Character actor Gregg Palmer recalls memorable moments from his 30-year career in film and television in an exclusive interview below. Discovered in 1949 after a producer accidentally heard his rich baritone delivering the news on a San Francisco radio station, Palmer headed to Hollywood and never looked back.
An uncredited bit part in one of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s earliest films, My Friend Irma Goes West, became Palmer’s film debut. Serendipitously, within months of arriving in Tinseltown, Universal scooped up the actor in a multi-year contract.
While his Universal stint didn’t catapult the burly actor into leading man territory, Palmer did hone his craft with such future stars as Rock Hudson, Clint Eastwood, Tony Curtis, and Audie Murphy.
During his prolific Universal years, film aficionados will likely recognize Palmer in Hudson’s Magnificent Obsession, Murphy’s To Hell and Back, and The Creature Walks Among Us, a shining example of the low budget monster mania that swept America’s Eisenhower era.
But numerous forays into the Western genre became the journeyman actor’s bread and butter. The Rare Breed with James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara, The Blue and the Gray television miniseries, guest spots on Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian, and a staggering six films with John Wayne enabled the actor to make appearances at Western festivals in recent years.
In the second installment of an interview conducted while the charitable octogenarian was enroute to the Van Nuys, Calif. airport to make his fourth appearance at the Memphis Film Festival, plenty of tantalizing anecdotes are covered.
Stick around to learn about Palmer’s distinguished World War II service, favorite roles (you’ll definitely be surprised), the secret to getting steady work in the entertainment business, and why he suddenly quit acting at a relatively young age.
Traveling to Rome for a pair of Spaghetti Westerns after the success of Big Jake, the location of a special motel suite named after him, whether the Western genre can mount a comeback, and a special message to his fans rounds up the conversation.
Last but not least, in case you missed the first interview installment, head on over to “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog…” In it, the actor, nicknamed “Grizzly” by the Duke himself, revels in explaining how he taught Duke’s youngest son, Ethan, to spit watermelon seeds, and what happened when Palmer had trouble pronouncing a seemingly straightforward word on the set of Chisum.
- The Gregg Palmer Interview, Part Two
How did you arrive in Hollywood in early 1950?
I grew up in San Francisco. When I graduated from high school, I immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944. I was 17 years of age. World War II was almost over when I joined – fortunately I got in on the tail end of the fighting. I became a cryptographer, which meant I intercepted and decoded enemy messages. I rose to the rank of sergeant and was discharged in 1946.
When I got out of the service I thought I would go back to school and become a corporate attorney. I didn’t plan on going into radio, but a friend of mine was trying to get in and he convinced me to give it a try. That was a long time ago [laughs].
A producer at KNBC in San Francisco heard me reading the news. Apparently he liked what he heard. I was blessed with a deep voice. It took them eight months to talk me into coming to Hollywood. Next thing you know you’re meeting people and making a screen test.
The first movie I worked in was My Friend Irma Goes West in 1950. I played an uncredited ambulance attendant. It was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ second film. If you can believe it, John Lund and Marie Windsor were billed over the comedy team. A year later I had a minor part in That’s My Boy, another Martin and Lewis film.
Universal put me under contract in 1951, and I stayed there for about five years. I made three films at the studio with Audie Murphy, still one of my favorites. The films were The Cimarron Kid, Column South, and To Hell and Back. Audie and I reunited a decade later for The Quick Gun, produced for Columbia.
I received a special “Introducing Palmer Lee” billing in Column South. Palmer Lee is my given name. Universal built me up as a romantic leading man, even convincing me to change my name in time for the 1954 shoot-‘em-up, Taza, Son of Cochise, starring Rock Hudson. However, the studio’s plans for me never really materialized.
I started freelancing after that. If you have a computer and visit my IMDB page, you can easily see all of my credits. I don’t have a computer – I don’t fool with one because they send you all kinds of emails or whatever.
What are some of your favorite roles?
That’s a tough question. It’s like playing a piano – which is your favorite tune? I made so many films that it’s tough to remember them all [laughs]. I’ve done hundreds of television episodes and approximately 70 films. Plus, I’ve met a lot of nice people.
