Q: I recently saw that actor Clint Walker celebrated another birthday, and I was wondering how he is and what he is doing these days. I used to keep up with him when I shopped at his twin sister Lucy’s health-food store on Mascoutah Avenue in Belleville, but she died many years ago, so I’ve lost track.
Helga Solich, of Caseyville
A: For a man who was pronounced dead 45 years ago, the Hartford, Ill., native and former Belleville resident is doing remarkably well.
Or as Walker might say, miraculously so.
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As any fan of vintage TV Westerns will remember, the 6-foot-6 hunk of a man is best known for his work as Cheyenne Bodie, a cowboy hero who roamed the American West during the post-Civil War era on “Cheyenne.” While the series made ample use of Walker’s rugged physique with frequent shots of his 48-inch bare chest atop a 32-inch waist, critics also praised the show for its writing and acting, which is why it ran for seven seasons on ABC from 1955 to 1962.
Those memories are also why generations of fans will flock to Kanab, Utah, Aug. 25-27, when the now 89-year-old Walker will be one of the featured celebrities at the 18th annual Western Legends Roundup, which this year salutes the long-running syndicated classic “Death Valley Days.” As Walker will tell you, those fans have good reason to thank God that he is still around to greet them and sign autographs, because his career — and life — nearly came to a crashing end on May 24, 1971.
A well-known fitness buff and health-food devotee, Walker, then 44, was enjoying a day of skiing on the slopes of Mammoth Mountain, north of Bishop, Calif. On one run, he suddenly lost his footing and crashed. One of his ski poles wound up piercing his chest up to its ring or basket (about 4 inches), puncturing the ventricle of his heart.
“It was a freak accident, just one of those crazy, crazy things,” he told the Associated Press two weeks after the near-fatal mishap. “To my knowledge it hasn’t happened to another skier. I was traveling fast on difficult, steep terrain and took a spill. I wound up impaled on the sharp end. All my weight was on it. I could see the hole it had made as I rolled off it.
“Spread out in the snow, getting weaker by the minute, I said, ‘God, I’m in real trouble. There’s only one way I’m going to pull out of this. That’s with your help.’ I’m thoroughly convinced that’s why I’m here now.”
For an agonizing two hours, doctors wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for his chances as an ambulance rushed him semiconscious 45 miles to Northern Inyo Hospital in Bishop.
“They said when I got there that as far as they were concerned, I was a dead man,” he said years later during a lengthy interview about his life for the Archive of American Television. “Two doctors pronounced me dead, and I was out of body. I was in that spirit body. They tell us we have two bodies, and we really do. And that spirit body’s got this one beat all to heck. You’re more alive, more alert, more aware. You know things you never knew before, and that spirit body, there’s no aches and pains. I mean, very comfortable.
“I realized I wasn’t all that concerned about going back, but I thought, ‘There’s something that I came to Earth to do and haven’t done it and I gotta go back and take another crack at it. And don’t ask me what that was, ’cause I don’t know. Maybe it’s the things I’m doing now. But I said, ‘God, I need your help. I wanna go back and take another crack at it.’”
That’s when God or fate or whatever you want to call it stepped in in a big way.
“So a third heart specialist came through and saw my body on the gurney,” Walker said. “It was just waitin’ for the meat wagon. He (had come) to visit a friend at the hospital, was taking a shortcut through the basement to get to his car and saw me. They told him who I was and what had happened and that two doctors had pronounced me dead. He went over and looked at them and said, ‘I don’t think this man is dead.’
“I think that was God answering my request. He took his coat off, asked for some tools and started cuttin’ my chest open to check on my heart. I couldn’t open my eyes but I did say to him, ‘Do you really have to do that?’ And there was a pause, and then I heard him say, ‘Yes, we do’ and they rushed me up to the operating room.”
So two hours after the accident, Drs. David Sheldon and George Brown began 2-1/2 hours of open-heart surgery.
“Dr. Sheldon told me, ‘I didn’t even wash my hands. I knew every second was precious,’” Walker said. “I understand I had no anesthesia, so you can see how far gone I was. They opened up my chest and got my heart going again. The sac around the heart had filled up with blood, a lot of which had congealed. Even when they got the heart going again, they were pretty sure there would be a lot of permanent brain damage.”
