Jack Carrerowbonanza staff writer

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June 11, 2004
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Relive the thrilling days of the Old West in film

The Ponderosa Ranch and several other venues in the Reno-Tahoe area will pay tribute to television and movie westerns as they hold the first annual Bonanza Film Festival this weekend.The event will bring together several stars from shows that dominated both the small and big screens starting over a half century ago.In the early 1950s, the Hollywood studios, realizing that television was not just a fad, looked for a tried and true entertainment product to fill the hours between the vaudeville inspired variety shows.They found it in the western.While big screen heroes like Randolph Scott, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne, entertained the hordes of Baby-Boomers at the local kiddee matinee, television was spreading rapidly, bringing into America's homes new heroes like The Range Rider, Cheyenne, Lawman, Wyatt Earp, Marshal Matt Dillon, Billy the Kid and the Rifleman. There were between five to six different shows each night on the three networks and the studios, in particular Warner Brothers ground them out using lesser paid contract players as the stars.Ty Hardin, who played Bronco Layne for four years, and later starred in motion pictures both here and in Italy, where he made about 20 "Spaghetti Westerns," said that the early television days at Warners were the most enjoyable in his career."It was great," Hardin said. "We made westerns aimed at the kids. There were bad guys and good guys and it was just pure entertainment."Hardin, who also starred with Cliff Robertson in the movie based on President John F. Kennedy's World War II experience "PT 109" and turned down the part that propelled Clint Eastwood, "A Fistfull of Dollars," bristles at the mention of the current trend of "reality television.""That's not entertainment and I think it's demeaning to the human race," Hardin said. "Back then we relied on good scripts by good writers. It was escapism it was entertainment."Even with his success in the business, Hardin said he wasn't an actor."I never tried to act," he said. "Gary Cooper once told me that none of us, himself included, could act. We just had to be ourselves and it worked." Actor Peter Brown, who spent four years playing Deputy Johnny McKay on "Lawman", another Warner Brothers' western starring John Russell, also feels the absence of the television western."I really miss them in the pure form," said Brown, whose first film had him being knocked over a hitching post by a then unknown Charles Bronson. "It is my favorite genre, by a long shot and I really had my heart in them."Brown, who also starred in the late-60s western, "Loredo," with Neville Brand and William Smith, who is hosting the festival, said he is looking forward to the weekend and seeing old friends."Bill (Smith) and I had a blast on "Loredo", and Ty and I were just kids at Warners," Brown said. "I can't wait to see them again."Smith, won an Emmy Award for a non-western role in "Rich Man, Poor Man," but says that the western has always been No. 1 in his heart."I was born on a cattle ranch in Missouri and grew up training horses for Jock Mahoney (Stuntman and actor of the 40s and 50s and actress Sally Field's step-father) and I loved the lifestyle," Smith said.At age 71, Smith still rides and is a daily visitor to a gym."I like to stay in shape," he said.After playing Joe Riley on "Loredo" for three seasons, Smith found a whole new career playing "heavies.""I was in a Clint Eastwood movie back in the 80s and really liked playing bad guys," Smith said.Another actor who found his way into movies playing bad guys, was Don Stroud."I grew up a surfer in Hawaii and when Warner Brothers was shooting the series "Hawaiian Eye" in the early 60s, I was asked to double the surfing scenes for one of the stars Troy Donahue," Stroud said.While not a cowboy actor in the traditional sense, Stroud has appeared as a villain in quite a few westerns for both TV and the big screen, most notably "Joe Kid" with Clint Eastwood."I also did "Loredo" with Bill and Peter and appeared in a "Gunsmoke" episode.Stroud said that he loved playing killers, but probably his most notable role was that of one of the "Crickets" in the "Buddy Holly Story.""We played live and Gary (Bussey) did all the singing," he said.While Stroud was a late comer to westerns, actress Donna Martell started in the 1940s, with her first part in a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans feature "Apache Rose" for Republic Pictures.Martell's next role was opposite Gilbert Roland in "Robin Hood of Monterey" and, although she went on to appear in 200 films like "Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff" and "Love is a many Splendored Thing" with Jennifer Jones, Martell has always favored the westerns."They were such good clean fun," Martell said. "You had good guys, bad guys and the good guys always won."Martell became a victim of Hollywood typecasting, playing primarily Hispanics."The amazing thing is, I was born and raised in L.A. and I'm 100 percent Italian, but it kept me working," said Martell, who also appeared on television in "Tales of Wells Fargo," "The Range Rider" and "Bonanza.""I did them all," Martell said proudly.Martell said that she enjoyed those days and that, because accountants and lawyers are now in charge, they could never happen again."They used to groom people to be stars. Now adays, you have this "reality television" and that just takes jobs away from actors and writers," Martell said.Dan Haggerty may not be a typical cowboy star, but he is probably the most recognized by the younger generation for his role in "Grizzly Adams.""I didn't want to be an actor," Haggerty said. "I was an animal trainer and got paid $300 to recreate a live capture for film. That's how it started."Haggerty, whose Godfather was actor Robert Mitchum, was at one time a bodyguard for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin and was persuaded to do a movie based on the life of mountain man James Adams, with a budget of only $185,000."The movie made about $480 million. The bear got paid more than I did," Haggerty joked. "From there, they made the series."As for what all the stars are up to now, Haggerty still works as an actor and doing animation voice-overs "I love doing cartoons.", Hardin tends his apple orchard in Washington state and is working on a screenplay, "It's semi-autobiographical."Brown still works and said he's just finished a movie.Stroud is retired from acting and teaches Tai Chi in Manhattan Beach, Calif., "I live in a great house, am happily married and get to surf."And Martell lives quietly in Southern California "I really feel lucky that I got to act in those days and work with such legends," she said.While there will be appearances by the stars at the Ponderosa on both Saturday and Sunday, they will also make appearances at the Corley Ranch in Gardnerville for a barbecue, starting at 4 p.m. and at the Grill at Quail Corners in Reno, where Van Gogh Vodka will present "Martini Madness", a benefit for The American Cancer Society.

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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jun 17, 2004 04:49PM Published Jun 11, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.