Ask Robert Fuller what he would have become had he not been an actor and he'll tell you he has always loved hunting and fishing, and probably, would have wound up working for a state fish and game department. Indeed, it is hard not to picture the fit and ruggedly handsome Fuller in some sort of outdoor setting like the ones you so often saw him in for his TV western and feature film appearances.
After all, he was the volatile drifter, Jess Harper, on Laramie for four years. Then, for two years, he played scout Cooper Smith (a later successor to Robert Horton’s Flint McCullough) on the popular and long-running Wagon Train series. Beyond that, he took on all the trappings of a paid gunslinger in one of the better western screen sequels, Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), with Yul Brynner.
"Growing up in the Forties, watching and imitating those great westerns of that period, I was fascinated with the genre more than any other type of film," Fuller said at the 2004 Williamsburg Film Festival. "Of course, I never dreamed as a kid that I would someday play cowboy for real, but it happened. And I was ready. The first day I started working in a western I owned my own cowboy hat and boots. I could also ride a horse and draw a gun. That's how strongly I felt about it."
An only child, he was born Leonard Lee, on Saturday, July 29, 1935 in Troy, New York. Nicknamed “Buddy”, he spent most of his childhood in Key West, Florida, where his mother, a dancer, relocated after divorcing the boy's biological father. When his mother married a Navy officer you could say that the boy’s life was taking a path that would lead to a show biz career. The boy’s stepfather, Robert Simpson, was heading that way too and he left the Navy to become a professional dancer. Young Bob took the name, Robert Simpson, Jr.
After opening a dance school, Bob's stepfather, working under the stage name Robert Cole, put together a highly polished dance act, and, together with his wife, toured with it. A highlight of their career came when the couple gave a performance for President Harry Truman at the White House.
Meanwhile, growing up in Florida, Bob expressed little or no interest in school or in show business, particularly acting. "I did two operettas in high school," Fuller recalled. "The teacher picked me for the lead until she heard me sing—I can't carry a tune—then I was demoted to playing one of the Cossacks in one production and a sailor in the other. I didn't care."
In 1950, when Bob was 16 years old, the family moved to Hollywood where Mr. Simpson (aka Robert Cole) started a successful career dancing in motion pictures. Young Bob, uninterested in school, went to work at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Dressed in traditional Chinese attire, he served as a doorman and took tickets at the famed movie house for a modest thirty cents an hour. Since some of his teenage co-workers were also working in movies as extras, Bob learned that they were getting paid much better, and followed their lead into extra work. The teenager had other odd jobs, but around 1952 he gravitated toward the film industry, doing stunt work and dancing. A couple of the movies in which he danced as a chorus boy were: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell; and I Love Melvin (1953), with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.
"My father, of course, taught me a few things plus I picked up a lot on my own," pointed out Fuller. "In those days, we had three to four weeks to rehearse a number, then another week to ten days to shoot it. If you did four or five dance numbers in a picture, you could be working for months.
"Once, a bunch of us dancers were invited into the screening room to see how a particular sequence from I Love Melvin turned out. It was a number we had sweated over for a long time, and as I was sitting there watching it, I got so carried away that when a certain cue came up—where I did a knee slide up to Debbie Reynolds—I jumped out of my front-row seat and fell to the floor, thinking I had to perform again. Everybody in the screening room got a good laugh and I was totally embarrassed.”
Drafted into the Army, Bob spent 17 months in Korea and was commended three times by his commanding officer as an outstanding soldier in his unit. He would have been promoted in rank, except for a few minor problems—he punched out a corporal, and got into a "serious disagreement" with a captain.
In 1955, upon being discharged from the military, the young man immediately returned to California where for the first five days he never went out of the house. Mulling things over, he saw little future in being a chorus boy or stunt man, and saw no hope for a show business career. He didn't know for sure what he wanted to do.
“Shortly after I got out of the Army in ‘55, I happened to be in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard drinking a beer when all of a sudden this gorgeous blonde came out with a man with a guitar," recalled Fuller. "The woman started to sing and, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. That was my introduction to Julie London. Also that year, I met Richard Boone for the first time.”
Actor Richard Boone had had minor stage, film and television roles in the late 1940s early ‘50s, but he didn’t become well-known until his first regular series, Medic, a forerunner of later TV realism. Fuller’s parents were fans of the show and wrote to Boone suggesting that he start an acting class, which, in fact, he did. Eventually, Bob began taking acting lessons from him.
