Clint Walker, Star of 1950s TV Western 'Cheyenne,' Dies at 90

Cheyenne Still Clint Walker - Photofest - H 2018

The strapping Western and action star also had a memorable role in 'The Dirty Dozen' and an opportunistic first encounter with Cecil B. DeMille.

Clint Walker, who flexed his considerable brawn — but only when he had to — as a gentle giant on Cheyenne, the landmark 1950s Western that aired for seven seasons on ABC, has died. He was 90. 

Walker, who also starred in such films as Send Me No Flowers (1964), None But the Brave (1965) and the World War II classic The Dirty Dozen (1967), died Monday of congestive heart failure in Grass Valley, California, his daughter Valerie said. 

With a chiseled 6-foot-6, 250-pound physique that showed off a 48-inch chest and 32-inch waist, the rugged, blue-eyed Walker was often hired for Westerns and action work. He was tough (and lucky) off the screen as well: He survived a 1971 skiing accident at Mammoth Mountain in California in which his heart was punctured by a ski pole and he was pronounced dead.

In 1955, Walker was cast by Warner Bros. in TV’s first-ever hourlong Western as Cheyenne Bodie, a principled cowboy drifter in the post-American Civil War era who was raised by the Cherokees who killed his parents. Cheyenne, produced by Roy Huggins of Maverick and Rockford Files fame, started out as part of Warner Brothers Presents in a rotation with the movie spinoffs Casablanca and Kings Row.

"I think they had all the leading men available in Hollywood to test for Cheyenne two days in a row, and they had me test with them," Walker recalled in a 2012 interview for the Archive of American Television. "The first day I was very, very nervous. I could see all these people that I’d seen in pictures over the years and I thought, 'I don't stand a chance.'

"The second day, I thought, 'I'm not going to get the job anyway so why don’t I just relax and enjoy it,' which I did. Then the next thing I heard about four days later was Jack Warner reviewed all the stuff, pointed to me and said, 'That is Cheyenne.'"

In 1958, Walker, now a household name, went on strike in a contract dispute, and while he was away, Warners replaced him with Ty Hardin as a character named Bronco Layne. When Walker returned to the series in 1959 after his deal was renegotiated, Hardin was given his own show. Cheyenne ran for 103 episodes until December 1962.

Walker, a baritone, also sang on Cheyenne, and the studio produced a 1959 album, Inspiration, with Walker and the Sunset Serenades performing traditional songs and ballads.

Norman Eugene Walker, a twin, was born May 30, 1927, in Hartford, Illinois. He fashioned his own weights out of concrete, joined the Merchant Marine at age 17 and toiled on a riverboat, in a paper mill and on an oil field. Working security at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, he met show-business types who encouraged him to try his luck in Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, Walker's first role came as an uncredited Tarzan in the Bowery Boys film Jungle Gents (1954).

He heard Cecil B. DeMille was looking for muscular men to cast for his 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. Walker got an appointment with the intimidating director, but on the way to Paramount, he stopped on the freeway to change a flat tire for a woman.

"You’re late, young man," Walker recalled DeMille saying when he arrived. When he told the director the reason why, DeMille replied, "Yes, I know all about it. That [woman you helped] was my secretary."

Walker got a small part in the picture.

After Cheyenne got hot, he starred in the title role of Yellowstone Kelly (1959), playing a fur trapper who because of his friendship with the Sioux refuses to join with the U.S. Cavalry in a 1876 raid against the tribe. That movie was sandwiched between the Westerns Fort Dobbs (1958) and Gold of the Seven Saints (1961).

Walker received second billing to Frank Sinatra in None But the Brave, a World War II saga set in the South Pacific that Sinatra also directed. Walker then starred as Big Jim Cole in the adventure movie The Night of the Grizzly (1966), which he said was his favorite film to do.

The big man hit his stride with The Dirty Dozen, which starred Lee Marvin as a hardscrabble officer stuck with the dirty duty of penetrating a German fortress, accompanied by 12 condemned soldiers who have nothing to lose. Walker played Samson Posey, who had been convicted of murder. In his best scene, Marvin goads Walker into flashing his temper, attacking him with a knife before disarming the much bigger guy.

(Years later, Walker lent his authoritative voice to the role of Nick Nitro in Joe Dante's 1998 animated film Small Soldiers. Dirty Dozen co-stars Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown and George Kennedy also had roles.)

The good-natured Walker also appeared in much frothier entertainment, most notably in the light comedy Send Me No Flowers (1964) with Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall.

He continued to work steadily late in 1960s with roles in Sam Whiskey, More Dead Than Alive and The Great Bank Robbery, all released in 1969. He co-starred in The White Buffalo (1977), one of the quirkiest Westerns ever made, in which Charles Bronson limned Wild Bill Hickok in pursuit of an albino buffalo.

During the 1970s, Walker was seen in the telefilms Yuma from Aaron Spelling, Hardcase and The Bounty Man and in Pancho Villa (1972). He starred in a shortlived Alaska-set series titled Kodiak, in which he played the title character, an Alaska State trooper.

Walker made numerous guest-star appearances on a wide range of TV shows during his career, including on The Jack Benny Program, Maverick, The Lucille Ball Show and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.