Dec 28, 2012, 4:44 PM
By Dennis McLellan, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Perennial Western actor Harry Carey Jr. dies at 91
Harry Carey Jr., a venerable character actor who was believed to be the last surviving member of director John Ford's legendary Western stock company, died Thursday. He was 91.
Carey, whose career spanned more than 50 years and included such Ford classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, died of natural causes in Santa Barbara, California, said Melinda Carey, a daughter.
"In recent years, he became kind of the living historian of the modern era," film critic Leonard Maltin told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. "He wrote a very good book, Company of Heroes, and kept working into his 80s.
"He would get hired on films by young directors who just wanted to work with him, to be one step away from the legends," Maltin said. "Some hired him to just hear his stories between takes."
Director Joe Dante, who used Carey in his 1984 comic-fantasy Gremlins, told the Times in 2003: "You got a lot of free movie history when you cast him."
The son of silent-film Western star Harry Carey Sr. and his actress wife Olive, Carey made more than 100 films. They included Red River, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, Big Jake, Cahill U.S. Marshal, Nickelodeon, The Long Riders, Mask and The Whales of August. In one of his final films, 1993's Tombstone, he played a marshal who gets shot down.
The red-haired, boyishly handsome Carey lacked the screen-dominating star quality of his longtime pal, John Wayne, with whom he appeared in nearly a dozen films. Instead, Carey made his mark as a character actor whose work in Westerns bore an authenticity unmatched by most actors: he was considered one of Hollywood's best horsemen.
That was amply illustrated in 1950's Rio Grande, for which he and cowboy-turned-character actor Ben Johnson learned to ride two horses while standing up, with one foot on the back of each horse.
His other Ford film credits include 3 Godfathers, Wagon Master, The Long Gray Line, Mister Roberts, Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn.
Carey also appeared in dozens of television shows, most of them Westerns such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Have Gun-Will Travel, The Rifleman and Branded. He also portrayed the boys' ranch counselor in the popular Spin and Marty serials on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s.
According to Dante, Carey's best role was in Ford's 1950 Western Wagon Master, in which Carey and Johnson co-starred as horse traders who join a Mormon wagon train.
"Harry was a straight-arrow, realistic person on the screen," said Dante. "It didn't seem like he was acting. He really had an aw-shucks quality."
He was born Henry George Carey on May 16, 1921 on his father's ranch north of Saugus, California and a 45-minute drive to Universal Studios, where Harry Sr. made Westerns in the 1910s and 1920s. More than two dozen were directed by Ford, who became a close family friend.
When Carey was born, his father, Ford and then-New York City mayor Jimmy Walker awaited the baby's arrival by drinking a whiskey named Melwood.
From then on, as Carey wrote in his 1994 memoir, Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company: "Every time Ford saw me with my father he'd say, 'Mellllwood... li'llll Mellllwood,' alluding to how drunk he and my dad were that night at the ranch."
The young Carey graduated from the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood in the late 1930s, studied voice, and made his stage debut, with his father, in summer stock in Maine.
During World War II, he served in the Navy in the Pacific theater, but ended up working in Washington on Navy training and propaganda films for Ford, then a naval officer.
In 1944, Carey married Marilyn Fix, daughter of character actor Paul Fix.
After the war, Carey tried but failed to launch a singing career, and followed his father into the movies with a small role as a cowboy in the B-movie Rolling Home (1946).
"When he went into the movies, everybody suggested he go by Harry Carey Jr., but I think he regretted that forever," his daughter said. "He just wanted to be Dobe, the nickname he always went by," and one that his father gave him because his red hair was the color of the ranch house's adobe bricks.
Wayne recommended the fledgling actor for the role of a cowboy who is killed in a cattle stampede in the 1948 Howard Hawks classic Red River. Shot in 1947, it also featured the elder Carey in his final role. He died the same year at 69.
When Ford made 3 Godfathers, he cast Harry Jr. as one of the leads, the Abilene Kid, and dedicated the film to Harry Sr. The film tells the story of three desperadoes -- played by Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Carey -- who come upon a dying mother in the desert and risk their lives to bring her newborn baby to safety.
Before leaving for filming in Death Valley, Ford told Carey, "You're going to hate me when this picture is over, but you're going to give a great performance."
Ford, who was well-known for his sadistic behavior toward actors in his films, showed Carey no mercy. "I don't remember the Old Man being nice to me for one whole day during location shooting in Death Valley," Carey wrote in his book. "He was bearable or unbearable -- never nice."
Once, when Carey looked in the wrong direction during a scene, Ford threw a jagged, cantaloupe-sized rock at his face. Carey ducked. "If it had hit me in the head, it would have killed me," he said in an interview years later.
Carey's death scene, filmed when it was 126 degrees in the shade, proved particularly rough. Displeased with Carey's performance, Ford cussed him out and left Carey to bake in the sun for 30 minutes.
When Ford returned, a near-delirious Carey delivered his death speech, his mouth so dry he couldn't swallow and his voice resembling that of a dying man as he croaked out his lines.
"Why didn't you do that the first time?" a grinning Ford told Carey. "See how easy it was? You done good! That's a wrap!"
Carey is survived by his wife Marilyn, daughters Melinda and Lily, son Tom, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.