Monday, January 04, 2010

Male on Monday : : Robert Fuller

Anne McAllister is basking in between-book housecleaning mode. It's a wonderful place to be. It gives her more time to contemplate potential Males on Monday -- and allowed her to think back to one of her very first.

He was actually a Male on Tuesday and I was in junior high.

It was during the time that TV westerns were King of the air waves. There was Gunsmoke and Wagon Train and Cheyenne and Sugarfoot and Bronco and Cimarron City and The Virginian and Bonanza and countless others. Well, actually there were 32 total.

But for me there was only one that mattered -- Laramie.

Laramie ran for four seasons between 1959-1963, always on Tuesday nights.

It was the tale of tough, straight-arrow rancher Slim Sherman, played by John Smith, who was trying to run a small ranch and stage coach stop, presumably near Laramie, Wyoming, while also riding herd on his kid brother, Andy (Robert Crawford, Jr.) aided and abetted by sort of sidekick, older, father figure Jonesy, (Hoagy Carmichael) who kept track of the house and the details.

In later seasons after the death of Hoagy Carmichael and the maturity of Robert Crawford, Jr, the housekeeper was Spring Byington and the orphan boy, Mike, whom they took in, was played by Dennis Holmes.

All pretty much stock sorts of characters and all well and good as far as TV westerns go.

What made the show different? Memorable?
In two words -- Robert Fuller -- who played cowboy-drifter, Jess Harper.

While the lean, dark-haired, blue-eyed actor was definitely easy on the eyes, it was more than his physical attraction that prompted me (and thousands of other girls/women all over the world -- he was probably a bigger box-office attraction in Germany and in Japan than in the US) to breathe a little faster every time an episode centered on him.

The character of Jess Harper -- and the pitch perfect intensity Robert Fuller brought to the role -- was an equal part of the attraction.

Jess was a perfect counterpoint to "the world is black-and-white and there is only one right answer" Slim. If Slim was all about the white-hatted good guy, Jess was forever struggling with moral dilemmas. He was caring and intense and honorable. And the question of honor and how it should be played out in various situations was paramount. Issues were rarely black-and-white to him.

It was this struggle to 'do the right thing' -- even when it cost him dearly -- that made Jess such a compelling character.

I didn't realize it until years later, but Jess's struggles were often the influence behind those my own heroes have had to deal with.

Essentially, while not exclusively, everything I know about heroes I learned from Jess. And I'm not alone.

In 1991 at a workshop where I was speaking, another author, Jessica Douglass, talked about cowboy heroes. It was right before lunch and I was sitting in the back room thinking how hungry I was when she said she'd fantasized about Little Joe Cartwright, played by Michael Landon, being her brother.

But then she said, "And then along came Jess Harper -- and he was definitely not my brother!"

I sat up straight, appalled at the thought that Jess had been two-timing me with her!

Jessica was equally appalled when I brought his infidelity up at lunch. But many long conversations about Jess later, we decided there was definitely something important in the man and in the character if, 30 years later, we were both still writing under the influence, as it were.

We gave a workshop a year and a half later about the appeal of the cowboy hero -- Jess in particular. We talked to Robert Fuller himself preparing for it. (And if you ever want to feel speechless, try picking up the phone one snowy winter evening and, out of the blue, hearing a distinctive gruff baritone say, "Hi, this is Robert Fuller.")

It turned out Jess meant as much to him in a way as he meant to us.

Jess's character, his dilemmas, his need to find the honorable way to deal with life spoke to Robert Fuller with the same intensity that it spoke to us. A man of just as much passionate conviction and concern as the character he played, he said he was never sure where Jess left off and he began.

It was, he said, "the part of a lifetime."

And while he went on, after the show ended, to play the scout, Cooper Smith, on Wagon Train, replacing Robert Horton's Flint McCullough, and then to play Dr Kelly Brackett in the long-running show Emergency during the 1970s, both admirable characters, neither of them had quite the same personal impact as playing Jess.

