Warren Oates, ‘Bonanza,’ Ben Johnson, and more Wild West shenanigans with leading lady Lee Purcell
Leading lady Lee Purcell tumbled out of the womb performing. In an enviable 50-year film, television, and stage career chock full of existential experiences alongside matinee idols that she grew up watching, the consummate actress was personally selected by Steve McQueen for her premiere role as “Jerri Jo Harper” in Adam at 6 A.M, an unjustly forgotten 1970 drama exploring alienated semantics professor Michael Douglas’s odyssey back home to Missouri.
Since that scene-stealing interpretation, the auburn-haired beauty has worked in virtually the whole gamut — dramas, comedies, murder mysteries, westerns — garnering two Emmy nominations in the process — Outstanding Lead Actress for the 1991 movie of the week Long Road Home with future NCIS topliner Mark Harmon and Outstanding Supporting Actress for Secret Sins of the Father with Beau Bridges and father Lloyd Bridges three years later.
Purcell’s most enduring projects remain the Charles Bronson gritty revenge flick Mr. Majestyk, director John Milius’s cult surfing classic Big Wednesday, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s Stir Crazy, the seductive step-mom in Nicolas Cage’s hit rom-com Valley Girl, and “Louise St. Laurent” in the award-winning Due South series. Purcell participates in acting workshops, rides motorcycles, and is also an active philanthropic crusader via the Veterans Entertainment Team for military personnel and Heart of a Horse, an organization devoted to rescuing abused horses.
Over the course of a wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Purcell’s sincerity and thoroughness emblazon a thought-provoking narrative on the western genre. As a military brat coming of age in Paragould, Arkansas, the amateur historian spent countless hours riding horses and obsessively examining the art of Russell and Remington in coffee table tomes. Decades later Purcell performed onstage with the Old West troupe known as the Green River Ropin’ and Recitin’ Preservation Players.
She shares intimate behind-the-scenes anecdotes of working with Lorne Greene and the incredibly handsome Michael Landon in a latter-day Bonanza episode scrutinizing post-traumatic stress disorder. Sam Peckinpah stock company alum Warren Oates bestowed her a green plastic three-ring binder while filming Dennis Hopper’s revisionist western Kid Blue in the uncivilized Mexican wilderness of Durango. Tall in the saddle cowboy Ben Johnson defended her honor. And stick around for the big reveal of Purcell’s grimiest role spent in Arizona at Bob Shelton’s Old Tucson Studios and its Mescal property.
The Lee Purcell Interview
“The Weary Willies,” a September 27, 1970 episode from season twelve of beloved western saga Bonanza, was only your third guest-starring turn in television.
Being on Bonanza was very interesting for me. I had grown up watching it with my grandmother, and then, there I was on the show in yet another big, important, ground-breaking TV role. Leo Penn chose and directed me in that show just like he did for my first of two Marcus Welby, M.D. episodes [“A Very Special Sailfish,” aired September 22, 1970].
And, of course, my grandmother visited the set. She always did, especially when Leo was directing me! She was a beloved nurse for the same clinic for many years, and had earned the right to take a little time off to watch her granddaughter work.
I portrayed a very young girl who was beaten and raped by a young Civil War veteran, played by Richard Thomas. Richard and I became friends, and we worked together again on The Waltons [“The Wing-Walker” episode which aired October 23, 1975]. Lonny Chapman played my father, and he was very kind to me.
Like “A Very Special Sailfish,” the Bonanza episode was considered to be a very shocking and brave bit of television history at the time. Portraying the subject of rape on Bonanza, which was a culturally iconic All-American series, and to have the perpetrator be a Civil War veteran, another historical icon, was a big risk then.
But, there are historical accounts of those types of crimes that actually happened during the period after the Civil War in the Old West. Those were brutal times.
As the episode was shot during the latter years of the series, they really took some chances. In those days, I played a lot of young girls who were victimized by something or someone.
Besides Dan Blocker, who didn’t appear in “The Weary Willies,” did you have much interaction with Michael Landon and Lorne Greene?
Michael was terribly handsome! They were both very professional and wore their roles as a second skin. It was a bit of an existential experience for me, a young actress, who had grown up watching these iconic actors on the show, and then, there I was on the same sets I had seen on TV, working with them.
Perhaps what people don’t know is that a guest-star actor on a TV series is only there for one to seven days, and then you’re gone. It’s really a gypsy existence and experience. There is not the sense of “family” that you develop when you’re on a series for years, or on a film for months.
Since you’re only there for about a week or less, you don’t get a chance to know the people there that well, unless you really connect, and choose to continue and nurture the friendship off-set. I have made several friends that way, but generally, you don’t have that opportunity unless you make it so.
In the film Kid Blue, we were in Durango, Mexico for about three months! And those three months included Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, so some of us did become like family. Particularly for me, as my home was then in London, so it was too far to travel for a weekend off!
Why is Dirty Little Billy  one of your favorite film experiences?
