'I'M THE last sidekick left,' Pat Buttram said in the 1980s. 'Gabby Hayes is gone. and Andy Devine, and Chill Wills . . . it's gettin' lonely.' Gene Autry's sidekick from 1949 to 1954, the tall, lumbering Buttram's trademark was his croaking voice, which he often described as sounding like 'a handful of gravel thrown into a Mix-Master'.
The son of a minister, Buttram won a scholarship to Birmingham Southern University, Alabama, where acting in college plays decided him on a show-business career. In 1934, while visiting the Chicago World's Fair, he was stopped by a radio reporter and asked a series of questions about the exposition. His answers were so consistently funny that he was immediately booked as a comedian on the local radio series National Barn Dance. Billed as 'the Sage of Winston County, Alabama', he soon became nationally known.
When Paramount made a film called National Barn Dance (1944), they signed Buttram to play himself. In 1946 he was invited by Gene Autry (a friend from the early 1930s) to supply the comedy relief for his radio series Melody Ranch. Later they made 17 films and over 90 television shows together, despite Buttram's deep distrust of horses. 'I didn't get on too well with 'em,' he later claimed. 'Horses are hard in the middle and dangerous at both ends.'
Mule Train (1950) was his favourite film because the cast also included Sheila Ryan, a beautiful brunette who became Mrs Pat Buttram that same year. Their 25-year marriage ended with her death in 1975.
In 1965 Buttram was given the role of the rascally Mr Haney in the CBS-TV sitcom Green Acres, which ran for six seasons. He was now in demand as a night-club comedian, college lecturer and toastmaster, and provided voices for Disney cartoon characters, particularly the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood (1973). A wolf with a western sheriff's badge pinned to his paunch, the Sheriff was given to barging into peasants' hovels with a mockingly cheery 'Greetin's from yore friendly neighbourhood tax-collector]' Buttram also provided the voices for Napoleon, the militaristic farm dog in The Aristocats (1970), Luke, the drunken muskrat in The Rescuers (1977), and Chief, the nasty old hunting dog in The Fox and the Hound (1980). His big-budget films included Elvis Presley's Roustabout (1964) and Back to the Future III (1990).
Autry, who warmly praised Buttram's wit after his death, was often the butt of it. 'Gene's one of the toughest businessmen and richest fellers there ever was,' Buttram would tell his audiences. 'He used to ride off into the sunset; now he owns it.' In his autobiography Autry recalled the day he said, 'Pat, let's make a promise. I'm not going to your funeral and I don't want you to come to mine.'
'Well, Gene, I'm afraid we can't work it that way,' Buttram drawled with a smile. 'It has to be one way or t'other.'