“I hadn't seen Medic because I had been in the Army at the time," stated Fuller, "but my father was enthusiastic about Dick Boone, and so was my good friend, Chuck Courtney, who talked to the actor about me. Anyway, when I was looking around for something to do, they strongly urged me to sit in on Dick’s class. I did and I was impressed. Towards the end of a second class, Dick said, ‘I see our guy from the Army is back. Would you mind coming up here and doing an improvisation?’ So I did, and later, Dick said to me, ‘I liked what you did tonight, I think you should study with me.’”
To pay for his acting classes, Bob returned to film work. He danced in the movie, Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), with Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse; and he had a small speaking, part in the Gary Cooper picture, Friendly Persuasion (1956), though most of his three months on the project were spent as an extra.
"I did various things in Friendly Persuasion," remarked Fuller. "I was a Quaker one day, and something else the next. About a week into shooting, I happened to be dressed as a captain in a Civil War uniform and standing on the sidelines next to another fella who was quite tall and wore fake sideburns. My sideburns at the time were real. Well, Gary Cooper and director William Wyler had decided to add another actor to a scene in order to liven it up a bit. And Wyler looked over at the guy beside me and was about to pick him, except that his sideburns looked fake. Then he called me over and asked, ‘Can you act?' I answered, ‘You bet.’ So that was how I got my first line in a motion picture."
Richard Boone was so impressed with Bob's progress as an actor that he phoned his old friend, Sanford Meisner in New York, and asked that he take Fuller as a student at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Consequently, Bob spent the better part of 1956 in the East broadening his skills and techniques. He then returned to the west coast and again studied with Boone, until the latter had to disband his class because it interfered with his hit TV series, Have Gun Will Travel.
Bob began doing guest spots on television in 1957, and by February of 1959, he had appeared on many programs such as: Official Detective, Flight, The Californians, Panic!, Buckskin, M Squad, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Lux Playhouse, The Restless Gun, The World of Giants, U.S. Marshal, Wagon Train and Cimarron City. In fact, it was during the filming of the Cimarron City episode that he was offered a series of his own which, incredibly, he turned down.
"Patrick Kelly, in charge of talent at Revue Studios, wanted me to play Ray Milland’s a sidekick in a detective drama called Markham, but I wanted to do a western," explained Fuller. "So, about two weeks later, he showed me another script, for a western titled Laramie, which I loved. But I wanted to play Jess Harper in it, and Kelly wanted me to play Slim Sherman. Well, he really hit the roof. But you know what happened? The studio phoned the very same day and said they wanted me to test for Jess Harper. I did, and I was Jess from then on."
Laramie was a solid western show about two brothers, Slim Sherman (John Smith) and his 14-year-old, sibling named Andy (Robert Crawford Jr.), who are determined to maintain the family cattle ranch and stagecoach station in Wyoming. Helping out were Jess Harper, a former wanderer; Jonesy (Hoagy Carmichael), a close friend of the previous owner; and a host of others as the series progressed.
"I was a big fan of Hoagy Carmichael," said Fuller of the character actor whose greatest talent was as a composer and singer, famous for creating some of the most popular tunes of his day, especially “Stardust”. Continuing, Fuller recalled, “I wish he could have stayed longer than one season, but he enjoyed golf too much. You see, his house was on the ninth hole of the Thunderbird Golf Course, and he would commute to work by car which was a two-hour drive. Somedays he made it to the set on time and some days he didn't. Eventually, he decided to stick to what he loved best, golf. But we all liked Hoagy. I'll never forget the one time he persuaded me to play golf with him. When I rang his doorbell, it played 'Stardust'!
“John Smith and I got along great. We couldn't have worked as long and, as hard together as we did and not gotten along," declared Fuller. "After our show moved to Universal, John’s dressing room and mine were next to each other on what was often called 'Whiskey Row' because Ward Bond, had a dressing room there, and Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson [two Wagon Train regulars] had a dressing room there. And Lee Marvin. And, every night after work, we’d get together in somebody's room and have a few drinks. One evening, in John's room, I was telling McGrath how I hated yelling through the wall at John when I wanted to talk to him. Frankie said, 'I can fix that.' And suddenly, he ran at the wall as hard as he could and put a big hole in it. Then John ran at the wall and he put a hole in it. So, I did, too. This went on all night, and by morning the wall was completely torn down and all of the debris was in my room. Fortunately, Lew Wasserman [who ran MCA and Universal] didn’t get too upset. In fact, he even cleaned up the mess and put a slider in for us for those times when we did want some privacy. But that's just one of the crazy things we did.”
