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Charles Starrett

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Charles Starrett
Starrett in 1940
Charles Robert Starrett

(1903-03-28)March 28, 1903
DiedMarch 22, 1986(1986-03-22) (aged 82)
Alma materDartmouth College
Years active1926–1952
Mary McKinnon
(m. 1927)

Charles Robert Starrett (March 28, 1903 – March 22, 1986[1]) was an American actor, best known for his starring role in the Durango Kid westerns. Starrett still holds the record for starring in the longest series of theatrical features: 131 westerns, all produced by Columbia Pictures.

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  • Make a Million (1935) | Comedy | Charles Starrett, Pauline Brooks, George E. Stone
  • Durango Kid in HD, Blazing Across the Pecos 1948


Early years

Starrett was born in Athol, Massachusetts, where his grandfather had built a prosperous tool works. He attended Worcester Academy, then graduated from Dartmouth College.[2]


A graduate of Worcester Academy in 1922, Starrett went on to study at Dartmouth College.[3] While on the Dartmouth football team he was hired to play a football extra in the film The Quarterback (1926). Bitten by the acting bug, Starrett played minor roles in films and leading roles in stage plays. In 1928, he was a member of the Walker Company, a repertory theatre troupe headed by Stuart Walker.[4]

He played the romantic lead in his first movie, Fast and Loose (1930), which starred Frank Morgan, Miriam Hopkins, and Carole Lombard. Starrett starred in the Canadian production The Viking (1931), a rugged outdoor adventure filmed on location in Newfoundland, which had begun as a Paramount Pictures project.[5]

L-R: Eddie Borden, Clarence Geldart, Charles Starrett, and Anita Page in Jungle Bride (1933)

Starrett was very active for the next two years, playing juvenile leads for both major and minor studios. He was featured in Our Betters (1933), Murder on the Campus (1933), and as a young doctor named Orion in "Along Came Love", opposite Irene Hervey. Of Starrett's early character appearances, today's viewers may be most familiar with the Will Rogers picture Mr. Skitch (1933), featuring Starrett as the romantic lead.

Offscreen, Charles Starrett helped organize the Screen Actors Guild. He held membership card #10.

Cowboy star

In 1935, Columbia Pictures wanted to replace its incumbent western star Tim McCoy with a younger actor. Starrett heard about this and interviewed with Columbia producers. Starrett recalled that studio chief Harry Cohn was indifferent, caring about only one thing: "Can he ride a horse?" Starrett could, and got the job. His first western was Gallant Defender (1935).[6] Starrett ultimately signed four contracts with Columbia, becoming the studio's number-one cowboy star. He cast an appealing figure with his tall stature (6' 2"), strong jawline, confident voice, and air of quiet authority.

Starrett hadn't planned on making an entire career out of westerns, and agreed to make them for two years, with the understanding that his bosses would then cast him in plainclothes roles. When they didn't, he walked out on his contract after the two years. "I sat out the waltz one year, thinking I'd like to make a change from westerns. That waltz cost me $60,000 [the dollar value of his original agreement]. But you know when you're raising a family -- I had two young boys, twins -- you can't always do what you want to do... And I think an actor's life is very much like an athlete's. It's youth. You've got to make it while you can. So after that year, I went back and went along with it."[7] Theater exhibitors around the world were attracting big crowds with Charles Starrett westerns, so Columbia gave him a new contract with the actor insisting on appearing in a non-western. He finally got his chance—once—in 1937, for the collegiate musical comedy Start Cheering (released 1938). In a curious reflection of his own situation, Starrett played a disenchanted movie hero who wanted to do something different with his life. But Starrett's success in westerns established him firmly in outdoor fare and sealed his fate professionally. For the rest of his career he made Columbia westerns exclusively.

The musical westerns of Gene Autry inspired every Hollywood studio to have its cowboy personalities use their musical talents—but not Charles Starrett. He could carry a tune but left the songs to professional vocalists (his vocals in Start Cheering were dubbed by Robert Paige). Columbia solved the problem by hiring an entire singing group to support Starrett: the Sons of the Pioneers.

