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CLU GULAGER

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Clu Gulager reflects on incredible acting career

 
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VIEW FULL LIST OF TV SHOWS THAT CLU HAS APPEARED IN OVER THE PAST 50+ YEARS IN THE BIZ.

   

 

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,” he said.

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 (now NSU).

“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 life.”

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 musical.”

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 Wesley Harden.’

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 opportunity.

“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 Review.

“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 during filming.

“I think Peter was always upset that I was playing opposite the woman he loved,” Gulager said.

HERMAN BROWN
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