Many a TV desperado passed through Wyoming and a majority of them put in an appearance on Laramie. That also applied to renegade Indians and other interesting types. One of the show's hallmarks was its action scenes, especially its fights. Having started as a stuntman, Bob insisted on doing most of his stunts himself. And while a few of the fight scenes were one-on-one encounters, many more involved Fuller taking on several guys at a time.
"When it came to stunts, the man I most patterned myself after was Jock Mahoney," emphasized Fuller. "And when I found out during the second season he was going to be on Laramie, I couldn't wait to meet him. Well, he happened to be in an episode where I kill four Indians in a fight. It was a rather complicated sequence, and when it was over, I walked over to Jocko, who was sitting by the camera watching. 'Not bad. Not bad at all,' he said. Well, that made my whole day. In fact, I wanted to impress him even more with the next stunt I did. So, for the next scene, I was supposed to bust through this barn door and save the young woman Mahoney's character is threatening on the other side. Again, Jocko was sitting by the camera watching—we were just shooting the exterior of the barn—and right before I rode up, the special effects man said to me, 'Now, Bob, this is a pretty heavy door. Do you want me to score it first so you can go in easier?' I shot back, ‘Don’t touch that door! I'm going to tear that door off its hinges!' Well, I gave that door the hardest kick I had, and it propelled me back five feet and knocked the wind out of me. Still on the ground, I looked up at Jocko, who was now standing over me. ‘Good job, kid,’ he said, shaking his head and smiling."
From Laramie, Bob went into Wagon Train, a highly successful TV series that had been winning high ratings on NBC since 1957. When the show moved to ABC in 1963, Fuller joined the cast as a regular character named Cooper Smith. Big in scope, big in format, with top guest stars, Wagon Train episodes generally focused on a particular member of the wagon train or an interesting character encountered along the way. Thus the show always had fresh faces galore with fine actors in scripts that tended to be interesting studies of character.
Ward Bond, the first wagonmaster on the program, died during the 1960-61 season and was replaced by John McIntire. Robert Horton, the wagon train’s original scout, was replaced by Scott Miller and Robert Fuller. Terry Wilson and Frank McGrath, the ramrod and trail cook respectively, remained with the show until its end in 1965.
"Not only did Wagon Train vary their storylines a lot, but the producers brought in a wide range of directors which I normally like," said Fuller. “They did that on Laramie, too. However, I'd had some disagreements with one of the Laramie directors, William Witney, and when he showed up for a Wagon Train show, the trouble only escalated. You see, I hadn't lost my appetite for stunt work, and sometimes I’d dress up as an extra and sneak onto the set if I knew a big mob fight was being shot—just to be part of it. I did that for the film, Spartacus, and I wanted to do it for this Wagon Train episode because it had all kinds of Indian charges in it. Anyway, I dressed up as an Indian and was having great fun when word filtered back to director Witney of what I was doing. So, he came storming up the hill where a group of us were sitting on horseback, and he stopped in front of a real Indian boy beside me who also was working in the picture. ‘Get out of here. You can't be doing this!’ he yelled at the boy, not realizing he was talking to the wrong person. So, of course, I spoke up. After telling him to leave the kid alone, I got off my horse and left the area. That night, Witney and I got into a fistfight back at the motel, until a bunch of people broke it up.”
During the actor's first season on Wagon Train, he was delighted to find out that Rhonda Fleming was scheduled to be a guest star on the program (episode: "The Sandra Cummings Story"), and that he would have several key scenes with her. In this episode, Fleming's daughter in the story is courted by Fuller's Cooper Smith, despite the mother's objection. Only ten years older than Bob in real life, the gorgeous redheaded Miss Fleming was long considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and still in her prime.
"I'm a big movie fan, and have always had a huge place in my heart for Rhonda Fleming,” revealed Fuller. “She played a dance hall queen on our show and was simply delightful. Well, the day after this one particular scene we had together—a scene in which she wore an extremely low-cut gown—the producers came to me and said, ‘Bob, you need to see what you did yesterday.' So I sat in the screening room with the producers and I couldn't believe what I saw. I never looked Rhonda in the eyes once. Instead, my eyes were always lowered, trained on her other considerable charms. ‘We'll have to retake the scene,’ the producers said. ‘Okay,’ I agreed, ‘but what are you going to tell Rhonda?’ They answered, ‘We're going to tell her the truth.’ So they did, and she loved it. She thought it was very flattering."
When Wagon Train ceased production in 1965, Bob moved into feature films. In Universal’s Incident at Phantom Hill (1966), he played Matt Martin, one of a trio chasing a million dollars in gold while combatting Indians, the desert and, sometimes, themselves. Piloted by longtime western director Earl Bellamy, the picture benefitted significantly from the performances of such veteran talents as Dan Duryea, Claude Akins and Noah Beery, Jr.
