Denver Pyle: Oil Was Just His Side Business

This month we are getting up close and personal with some of our favorite television stars. Today we are getting to know one of the most prolific actors to appear on classic television: Denver Pyle. Denver amassed acting credits for 263 different television series and movies during a fifty-year career.

Photo: Facebook.com

Denver was born Denver Dell Pyle in 1920 in Colorado, but not in Denver, in Bethune. His father was a farmer. His brother Willis became an animator who worked at the Walt Disney Animation Studios and UPA. Also, an interesting note is that Ernie Pyle, the famous journalist and war correspondent, was his cousin.

Photo: reddit.com

After his high school graduation, Pyle enrolled at Colorado State University but dropped out to pursue a show business career. He was a drummer for a band and then bounced around in different jobs including working in the oil fields, working shrimp boats in Texas, and as an NBC page. When WWII began, he joined the Merchant Marine. He was injured in the battle of Guadalcanal and received a medical discharge. Following his stint in the war, Pyle worked as a riveter at a Los Angeles aircraft plant. While there, he was spotted by a talent scout in an amateur theater production. Pyle decided he wanted a career in the entertainment business and trained under Maria Ouspenskaya and Michael Chekhov.

His first movie roles occurred in 1947 in The Guilt of Janet Ames and Devil Ship. He would continue polishing his film career for the next fifty years, with his last big-screen feature being Maverick in 1994.

When he was filming The Alamo with John Wayne in 1960, Wayne realized Pyle had an eye for photography. He made arrangements with the PR office to hire Pyle as the official set photographer for the film.

Photo: ladylavinia’s1932blog.wordpress.com

He received his first television role in 1951 in The Cisco Kid. He gravitated toward westerns and in the fifties would appear in many of them including Roy Rogers, Gunsmoke, The Range Rider, Hopalong Cassidy, Annie Oakley, The Gene Autry Show, The Adventures of Kit Carson, The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, and The Tales of West Fargo.

In 1955, Pyle married Marilee Carpenter. They had two children and divorced in 1970.

The sixties still provided many roles in westerns (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Death Valley Days among others), but he also began appearing on dramas and sitcoms: to name a few, Route 66, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dr. Kildare, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Gomer Pyle USMC.

On Dick Van Dyke Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In many of these shows, he returned nine or ten times to guest star in episodes. During the run of Perry Mason, Pyle would play a victim, a defendant, and a murderer on the show.

He received the first recurring roles of his career during this era on sitcoms. On Tammy, he played Grandpa Tarleton in 1965-66, and from 1963-66, he portrayed Briscoe Darling on The Andy Griffith Show. He only appeared in Mayberry six times but left a lasting impression on fans.

After playing Briscoe, Pyle invested in oil, buying oil wells thought to be near the end of their production. In the eighties, technology allowed the wells to produce more oil; Pyle made much more from oil than he did acting. However, he continued his career because he said, “I look at it this way, acting provides the cash flow I need for oil speculation, and besides that, I like acting. It’s fun.”

Doris Day Show Photo: thrillingdaysofyesteryear.com

His career did not slow down too much throughout the seventies and eighties. In the seventies, you could watch him in The Waltons, Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, and Barnaby Jones. The eighties featured him in The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, Dallas, and LA Law.

During this time, he also received three other regular cast roles. From 1968-1970, he played Doris Day’s father in The Doris Day Show. From 1977-78. He was Mad Jack in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, and in 1979-85, he took on Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazard. In fact, his last acting credit was for a made-for-tv movie where he once again portrayed Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard Reunion! in 1997.

Dukes of Hazzard Photo: twitter.com

In 1991, Pyle married a second time. He wed Tippie Johnston and they remained married until his death. The couple did a lot of fundraising for charity including Special Olympics and Denver Pyle’s Children’s Charities. In addition, Pyle sponsored Uncle Jesse’s Fishing Tournament in Texas. For the ten years, he ran it, it raised more than $160,000 to support children’s needs.

In 1997, Pyle died on Christmas from lung cancer.

If you watch reruns from any decade of classic television, you will be very familiar with Denver Pyle. Although he was part of the cast in five very popular shows, it would have been fun to see him get the starring role in a show. It’s amazing to realize how many shows he was a part of. Considering he was in the television business for forty years and for almost fifteen of those years, he was busy being part of the cast of a weekly show, that left 25 years to amass 250 other series that he found time to appear on; that is almost one a month for 25 years—very impressive.

Mel Tormé Jazzed Up a Few TV Scripts

76 Mel torme ideas | music, great american songbook, jazz
Photo: pinterest.com

We are in the midst of our blog series about unique television writers. If I mention the name Mel Tormé to you, you probably think exceptional musician, composer, and singer. You might specifically mention “The Christmas Song” which he composed the music and cowrote the lyrics for. (His cowriter was Bob Wells.)

If I say think writing, you might be able to recall that he wrote several musical biographies including Traps- The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich, The Other Side of the Rainbow: Behind the Scenes on the Judy Garland Television Series, or My Singing Teachers. You might have even read his autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet or Wynner, a novel he wrote in 1978.

