Marine Clu Gulager Went from Character Actor to Horror Movie Star During a Wild Hollywood Career

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Clu Gulager The Virginian
Clu Gulager in "The Virginian." (NBC)

Marine Corps veteran Clu Gulager, who started his acting career as a handsome leading man in westerns and found late-career success in horror and comedy, died on Aug. 5, 2022, in Los Angeles at age 93.

Born William Martin Gulager in Holdenville, Oklahoma, in 1928, the actor said he was nicknamed Clu from "clu-clu," a Cherokee word for the birds that nested at his family home. Gulager served stateside with the Marines after World War II from 1946-1948 and took up acting when attending Oklahoma's Northeastern State College and Texas' Baylor University. 

Gulager picked up some bit parts early on and managed to work steadily until near the end of his life. He made guest appearances on dozens of television shows, including "Wagon Train," "The F.B.I.," "Mannix," "Hawaii Five-O," "Knight Rider" and "Murder, She Wrote." He moved effortlessly from drama to outrageous comedy and made horror movies, including several directed by his son John Gulager.

Here are some of Clu Gulager's most memorable roles.

1. Sheriff Emmett Ryker -- "The Virginian" (1963-1968)

Clu Gulager The Virginian

Gulager's first break in television was co-starring as Billy the Kid alongside Barry Sullivan as Pat Garrett in "The Tall Man," a half-hour show about the western legends. He really broke out when he joined the cast of "The Virginian," a 90-minute weekly program where each episode was more like a movie than a television episode. 

Gulager played a gunslinger-turned-lawman starting in season three and stuck around for more than 100 episodes before leaving the Wyoming-set drama. When he left the show, his plan was to break into movies.

2. Lee -- "The Killers" (1964)

Gulager co-stars with fellow Marine vet Lee Marvin as a pair of contract killers who are confused when their target doesn't resist when they come to rub him out. The two hitmen investigate and learn the tragic story of race car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes).

Gulager is one of the few actors who can hold his own with Marvin, a performer who dominated almost every scene he ever played. They're one of the great tough-guy pairings in movie history.

"The Killers" is a full-color remake of the 1946 film noir that starred World War II Army vet Burt Lancaster. Both films are loosely based on a short story by WWI ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway, and the 1964 film was made by future "Dirty Harry" director Don Siegel.

One real highlight of the film is the WWII Army veteran and future President Ronald Reagan's menacing performance as a villain in what would prove to be his final movie role. Reagan was said to regret taking the role, especially the scene where he slugged Angie Dickinson's character, but the Gipper displays some real acting chops playing opposite some great performers.

3. Bookstore owner -- "Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood" (2019)

Clu Gulager Margot Robbie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Gulager's final film role was only two lines in Quentin Tarantino's 2019 Hollywood epic, but his presence is a nice tribute from a director who reveres all the Hollywood legends from Gulager's generation. When she's in Westwood, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) steps into the bookstore to pick up a first-edition copy of Thomas Hardy's novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" that she's ordered for her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

There's a couple of nice tributes going on here. After Tate's death in real life, Polanski would go on to make a movie based on the novel in 1979. More importantly to our purposes here, the movie's lead character, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is exactly the kind of '60s television star that Gulager was. Dalton seems headed for a meltdown, but Gulager proved himself adaptable to the modern world and would eventually make a big career comeback.

4. Burt Wilson -- "The Return of the Living Dead" (1985)

Not many actors from Gulager's generation had the adaptability and humor to embrace the new kinds of movies that became popular in the '70s and '80s. After a decade of guest spots on television shows (exactly the career Rick Dalton wanted to avoid), Gulager came roaring back as the star of the horror comedy "The Return of the Living Dead." It takes real skill to keep a straight face and sell the threat from the ridiculous zombie invasion.

5. Abilene -- "The Last Picture Show" (1971)

Gulager's role in the Oscar-nominated classic isn't a big one, but it's definitely one of the most memorable. He plays Abilene, the roughneck foreman who works for the father of Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the teenage girl at the center of the picture. Abilene has a thing for her mom (Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-nominated for her performance) and eventually makes a connection with young Jacy.

You've heard of acting with your eyes? Gulager can act with his eyes even when they're hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses.

6. Norman Mart -- "Tapeheads" (1988)

"Tapeheads" is an underground classic produced by Air Force vet and former Monkee Michael Nesmith. John Cusack and Tim Robbins (both very young) play a pair of young hustlers who want to break into the music video industry. 

Gulager plays Norman Mart, a thoroughly corrupt politician who aims to be elected president and is joined in the movie by his "The Virginian" co-star, Doug McClure, trying to get some of that Gulager comedy magic to rub off on his own midlife career. "Tapeheads" aims for satire, often ends up being purely silly and represents an awesome time capsule of that decade's most tacky sensibilities. 

It's a long way from "The Killers" to "Tapeheads," but Clu Gulager was one of the few actors who could bridge that divide. Semper Fi, Marine.

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