Tragedy awaited Eric Fleming, who starred in “Rawhide,” one of the best television Western series, in part because it was almost always on the move. Fleming was not your typical actor. He had served with the Seabees in World War 2, and his experience prepared him for a job as a stagehand doing carpentry work at a movie studio in 1946.
He told me this story during a 1962 phone interview:
“I saw a young actor flop in an audition at the studio. I told the guys I worked with, ‘I can do better than that!’ One word led to another I was goaded into making a $100 bet on my acting ability. I lost the bet,” he said. “And I was miserable.”
He said it was the first time he had tried acting, but the experience, as humiliating as it was, gave him the itch to try again. “Besides, acting cost me that $100 and I made up my mind it was going to pay me back.”
He went to New York, took acting lessons, and landed parts in Broadway plays, including “No Time for Sergeants” and “Plaint and Fancy.”
Fleming then returned to Hollywood where his previous work experience proved just as important as his more recent acting jobs. His size (a rugged six-foot-three-inches) were a plus, too. And he was offered the job as trail boss Gil Favor on “Rawhide.” Fleming’s famous cry of “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out” was heard for the first time on January 9, 1959.
“I’m convinced that Western stars are picked more for their stamina than their acting ability,” he said. “I’ve lost four teeth, have had 20 stitches for different kinds of cuts, have had several sprained wrists, ankles and ribs, and I’ve been pierced with cactus more times than I’d like to remember.”
His worst accident, however, occurred during the war while he was in the Pacific with the Seabees. A 200-pound block of steel fell from a hoist and hit him. It took 40 stitches and a battery of plastic surgeons to give Fleming a new face marked only by a few spidery scars.
“My new face is entirely different from my old one,” Fleming said, “but I prefer the new one.”
After “Rawhide” completed its seven-year run in 1965, Fleming made three appearances on “Bonanza” and also played a spy in the Doris Day movie, “The Glass Bottom Boat.” Tragically, it was while filming his next project, “High Jungle,” in Peru that Fleming was drowned after his canoe overturned in the Huallaga River during filming. He was only 41.
Meanwhile, his young co-star, a virtual unknown when "Rawhide" began in 1959, was on his way to becoming one of Hollywood's biggest stars, and later one of its most successful directors. From the start, Clint Eastwood attracted attention as ramrod Rowdy Yates. He continued to pop up in guests appearances on Warner Brothers' TV shows, including "Maverick."
In 1964, while "Rawhide" was still on the air, Eastwood had his big movie break, thanks to the unexpected success of the Sergio Leone Western, "Fistful of Dollars."
Eastwood played out the streak on "Rawhide," and when the show ended in December, 1965, he had appeared in all 216 episodes, an honor he shared with Paul Brinegar, who played Wishbone, the cook. Fleming was not in the show during its 13-episode final season in which Rowdy Yates took over as trail boss.