Robert Fuller still considers a 2008 invitation to Oklahoma the biggest honor of his professional career.
"That’s when I was inducted into the cowboy Hall of Fame, something I never dreamt would happen," said Fuller, referring to what is now known as the Hall of Great Western Performers in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
"I’m up on the wall with greats like Gary Cooper," he noted with a sense of pride, and a touch of irony.
Fuller had worked as an extra in a dozen films before securing his first speaking part in 1956’s "Friendly Persuasion" — alongside Gary Cooper!
Retired from acting since 2004, Fuller moved to Gainesville, Tex., with his actress wife Jennifer Savidge. "I wanted to get out of Hollywood and enjoy the rest of my life. Texans are great people and I’m proud to be one of them now."
When not fishing his two ponds, or hunting and horseback riding on his ranch, Fuller travels the country attending western heritage festivals.
He will be appearing at the Spirit of the Cowboy Festival in McKinney, Tex., on Sept 12-14 (see www.spiritofthecowboy.net for events).
"This is the third year and it keeps getting bigger," said Fuller of the festival. "All my cowboy buddies — Alex Cord, Jim Drury, Burt Gilliam, Bo Hopkins, and many more — will be there."
Fuller’s Hollywood career extended over 50 years and he was a popular ’60s TV cowboy in "Laramie" and "Wagon Train." In the ’70s, he traded his lasso for a suture as Dr. Kelly Brackett in "Emergency" (see www.robertfuller.info).
But one of his early uncredited roles was in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) where, as a chorus boy, he danced alongside Marilyn Monroe in her iconic "Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend" number.
"She was such a sweetheart and really just a child," recalled Fuller. "She was actually very nervous, but great with all the dancers. I know some directors found her hard to work with, but she was fun with us. We rehearsed that number for three weeks and it took a week to shoot."
With his rugged good looks, Fuller soon found his calling in westerns and the genre’s simple message of good trumping evil that resonated with audiences of the day.
In "Wagon Train," Fuller starred in the final two seasons.
"Riding the wagon trains was rough!" recalled Fuller. "The wagons used on the show were exactly the same as the originals. They didn’t have padded seats, so you bounced real hard as they creaked and cracked. I can’t imagine how the pioneers rode thousands of miles across the country in them!"
The popularity of TV westerns peaked in the late ’50s with more than two dozen primetime offerings. But the era was doomed as audience demographics shifted in the ’60s when interest in crime dramas, sci-fi series, and comedies exploded.
Fuller says politicians, Parent Teacher Associations, and political correctness killed the TV western for good.
"The PTA came out very hard against cowboys wearing guns, shooting and violence," he recalled. "They complained to [Senator] Teddy Kennedy who went to the FCC and they started cutting the shooting and fights out of our scripts. Pretty soon, cowboys were carrying purses instead of guns! TV westerns are now part of entertainment history and they’ll never come back."
While the shows may be gone — or at least survive in cable reruns and on DVDs — stars like Fuller keep the "code of the West" alive at events such as the Spirit of the Cowboy Festival by sharing memories with devoted followers.
"I have a great fan following and know many of them personally," said Fuller, who turned 81 in July. "They come to almost every festival where I appear, including one woman who flies over from Japan! "Laramie" was the number one show on Japanese television for years because they considered my character, Jess Harper, to be like a Samurai."
That character, like many western heroes, was a champion of justice who stood up for the underdog.
"I still get mail from people telling me they patterned their way of life after that character," notes Fuller. "Actors and TV shows can affect people and thankfully in a positive way."
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.