. My wife came along. We shot the film about an hour outside of Kanab, Utah, on an old Western town set that was built for the Frank Sinatra film Sergeants 3 (1962). I got top billing in The Shooting because I was better known at the time than the rest of the cast. Jack and Warren weren’t well known. Millie Perkins was famous for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). It took a long time for the film to come out, but when it did, Jack Nicholson was the star and then Warren Oates. I saw it recently on TCM and all that Ben Mankiewicz talked about was Jack, Millie, and Warren. Just before the picture started, he said: “Oh, yes, with Will Hutchins.” Hmm.... Anyhow, I enjoyed working on The Shooting a lot. It was a beautiful script written by Carole Eastman, whose brother had a bit part in the movie. I remember one day I went back to Warners to try out for a movie by Francis Ford Coppola1—I didn’t get the part—and the guard at the gate says: “Sugarfoot, is that you? Have you learned to ride a horse yet?” I should have said to him: “Go see The Shooting.” I rode my guts out in that one, praying all the way that my horse wouldn’t step into a gopher hole. I rode like the wind.

Café:  Later in the 1960s, you starred in two short-lived TV series: Garry Marshall’s Hey, Landlord and Blondie (based on the famous comic strip). Which was the better show? 

Will Hutchins:  Hey, Landlord could have been the better show if they hadn’t cast me in it. I needed the work, so I took it. I was at a party at Lucille Ball’s house once and I was sitting there with her husband Gary Morton at dinner. He said: “Your show isn’t funny.” I couldn’t argue with that and I think a lot of it had to do with me. Garry Marshall was surprised the show lasted the whole season because our ratings were so lousy. He brought in Michael Constantine to play the cranky renter in the New York brownstone apartment house owned by my character. They also brought in Sally Field to play my sister. They tried everything. Now, I loved Blondie. My wife at the time said I was a natural Dagwood! Unfortunately, Pat Harty (who played Blondie) wasn’t happy because the producers told her she’d be another Lucille Ball and I got to do all the crazy stuff. Peter Robbins, who played my son, went on to provide the voice for Charlie Brown in the animated specials. Sadly, he committed suicide this year. Pamelyn Ferdinplayed my daughter. We were like a family. I enjoyed doing a lot of slapstick stuff. I even did an impersonation of James Cagney singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” complete with choreography. One of the Blondie guest stars was Bruce Lee (in the episode “Pick on Someone Your Own Size”). It was great working with him. He was so spiritual. We did a scene where he was showing me how to defend myself against the town bully, Bruce Gordon, and it was beautiful choreography. I‘d love to have a copy of that episode.

Café:  Two of your films have become cult favorites: the made-for-TV movie The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) and the Warner Bros. potboiler Claudelle Inglish (1961). Do you have any interesting stories from making those movies?

Will Hutchins and Diane McBain in Claudelle Inglish.
Will Hutchins:  We shot The Horror at 37,000 Feet at the old David O. Selznick studio and that was a big thrill. The façade for Tara was still there. We did the scenes inside the plane at CBS. The make-up artist told me one of the other actors—I won’t say his name—was wearing a toupee. He apparently didn’t want anyone to know. When the make-up artist asked him if he wanted anything done with his hair, he replied no, that he had just washed it that morning! As for Claudelle Inglish, I enjoyed working in it, but my Mom thought I stank. I did the best I could. I had a love scene with Diane McBain, who was beautiful in the movie. It was shot in the backlot at night on a Western set. You wouldn’t know it because we were mostly in a car. After the scene, the director Gordon Douglas tells me: “That was fine, but give me 70%.” I did another scene where my character is getting hysterical and gets in a fight to the death with Robert Colbert. Arthur Kennedy, who was wonderful to work with, called me to the side. He said he was in a play with James Dean3, who did this scene where he was really hysterical and it was way too much. Arthur Kennedy said he had to tone James Dean down a bit. I think that’s what he wanted me to do. I did it and I think it came out pretty well.

