Now or never: Remembering ‘Rawhide’ star Eric Fleming
On September 28, 1966, Eric Fleming perished in a horrific canoe drowning accident in the remote jungles of Peru, South America. Best known for playing the hard as nails, secretly tender-hearted trail boss Gil Favor on the long-running CBS Western Rawhide — the 1959–1966 series made costar Clint Eastwood a household name — Fleming was actually the star in spite of what you see on all the 21st century DVD covers where Eastwood’s face is plastered everywhere to the detriment of his fellow actor.
Renowned Time magazine critic Richard Schickel had earlier fueled the injustice by disparaging Fleming’s acting chops in his 1996 biography of the Dirty Harry protagonist. If you are convinced that Fleming simply got lucky in nabbing the trail boss lead, his bravura three-dimensional portrait of a gutted, guilt-ridden Mr. Favor in “The Lost Herd” episode (aired October 16, 1964) from his final season on Rawhide will readily transform your opinion.
Before his much too premature death at age 41, Fleming appeared in the so bad it’s good cult classic Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor, The Glass Bottom Boat romantic comedy with Doris Day and Rod Taylor, as well as three well-received episodes of another perennial favorite Western series, Bonanza.
For the Cartwright horse opera, perhaps the best Fleming performance is his first appearance as unhinged visiting sheriff Wes Dunn in the 1966 episode “Peace Officer,” strengthened by compelling scenes with Michael Landon (Little Joe Cartwright). Incidentally, the other Bonanza episode was “The Pursued,” a two-part story about a hard-working Morman family backed into a corner over frontier prejudice which aired less than a week after the cowboy star’s demise.
Below is a story reprinted from the Rawhide WS fansite. Fleming was in Peru filming an ABC TV movie entitled High Jungle. Since deceased costar Nico Minardos recounts the event that claimed his comrade’s life to a gentleman named Dean Gautschy only three weeks after the incident happened at Huallaga River. It’s a harrowing read.
Sunday, September 25
Nearly six weeks had passed since we entered the jungles. Those weeks had proved to be the most trying of any location I had ever been on. Deadly snakes, hordes of mosquitoes, ants two inches long and around the clock humidity that made it impossible to keep your close dry, were a constant menace. Perhaps the only thing that kept us going was the knowledge that the footage being shot by the company had never been done before and possible could never be duplicated because of the perilous conditions.
Our locations for “High Jungle” were in one of the most inaccessible regions of Peru. Actually the project was started eight months ago. I was signed first to play a Spaniard who, along with an American Army lieutenant, goes into uncharted jungles in the Amazon River region in search of a young American girl held captive by a tribe of Indians. The year was 1850. Eric has been living in semi-retirement in Hawaii, and it was the role of the other adventurer that was to mark his comeback in Hollywood. Anne Heywood, the British actress, was cast as an Englishwoman who teams up with us in order to search for her husband who had disappeared. We were all very excited over the project which was being filmed as part of the “Wizard of Oz Adventure Series” for ABC and to be released simultaneously as a feature by MGM. The network already was so high on the idea they were planning to use the show as a spin-off for a new TV series starring Eric and myself.
We were in Purallpa — had been for several days filming scenes at an Indian Village — named San Francisco — two hours away by raft on the Ucayali River. Today, we were making preparations to return to Tingo Maria on the Huallaga River to wrap up the last of the dangerous shots we needed. From then on it would be child’s play in the light of what we had already experienced. Just scenes showing the three of us along jungle trails or negotiating mountain passes in the Andes on mules. All that was needed at Tingo Maria was a sequence of the two of us shooting the rapids on the Huallaga River. In the past weeks, Eric and I had shot rapids in a canoe on tamer stretches of the Ucayali. The Indians had taught us how to use the canoa — a 30-foot canoe that’s hollowed out from the trunk of a tree. It’s only the width of a man’s body. Compared to the remote Indian villages, both Pucallpa and Tingo Maria are highly civilized. However, they are still in the pioneer stages of development — unpaved muddy streets, no sewage system and the hotels are something else. The best in Pucallpa is the only one — eight rooms, and from the outdoor dining room the main view is that of the hags(?) wallowing in the mud a few yards away.