He liked both the other roles, and is particularly proud of the influence that Emergency had on the public's perception of medical issues at the time. But Jess was a more complex character, one a thoughtful actor could get his teeth into and give even more substance to. It was one of those perfect casting decisions where the actor and the character were a perfect fit.

Laramie's last two seasons, both in color, have been released as DVD boxed sets in the last couple of years. Some of them are dated. They were shot on the back lot in Hollywood on a tight budget and sometimes it shows. But many are surprisingly good. And the ones in which Jess is featured often have more subtext and more real character dilemmas that are worth watching even today.

And, as Jessica would tell you, an episode with a wounded Jess Harper was a wonder to behold. I suppose those of us who haven't spent the last 50 years (dear God, it is!) reliving the Tuesday evening experience of our youth by writing about Jess in many forms, probably became nurses in hopes that we'd get a Jess of our own!

In one of the last roles of his career, Robert Fuller, in homage to Jess, played a modern day Harper hero in Chuck Norris's Texas Rangers. In 2004 he and his wife, actress Jennifer Savidge, retired to a ranch in Texas. But the character he developed and gave life to in Jess Harper is still riding the DVD range.

So if you're short on heroes and want a good example, look no further than Jess Harper, find copies of the DVDs, take a trip down memory lane. I've been doing it lately with the last season's episodes. And as I've been doing it, I realize that watching Robert Fuller play Jess to perfection was one of the most formative experiences of my writing life.

Did you find someone in the books or films or television programs of your early years who taught you what it means to be a hero?

Tell me who and where you found them and you could win a copy of A Cowboy For Christmas, starring my first actual cowboy hero, imaginatively named Jess Cooper!

I'll announce the winner on my blog on Friday of this week.

Anne McAllister has written about 20 cowboy heroes for Silhouette and Harlequin American, and even her Presents heroes, like Christo Savas in One-Night Mistress . . . Convenient Wife, owe a lot to the cowboys in her life (especially Jess).

23 comments:

  1. Hi!
    Thanks for reminding me of Robert Fuller. Ahhhhh. I absolutely loved watching Emergency in the seventies. (The other characters weren't too shabby either!) I just Google Imaged Robert Fuller, and he's STILL a good looking gent! There's some nice pics of him wearing a cowboy hat ever so well too....
    I would go back even further to Medical Center where Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett) was one of my heroes. I used to go to sleep dreaming that he was my doctor. Back in those days, I would dream that I was older (as I was a teenager at the time). Today I dream that I'm younger. Go figure!

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  2. Laney,
    Yes, funny about how we keep changing ages in our dreams, isn't it? I remember Chad Everett, too.

    And yes, there are quite a lot of good Robert Fuller photos. He doesn't take a bad picture. And yes, he's definitely aged well. I had a hard time choosing which pix to post.

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  3. Aaah yes! Robert Fuller - Jess Harper. Another great example of your great taste in heroes. And how could I not love the man who was one of the causes of bringing us together in friendship?

    Rather wierd to think that when you were absorbed in Laramie over your side of 'the pond', I was in Yorkshire equally absorbed - we were both very very young of course!

    And of course in his character he had that wonderful touch of ambiguity - not quite totally reformed bad boy and perfect hero material that is so inspiring.

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  4. I always loved the old cowboy shows on TV, both Laramie and The High Chaparral were my two favs (couldn't stand Bonanza, way too clean cut!). But my first hero would have to be James Dean in East of Eden which I watched late one night when I was 14. The ultimate tortured bad boy! There's a little bit of Jimmy in every hero I write.