I loved my role, director Stan Dragoti, and the authentic Old West era of the real Billy the Kid. My character of “Berle” was a 13 year-old orphan turned prostitute out of desperation. Our makeup was the dirt that the makeup department put on us each morning.
What happened when you crossed paths with prolific cult actor Warren Oates south of the border for Kid Blue, a 1973 revisionist western co-starring Dennis Hopper?
I arrived at the location in Durango, Mexico, in which I starred as Molly Ford, Warren’s too-young, adulterous wife, who cheats on his character with Dennis Hopper’s title character. Our fine cast also included Ben Johnson, Ralph Waite, and Howard Hesseman.
When I met Warren for the first time, he noticed I had this beat-up old script cover barely containing my script and jokingly commented on it. I shrugged it off. But the next day Warren arrived with the only kind of script cover he could find in the limited shopping possibilities of Durango, a green plastic three-ring binder.
Warren presented the binder to me very ceremoniously and with great flourish and his big, s**t-eating grin, removed my script from the tacky old cover and carefully placed it in the new one. It was hilarious, and endearing. How can you not adore a guy like that? And yes, I still have that script in that cover.
What was Oates like in real life?
In a nutshell, Warren was special, unique, brilliant, kind, humble, and cocky. He had that “something” that few people naturally have.
What is Oates’ cinematic legacy?
That an actor doesn’t have to be tabloid-famous or a household name in order to be brilliant and to leave a fine body of work behind. And, that grin! Warren was authentic, what you saw was what you got.
I wish he could have had more time to have blessed us with more of his roles, his tremendous talent, and his humble, vulnerable, but cocky, devilish personal self. Warren was one-of-a-kind [Author’s Note: Visit “That Guy You’ve Seen but Can’t Remember His Name” for an in-depth interview with Oates biographer Susan Compo].
Ben Johnson was an understated, endearing actor forever recognizable for riding tall in the saddle.
I could write volumes about Ben. For those unfortunate people who don’t know Ben’s work, I suggest they see The Last Picture Show, for which Ben won the Oscar. I first met Ben on Kid Blue, where he defended my honor when someone said a curse word — as Ben put it — in front of me. He was a true gentleman, rare these days.
Later, I rodeo’d for about five years with the Ben Johnson Pro-Celebrity rodeo circuit. There were about 50 — only about five or six women — of us who traveled all over the country with the rodeo pros to raise money for children’s charities. Unfortunately, the rodeo ceased to exist when Ben passed away.
Everyone adored Ben. Who else could have persuaded a whole lot of actors to risk life and limb rodeo’ing to raise money for charity?
How did you get acquainted with an Old West troupe known as the Green River Ropin’ and Recitin’ Preservation Players?
A dear friend of mine, actor Lee de Broux, called me in 1992 and asked me if I wanted to be involved in producing and performing authentic, historical Old West cowboy poetry. I was competing at the time on the Ben Johnson Pro-Celebrity rodeo circuit and I love the Old West, so I was very interested and said yes. That’s how it started. We created the Players, and people loved it.
We performed actual historical and contemporary Old and New Western poetry by authentic Western poets and poetesses, and our musicians performed Old Western songs and instrumentals — not country and western, just historical Old Western, which is very different.
We dressed in authentic 1860’s, post-Civil war Old West costumes. We also had trick ropers and yodelers perform with us at times. We wanted to preserve the history — the voices of the real Old West.
The actual era of the Old West was really only a short period of time, which began just after the Civil War and ended when the trains came into the West making trans-continental transport of cattle possible, hence ending the on-the-hoof cattle drives. That was the beginning of the end of the Old West.
Did the troupe tour regularly?
We were not a touring troupe. None of us would have had the time for that. We performed at local theatres, the University of Southern California, the Gene Autry Museum and other locations.
Our troupe was comprised of well-known, working actors, including Lee de Broux, Martin Kove, Bruce Boxleitner, Bo Hopkins, the late James Gammon, Melissa Gilbert, and Anne Lockhart. Sam Shepard also performed with us in the Guest Chair.
Since you were not allowed to watch much television growing up, how did you become such an admirer of the Western genre and that period of American history?
I became a fan of the Western genre because I loved to ride horses from an early age, and I was also enthralled with the art of Russell and Remington. I could obsess over those paintings and bronzes for hours. And yes, I also fell in love with the West through reading and from my love of history. But really, more from Western art, which I still love.
Younger people today sadly did not grow up on Westerns, whereas every other preceding generation, since film was invented, did. So, it is largely unfamiliar territory to the younger generation.
Since I grew up watching Westerns, and have starred in several, particularly in film, I love them. I recall a particularly gratifying conversation I had with a very astute 15-year-old young man who quoted dialogue from the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit to me as he loved it so much.
I attended the Dolby Theatre premiere of The Homesman , a Western starring Hilary Swank and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and loved it. If someone decides to do a remake of Gunsmoke, I’m throwing my hat in the ring to be Miss Kitty!
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