In 1956, Fred Gipson stunned readers when his new novel began, “He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him. Then later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks. That’s how much I’d come to think of the big yeller dog.” Still read in schools across the country, frequently in conjunction with watching the film, it’s often cited as the book that first revealed to readers that the written word could make them cry.
Inspired by the tales Gipson’s Texas pioneer grandparents told him, Old Yeller is about an adolescent boy, Travis; his kid brother, Arliss; and their mother who, with father away on a cattle drive, are helped by a huge, lop-eared yellow dog who wanders onto their homestead to steal food, and becomes their protector. Walt Disney bought the book, and rejected all entreaties to soften its ending: this was the story readers had made a best-seller, and this was the story he would tell.
With only seven characters, the cast had to be strong: Father was Fess Parker, an international sensation as Davy Crockett; lovely Dorothy Maguire, Oscar-nominated for 1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, was Mother. And in a memorable appearance, soon-to-be Rifleman star Chuck Connors was the neighbor who owns Yeller, but kindly trades him for a horny-toad.
But the movie truly belongs to the children and the dog. Tommy Kirk had already starred in The Hardy Boys serials on The Mickey Mouse Club. He didn’t have to audition, “because I was under contract already. The script arrived and they said, you have your wardrobe fittings next Wednesday.” Kevin Corcoran, who’d play Arliss, was also a Mickey Mouse Club alumnus. “We were about five years apart,” Kirk recalls. They would co-star in six Disney movies, usually playing brothers. “Kevin was the person I was most close to at Disney. We became very good friends and remained so until he recently passed away.”
Beverly Washburn played Lisbeth, diligent daughter of hilariously shiftless Bud Searcy (Jeff York), the only man left home to look after “the women-folk” during the cattle drive. A well-respected child actress who’d starred in the pilots of both Superman and Wagon Train, unlike the boys, Washburn was not signed to Disney, “And I really didn’t think I had a chance; they were doing the Mickey Mouse Club and there were so many that could have been wonderful. But I went in and read, I met Walt Disney, and when I got the phone call that I had gotten the role, I was just thrilled!” Robert Stevenson, the only Walt Disney director ever to receive an Oscar nomination, for Mary Poppins, had directed Washburn twice before, and went to bat for her.
The big, beautiful mongrel who played Yeller was Spike; he’d been rescued from a shelter by the legendary Weatherwax brothers, who’d trained Lassie. Spike was treated well, Washburn remembers with a laugh. “His dressing room was bigger than mine!” Spike didn’t have a stand-in: they couldn’t find another dog who looked like him. “Yakima Canutt, was in charge of all the animal fights,” Kirk explains. “The encounter between the dog and the bear, and the dog and the wolf.” Most of what looked like fighting was play, and Canutt, cinema’s finest stuntman, made sure that none were hurt.
It was a happy set, in large part due to Stevenson. “He was so gentle and patient and kind,” Kirk says. “He’s the kind of guy you’d kill yourself to please him.” Old Yeller was a hit, a perfect mix of joy and sadness and hope. Kirk says, “Universal themes, like love and loss, are the stuff of great art, and great artists can tap that vein successfully, even if it’s only for a moment.”
Six years later, Disney released a sequel, Savage Sam, from another Gipson novel. They brought back Kirk and Corcoran, but not Washburn. “I had a commitment to do another film,” she recalls ruefully, “and I wasn’t a big enough name that they would wait for me.” They should have waited, and done a rewrite. Despite a strong cast—Brian Keith, Slim Pickens—Savage Sam couldn’t decide whether it was a sequel to Old Yeller or a remake of The Searchers. “I hated the script,” Kirk admits. “I hated [director] Norman Tokar.” Still, Kirk gave such a powerful performance that he was cast as the youngest offspring in The Sons of Katie Elder. Then a party he was attending got raided, and marijuana was found. “And I ended up in a jail cell. And I was immediately replaced on Katie Elder.” All these years later, Tommy Kirk and Beverly Washburn are not only still close friends, they’re neighbors.
Spike would go on star in two highly regarded Western TV series, with Brian Keith in Sam Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1960) and as sidekick to Ralph Taeger in 1967’s Hondo. He also guested ten times, always as a different character, on Lassie.
Henry C. Parke, Western Films Editor for True West, is a screenwriter, and blogs at HenrysWesternRoundup.blogspot.com. His book of interviews, Indians and Cowboys, will be published later this year.