There are several films from my days at Universal that I still enjoy. Sally and Saint Anne  was a nice contemporary one with Ann Blyth and future television stars Hugh O’Brian [The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp] and Jack Kelly [Maverick]. I enjoyed working with Ann. Everybody loved her. The first time I was ever on a set where all the crew came to work with shirt and ties.
I thought Magnificent Obsession  was a good movie. Directed by Doug [Douglas] Sirk, it also had a fine script and a strong cast led by Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, and Barbara Rush. I had a major part as Barbara’s romantic love interest.
I did an episode of Cavalcade of America, an extremely rare dramatic anthology series sponsored by DuPont that ran on radio and television, with future Wagon Train star Ward Bond called “The Marine Who Was Two Hundred Years Old” [January 1955]. I liked that very much. Bond was one of Duke’s best friends, and they appeared in many films together.
According to IMDB, you have appeared in an exhaustive 156 films and television series within a 32-year time frame. What do you attribute those impressive stats to?
It’s pretty simple. You’d be working, or maybe just eating in the commissary, when a director or producer would spot you and think, ‘Gee, we’re starting such and such soon. He’d be right for this role. Bring him in and let’s talk.’ Or in many cases property/wardrobe people would get a script to break down, and your name would come up. That’s better than having an agent [laughs].
I’ve worked in 90 different television shows – legendary Western series like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Death Valley Days (13 episodes). Some of them I appeared in once or twice. Other times it could escalate to 5, 10, or even 20 episodes.
From my experience, if you come prepared and do your best, you’ll work. When you don’t perform right, you’re not called back.
Is it true you appeared in a Spaghetti Western?
I’ve shot films all over the world – Durango, Acapulco, Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, you name it. I even went to Rome and Spain for three months and did not one, but two Spaghetti Westerns – Life Is Tough, Eh Providence?  and the sequel – Here We Go Again, Eh Providence? . I had only been home for a month when the producers asked me to return for the sequel.
Both were comedies and were produced at a time when the Spaghetti Western and the entire genre were dying. I played Tomás Milián’s sidekick in a definite homage to Bud Spencer of They Call Me Trinity fame, a hugely successful Spaghetti Western comedy. Oddly enough, Tomás was emulating Charlie Chaplin with a black bowler hat, black moustache, and umbrella.
Believe it or not, I was asked to go to Taipei City, the capital of Taiwan, and appear in a Kung fu Western shortly after I finished Here We Go Again, Eh Providence? I thought, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ The Kung fu project never came to fruition.
Why did you quit acting in 1982?
I tore my knee up while I was filming The Blue and the Gray, a Civil War CBS mini-series directed by my pal Andrew V. McLaglen featuring an all-star cast. I had to go in and have an operation done. They took a meniscus cartilage out, but it just never healed up right.
To this day I still have people, including an HBO director who wanted me to travel down to Santa Fe, New Mexico, calling me on the phone and saying, “When you’re ready, give us a call.” I simply reply, “Alright.” Who knows, maybe one day.
You know, Westerns are always there and always will be. They’re playing them now in television reruns like you wouldn’t believe, every day. Folks love Westerns all over. I think the genre is about to return [Author’s Note: A new column, “Jeremy’s Classic Western Roundup”, presents further interviews and in-depth articles on the venerable subject].
When you consider the classic actors like the Jimmy Stewarts, the Gary Coopers, the John Waynes, the Walter Brennans – they always went for a Western, and it brought ‘em back. Look at all the Westerns Duke made over and above the other contemporary ones. He won an Academy Award for a Western [True Grit, 1969].
You have stayed relatively under the radar in the past couple of years. Was there a reason?
It just got to a point where I wore my knee out. I finally had a complete knee replacement about six months ago that I kinda kept putting off. My other knee has to be worked on too, but I’m not in a hurry to rush into it. The first time around wasn’t much fun. I’m doing the exercises, trying to build up my strength.
Fortunately, I feel good enough to where I am able now to get out, meet my friends, and get on with it, so to speak. I must have three or four other festivals that organizers want me to attend. I told them, “Let me see how I fare at the Memphis Film Festival, and I’ll get back to you.” This year marked my fourth appearance in Memphis.