From Tingo Maria we had travelled to Pucallpa by bus — if you could call a four-wheel bucket of metal with a sputtering engine such. The route stretches 18 miles across a death-inviting mountain pass. The trip took a seemingly endless 12 hours and along the way rusty wreckages of trucks and buses which had fallen to their destruction below were pointed out to us by the driver. His revelation that there was seldom a survivor in the plunges didn’t help to ease the anxiety either.
To avoid the nightmarish return bus trip to Tingo Maria, Eric, his fiancée Lynne Garber (she had accompanied the actor from the start), and myself decided to take our chances in the air. I’m a licensed pilot, and we chartered a four-seater airplane from a missionary at Pucallpa. We left in the afternoon. The missionary, an experienced bush pilot, flew, but to ease my mind I sat beside him in the co-pilot’s seat double-checking every one of the movements.
Eric and Lynne sat beside each other in the rear of the small plane. It was a breath-taking one-hour-and-45-minute flight, and from the air the dangers were even more foreboding. A sudden loss of power of the plane’s single engine would prove fatal. Dense jungle, mountains and angry rivers offered no haven for a forced landing. Like all the bush pilots, … used the only navigational system available — the rivers. He followed the course of the Huallaga (one of several rivers in the area that join up to make the Amazon) to Tingo Maria. We arrived late in the afternoon checking into the Gran Hotel. Unlike the quarters in Pucallpa, the Gran is little more than a shelter from the torrential rains. Annual rainfall in the area is 140 inches. The rest of the company, Anne, the directors, the cameraman and several assistants planned to make the trip by bus the next day.
Monday, September 26
Again spent a restless night fighting the mosquitoes and heat. It was impossible to sleep without any clothes on, although the temperatures never cooled off. The mosquito netting failed to keep out all the insects and unless you were dressed your body would be a mass of bites the next morning. I slept fully clothed, but twice during the night I awoke — my garments were soaking wet, although I had two overhead fans going at full power. That day the three of us took things easy awaiting the arrival of the rest of the company. I had known Eric only casually when he was starring in Rawhide. We had never worked together before, but since the location we had become very close friends. Lynne is a wonderful woman, and the three of us hit it off from the start. They had been unofficially engaged to be married for nearly five years, and were planning to do so following the location.
To pass the heated hours away, we used to play hearts. Cards were our only diversion in the monotony of the jungle.
We had a light breakfast together — coffee, eggs and fruit. The humidity makes it impossible to ever have a heavy appetite. We sat around the hotel not caring to do much of anything. Our main consolation was that in only a few days we would be out of this hellhole, filming in the cooler temperatures of the Andes. This was my first visit to South America, although I had read extensively about the rugged terrain by such authors as Peter Matthiessen (The Cloud Forrest). However, it wasn’t until we flew in from Lima that I actually respected the jungle’s terrifying realism; its awesome beauty, its death defying challenge.
What seemingly had been “tall stories” of men being eaten by savages and snakes so deadly that their poisonous bite is fatal within seconds became all too real. In the hotel, you were always encountering one of the local citizenry who didn’t have to rely on imagination to recall such experiences. Although the Indians are friendly in the area, only a few miles away white men have met horrendous death at the hands of savages. An Indian only recently had been bitten on the arm by a bushmaster snake. To save his live, he quickly amputated his right arm below the shoulder with his machete — a heavy knife. It was incredible for me — almost beyond belief — to see how humans are able to survive in the area, especially the Indians. The women are naked from the waist up, the unsanitary conditions welcome pestilence. Their homes are merely platforms built on stilts five feet above the ground to avoid being washed away by flood waters. The roofs are made of straw and there are no walls.
By Monday afternoon the rest of the company had joined us. That night we sat around on the hotel porch playing hearts, dreading the hours when we had to retire and face another night battling the insects.
Tuesday, September 27
We started filming scenes on the bank of the Huallaga. The river’s rapid descent from its source high in the snow country makes it one of the most treacherous passages in the world to negotiate by boat. There are stretches of boiling rapids that break over house-size boulders for 580 miles.
