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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.