Obituary: Gene Evans

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The Independent Online
NOTED for tough and taciturn roles as outlaws or army sergeants, Gene Evans was a brawny, gruff-voiced character actor with a greater range than that usually exploited by the cinema screen and was a particular favourite of the writer-director Sam Fuller.

It was in Fuller's masterly depiction of the early days of the newspaper business, Park Row (1952), that Evans had his finest role. In the Fifties he became popular on television, displaying in the series My Friend Flicka a jovial, warm disposition in contrast to the cigar-chomping tough-guy for which he was best known in Hollywood.

Born in Holbrook, Arizona in 1922, Evans went straight from high school into summer stock at the Penthouse Theatre in Altadena, California, then studied and worked at the Pasadena Playhouse prior to serving as a sergeant in the Second World War, winning five combat stars for his participation in the Normandy landings and other battles.

When he returned to acting, his ambition focused on the stage because, he later stated, he had red hair.

There weren't a lot of redheaded people working in pictures. The cinematographers had a hell of a lot to say about things, and they liked guys with dark hair, eyes and skin because they photographed better in black-and-white . . . But one night a guy came to the theatre and said, "I like your work and think I can get you work in pictures". I had a red beard and red hair, and Republic had just gone to Trucolor . . . they needed a guy for the part of Red in Under Colorado Skies (1947). It was a small part but I was paid $40 a day and I thought, `Where has this been all my life?'

Evans stayed in Hollywood, working in a filling-station when roles were scarce. Tiny roles such as a sergeant in Tourneur's Berlin Express (1948) and a guard in Siodmak's Criss-Cross (1949) led to better opportunities, such as one of the strong-arm men who attempt to rob a sports-stadium in Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery (1950) and the deputy sheriff of the small Mexican town where a man's entrapment in an underground cave is exploited by a ruthless newspaper man in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). "It was beautifully done," said Evans, "but did not do well because it turned people off".

When the producer Robert Lippert was casting The Steel Helmet (1951) for Sam Fuller, Evans referred him to Wilder who enthused about his ability. "When Steel Helmet came out with me in the leading role, Wilder bumped into me at the studio and said, `You did it, you son of a gun - I knew you could or I never would have recommended you'." Set during the Korean war, the lauded low-budget film pictured war as primarily a fight for survival, with Evans convincingly portraying a cynical veteran of the Second World War leading a patrol behind enemy lines to capture one of the enemy for questioning.

He had a similar role in Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951), another Korean war tale (the battle was still raging at the time), similarly realistic and highly regarded. The following year Evans had his greatest personal film triumph in Fuller's paean to the newspaper business (in which the director had started his career), Park Row.

Set at the turn of the century, during the birth of lino- typesetting, circulation wars, news-stands and more than one edition a day, the superb mixture of documentary and drama starred Evans as Phineus Mitchell, a composite of the great newspaper editors of the period, his idealistic journal locked in battle with the more sensational paper put out by his female rival. An underlying eroticism between the rivals ("You're fighting Mitch because you're excited by him," his opponent is told by one of her colleagues) and Fuller's breathtaking use of tracking shots and deep focus (group shots consistently have Evans in close foreground) complement the compelling performances of Evans and co-star Mary Welch.

Donovan's Brain (1953), directed by Felix Feist ("He knew Sammy Fuller well and figured if I could work with Fuller I could work with anybody"), found Evans playing second-lead as the doctor who helps Lew Ayres keep a dead man's brain alive, and he was an outlaw plotting to steal a cattle empire from Barbara Stanwyck in Dwan's Cattle Queen of Montana (1954).

"I never turned much down," stated Evans recently, "At first I was serious about my work, then it came to me that unless you were working for one of the big studios you weren't going to win awards or be taken too seriously." Evans had the chance of a major studio contract when Fuller cast him in the submarine story Hell and High Water (1954) at 20th Century-Fox. The film starred Bella Darvi, protege of the studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, and the actress made no secret of her attraction to Evans during the shooting. "When Zanuck found out, he cancelled the contract plans."

Evans continued to work steadily, including roles in Michael Curtiz's under-rated Twenties melodrama The Helen Morgan Story (1957, as a bootlegger pal of Paul Newman), R.G. Springsteen's superior prison picture Revolt in the Big House (1958, top-billed as a racketeer who becomes king of the convicts), Eugene Lourie's British-made horror The Giant Behemoth (1958, as a marine biologist hunting a rampaging paleosaurus), and his fifth and final film with Fuller, Shock Corridor (1963, as an asylum inmate, "the most brilliant scientist alive" who becomes reduced to whining infantilism).

Evans's television debut was in 1952, and he went on to make frequent guest appearances on such series as Gunsmoke and Rawhide, and in 1956- 57 he had the regular role of the father in My Friend Flicka, a hit series in which he was able to display a gentler persona than in most of his film roles. In 1973 he had his two last major big-screen credits, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Walking Tall, though the following year he starred in a minor horror film, People Toys, because he was "broke", a situation in which he frequently found himself because of his self-confessed "playing around - partying, drinking, big cars, horse races . . . I played my whole role in Shock Corridor with a broken finger received in a fight in a pool-room and bar across from the studio."

In the mid-Seventies he had a log house built in 50 acres of woods in Tennessee and in 1990 sold his California home and moved there permanently with his family. "I have fish in the lake and I have two boats and I can go out there and waste an entire day." He recently compared his acting career to prize-fighting:

I was never a movie star. A star's like the world champion, who fights once or twice a year because that's all he has to do. I was more like a club fighter, who had to fight at least once a month or he will starve to death.

Eugene Barton Evans, actor: born Holbrook, Arizona 11 July 1922; married (one daughter); died Jackson, Tennessee 1 April 1998.