Star of 'Sergeant Preston of the Yukon'
Wednesday 19 February 2003
Richard W. Simmons, actor: born St Paul, Minnesota 19 August 1913; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Oceanside, California 11 January 2003.
Dick Simmons was a familiar figure to cinemagoers of the Forties and Fifties, appearing in over 50 features, though nearly always in supporting roles. It was television that eventually made him a star in 1955, when he played the leading role of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman in the series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Handsome, square-jawed and sturdy, he cut a dashing figure as he tracked criminals across the frozen North in his broad-brimmed hat and scarlet uniform.
Born in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1913, Simmons attended the University of Minnesota where he studied drama. His passion, though, was aviation, and as a boy he cleaned hangars at a nearby airport and persuaded the owner to teach him to fly. He graduated during the Depression, and decided to see the United States by stowing away on freight trains, visiting Mexico and South America and taking jobs as ranch hand, rodeo rider and seaman on a tanker.
In Los Angeles he worked as a parking attendant until, while fencing at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, he was spotted by a talent scout for the producer David O. Selznick, who needed a double to perform Ronald Colman's fencing scenes in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). The experience set Simmons on a show-business career, and he played his first acting role in A Million to One (1937). His rich baritone voice brought him considerable work on radio and as an MC.
Film work was sporadic, including small parts in One Million BC (1940) and Sergeant York (1941), but whenever there was no acting offer he returned to flying. He was a member of the Army Air Corps Reserves and worked as a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines. Then, in 1942, while he was on holiday at a dude ranch, Louis B. Mayer spotted him riding a frisky stallion and offered him a contract at MGM.
He had one of his better earlier roles in Pilot No 5 (1943) as one of five pilots being considered for a suicide mission. A more typical role was that of an Army captain who unsuccessfully tries to woo a singer (Kathryn Grayson) who loves a private (Gene Kelly) in Thousands Cheer (1943). Simmons was then called to do war service, and flew as a fighter pilot in England.
After the Second World War, he featured on hundreds of radio shows, and on screen was given one of his most memorable roles, that of the gigolo with a Southern drawl in Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1946). In Love Finds Andy Hardy (1946) he actually got the girl – winning Bonita Granville from the star Mickey Rooney.
Simmons had an unusual assignment in George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948). As the lisping fop Count de Wardes he had only one scene, but his voice in it was dubbed by the picture's star Gene Kelly, so that later Kelly (as D'Artagnan) could convincingly impersonate the Count in a night-time tryst with the evil Milady de Winter (Lana Turner). He had another good role in The Well (1951), a moving plea for racial tolerance in which he was a sheriff's deputy organising the rescue of a little black girl who has fallen into a well.
Nineteen fifty-four was the year in which Simmons finally achieved star billing (albeit as Richard Simmons) in Republic's serial Man with the Steel Whip. With his hair darkened, he played the Zorro-like black-masked hero El Latigo.
The following year Simmons was given the role with which he is most closely identified, in Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, which ran on television from 1955 to 1958. Aided only by his black horse Rex and his malamute dog Yukon King, Preston single-handedly enforced law and order each week on the Canadian frontier, ending each show with the words, "Well King, this case is closed." Simmons also directed several of the 30-minute episodes.
Throughout the Sixties, he appeared in countless television shows, and hosted 100 episodes of the true-life series Adventure Calls. A helicopter crash which broke his back and both legs interrupted his acting career, and his last role was in the television movie Don't Push, I'll Charge When I'm Ready (1977).
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