Though Walker had been critically injured, he was out of the hospital 10 days later, even joking that his now-bent aluminum ski pole ended up in worse shape.
“(Dr. Sheldon) told me afterward, ‘I don’t understand why you’re still here. I can’t take credit for it. It was a 100-to-1 shot you’d come out of this. You’re a medical mystery.’ And that’s how I’m written up. I’ve got the papers at home where they said that I contradicted a lot of things that they’d been taught.”
His miracle survival did not lead to a second shot at the fame and fortune he had enjoyed as the star of “Cheyenne.” Born Norman Eugene Walker on May 30, 1927, in Hartford, Clint and twin sister Lucy moved to Belleville briefly as Clint’s dad looked for work. At age 16, Clint left school to work in a factory and then joined the Merchant Marines before winding up as a deputy sheriff at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. While working there, famed actor Van Johnson (and many patrons) said he should try his luck in Hollywood.
It led to another miracle of sorts. In the early 1950s with just one uncredited screen role under his belt, Walker was driving to meet renowned director Cecil B. DeMille and saw a woman stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire. He changed the tire and then apologized profusely to DeMille for his tardiness.
“(DeMille said) ‘That was my secretary you helped,’” Walker told the News-Democrat in 2008. “He cast me as the Sardinian in ‘The Ten Commandments.’ That was the big guy in the helmet when Charlton (Heston) comes in.”
Despite his short screen appearance, someone from Warner Bros. liked what they saw and bought Walker’s contract from Hal Wallis. Jack Warner even suggested the name “Clint” to match Walker’s flinty exterior. Almost immediately, he won the lead role on “Cheyenne,” which debuted Sept. 20, 1955. Meatier film roles quickly followed, too, including the lead parts in “Fort Dobbs” and “Yellowstone Kelly.”
Yet, Walker became dissatisfied with how Warner was handling his career and was brash enough to leave the show in 1958 during the height of its popularity. He had all but decided to move back to Belleville to join his sister (who was now married to Paul Westbrook) in the Walker-Westbrook Health Foods company, which Lucy was running out of her home at 1119 Bel Aire Drive.
“She thought we could really expand if I joined the operation,” he said. “So I sold my house and got ready to move. But I wanted to hear from the head man that there was no hope for a settlement. I didn’t want to move East and then have to return here if Warner made a deal. So I went to the studio on my own initiative and told them the situation.”
After a nine-month holdout, Walker agreed to climb back in the saddle for $1,500 a week and the right to do feature films in his spare time. More memorable movie parts followed, including his turn as meek convict Samson Posey in “The Dirty Dozen.” But his last stab at a major TV role fizzled in 1974, when “Kodiak” was buried in the ratings by “Sanford and Son” and was canceled after the first episode. For the next 20 years, he made sporadic appearances in movies as well as guest roles on such series as “The Love Boat” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” His last credit apparently was in 1998 as the voice of Nick Nitro in the animated film “Small Soldiers.”
Since then he has found other outlets for his talents, including teaming up with Western author Kirby Jones to write the 2003 novel “Yaqui Gold.” He married his third wife, Susan Cavallari, in 1997 and has a daughter, Valerie, who became one of the first female commercial airline pilots in the 1970s for Western Airlines. In addition to his public appearances, Walker was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 (1505 Vine St. near Sunset Boulevard) and in 2004 was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Proving you can teach an old cowboy new tricks, he has his own website (www.clintwalker.com) and sometimes posts at the Clint Walker Official Facebook Group Page, where the conservative Republican recently thanked fans for their birthday wishes by saying, “The love and the wisdom of the Creator is alive and well and will carry us through.”
You can listen to his entire retrospective interview at www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/clint-walker.
Easy one (I hope): Who was the first celebrity host of “Death Valley Days”?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: You might have expected the Pope or maybe Mussolini to have attracted the largest crowd in Italy, but historians seem to think the honor belongs to the funeral of Giuseppe Verdi, when the famed opera composer died after a stroke in 1901.