Obituary: Denver Pyle

Anthony Hayward
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:15

Denver Pyle, actor, director and writer: born Bethune, Colorado 11 May 1920; married (two sons); died Burbank, California 25 December 1997.

One of American's most prolific screen actors, Denver Pyle spent a lifetime - almost 50 years - acting in Westerns, his sharp features augmented in later years by a bushy beard.

He had already appeared on international television in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1956-59), and in most of his 100 films, by the time he played the vengeful sheriff in the 1967 blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The part of Buck Webb in The Doris Day Show (1968-70) then signalled his transition from acting lean and mean characters to more benevolent men in tune with their environment, most successfully in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977-78) on television, but he was also on the small screen in the long-running role of Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85).

Born in 1920 in Bethune, a Colorado ranching town of just 40 people, Pyle was named Denver after the capital of that state. He attended Colorado State University, then worked in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles and becoming a page at the American television network NBC. After joining the US Navy during the Second World War, he was wounded in action off Guadalcanal and discharged in 1942.

Eventually deciding on acting as a career, Pyle made his feature-film debut in Devil Ship (1947) and quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's great character players. Westerns became his stock-in-trade and he often appeared in four different pictures a year, most of them long-forgotten, with titles such as The Old Frontier (1950), Rough Riders of Durango (1951), Goldtown Ghost Riders (1953) and I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956).

But they led him to act on television in Roy Rogers (1951-64) and as Ben Thompson alongside Hugh O'Brian in the first series of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-56), the small screen's first "adult" Western, based on the life of a US marshal in the Old West. Pyle also took eight different roles in episodes of Gunsmoke (1956-64) and acted Sergeant Murchison in Code Three (1957) and Grandpa Tarleton in Tammy (1965-66).

In between, he continued in films, the best-known being the over-long and historically inaccurate The Alamo (1960), starring John Wayne as Colonel David Crockett, and two pictures directed by John Ford: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), starring James Stewart, and the epic Cheyenne Autumn (1964), featuring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden in the real-life tale of a half-starved tribe of Cheyenne Indians leaving their Oklahoma reservation to return to their home ground in Wyoming, with the cavalry trying to hamper their trek. Pyle's best film role was as the sheriff in the gangster classic Bonnie and Clyde.

A watershed in his career came when he landed the part of Buck Webb in The Doris Day Show, originally set on a ranch. When, after two series, the action moved to San Francisco, Pyle's character was written out, but he continued to direct some episodes until 1973. He also played Uncle Duncan in Here Come the Brides (1968-70).

Following his starring role in the film Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), as a 19th-century conservationist moving to the Yosemite Valley and waging a single-handed battle against the lumberjacks that took him all the way to President Lincoln's White House, Pyle appropriately took the part of Mad Jack in the gentle television series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. He had not appeared in the original 1974 film but became a regular character, also narrating the programme about James Adams (Dan Haggerty), who left his home and family for the American wilderness after being accused of a crime he did not commit. In the mountains, Adams befriended a grizzly bear, found a friend in the old trader Mad Jack and was watched over by an Indian called Nakuma.

Pyle had previously starred with Haggerty in the film The Adventures of Frontier Fremont (1976, retitled Spirit of the Wild in Britain), another tale of a man heading for the hills and the simple life. Appropriately, he enjoyed the books of Mark Twain and Jack London.

More raucously, Pyle played Uncle Jesse Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard, about two young Southern country cousins in a Dodge Charger keeping one step ahead of a corrupt politician and an inept sheriff. The series, in which the cousins shared a homestead with Uncle Jesse, featured endless car chases and Catherine Bach as the scantily clad Daisy Duke. Pyle, who directed some episodes, also voiced Uncle Jesse in a 1983 cartoon version of the series The Dukes, as well as narrating it, and joined the rest of the cast for The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion!, a television film made earlier this year.

His other feature films included another John Wayne picture, Cahill, United States Marshall (1973, retitled Cahill in Britain) and Maverick (1994), starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in an updating of the Western television series of the Fifties and Sixties. His other television guest appearances included roles in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1963), The Andy Griffith Show (1963), The Waltons (1972), Kung Fu (1973, 1974), Murder, She Wrote (1988), Dallas (1990) and Cybill (1996).

Less than two weeks before his death, Pyle attended the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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