Café:  I always enjoy asking this question: Who were some of your favorite co-stars?

Anita Gordon, Will Hutchins, and
Peter Brown in the "Hideout" episode.
Will Hutchins: 
Three people come to mind. I had a big crush on Anita Gordon, who guest-starred on the Sugarfoot episode "Hideout." The plot was similar to The Petrified Forest with Anita in the Bette Davis role and me in the Leslie Howard role. She shines above all other actresses that I starred with. Adam West was just a brilliant and funny guy. One of his first shows at Warner Bros. was a Sugarfoot episode (“The Mysterious Stranger”) in which he played a concert pianist from Poland and had to use an accent. It was directed by Paul Henreid, who had so many interesting stories to tell about working on Casablanca. The second is Charles Bronson, with whom I did two episodes. He was not famous yet. In one Sugarfoot episode, his character supposedly killed this girl. He really didn’t do it, but knew he didn’t stand a chance of getting a fair trial. I chase him to this cave and there’s a cave-in. We spent most of the hour in that cave together. It got very claustrophobic. We finally get out and a man with a rifle shoots Charlie Bronson. He falls down, but it turns out he has a cross hanging from his neck and the bullet hit that cross. That episode was called “The Bullet and the Cross.” Charles Bronson was such a strong guy. One day, we were outside and he went up to his horse and put his hand on the saddle’s pommel and just pulled himself up like a gymnast. 

Café:  Your wife Barbara was an extra in such memorable films as Midnight Cowboy, Carrie, and Hello, Dolly. How did the two of you meet and was it love at first sight?

Will and Barbara Hutchins at a festival.
Will Hutchins:  I’ll tell my story. I was doing Never Too Late on Broadway in 1964 and I was engaged to my first wife. I’m coming to work one day and there are these sweet girls waiting to get my autograph. The first one came up to me, called me Mr. Hutchins, and said: “May I have your autograph. My name is Barbara Torres and I’m a national thespian.” And I said: “Just call me Will.” And that became the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We stayed in touch over the years and we eventually got hitched. We’ve been married 33 years now. We were living together in sin for five years—sin is a small town outside of Glendale.

Barbara Hutchins:  It’s sort of right. I was in the city with some girlfriends who adored him. I didn’t have much of a stake in the game, but I took them into the city. We did wait for him to come to the theatre. I walked up to him, but I didn’t ask him for his autograph. I said: “Hello, Mr. Hutchins. My name is Barbara Torres and I’m a national thespian.” And he looked down at me and said: “Call me Will.” And the moment he said “call me Will,” my heart stopped and I fell in love with him. As luck would have it, I was in the city going to acting classes. I was just out of high school. And he let me come and see the show from backstage and that’s where it all began. We started to write to each other. Of course, it was all very platonic. He married Chris and did The Shooting. I thought, well, it’s a show business marriage and it will never last. Three years later, it didn’t. In 1970, I chased him out to L.A. and the rest as they say is history. We got married in April of 1988 and here we are.

Will Hutchins at home in 2022.
Café:  I strongly encourage any classic film & TV fan to peruse your column A Touch of Hutch at westernclippingscom. It’s grand fun! It also leads me to my last question: Is there anyone who made Westerns in the 1960s that you didn’t know?

Will Hutchins:  In those days, we all knew each other. It was like a brotherhood. We’d get together for Western film festivals and reunions. We were always running into each other. Most of the guys I knew really well were at Warner Bros. 

Café:  Thanks so much to both of you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Barbara Hutchins:  It was fun...hope that it was for you, too!

The Francis Ford Coppola movie was Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Pamelyn Ferdin later provided the voice for Lucy in the animated Peanuts specials. So, the child actors who provided the voices of Charlie Brown and Lucy both starred in Blondie with Will Hutchins.

James Dean and Arthur Kennedy appeared together in the 1952 Broadway play See the Jaguar, which closed after five performances.

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