Clu Gulager, who has died aged 93, made his big screen breakthrough in Ronald Reagan’s final Hollywood film The Killers in 1964 but became best-known on British television in the 1960s Western series The Virginian.
Shown on BBC One between 1964 and 1973, The Virginian (at 90 minutes per episode) was the first full-length Western TV series, shot in colour with Gulager as sheriff’s deputy Emmett Ryker. Other stars included James Drury in the title role and Doug McClure as the taciturn Virginian’s impulsive young cowpoke friend Trampas.
Although the heyday of the genre was already waning, The Virginian proved increasingly popular with viewers and by the time Gulager left the show in 1968 had become the third-longest running Western. It was cancelled three years later after a name change to The Men of Shiloh.
In the colour remake of The Killers, originally a film noir classic from 1946, Gulager played a professional hitman opposite the future president in Reagan’s last, and most unlikely, film role as a mob boss. Reagan hated being cast as a villain and was only persuaded after a lunch with the director Don Siegel. Shot down on a sunlit sidewalk with a sniper rifle from an upper window, Gulager was the only character Reagan killed in his prolific film career.
With Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson also on the bill, shooting was briefly suspended following the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963, Angie Dickinson collapsing hysterically on hearing the news. The film was commissioned as the first made-for-network-TV movie, but was so violent that it was deemed unfit for broadcast.
Of Gulager’s myriad roles over a 60-year career, stand-outs include the Christmas dance sequence of Peter Bogdanovich’s black-and-white The Last Picture Show (1971), in which, as the well-heeled Abilene, he smooched around the floor with the temptress Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), and on television in an episode of the series The Psychiatrist (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg.
In this, Gulager was a golf pro dying of duodenal cancer, when two of his golf partners visited him in hospital with a shoe box packed with earth and turf from the 18th green, flag included. “Clu began to cry – as a person and as an actor,” Spielberg recalled.
“He tore the grass out of the hole and he squeezed the dirt all over himself and he thanked them for bringing him this gift, the greatest gift he had ever received.” Spielberg’s acclaimed direction of this episode put him on the map, and he never looked back. But Gulager’s reflexive performance also marked a career milestone.
The son of an actor turned lawyer, he was born William Martin Gulager on November 16 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma, and grew up in Muskogee. His grandmother’s sister was the mother of the American actor Will Rogers, making them first cousins once removed.
Like Rogers, Gulager had part-Cherokee heritage, and took his nickname Clu from the martins (known by the Cherokee as clu-clu birds) nesting at the family home when he was born.
According to Gulager, his great-great-grandfather Christian Gulager, a Danish artist, painted a picture of a bald eagle which he sold to George Washington, and which became the symbol of the United States. But the artist accepted a flat $100 without retaining any rights.
“Each dollar bill I see, a little flutter goes through my heart,” Gulager added. He decided to become an actor while serving in the US Marine Corps.
After college at Baylor in Waco, Texas, Gulager studied in Paris under the French actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault, and at Columbia University in New York, where he found acting work on live TV dramas. He demonstrated a quirky acting style with a flair for the unusual.
Moving to Hollywood, Gulager (the name is pronounced “Gyew-lagger” and derives from the Danish for “field of gold”) co-starred as William H Bonney (Billy the Kid) in the American television series The Tall Man (1960-62) before being cast as Emmett Ryker in The Virginian.
Gulager was Susan Sarandon’s boss in a 1977 film drama, The Other Side of Midnight, and in 1981 he co-starred opposite the Oscar-winning Jane Wyman in the pilot episode of what became the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest.
Considered a temperamental actor who struggled to memorise his lines, Gulager found television a creatively unsatisfying medium and hankered to be a director. Later in his career, he starred in several “slasher” feature films, notably in the cult horror movie The Return of the Living Dead (1985).
From 2005, by then approaching his eighties, he appeared in some of his son John Gulager’s Feast series of low-budget horror films, and most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
He married, in 1960, the actress Miriam Byrd-Nethery, who died in 2003. Their two sons survive him.
Clu Gulager, born November 16 1928, died August 5 2022