Clu Gulager, the real Oklahoma cowboy known for his turns the tall man, the Virginian, The last photo show and horror movies including The Return of the Living Dead, has passed away. He was 93.
Gulager died of natural causes on Friday at the Los Angeles home of his son John and daughter-in-law Diane, they said News Kidda.
Gulager also portrayed the protégé of hit man Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) who was murdered by a mob boss (Ronald Reagan) in Don Siegel’s the killers (1964), a race car mechanic opposite Paul Newman in To win (1969) and a detective who teams up with the character of John Wayne in John Sturges’ McQ (1974).
More recently, he appeared on the big screen in such critical darlings as Mandarine (2015), Blue Jay (2016) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a time in Hollywood (2019).
Gulagers perform in the killers convinced Peter Bogdanovich to cast him as Abilene, the caddy oilfield foreman who made love to Ellen Burstyn’s character and seduced Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in an abandoned billiard room, in The last photo show (1971).
Part Cherokee, the playful Gulager burst onto the scene in September 1960 when he starred as Billy the Kid opposite Barry Sullivan as Pat Garrett in NBC’s the tall man. Two seasons later, the series was canceled in part because Congress objected to the infamous outlaw Billy being portrayed “inaccurately” as a hero to young viewers.
“But They’re Left” The untouchables which was very violent,” Gulager noted in an interview in 2015. “I played a character named ‘Mad Dog’ Coll [in 1959] where I shot a horse in a horse race, killed a little boy in Brooklyn and cut off a bartender’s fingers. But they left that alone because they thought that show was historically correct.”
After guest starring on two episodes of NBC’s the VirginianGulager arrived in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, for the start of the series’ third season in 1964 as Deputy Sheriff Emmett Ryker. He appeared with James Drury and Doug McClure in over 50 episodes before departing in 1968.
In The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Gulager portrayed the head of a medical supplies warehouse fighting the undead. It was a job he was hesitant to accept, he said. “I didn’t want to do it special,” he recalled in 2017. “I thought I was a little above that. And it turns out, if I’m remembered at all, that’s why I’ll be remembered… I killed 18 zombies and then they came back and shot me!’
Gulager appeared in another scary and remarkable 1985 film, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. He later played a shotgun-toting bartender in the horror movie Party (2005) and its two straight-to-video sequels, then worked in Piranha 3DD (2012). Those four films were directed by his son John.
William Martin Gulager was born on November 16, 1928, in Holdenville, a wooded town about 75 miles outside of Oklahoma City. His father, John, was a Broadway actor turned district judge, and his mother, Hazel, worked for the Veterans Administration. His second cousin was Will Rogers.
His father’s nickname for him was derived from the clu-clu birds — known in English as martins — that nested around the family home. After high school and service with the US Marine Corps, Gulager attended Northeastern State College and Baylor University, where he received a scholarship to study in Paris with the famous actor and mime Jean Louis Barrault (Les Enfants du Paradis) before graduation in 1956.
He worked for live television in New York on programs such as: Omnibus, The Steel Hour in the United States and Goodyear Playhouse before moving to Los Angeles in 1959. He appeared on Wanted dead or alive, Have a gun – will traveland laramie and was hired for the tall man after MCA chief Lew Wasserman saw him play an Elvis-esque character on CBS’ Playhouse 90.
“I was a cowboy from Oklahoma. I drove over the fences [around cattle] in the winter and in the summer I was out in the field looking out for rattlesnakes,” Gulager said in an interview in 2019. “And later you move on and something comes over you, and you want to be an actor. Well, I do. could play a cowboy, and it was easy for me to ride a pony and wear a hat.”
Future Universal and Columbia Pictures boss Frank Price, who had produced and written for the tall manhired Gulager for the Virginian. “I was broke when I left” [that show]he said in 2014. “I had to ask Frank Price, who ran it, for a job. He fired an actor from the set and hired me. If I’d known he’d fired someone, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
In 1970, Gulager starred with Lloyd Bridges in the NBC drama San Francisco International Airport, also produced by Price, but it only lasted six episodes. He was winemaker Chase Gioberti in the 1981 pilot for Falcon Crest but replaced by Robert Foxworth when the show was picked up by CBS.
Gulager said he improvised a lot while making the neo-noir classic the killers. “I was surprised that Lee Marvin actually let me do all those things,” he noted during an interview with Eddie Muller after a screening of the film in January 2020 on TCM’s Noir Alley. “But the director wanted me to invent some things to… [make the character] a psychotic, really an idiot. So I tried to go with that.”
Gulager also appeared on shows like dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Mannix, Hawaii Five-O, Murder she wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger and The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove and in movies, including: The other side of midnight (1977), A power of one (1979), During the night (1985), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), The Willies (1990) and My heroes have always been cowboys (1991).
He directed A day with the boys (1969), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at Cannes – and was filmed by the great László Kovács – and acted at a Hollywood workshop.
In addition to John and Diane, there are also his son Tom; Tom’s wife, Zoe; and grandson Clu.
He was married to singer-actress Miriam Byrd-Nethery from 1952 until her death in 2003.
“Clu was as caring as he was loyal and devoted to his craft, a proud member of the Cherokee nation, a rule-breaker, sharp and astute, and on the side—always—of the oppressed,” his family noted. “He was good-humoured, an avid reader, tender and kind. Noisy and dangerous.”