By Mike Barnes
Gregory Walcott, an admired actor who appeared in such memorable films as Mister Roberts, The Eiger Sanction, Norma Rae and, unfortunately for him, Ed Wood’s lamentable Plan 9 From Outer Space, has died. He was 87.
Walcott, who starred as pilot Jeff Trent in Plan 9, considered one of the worst films ever made, died Friday at his home, his son, Men in Black puppeteer Todd Mattox, announced on Facebook.
In a 1998 interview with Filmax magazine’s Dwayne Epstein, Walcott recalled being asked by a friend, fledgling producer J. Edwards Reynolds, about starring in a sci-fi film opposite Bela Lugosi. “But Ed, Bela Lugosi is dead,” he noted.
Indeed, the horror legend had died in 1956, but footage of him shot by writer-director Wood would be used in the 1959 ultra-low-budget movie.
“I refused at first,” Walcott said in the interview. “I read the script, and it was gibberish. It made no sense, but I saw Ed Reynolds as a naive, sweet man. I had done some pretty good things prior to that, so I thought I had a little credibility in Hollywood. I thought maybe my name would give the show some credibility. … The film was made surreptitiously. My agent didn’t even know I did it.”
Plan 9 has become a cult classic, but Walcott for years wanted nothing to do with it. “I had done so many great films and worked with so many great directors that I didn’t want to be identified with such a piece of trash,” he said. In his final onscreen role, however, Walcott appeared in a cameo as a potential film backer (much like Reynolds) in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood.
In films he was much more proud of, the burly 6-foot-4 Walcott played a shore patrolman in Mister Roberts (1955), romanced Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady (1955), portrayed merciless drill instructors in Battle Cry (1955) and Delbert Mann’s The Outsider (1960), and was Gene Hackman’s psychopathic brother in Prime Cut (1972). In Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1978), he played the police chief who hauls away Sally Field’s character during the film’s famous protest scene.
Walcott also was a favorite of Clint Eastwood who worked with the actor-director on CBS’ Rawhide and in the features Joe Kidd (1971), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1973), The Eiger Sanction (1975), and Every Which Way But Loose (1978).
He also starred as Det. Roger Havilland on the 1961-62 NBC series 87th Precinct, based on the books by Ed McBain, and stood out as seven different characters on seven episodes of Bonanza — just one of the dozens of TV Westerns in which he appeared (Bat Masterson, Maverick, Laramie, Cheyenne, etc.).
Born Bernard Mattox, Walcott was raised in Wilson, N.C., where his father sold furniture. He served in the U.S. Army, attended Furman University on a football scholarship and in 1949 hitchhiked with just $100 in his pocket all the way to Los Angeles, where he studied acting with Ben Bard.
Legendary Western star Dale Evans introduced him to his future wife, Barbara, at a party.
Walcott landed a bit part in Red Skies of Montana (1951), starring Richard Widmark, and then appeared in Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry (1954), which got him a contract at Warner Bros. Walcott starred as a medical missionary (as well as produced) the 1967 film Bill Wallace in China (1966) and had roles in such other films as Badman’s Country (1958), On the Double (1961), Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974) and Midway (1976).
He published a memoir, Hollywood Adventures: The Gregory Walcott Story, in 2003.
In addition to Mattox, Walcott’s survivors include his daughters Jina and Pam and several grandchildren.
Photo: Everett Collection