Now an enormous star in Europe and the Far East (TV Guide did an article on him titled “He's Hot in Tokyo”), Fuller attended the Munich premiere of Incident at Phantom Hill before beginning his next project. Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), set to film in Spain, was a reworking of the 1960 box-office hit involving professional mercenaries uniting to route bandits terrorizing a Mexican village. The sequel added biographical background to the characters, making them more human. Bob played Vin, the role earlier handled by Steve McQueen.
"It was common knowledge that Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, the lead stars of the original Magnificent Seven, had not gotten along very well," Fuller stated. "As I had never met Yul, I naturally wondered whether his animosity towards Steve would carry over to me. Well, I arrived in Spain late because of a premiere in Munich I had to attend, and as I was walking with the assistant director to Yul’s trailer, I could see that his door was open and that he was looking into a mirror—a makeup artist was working on him as we were approaching. We got to the door and the A.D. introduced me, but Yul never turned around, never said a single word for the longest time. Finally, still looking into the mirror, he said, ‘Do you drink?’ I answered, ‘Yeah, I drink.’ Another long silence. Then he said, ‘Do, you play poker?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘I play poker.' And at that, he turned in his chair, grabbed my hand and said, ‘Come on in, pal-ie!’ A half a fifth of Johnny Walker Black later, we were great friends."
After several films in Europe, Bob returned to the U.S. to act in What Happened to Aunt Alice (1966) with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon; and The Hard Ride (1971) with Sherry Bain and Biff Elliot. In The Hard Ride, Fuller played an ex-sergeant who accompanies the body of a deceased friend home from Vietnam, then tries to persuade the Indian leader of the man’s old motorcycle gang to attend the funeral. Not just another biker movie, the picture caught the attention of actor-director-producer Jack Webb who wanted to make a medical series in the same semi-documentary style he had used with Dragnet.
"By the early ‘70s, westerns had all but faded into the sunset," recalled Fuller. "But I still wanted to do them. So when Jack Webb contacted my agent saying that he wanted me for a medical series, I immediately balked. ‘You owe it to the man to at least talk with him,’ my agent said to me. And I did. I went to his office and had no sooner gotten out the words, ‘I'm not interested,’ than he yelled, ‘Shut up and sit down!’ Two hours and a number of drinks later, I had agreed to do a TV movie and series called Emergency!, and thank God I did.”
A fast-moving, topical show that depicted the work of a team of paramedics assigned to the L.A. County Fire Department and its association with Rampart General Hospital, NBC's Emergency! lasted five and a half seasons as a series against such stiff competition as CBS's All in the Family, and afterwards it spawned an animated Saturday morning spinoff. In Emergency!, Bob played Dr. Kelly Brackett, while Julie London was Nurse Dixie McCall and London’s real-life husband, Bobby Troup, was Dr. Joe Early.
Following Emergency!, the actor was seen in a few more theatrical features: 1976 - Mustang Country; 1981 - Separate Ways; 1982 - Megaforce; 1990 - Repossessed; 1994 – Maverick. For the most part, however, his professional activities were on television. He appeared in several made-for-TV movies: 1978 - The Greatest Rescues of Emergency, Donner Pass: The Road to Survival; 1979 - Disaster on the Coastliner; 1996 - Bonanza: The Next Generation. He also did a host of network series guest spots including The Love Boat, The Fall Guy, Matt Houston, Finder of Lost Loves, Black's Magic, Tour of Duty, Murder She Wrote, Paradise, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Renegade, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Diagnosis Murder, Walker, Texas Ranger, Viper, JAG.
“Walker, Texas Ranger was great fun," remarked Fuller. "I did one as a flashback to the Old West of the 1800s, in which I got killed. I think it was the first time I was outdrawn in years... Then, more recently, they brought me back as a contemporary Texas Ranger. Chuck Norris was delightful, and the entire crew loved him. It was just a very comfortable show to do.”
Walker, Texas Ranger was shot in Dallas, only 75 miles from where Bob now lives with his wife, Jennifer, whom he wed in 2001. His three grown children, Rob, Christine and Patrick, are from his first marriage to actress Patty Lyon, which lasted from 1962 to ‘84.
"Oh, I'll be out on a bass-fishing boat on Lake Ray Roberts," laughs Fuller, when asked what he plans to do next. “The business has changed an awful lot since I started. And, in most cases, the fun has gone out of it. So, unless a good part comes along, or a good show, like Walker or Diagnosis Murder, I'll simply wait for westerns to make a comeback.”