Only a handful of adventurers have ever lived to recount the entire journey. Both Eric and myself were in a very good mood that morning. All the camera equipment was battery operated, and loss of power occurred frequently from various technical difficulties. However, everything was running smoothly and we had no trouble establishing the first phase of the scene in which we were to ride a stretch of rapids about 300 yards long. The camera rolled along without a flaw as we were shown on the bank, preparing to enter the canoa. I was wearing heavy high boots, tan trousers and a period-style white shirt with long balloon sleeves popular in that area. Strapped to my waist was a long-barrelled pistol like the ones used in pirate movies. Eric was dressed lighter. He wore sandals instead of boots and had no pistol.
That afternoon I suffered my first twinge of apprehensiveness. In walking along the bank with Eric, I quickly noted that this wasn’t any ordinary stretch of rapids. It was entirely different from the kind we had ridden without a mishap on the Ucayali.
Dozens of large boulders jutted out, creating giant whirlpools of murky boiling water as the rapids crashed around the rocks. Worse yet, the river curved suddenly at a sharp angle. It would take split-second timing to change the canoa’s course to make the swing in the river without piling up on the rocks. Thus far we had done all our own stunts, but now we seriously considered accepting the director’s offer to use doubles. Around dinner time, we learned this was impossible. The Indians, approached to serve as doubles for us, flatly refused. They were afraid; even the most expert of the river boatmen in Tinga Maria wouldn’t attempt it for any amount of money.
Probably it was false confidence that we were both strong swimmers that dispelled our worries. We agreed that even if we got into trouble we would be able to swim out of it. Having had more experience with boating from other locations, I tried to convince Eric that if something went wrong to stay with the canoa — if it overturned, grab it — until it was swept into calmer water and then swim to shore. It would be useless to fight the raging current. Eric half-heartedly shook his head in agreement as we chatted over our dinner of fried fish and then had our favourite dessert of fried bananas covered with gobs of honey. Pretty soon, we had completely forgotten about shooting the rapids now scheduled for the next day.
Trying to likewise forget the heat, we laughed and joked on the hotel’s veranda. We talked about doing the series together. Eric had once sworn never to tie himself down with another series following the seasons of long hours he put in on Rawhide. While living in Hawaii, he discovered that he wasn’t ready for a rocking chair. Those sunny days of leisure on the beach became boring. Financially, he could afford to be a beach bum for the rest of his life, but Eric’s drive was too powerful to tolerate idleness.
The others had gone to bed to battle the bugs. We had a couple of highballs and continued talking. Again we discussed how remarkable it was that we had completed all but a final hazardous scene without so much as stubbing a toe. Eagerly we made further plans to take a vacation together following the film’s completion. We planned to all meet in Key West, Florida, for a holiday. My wife, Julie, would join us in Miami and all four of us would drive to the keys. Around 10:30 we retired. Eric smiling to me as he headed to his room, “ Get a good night’s sleep. We’ll probably need it tomorrow.”
Wednesday, September 28
For the first time in the weeks of adjusting to the most primitive of conditions, I awoke with an irritable feeling. I couldn’t pinpoint it. I merely felt rotten and everything around me was rotten. Several times that morning I flew off the handle — shouting at the director, yelling foul words to the crew. Each time I couldn’t believe I had done it and quickly apologized. The camera was set up downstream on the left bank of the river. All preparations had been made. I was to paddle the canoa from the rear and Eric would be up front. It isn’t every day that a movie is made in Tingo Maria and along the river bank were many curious Indians.
I used to drive race cars, and know how important it is to know your course. I walked along the river bank again, peering into the boiling cauldron of waters. I didn’t like it now one bit. Suddenly, I had an idea. Perhaps, a rope could be attached to the canoa and someone out of camera range could guide the boat from shore. I was fiddling around with a long piece of rope trying to secure it to the canoa when Eric approached.
“That’ll never work” he laughed. It was nearly 12:30, and a large mass of rain clouds in the distance was moving toward Tingo Maria. If it proved to be a big storm, it could mean a delay of two or three more days before we could get the scene. We were all cognizant of this, especially Eric, and we had no desire to sit around waiting for the rain to stop. All of us were eager to depart the next day by plane for Lima where we would be able to take our first hot shower in weeks, and rest a few days before completing the film.
With a concerned, serious expression on his face, Eric took another glance at the approaching ugly blackened sky. He slowly shook his head, and then smiling reassuringly said to me, “Nico, now or never!”. Those were Eric’s last words. We silently took our positions in the canoa, and were pushed into the main stream by several Indians.
