Dale Robertson: Tales of Wells Fargo, Dies at Age 90
Dale Robertson, best known for playing the role of Jim Hardie in the TV series, Tales of Wells Fargo, and the owner of an incomplete railroad line in ABC’s The Iron Horse, often appearing as the deceptively thoughtful but modest western hero, died this morning, February 26, 2013. Robertson was 90.
Robertson began his acting career by chance during World War II, when he was in the United States Army. Stationed at San Luis Obispo, California, Robertson decided to have a photograph taken for his mother; so he and several other soldiers went to Hollywood to find a photographer. A large copy of his photo was later displayed in the photographer’s shop window. Eventually serving in the South Pacific, he found himself receiving letters from film agents who wished to represent him. After the war, Robertson stayed in California. Hollywood actor Will Rogers, Jr., gave him this advice: “Don’t ever take a dramatic lesson. They will try to put your voice in a dinner jacket, and people like their hominy and grits in everyday clothes.” Robertson thereafter avoided formal acting lessons.
For most of his career, Robertson played in Western movies and TV shows. His best remembered series were the NBC series Tales of Wells Fargo, later moved to ABC, in which he played a roving company ‘trouble-shooter’ named “Jim Hardie”, and ABC’s The Iron Horse, in which his character won an incomplete railroad line in a poker game and took the challenge of running it. He appeared in 63 films. In its March 30, 1959, cover story on TV westerns, Time magazine reported Robertson was 6 feet tall, weighed 180 pounds, and measured 42-34-34. He sometimes made use of his physique in “beefcake” scenes, such as one in 1952’s Return of the Texan where he is seen bare-chested and sweaty, repairing a fence.
In 1960, Robertson guest starred on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. In 1962, he similarly appeared on a short-lived western comedy and variety series, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show on ABC. He co-hosted Death Valley Days during the 1960s and played the lead role in the first of A.C. Lyles’ second feature Westerns, Law of the Lawless.
From 1957 to 1962, he played the role of Agent Jim Hardie, shifting over its history from being mostly an agent helping Wells Fargo cope with bad guys to being the owner of a ranch near San Francisco who still does some agent work. Most of the episodes have since been commercially released on DVD. If Dale Robertson had come along about ten years earlier he would have been a great cowboy hero and Herbert J. Yates no doubt would have had him in his stable of western heroes. But he came along just as the B western was going out of business on the big screen and quite frankly he was a much better actor than some of the B cowboys. He did some serious B films, never quite getting stardom on the big screen, though some of the films were good.
When the series premiered on NBC Television in 1956, Fargo instantly rose to #3 in the ratings in its first season. When people think of Wells Fargo, images of rearing horses and blazing guns come to mind, and of course, the one and only Dale Robertson as Agent Jim Hardie, troubleshooter for the Wells Fargo stage coach line. Not a typical heartthrob, Robertson managed to portray a rough and tough lawman and a gentle and sympathetic soul at the same time, winning over both male and female viewers with each exciting half-hour episode (later expanding to an hour long and also in color). The Wells Fargo Stage Line played a heroic role in the history of the West, ferrying passengers and cargo from Missouri to California over a harsh and sometimes hostile land. In Tales of Wells Fargo, Agent Hardie faced weekly tests of will and character, as he protected the stage coaches from outlaws, bandits and Indian raiders, seeing them safely through their journey. Eacn week, a great line-up of guest stars joined Robertson on the road west, including some of the best actors in Hollywood. The list includes Chuck Connors, Lee Van Cleef, Michael Landon, Denver Pyle, Jack Elam and one of Steve McQueen’s first appearances on network TV.
On The Iron Horse (1966-1968), Robertson played Ben Calhoun who won the half-completed Buffalo Pass, Scalplock and Defiance Line railroad in a poker game and every week fought 1880s Indians, bankers and bad guys to complete the line. None of the episodes of The Iron Horse is available on DVD commercially but you can buy a box set from www.otrdvd.com.
Robertson created United Screen Arts in 1965 which released two of Robertson’s films The Man from Button Willow (1965) and One Eyed Soldiers (1966). The former of which was an animated movie. In 1869, Justin Eagle lives on his ranch called “The Eagle’s Nest” near the town of Button Willow, California. In addition to being a rancher, Juston is a trouble-shooter for the U. S. Government which calls for him to act as an undercover operative and thwart the forces of evil in the rapidly-growing West. He is sent to San Franciso to find missing U. S. Senaator Freeman, who has disappeared while fighting the efforts of Montgomery Blaine, a villain who has been, with the aid of his henchman, “The Whip,” forcing settlers to sell their land to him, not knowing that the land is in the path of a proposed railroad, from Utah, that will link the western United States to the East. Senator Freeman is the leader of an effort to veer the railroad southward to bypass Blaine’s land and, for his efforts, is kidnapped by Bliane’s henchmen and shanghaied from the San Francisco waterfront. Justin Eagle’s job is to find and return him safely. Robertson made a profit from his animated venture, but not a very large profit.
In 1981 he was in the original starring cast of ABC’s popular Dynasty, playing Walter Lankershim, a character who disappeared after the first season. In 1985 it was revealed in the storyline that the character had died off screen. In 1987, he starred as the title character on J.J. Starbuck.
In December 1993 and January 1994, Robertson appeared in two episodes of CBS’s comedy/western Harts of the West in the role of “Zeke Terrell”, the brother of series co-star Lloyd Bridges.
He received the Golden Boot Award in 1985, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is also in the Hall of Great Western Performers. He is an inductee in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Robertson was retired and lived on a ranch with his wife in Yukon, Oklahoma.