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  5. The first tv hero who made my hormones sit up and take notice was a cowboy...The Virginian. I seem to remember that it was the character Trampas that always got the girls, and that I could never see quite what they all saw in him. It was definitely the slight edge of darkness round The Virginian that intrigued me...
    Annie

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  6. I had the pleasure of first 'reading' Atticus Finch. I fell in love with him and I read that book on many a night when I was supposed to be studying! My mother had the pleasure of actually meeting Mr. Peck while on location down the road, filming Moby Dick. So in a sense it was her love of the man that led us to watching as many of his films as we could get our hands on. But I tell you, as much as I loved 'reading' Atticus, the first time I saw him portrayed on screen my heart went crazy in my chest. I think I stopped breathing for a couple of seconds! Such honour, such serenity and peace in his voice, that man made me appreciate and understand what might just define a hero, at least in my teenage eyes. Everything I watched Gregory Peck in after that served only to reinforce my idea that he truly was hero material. Roman Holiday and The Big Country stand out in my mind, but nobody has ever come close to matching Atticus Finch for me. And to this day that book remains my all time favourite.

    Aideen.

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  7. Kate, yes, I forgot when I was writing this piece that Jess had a hand in helping forge our friendship as well. (Which means that Scottish castles and heroic cats can't take all the credit). And you're absolutely right that it's that ambiguity that is part of the appeal. Rather like our heroes, I hope!

    Heidi, I know exactly what you mean about Bonanza, and in fact it's the same conclusion I came to about my early interest in Flint McCullough on Wagon Train. He was cleaner than I was, after a day spent riding horseback on the plains -- so I knew we'd never hit it off! And oh, yes -- James Dean!

    Annie B, I like The Virginian, too. And while in the course of researching our "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" talk that I gave with Jessica Douglass, I had occasion to talk at length once with Doug McClure who played Trampas -- and who was a very bright, funny, articulate spokesman for what makes the western hero tick -- I still like those dark-haired men with an edge of the unknown in their souls. James Drury did a great job. My only quibble was with Owen Wister, the author, who never saw fit to give him a name! Hard to fall in love with a man whose name you don't know!

    Liz, glad you agree! Oh, yes!

    Aideen, what a marvelous tribute to Atticus Finch (and Harper Lee) and Gregory Peck. He was absolutely memorable in both the book and the movie. And lucky mum, getting to meet him. Thank you for reminding me what a great character Atticus is -- and how well Gregory Peck portrayed him.

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  8. Great blog, Anne! My mum always told me about the some of the shows you mentioned.

    I grew up in the 80s and the only cowboy show I watched was The Young Riders with Josh Brolin (who I had a crush on back then), Stephen Baldwin and Brett Cullen as Sam Cooper. I bought the DVD box set of the first season and have to admit that I still like the show. Josh Brolin was cute back then and he's even hotter now.

    But my first hero was Tom Sawyer. I had to watch every movie they brought on tv which sometimes brought on trouble with my mother esp. in the summer. She never understood because she was in Team Huck. ; )
    Becky Thatcher was the nemesis of my childhood.
    Honestly I always thought I'd marry a modern version of Tom Sawyer and I think I'm still waiting to meet him.

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  9. Ohh how exciting! A true all American cowboy. Lovely! He looks like he was the inspiration for Marlborough Man doesn't he? Take care. Caroline

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  10. Carolin, I didn't see the Young Riders, but I heard about it. Josh Brolin is very nice indeed. Tom Sawyer, yes -- very tempting. Just enough of the 'bad boy' with a veneer of civilization (as long as Aunt Polly was around!). I do like Huck, though. Hard to choose between them, though I think Tom might make the more reliable romantic hero. You'd have your work cut out for you with Huck!

    Caroline, yes, Robert Fuller as Jess Harper pretty much embodied them American Cowboy myth. It's sometimes a hard sell in Britain because of your pejorative use of the term "cowboy." I remember one of my Mills & Boon editors saying, "If you'd only get the word 'cowboy' out of your titles, I could sell more of your books over here!" But I figured I could sell more with it in the title in the US.

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  11. Anne, you've chosen a wonderful example for a hero. Robert Fuller was so handsome, had that intriguing reticence about him, and had the most wonderfully deep and husky voice.

