Carl Rollyson lives in New Jersey, teaches at Baruch College (a senior college of the City University of New York), and writes biographies. He worked as an actor before academia and biography, and is still fascinated by the actor’s craft; he’s written books on Marilyn Monroe and Dana Andrews.
Rollyson calls himself a “serial biographer” — his current subject introduces him to the next. Dana Andrews led him to Walter Brennan, and Brennan led him to Joseph. So he came to the county this week to meet relatives and friends of Walter Brennan, and to soak up a little of the country that captured the actor and led to the purchase of the Lightning Creek Ranch, the building of the motel and theater in Joseph, and the formation of the Chesnimnus Marching Band for the Chief Joseph Days parade.
On Wednesday night, July 9, about 50 of us gathered at the Josephy Center. We watched a few clips from a 1941 film, “Swamp Water,” directed by a Frenchman, Jean Renoir, dark with the Europe at war Renoir had just left. Rollyson told us that Brennan had appeared in over 200 films, beginning with “silents,” and that his hard-scrabble beginnings as an actor included stunt work. Son Mike Brennan, the retired Wallowa County rancher who seemed on Wednesday transported back to times with his dad, chuckled over him driving a car off a pier into the Pacific for $25, and grandson Dennis, horseshoer by trade, remembered “Grampy” recounting a time when another stunt man got to fall off a horse three times for $10 a fall — while he’d just made one $10 fall that day.
Mike had a story about “Swamp Water.” There’s a scene in which the fugitive, Brennan, hiding deep in the Okefenokee Swamp, is struck by a water moccasin. The trick apparently was to get the snake to strike at a piece of glass with Walter on the other side. The actor had been scared doing it — and scared again watching the scene when the movie came out.
We learned more: Brennan won three Oscars for supporting actor in the ’30s. He never played a romantic lead, and in later years became “everybody’s grandpa” in the “Real McCoys.” He could mimic any voice. Rollyson said he once “fired” friend Gary Cooper in Samuel Goldwyn’s voice. Mike topped that story with his dad firing someone on the movie lot — again in Goldwyn’s voice — and then “rehiring” him a bit later in the same voice.
And then the Joseph stories. Mike said his dad loved Joseph, and Dave Turner opined that Chief Joseph Days would never have gotten off the ground as it did without the actor using his connections, flying around the country with Joseph businessmen promoting the event.
Walter loved it — Katherine Deboie told me some time ago that she and Ruthie Brennan were best friends growing up, and that Walter figured the Chief Joseph Days Parade couldn’t be a parade without a marching band. So he formed one: The Chesnimnus National (or International) Marching Band. Katherine played the snares and her good friend, the late Mary Hays, the bass drum. Walter was the drum major, his staff a toilet plunger! Darlene Turner brought a picture of it.
The stories could go on — they will, as Carl has made friends and is already talking about coming back when the book is done. He, like Walter, fell in love with the place.
I knew little about Brennan before all this, though I remembered “Rio Bravo” and the gravelly voice on TV. I’d been on a scholarship board with Florence, Mike’s late wife, and granddaughter Tammy Crawford taught my kids. And Charlie, Dennis’s son, Walter’s great-grandson, played on a baseball team I coached. My personal memories of the actor have him riding in the parade — in a horse-drawn stage, I think.
And I remember that he was on the opposite side of the political fence, that Brennan was a known right-side conservative (Rollyson said Walter had given Reagan “the benefit of the doubt” on his conservative principles). Carl and I talked briefly about that — he said he would have to address it in the book, though that would certainly not be the focus. But he told me also that as deep as his conservative roots were, Brennan was a pro-union guy. He remembered those early days in Hollywood, the power of the movie moguls to use and use up actors. Brennan appreciated the actors’ guild, and pushed along the careers of young actors himself.
And in Wallowa County, he was a neighbor and friend to many. Remembered for two staunch American values: rugged individualism — and the barn-building good-neighborliness that marches in the parade and builds a theater and brings Chill Wills to town to open it.
Main Street columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.