For the first 50 yards or so, I felt that I had acted pretty ridiculously in thinking something could go wrong. We were travelling at a swift pace, but in catching the main current of the river it was serving as the navigator around the rocks. There was little paddling to do. The current was doing the work. More or less, all we had to do was hang on.
With the thunder of a thousand cannons, the momentary security I had felt disappeared. The canoa bolted into a cauldron of rapids at the bend in the river, so furious that the craft was no more effective than a toothpick. We started taking on a lot of water as we shot up and then dipped into the rapids. Water was spilling in from the bow with tremendous force. Both Eric and myself were so busy trying to keep the canoa upright with our paddles that there was no time to bail. Suddenly, I noticed Eric start to stand up. I knew immediately that he was planning to jump. When we had talked about the dangers that one day, I tried to impress on him it would be wiser to stay with the canoa. Eric, though, was used to riding surfboards, and for a surfboarder the reaction in time of trouble is to leap away so as not to be hit on the head by the board.
“Don’t jump!” I yelled frantically. “Please, please don’t jump!” Whether he heard or not I’ll never know. However, I sort of doubt it because the roar of the water hitting the rocks in the rapids was deafening. Without turning around he went over the side into an angry whirlpool and disappeared. Probably Eric figured that if he jumped, I would be forced to follow and we would both be saved. I didn’t have time for any choice. With Eric’s weight gone from the front, the canoa catapulted upward, sending a wall of water at me. In a split-second the canoa was inundated and I was struggling underwater. My frantic effort to reach the surface was fruitless, I was a human anchor. My boots, the pistol tied to my side, those damn sleeves of the shirt, bulging heavily with water, were dragging me to the bottom. I bit my lips desperately, but the pressure of the current was unbearable and forced water into my mouth.
Weakness overcame my body. Every bone had succumbed to fatigue. I was dying. My eyes seemed to automatically close and I found myself drifting further away from reality. I kept thinking only that I was dying. No other thoughts entered my mind. I found myself accepting death. I actually had given up any hopes of surviving when suddenly my eyes were open again staring into the yellowish water at some blurred object in front of me. it was the half-submerged end of the canoa. God or some power had put it there for I was able to reach out with the strength I thought I had lost and grasp it. With a second surge of miraculous effort I pulled myself up on it, forcing it deeper in the water and creating a springboard to pop me above the surface. I managed a life-saving gulp of air before I went under again. This time I knew I would live. I clung to the swamped boat as the current swept us beyond the curve, and into calmer water where the boat drifted into a whirlpool. As it started to spin I kicked off with my feet to the shore.
An Indian boy, 10 or 12 years old, was standing knee deep in the water. I grabbed out and used his shoulder as a support to regain my footing. My knees trembled violently. Quickly I turned my head back to the river to look for Eric. I spotted his body bobbling like a cork in one of the whirlpools — one upstream from me that I had successfully passed while I was being carried underwater while clinging to the canoa. One look at the way his head was face down in the water chilled me with terror. Eric was probably dead, I thought with a nauseous sensation. The best of swimmers would be helpless in such strong currents. Eric had given up — like I had. I started to swim out in a frantic attempt to grab him as the main current was bringing him downstream. It was useless. I was still too waterlogged and weighted down. The pistol I managed to rip off my belt. There was no time to remove my boots or strip off my shirt. Two Indians, meantime, had retrieved the canoa and had it floating again near me. I pushed both of them into it and desperately pointed to Eric’s floating body. They were able to bring the canoa alongside of Eric. The Indian in front grabbed him by the hair. Quickly they all disappeared momentarily in another series of rapids.
“Thanks God,” I said aloud. “Eric might have a chance if they get him to shore in time to administer artificial respiration.” Then I doubled over in severe pain. I had swallowed a great quantity of that dirty water. I vomited the water for I don’t know how long. By the time I was able to stand straight again I saw the canoa in trouble. The native had a firm grasp on Eric’s head and the one paddling from the rear was feverishly trying to turn the boat into shore. Within seconds all was lost — Eric’s last chance gone — as the canoa slammed against a large boulder, toppling the Indians in the water. To save his own life, the one Indian let go of Eric’s hair. Both Indians made it to the safety of the shore. Eric’s body disappeared in the froth around the rock.