Charles Starrett made two dozen westerns under his new contract, and they tend to resemble each other because the production unit was very close-knit. The same company of technicians and players worked in film after film: almost always Iris Meredith as the leading lady, Dick Curtis as the villain, Hank Bell as the sidekick, Edward LeSaint as the senior character of father, rancher, marshal, etc., and the Sons of the Pioneers as the chorus. Very occasionally, Columbia reassigned Meredith to other productions, so various contract starlets took the ingenue roles, among them Lorna Gray and Ann Doran.[8]

When Starrett's new contract lapsed in July 1940,[9] he withdrew from westerns[10] and Columbia disbanded the unit. Iris Meredith left the studio,[11] and the Sons of the Pioneers moved to Republic Pictures, where they reunited with their former lead singer Roy Rogers.

Again, exhibitors petitioned Columbia for more Charles Starrett westerns, so the studio came through with a new contract at an increased salary. Starrett finally accepted his permanent cowboy status, and returned to Columbia in March 1941 as "The Medico": Steven Monroe, cowboy doctor.[12]

The Medico series lapsed after only three features. Columbia then added former Hopalong Cassidy co-star Russell Hayden and comedian-musician Cliff Edwards to the Starrett company, following the "trigger trio" format popular at the time: three name stars in a western series, like The Three Mesquiteers, The Rough Riders, and The Range Busters. Hayden and Edwards were featured alongside Starrett during the 1941-42 season. Columbia gave Hayden his own starring series in 1942; Edwards left Columbia for RKO to work with Tim Holt.

The Durango Kid

After playing assorted rancher, ranger, and sheriff roles, Charles Starrett was cast as The Durango Kid in 1940. The character was an upright citizen known and liked by the townsfolk, but he masqueraded as a notorious, black-garbed horseman to terrorize the local criminals and foil their plans. The film was successful but not much different from some of Starrett's earlier good guy-chasing-bad-guy roles.

The character was revived five years later in The Return of the Durango Kid, which caught on very quickly. Starrett played an amiable cowpoke named Steve (the last name varied but he was always Steve to his friends), who would become angered by an injustice and go after the villains as the mysterious, elusive Durango Kid. Steve's paint horse was named "Bullet" and Durango's white horse was "Raider." A follow-up film was made, and then a series. One favorite device became a signature: the masked Durango Kid suddenly materializing like Superman, always catching the villains by surprise. The Durango Kid rejuvenated Charles Starrett's career, winning him a new generation of loyal fans, a new five-year contract, and even a comic-book adaptation, Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid (1949-1955), published by Magazine Enterprises.[13] The film series was also a useful training ground for novice actresses and fashion models, who would be signed to six-month contracts and cast as cowgirls in Starrett westerns.

Dub Taylor, as comic sidekick "Cannonball", worked with Starrett until 1946. At that time, Smiley Burnette, who had been a very popular sidekick to Gene Autry, was brought in to replace Taylor. Burnette, appropriately enough, played a character called "Smiley Burnette." The Durango Kid films combined vigorous action sequences—often with spectacular stunts performed by Ted Mapes and later Jock Mahoney—and western music. Each film featured musical specialties by Burnette, and by a guest artist or group from records or radio.

By 1949, the series faced a challenge. Production costs kept rising, but the financial return was limited. So Columbia resorted to shooting less new material, and borrowing scenes from older Durango Kid pictures to coax the running time up to the usual length. Columbia was starting to use this same recycling gambit in its adventure serials and Three Stooges comedies. Sometimes the scripting and editing were very clever, most memorably in Cyclone Fury (1951), in which footage from four older Starrett westerns is worked into the plot. The final Durango Kid feature was The Kid from Broken Gun (1952), with the new footage set in a courtroom and the old footage illustrating the testimony of the various characters.

Charles Starrett retired at age 48, when his last Columbia contract lapsed.[14] As Starrett had once taken over Columbia's westerns from Tim McCoy, Jock Mahoney took over the reins from Starrett, co-starring with Smiley Burnette in a new series. The pilot feature was completed but never released,[15] so Columbia's long history of B westerns ended with Charles Starrett. Columbia serviced the still-strong demand for Starrett by reissuing his 1937-1940 westerns with the Sons of the Pioneers. These proved just as popular as the Durango series, and Columbia kept dozens of the Starrett features in theaters for several years.