    I do love those heroes who just get on with the business of being a hero , but for me, I have to say that James Garner was great. I love his humour in Maverick and The Rockford Files etc, and I love that he was always the reluctant hero, being pulled into doing the right thing despite himself.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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  12. Maxine, He does still have a great voice. And there was about his character that 'reluctant hero' dimension you mention, though it was quite different from James Garner's Bret Maverick. I loved Maverick, too. And James Garner had such a twinkle in his eye. Charming man!

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  13. Anne, Huck isn't bad either but I'm not really into camping and so the sugar-hogshead just wouldn't do. But I have to admit that -from a grown-up's point of view- I admire Huck's freedom and ability to do what he wants, when he wants.

    I loved James Garner in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood".

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  14. sorry commenters but I have to go with Ben Cartwright from Bonanza. I loved that show!!! He was a true hero to me in many shows.

    yourstrulee(at)sasktel(dot)net

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  15. Haven't seen James Garner in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." I'll have to take a look. I like him in pretty much everything I've ever seen him in, though.

    Robyn, Ben Cartwright was a good role model, definitely worth a mention. And you certainly had lots of people who agree with you about Bonanza. Nice that there are shows -- and heroes -- for all of us!

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  16. I love, love, love my cowboys and men of the Old West! The love of my life is Sam Elliott : )

    Robert Fuller & Robert Horton; James Drury & Doug Mcclure (from "The Virginian"); Peter Breck, Lee Majors, Richard Long (the Barkley brothers from "The Big Valley); The Cartwrights--especially Guy Williams as cousin Will Cartwright (he also had the title role as TV's Zorro and Professor John Robinson in "Lost in Space"); James Garner as "Maverick" or just James Garner; James Arness, Ken Curtis, Dennis Weaver from "Gunsmoke"; Clint Walker as "Cheyenne"; Lee Horsley from "Paradise". I love them all, and there are just too many more to mention.

    However, one of the greatest TV Men of the West was Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown in "Cimarron Strip". In my opinion, this is one of the best westerns ever put on the screen. The episodes which pitted Stuart Whitman against Richard Boone, whose character called Marshall Crown by the name "Tricky Jim" were outstanding! If you can ever find a sexier lawman than Stuart Whitman, please let me know! Those looks, those eyes, that strut and that voice!

    gcwhiskas at aol dot com

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  17. Virginia,
    Ah, a connoisseur of western cowboy heroes! Thank you for remembering so many for me. I can visualize Stuart Whitman, but I don't think I ever saw him as Marshal Jim Crown. Sounds like he was worth a look!

    Thanks for sharing your memories!

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  18. So sorry to be so late in posting the winner! Mitch and Micah (my golden retrievers) picked Aideen!

    So if Aidenn will please go to my webpage at www.annemcallister.com and leave me a message (you can do it from the contact link at the very bottom, or the news page) with your address, I'll send you a copy of the book! Thanks to everyone who replied. Great to learn about more potential heroes!

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  19. Congrats to Aideen! I bet you love your book! Do enjoy!
    BTW, that's cool about your mom meeting Gregory Peck! What a great story!

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  20. I have had cars and yachts named jess harper in all its forms..have never got over my lifes obession with him.....only lochinvar,red rum and marcus out of "the eagle of the ninth' ever came close..and one was a horse,,,,,,effie tait..ps am on my 7th fanfic...read on robert fuller fandom site owner is tony gill

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  21. Effie,
    Cars and yachts named after Jess definitely speak to a lifelong obsession! I'm impressed with your devotion. And I'm sure Jess/Robert would be honored by your esteem. You obviously had supremely good taste in men at an early age (like me).

    I'll check out your fanfics! Thanks for mentioning them.

    Anne

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  22. I'm with Effie! I still LOVE Jess Harper (Robert Fuller) and was lucky enough, no blessed enough to finally meet him in person a few months back. He is still gorgeous. He was my only celebrity hero back during the Laramie days, and still is 50 years later. He's very kind, witty and a wonderful person, a true gent. Every devoted fan of Robert Fuller should get to meet him at least once in their life. I met him at a festival.I got my pic taken with him, and it's hangin on the fridge :)

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