It was shockingly horrifying, especially when I learned Lynne had witnessed the tragedy from the camera’s location. She was hysterical with grief. The other members of the company and myself searched until dark for the body, although dreading what we might find.
That night at the Garn Hotel everyone was too shocked to say anything or do anything except retire to the lonely misery of their room to face agonizing hours of torment, knowing that a friend was dead somewhere out there in the merciless wilderness.
Thursday, September 29
We continued the search along with nearly a hundred Indians. Again it was hopeless, and our minds weren’t eased very much when the Indians told us the body might not come to the surface for three or four days. Some bodies of men lost in the river have never been located. The Indians believe they are devoured by fish or jungle beasts when they are washed ashore.
I remained too sickened in my heart to do much talking most of the day. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I was alive and Eric was dead. Especially when I was told what happened on shore when we were fighting for our lives. Knowing that Eric was a strong swimmer, the main concern of the bystanders was for me, because of my heavy clothes and equipment. Everyone was frantic for at least three minutes looking for me. They had seen Eric jump, and figured he was all right. If only they had gone to Eric! I’ll always wonder if it would have made a difference. In any case, I’ll be eternally grateful for that miraculous moment when I was able to reach out and cling to life again.
Three weeks have now elapsed since I saw Eric die. Lynne, Anne and myself all have returned from that seemingly God forsaken place. Eric’s body was located by the Indians down river several days after we flew to Lima and then on to Hollywood. That’s a small consolation in the light of what happened, but a big one to me. The thoughts that Eric was out there in the jungle were as haunting as his final words, “Now or never,” are to me today.
*****************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!*******************
Exclusive Interview: Late character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, “Big Jake” contains Palmer’s best work with the towering legend. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound burly muscle man memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens his grandson’s life with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever fight the Duke. Incidentally, “Big Jake’s” grandson was portrayed by Ethan Wayne in his debut screen appearance. In the just released “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog: Remembering Gregg ‘Grizzly’ Palmer’s Classic Movie Memories,” the bearded outlaw relives his friendship with the Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: While eating some scrumptious lunch inside Universal Studios’ renowned green room commissary, illustrious scene stealing character actor Dan Duryea pointedly remarked to 25-year-old protégé Robert Fuller, “I know ‘Laramie’ is your first series, and I’m gonna tell you something about money. I want you to save your money. Don’t be like all these actors and run right out and buy a new car, okay?” You’ll have to visit “Chewin’ the Fat with Iron-Willed ‘Laramie’ Cowboy Star Robert Fuller” to learn what happened next. Fuller later starred in the long-running “Chicago Fire” precursor “Emergency!”, took over Steve McQueen’s role of gunslinger Vin Tanner in “The Magnificent Seven” sequel with Yul Brynner, costarred with Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and danced cheek to cheek with Marilyn Monroe in the legendary “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Exclusive Interview No. 3: “When I was younger, I had been in a class at George Washington High where I saw a teacher hit a guy on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. He broke the ruler. I was pretty impressed. Later when I was going to the Academy of Perpetual Help, some nun smacked me across the hand with a wooden ruler. I took the ruler and cracked it. I was just some punk kid. From then on I became the hero.” Puerto Rican actor Henry Darrow overcame an early childhood riddled by hard knocks to star as heartthrob Manolito Montoya on the venerable NBC Western series “The High Chaparral,” not to mention building up a résumé littered with guest-starring turns on “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Zorro,” and even “Star Trek” over a prolific 50-year career. Check out “Totally Immersed in the World of Henry Darrow” for further illumination.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: “Dad had a few green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagons. They were customized by George Barris who did the Batmobile. When I was about five he would drive to L.A., put me on his lap, and make me steer. If I would start driving out of the lane he would yell, ‘Hey — get back in the lane!’ and scare the crap out of me.” Ethan Wayne, costar of “Big Jake” and director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, jump starts a mesmerizing if laconic journey of his back pages in an exclusive interview entitled ‘Gettin’ Back in the Lane with John Wayne’s Youngest Son.’
Further Reading: John Wayne possessed no plans to retire after “The Shootist” opened to excellent reviews but middling box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery two years later, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the screenplay, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with recent costar Ron Howard. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to “‘Beau John’: The Untold Story of John Wayne’s Last Film Project.”
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