Later years

Although his agent, Sam Jaffe, tried to interest movie and TV producers in hiring Starrett, the actor no longer needed or wanted a show-business career; he was independently wealthy from wise investments and his family fortune. In retirement he traveled widely with his wife, favoring tropical islands.

NBC-TV brought the Charles Starrett westerns to network television in 1956, under the program title Cowboy Theater. Starrett himself was approached to host the program, and he liked the idea but disapproved of the logistics: he would have to appear live in the studio every Saturday afternoon, and the studio was in New York City. Starrett, long established as a California resident, was understandably reluctant to commute across the country every week, and asked if his segments could be filmed in California. The network said no, because the show was to be broadcast live from New York, along the lines of NBC's popular Howdy Doody show under the same producer, Bob Rippen. Cowboy Theater went on with another host, Monty Hall, then a new face on American television.[16] Cowboy Theater premiered on Saturday, September 15, 1956, at 12 noon Eastern time, and the first episode was a slightly edited version of Starrett's first Columbia feature, Gallant Defender (1935). The Starrett series ran for almost seven months, through March 9, 1957. Later that year, NBC revived Cowboy Theater as a Sunday-evening summertime series. This edition of the show did without a live host, presenting only the films; some of them were the 1941-42 theatrical series starring Charles Starrett and featuring Russell Hayden and Cliff Edwards. The revived Cowboy Theater ran from June 30 to September 15, 1957, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time.[17]

Charles Starrett's fans never forgot him, and corresponded with him in later years. Starrett was pleased by the interest and made guest appearances at a few film conventions and revivals. Starrett died of cancer in Borrego Springs, California, in 1986, six days short of his 83rd birthday.

Selected filmography


  1. ^ Rainho, Manny (March 2015). "This Month in Movie History". Classic Images (477): 28.
  2. ^ Marks, Michele (December 21, 1986). "Ask Michele". Santa Cruz Sentinel. California, Santa Cruz. p. 201. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via open access
  3. ^ "(untitled brief)". The San Bernardino County Sun. California, San Bernardino. July 6, 1930. p. 6. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via open access
  4. ^ "Walker Company Opening". The Indianapolis News. Indiana, Indianapolis. April 28, 1928. p. 9. Retrieved June 6, 2016 – via open access
  5. ^ Wyatt, Tom and Greenland, David. "B Western Cowboys: Part I", Classic Images. September 2022
  6. ^ Loy, R. Philip (2001). Westerns and American Culture, 1930-1955. McFarland. p. 21. ISBN 9780786481156. Retrieved June 7, 2016.
  7. ^ Charles Starrett to James Horwitz, They Went Thataway, E. P. Dutton, 1976, p. 208.
  8. ^ Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Film 0786420286 Boyd Magers, Michael G. Fitzgerald - 2004 "Asked about Rio Grande (1938), her starring lead opposite Charles Starrett, Ann matter-of-factly states, "It was just another job. Nothing unpleasant happened on it — but then nothing pleasant did, either. Charles Starrett was very tall and good-looking, we got along just fine."
  9. ^ Hollywood Reporter, "Starrett Leaves Col.," July 22, 1940, p. 2.
  10. ^ New York Times, August 5, 1940, p. 10.
  11. ^ Hollywood Reporter, "Meredith Leaving Col.," July 12, 1940, p. 4.
  12. ^ Hollywood Reporter, "Bill Berke at Col., Starrett Returns," March 17, 1941, p. 7.
  13. ^ Nevins, Jess (2013). Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes. High Rock Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-1-61318-023-5.
  14. ^ Variety, "Starrett Rides Away from Col and Durango", April 9, 1952, p. 29.
  15. ^ Ivan Spear, Boxoffice, "Columbia Not to Produce Jack Mahoney Westerns," June 7, 1952, p. 24.
  16. ^ NBC Trade News, "'Cowboy Theater,' with Monty Hall as Host, to Be Saturday Daytime Feature on NBC-TV," August 24, 1956.
  17. ^ NBC Television News, "'Cowboy Theater' Returns to NBC Television Sunday, June 9" May 29, 1957.

Further reading

  • Horwitz, James, They Went Thataway (1976, E. P. Dutton; 1978, Ballantine Books) (Interview with Charles Starrett)

External links

This page was last edited on 7 September 2023, at 12:25
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