In the past I’ve done a bunch of Western festivals and celebrity golf tournaments in states including Utah, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. I have a soft spot for Kanab, dubbed “Utah’s Little Hollywood”. I made several films along with a lot of television up there.
They even have a special Gregg Palmer Suite at the world famous Parry Lodge [laughs]. Not only that, but I have a plaque with a picture of me in a cavalry outfit from Revolt at Fort Laramie , one of the films I made there. I have accepted plaques for both John Wayne and Chuck [Charlton] Heston in the past which are located in the city. It’s a very nice honor, and I’m especially proud of it.
Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
It’s nice to have somebody come up to you and say, “Gee, I saw you in such and such a film, and I really liked your performance.” Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that I really frightened you in Big Jake. Well, I had to be doing a good job. That’s rewarding, especially when actors or directors have recommended that I work with them.
My fans are too kind, and I love them all. For those that have written me nice letters, I’ve saved them. Give them my best, and be good to themselves.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Gregg Palmer regrettably passed away a little over two years after granting this interview on Oct. 31, 2015, in Encino, California, at age 88. Don’t forget to investigate the 13-image slideshow located at the top of this article. Entitled “Gregg Palmer – A Career of Memories”, there are definitely tons of rare moments from Hollywood’s golden era, including the gorgeous Barbara Rush holding up a picture of an actual star emblazoned with Palmer’s face, actress Ann Blyth and Palmer out on a date, gumshoe detectives, cavalry officers, Spaghetti Westerns, Rock Hudson, and even John Wayne himself.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Palmer and James Drury acted together in an astonishing 10 episodes of The Virginian, the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. In a just-released interview, Drury spoke at length about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne as well as his appreciation for his fans, the Memphis Film Festival, whether he had a role model for his characterization of The Virginian, and the 50th anniversary of the show. Click on either installment link above to begin the myth-shattering odyssey.
To connect via social media with Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) or Facebook.
Exclusive Interview: Like Gregg Palmer, actor Jack Kelly began his career as a Universal contract player. They co-starred in five films together, including Audie Murphy’s Column South and To Hell and Back. Kelly later became a household name when he appeared with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. To read an informative interview with his biographer [“A Proud Father, a Nice Guy and a Darn Fine Actor…”], simply click on the link. In it, author Linda Alexander discusses one of Kelly’s favorite roles. Coincidentally, it was Sally and Saint Anne, a 1952 Universal drama also featuring Ann Blyth and Palmer. Later Alexander analyzes the crucial choice that Kelly had to make after Maverick ended its five-year run in 1962 and why he largely ignored the early symptoms of a congenital brain defect.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Though not a household name, cult actor Warren Oates lit up the screen in a 25-year career cut inexplicably short by a heart attack at age 53 in April 1982. His hardscrabble Depression-era upbringing in the predominantly coal-mining community of Depoy, Kentucky, no doubt influenced his honest characterizations as the voyeuristic deputy of In the Heat of the Night, a good-natured outlaw gang member in The Wild Bunch, the psychotic pill-poppin’ villain in Lee Van Cleef’s Barquero, a tall-tale spewing car driver in Two-Lane Blacktop, the sympathetic title role of Dillinger, and Bill Murray’s constantly exasperated sergeant in the comical Stripes. His pre-eminent biographer, Susan Compo, speaks in a fascinating interview [i.e. “That Guy You’ve Seen But Can’t Remember His Name…”] about Oates’ hell-raising and humanity, best and worst movie roles, working alongside the mercurial Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and what she might have said to Oates if their paths had intertwined.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: Oscar winner Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots. Did you know…Gregg Palmer and Marvin both had short roles with their buddy John Wayne in “The Comancheros”. Previously, the duo had acted together in a “Wagon Train” episode entitled “The Jose Morales Story.” In a just-released interview entitled “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”, author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital, and much more.
Further Reading: To learn more about Audie Murphy, a genuine tough guy who happened to be an American hero, simply click on the blue link. The exclusive feature details the actor’s most popular film, “To Hell and Back”, a runaway 1955 blockbuster documenting the most decorated soldier of World War II’s war experiences. Incidentally, Murphy’s costars were Gregg Palmer and Jack Kelly. Fighting three years in the European campaign, the silent hero won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.
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