Trails far from happy for b-western cowboy
Fri, 2016-06-03 05:00 News Staff
The matinee feature at Waco’s Fox Theater on Jun. 4, 1948 was “Chicago Kid” starring Don “Red” Barry, the well-known cowboy actor, in a crime drama for a change.
The future rider of the B-western range was born Donald Barry de Acosta in Houston in January 1912. Despite his small stature – five feet four and a half inches – he was good enough at football, presumably as a running back, to win a college scholarship.
In one version of how the tiny Texan got his big Hollywood break, John Wayne and Mickey Rooney happened to see him play in an exhibition game between a team of college all-stars and UCLA. The diminutive Rooney, who at five-two had to look up to Barry, arranged a speaking part for him in “Boys Town,” but he could not remember his lines and the director kicked the flustered first-timer off the set.
Barry told a completely different story about his early days in the movie capital that included no mention of Rooney or the blown opportunity. In his account, he wound up in Tinsel Town in the depths of the Great Depression with just one thing on his mind: where his next meal was coming from.
“Food’s pretty wonderful any time,” Barry said, “but you don’t know how really wonderful it is until you’ve skipped meals for as long as I did. I had never acted but never having done something hasn’t ever seemed a reason to me for not trying it anyway.”
Barry figured all he had to do was to sneak inside a motion picture studio, but that proved to be harder than he imagined. Twice he climbed the high walls of the selected studio, and both times security guards tossed him out on his ear.
But the third attempt turned out to be the charm. “There I was inside the studio and not a cop in sight. I walked around as free as air. There were some chorus girls outside a sound stage (so) I stepped up and started rehearsing them. They thought I belonged there, and so did the director when he came over.”
Barry’s masquerade lasted a brief three days, but he was rewarded for his brashness with a place on the payroll. However, his combative personality, which would cause him problems throughout his career, soon cost him that job.
Never one to give up, Barry tried his luck with a road company of “Tobacco Road.” “I fast-talked my way in. When they asked if I’d had any experience (acting) before, I said ‘Yes’ and changed the subject.”
In a matter of months, Barry graduated from stage to screen with the customary bit parts that constituted the meatand- potatoes for newcomers. By 1939 he had attracted the attention of Republic Pictures, king of the low-budget western, which put him through the usual bad-guy tryout in four pictures that year.
Republic signed Barry to a long-term contract before casting him as Red Ryder in a series of 12 Saturday afternoon cliffhangers. The temperamental Texan predictably pitched a fit pointing out the comic strip character was tall and skinny while he wasn’t. The studio boss made it clear that he either did what he was told or he was finished at Republic.
Although Barry hated to admit it, “The Adventures of Red Ryder” was the best thing that ever happened to him. For the rest of his life, he would be known as Don “Red” Barry due not to the color of his hair but because of the Ryder role.
Long after the Red Ryder serial was in the can, Barry kept grinding out sagebrush soap operas for Republic at the rate of two per month. But he wanted to break out of the cowboy mold, and studio big-shots agreed in the belief “Red” Barry could be the next James Cagney.
That idea was permanently shelved after complaints from directors and other crew members, whose misfortune it had been to work with the hot-tempered thespian. One contemptuous director called him “The Midget,” and another flatly refused to ever make another picture with him.
Given his over-inflated ego, Barry likely thought he was the studio’s “hottest property” until that day in 1944 they showed him the door. But with Roy Rogers, Bill Elliott and Plainview’s own Sunset Carson in the Republic stable, he would not be missed.
Feelings could not have been all that hard since Barry returned to Republic Pictures for the occasional curtain call for the rest of the 1940’s. In middle age, he learned not to be so picky and accepted any part that came his way in a variety of mostly forgettable films.
But it was television that extended Barry’s acting career. He was a natural for guest spots on shows like “TheV irginian,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Maverick,” “Sugarfoot” and other prime-time favorites during the golden age of tv westerns.
Police responded to a report of a domestic disturbance at Barry’s North Hollywood home in the summer of 1980. The estranged wife of the 68 year old actor had come back to the residence for a few of her things and that evidently lit her exhusband’s short fuse.
Officers thought they had succeeded in calming everybody down, when Don “Red” Barry suddenly emerged from the house holding a .38-caliber revolver. Without saying a word, he fired one round into his head and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
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