Clu Gulager reflects
on incredible acting career
Oklahoma native enjoyed
decades of work on television and on the big screen
By HERMAN BROWN
Okmulgee Times editor
One of the most productive film
and television actors in America was born in Holdenville, Oklahoma on Friday,
Nov. 16, 1928. On that date, William Martin Gulager came kicking and screaming
into the world.
John Gulager was nicknamed Clu
because of the noisy clu-clu birds outside their home. Clu’s birth in
Holdenville came six months after another famous native son, oil and natural
gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens. Both moved away from Holdenville before enjoying
amazing success in their respective careers.
The future actor spent his early
years in Muskogee and on a farm near Tahlequah.
Clu’s father was a respected judge
in Muskogee. However, his early years included military service during World
War I. John Gulager was stationed in New
York City when George M. Cohen recruited him to be in a show ‘Goodbye Sam” to
honor the troops in the war. Gulager’s performance attracted the attention of
the Keith Orpheum circuit, the biggest vaudeville circuit in the world.
“He traveled around and performed
in cities and towns … and probably pastures too,” Clu said of his father.
Clu attended school in Muskogee.
“I graduated from Muskogee Central
by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin,” he said. “I think they just put me
through because I was such an idiot!”
While still in school, Clu got his
first taste of acting. He remembers having a role in a third grade play.
“I played the Mouse King in the
Nutcracker,” he said.
In the 7th grade, he
won the major role of Puck.
As a 10th grader, Clu
adapted Julius Caesar to a 15-minute show for the radio in Muskogee.
“God knows how that came about,”
A year later, Clu won over the
crowd with his bumbling efforts during a school play.
“It was a comedy and everyone
laughed at me not being able to put up an ironing board,” he recalls.
Following high school, Clu had
decisions to make about his future. As it turned out, a cousin provided him
with an interesting opportunity.
“He was going to join
the Marines. “I said ‘wait a minute, I’ll go with you!’”
The 17-year-old Clu went to Oklahoma City and joined the
military. Clu said it was during his stint in the Marines that the idea of
acting as a profession first struck him.
“I was jogging on the back roads of Camp Pendleton and
suddenly I had an epiphany. I thought to myself, ‘hey, I want to act.’ Now, I
had no idea of what acting was and I didn’t even know how to spell it. But I
went to Hollywood on weekends and studied with a shoe salesman. I must have
gotten his name out of a telephone directory.”
The Holdenville native was given his discharge from the
service and then drifted back to Oklahoma. He enrolled at Northeastern College
“There was a man there, S. Walker James, who taught drama.
He said ‘Clu, you seem to have a smidgeon of talent, so I am going to suggest
that you go to Baylor University where Paul Baker teaches.’ He sent me to
Baylor to Waco, Texas, where there was a really advanced program in theater.
While I was there, we did an original play by Eugene McKinney, who taught at
the school. It was called ‘A Different Drummer.’ Mr. Baker had been the head of
the Second World War European Department of Entertainment. All the actors and,
dancers and singers had come through his office so he had met almost all of
them. So he called some of his friends who had the No. 1 show at that time
called Omnibus television.”
They were invited to come down to Waco to see the play.
“They saw it and liked it,” he said.
The performance led to an offer for Gulager and his wife to
move to New York City to perform a version of the play for the television show.
“We did a 43-minute adaptation of ‘A Different Drummer’ for
the No. 1 show in America,” he recalls.
The couple completed work on the show and returned to Texas.
“I had promised my folks I’d finish my education so I went
back to Baylor.”
After college, Gulager returned to New York to work in live
television. However, it was too long before the couple packed their bags to
leave New York again. The change was needed because most of the acting work was
moving to Los Angeles.
“They had a migration
to the sound stages of Hollywood,” Clu said. “That saved them a lot of money.
So the industry picked up lock, stock and barrel and went to Hollywood.”
His wife explained the situation very clearly.
“We MUST go to Hollywood,” she said. “There’s no work in New
York. We’ll starve to death living a good
Gulager was not thrilled to leave New York. However, he did
so – but took a detour to his native Oklahoma. He put off the move to Hollywood
while taking real jobs in Muskogee.
“I worked for the Oklahoma State Highway Department for a
while. And I worked for two radio stations in Muskogee. I also produced a
theater outside of Muskogee. We did a beautiful rendition of, in my view, of a
show called Booth Tarkington 17 the
As for Gulager’s return to acting, a previous assignment
with a fellow actor proved to be a major break. He had worked with Richard
Boone in New York City. They became friends at Studio 1 on a show called ‘John
Boone had already moved to Los Angeles. He was the lead in
the No. 1 show in America, ‘Have Gun Will Travel.’
“He had done well in Hollywood,” Gulager recalls. “I called
him from Muskogee and told him I was coming out there. He told me to come by (the
show) and he’d see what we could do.”
Gulager visited the set and Boone secured him a wonderful
“He put me in his show for the next week - the starring role
without any audition or anything.”
Gulager’s next stop was to find an agent at the major talent
agency, MCA. He was signed as a client of Monique James, head of West Coast
television. The agent quickly scheduled Gulager to appear in the Playhouse 90. His
role on the show was noticed by Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal and
“He saw it and signed me as the first contract player for the
Universal stock company.”
Gulager was cast in Universal Studios’ 1964 movie ‘The Killers.’ He and
Lee Marvin played professional killers.
They shared the screen with Angie Dickinson and future President Ronald Reagan.
In the film, Reagan plays his only role as a villain. It was
also his final film before entering politics.
“That SOB shot me and killed me,” Gulager said of Reagan.
“But I had met Mr. Reagan several times before. His wife (Nancy Davis Reagan)
had played with me on my first series ‘The
Tall Man.’ I played Billy the Kid. She played opposite of me several times.
She was a very gifted actress and did very well on my show.”
Gulager recalls that Ronald Reagan was very nice during his visits
to the set of ‘The Tall Man’ series.
“What you saw, you
got,” Gulager said of Reagan. “He was just that. He had great charisma.”
Gulager was later cast in an Oscar-winning movie called ‘The Last Picture Show.’
He was chosen to play the role of Abilene, a
guy who has ‘relations’ with Cybil Shepherd on a pool table. The scene was very
uncomfortable for director Peter Bogdanovich, who fell in love with Shepherd
“I think Peter was always upset that I was playing opposite
the woman he loved,” Gulager said.