Those of you who have followed me a long time know that GUNSMOKE and MAVERICK have had a major influence on not just my writing but also my life. There are a few others, namely HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL and WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, but there is yet another . . .
RAWHIDE is one of the best written western TV shows in history. It's not my favorite, but I have to admit that a lot more writing went into these episodes than any other show, at least in the first five seasons. After that, things went downhill, even though there were still great episodes.
That's not what I'm here to talk about, though. I want to discuss the unsung hero of RAWHIDE: Eric Fleming.
Most of you know me from my horror writing, so I'm pretty sure you'll mostly recognize Fleming from his work in a movie called CURSE OF THE UNDEAD. It was one of the very first Weird Western movies EVER. It was shit. I'm sorry, but it was. Yet it was the first outing of one of my favorite sub-genres.
To those of you with longer memories, you'll remember Fleming as the star of RAWHIDE. He played Gil Favor, trail boss. Clint Eastwood was equally billed, but let's face it. He was second fiddle to Fleming, the real star of the show for seven seasons.
Again, that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Fleming, not Favor.
I knew he'd had a shitty life, but I didn't realize how shitty it was until I read the recent history of RAWHIDE by David R. Greenland. But before I get into that, let me give you my impression of Fleming as Favor.
When I was a kid, I hated him. I always sided with other drovers because I thought he was being unfair. He's the boss, and fuck him. But . . . watching the series as an adult, I understand him a lot more. Yes, he was stern, but he had very good reason to be. If he couldn't get these crazy drovers into line, he would never succeed at getting these steers to market. As an adult who wants to succeed at things, I totally get that. Fleming had the right stuff when it came to portraying a firm leader. He had a human side, but he didn't tolerate disobedience. He was fair, but he didn't let shit go. You had to do what he commanded, or you were out. Fair enough.
Fleming was an unlucky son of a bitch. Seriously. You'd think a TV star was in a good position, but he wasn't. Let me explain.
I was an abused child. You know that. I've also surrounded myself with people who were abused children. You probably also know that. However, Fleming was so abused that there's only one person I know who had it worse: Robert Tannahill, my partner on THE COCAINE! BROS. Rob had it rough, worse than anyone I know which is why I give him a lot more latitude than I'd give anyone else. I love him as I've loved no other male human being in my life. We've had our rough patches, but, well, you get it.
I don't know what Rob would be OK with me talking about, so I'll skip it. Instead, I'll talk about what Fleming had to go through. Fleming, who was born as Edward Heddy Jr., was once beaten by his father so bad it kept him in bed for a few days. Young Fleming got stuck with a bone disease when he was a kid, and his father didn't visit him in all the six months he was in the hospital. However, when Fleming came home, his old man had no problem beating the shit out of him, even though he needed crutches to get around. Could you imagine beating the daylights out of a kid who got around on crutches? Me, neither.
Fleming's dad was such a cunt that Fleming tried to shoot him once when he was nine. According to Greenland, the gun jammed. He doesn't explain the momentous beating Fleming must have gotten due to this attempt. I know my stepfather would have at least cut my balls off for something like that. Regardless, Fleming hopped a train to get away from his family and wound up in Chicago, working for gangsters during Prohibition. The poor kid wound up getting shot for his troubles, and the authorities decided to return him to his father. This happened AT THE AGE OF 11.
Luckily for him, the cops saw how afraid he was of his old man and left him with his mother instead.
Six years later, he ran away from his life of poverty to join the Navy. It was during this time that he wound up getting terribly injured in an accident. Two hundred pounds of steel fell on Fleming's face, completely destroying it. I'm surprised he survived such an accident. It took four plastic surgeries to reconstruct his face, including an eye he thought he was going to lose. From all accounts, he was ugly before, but this actually made him look better. Hollywood better.
Did I mention that he had a club foot that he had to wear a brace for? That would probably explain his life of going barefoot, since shoes tended to fuck with him pretty badly.
He gave acting a shot and got reasonably good success at that. However, I think he would have been happier being a writer. Whenever he wasn't in front of the camera, he was reading a book, which understandably put off other actors on RAWHIDE. Clint Eastwood was wrestling with the other actors--literally--and pulling pranks and generally having a good time, but Fleming was too busy reading. He wrote a couple of episodes of the show.
Fleming clashed with the supposedly creative forces of RAWHIDE often, but it wasn't for his own betterment. It was for all actors. At one point, he made some labor deals which benefited everyone on the cast.
He hated working in front of the camera. He wanted to write novels, and he was planning on doing just that. He had a few contracts to work through, and then he could retire to the home he'd built on RAWHIDE money. All he had to do was get through one last movie role, which he'd scored after being fired from the show that had made him a big name.
(Wrongly, by the way. Even Clint Eastwood, who had publicly feuded with Fleming many times, said that the network was making the wrong choice by firing Fleming and promoting Eastwood to the star of the show. It should be noted that Fleming was approached by Sergio Leone, who wanted an American actor for FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first great spaghetti western to ever be made. Fleming, along with other American actors, turned Leone down. However, unlike others, Fleming suggested that Leone might want Eastwood for the role. As all of you know, even my non-horror fans reading this now, Eastwood accepted the deal and became an international star because of his involvement with Leone. (For $15,000, no less!) Because of this moment, we have Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood. Instead of getting Eric Fleming as the Man With No Name--who really did have a name, by the way--we got Clint Eastwood, who really was the best choice. However, Eastwood wanted to get out of his CBS contract for RAWHIDE in order to make movies, which is why he suggested that CBS should fire him instead of Fleming. It didn't work out that way.)
Which brings us to the final moment in Eric Fleming's life. You'd think that a guy who suffered as badly as he did would get some sort of reward, right?
According to Charles Marquis Warren, the creator of RAWHIDE, Fleming was "a miserable human being." Greenland goes so far as to say that Fleming agreed with this assessment, calling himself "bitter" and "twisted."
Shortly after being fired from RAWHIDE, Fleming got a job for a movie being filmed in South America. He was filming a scene that should have probably been performed by a stunt man when his boat capsized, and he was dragged down by the undertow.
It is irrefutable that Eric Fleming was devoured by piranha. However, no one knows if he drowned first or was eaten alive.
I desperately hope that he drowned first, but from all accounts, he was very athletic. He was an able swimmer.
I personally think the piranha killed him.
I hope for his sake that I'm not right. I can't stand the idea of someone like him, abused from his earliest moments on this planet, dying in such a hard way.
He was forty-one and the first RAWHIDE actor to die.
I feel a great deal of kinship toward him. I hope his passage from this world wasn't as hard as I think it was.
But I know his luck was shit. From what I could tell . . . I can't say it.
If there's an afterlife--and I highly doubt there is--I hope Eric Fleming has found some kind of reward there.