However, I’m guessing most of you don’t realize that he also tried his hand at writing scripts for television.

Melvin Tormé was born in Chicago in 1925. He was a child prodigy and first performed professionally at age 4 with the Coon Sanders Orchestra, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” at a local restaurant.

He played drums in the drum and bugle corps of his grade school, Shakespeare Elementary. From 1933-1941 he had roles in several radio programs including “The Romance of Helen Trent” and “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.” He wrote his first song at age 13. At age 16, his song, “Lament to Love” was a hit for Harry James.

Mel Torme & The Mel-Tones at Singers.com - Vocal Harmony A Cappella Group
The Mel-Tones Photo: singers.com

Tormé graduated from Hyde Park High School. Shortly after, he was a singer and drummer with a band led by Chico Marx from 1942-1943. In 1944, he formed Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones.

Tormé took his stint in the Army, and when he was discharged in 1946, he returned to the entertainment business. He was nicknamed “The Velvet Frog” by DJ Fred Robbins when he sang at the Copacabana. He always hated the nickname.

During the fifties, he had a radio program, “Mel Tormé Time,” and he recorded a variety of albums. He primarily performed jazz but he loved classical music as well, preferring Delius and Grainger. He wrote more than 250 songs. In the sixties, he strayed into pop music.

Mel had his first television appearance as an actor in 1960 on Dan Raven. He showed up on a few different series including The Lucy Show. In the 1980s, he made nine appearances on Night Court and found a new generation of fans.

Mel Torme & Harry Anderson, Night Court (1991) | Movie stars, Harry  anderson, Singer
On Night Court Photo: pinterest.com

During his career, he tried marriage four times, but the first three ended in divorce. In 1996 he suffered from a stroke that ended his musical career. Three years later, he passed away.

No doubt, he had a full and successful career. He had a multitude of skills he experimented with during his professional life. I would like to spend some time looking at part of his career that is not well known. He did help with the writing for a brief time when The Judy Garland Show was on the air. In the late sixties he continued writing for the small screen.

In 1967, Mel wrote his first television script. His first successful episode was for the 1967 show Run for Your Life. It’s not a well-remembered show, but it aired from 1965-1968. It was about a successful lawyer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) who learns he is terminally ill with two years to live. He decides to accomplish everything on his bucket list, and each week he talks about the people he meets and the places he visits.

The Frozen Image
The Frozen Image Photo: run4.us

Mel not only wrote the script for “The Frozen Image,” but he starred in the episode as well. The premise is that a married Las Vegas singer (Diana Burke) who doesn’t want to get old, hires Paul as her manager.

He must have enjoyed it because the next year, he wrote a script for The Virginian called “The Handy Man.” The long-running show was on the air from 1962-1971 and was set in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In this episode, a legal fight over a strip of land between the Shiloh and Bowden ranch turns nasty. The Bowdens think Shiloh has hired a gunfighter who turns out to be a handyman.

The Virginian" The Handy Man (TV Episode 1968) - IMDb
The Handyman Photo: imdb.com

In 1974, Tormé scripted another story, this time for Mannix. From 1967-1975, Mannix solved a variety of cases. Originally working for a company, he starts his own business with secretary/friend Peggy Fair, whose husband, a policeman, had been killed. They also work with a police department contact, Tobias. Mel’s story, “Portrait in Blues,” features a couple of musicians, one of whom is almost electrocuted while performing.

Mannix" Portrait in Blues (TV Episode 1974) - IMDb
Portrait in Blues Photo: imdb.com

The last television project Mel worked on as a writer was a made-for-television movie called The Christmas Songs in 1979. With cowriter Thomas V. Grasso, Mel penned the script and starred in the movie with Richard Basehart, Billy Davis, Jr., Jo Ann Greer, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, Rich Little, Marilyn McCoo, Maureen McGovern, Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and George Shearing. I could not find much about this movie, so if anyone remembers watching it or knows anything more about it, please let me know.

With all the success that he had in the music industry, I was amazed to learn Mel wrote for television. I stumbled across it by accident when I was researching Mannix and decided to learn a little more about his writing career. I could not find any other information about his writing career. I did reach out to his son Steve March-Tormé . He said that he had not realized that his father wrote television scripts but said, “I’m not surprised. He tried his hand at a lot of areas of the business and was almost always very successful at them. Very bright guy.” Steve’s stepfather, Hal March, was another celebrated television writer and star. (For more about Steve March-Tormé , see his website, stevemarchtorme.com.)

It’s been a lot of fun to learn more about Mel Tormé’s television writing career. As someone who only knew him for his musical skills, it was fun to see another side of the performer. As someone who has always thought it would be fun to write for a sitcom, kudos to him for trying something new and succeeding. Hopefully, he is an inspiration to some of us who think we have to settle for the space we are in now to reach out and try something entirely different–and to remember that the success is in the trying.