Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller
Robert Fuller
Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller (born Leonard Leroy “Buddy” Lee, July 29, 1933) is an American horse rancher and retired actor. He began his career on television, guest-starring primarily on Western programs, while appearing in several movies, including: The Brain from Planet ArousTeenage Thunder (both in 1957); Return of the Seven (1966); Incident at Phantom Hill (also 1966); and The Hard Ride (1971). In his five decades of television, Fuller was known for his deep, raspy voice and was familiar to television viewers throughout the 1960s and 1970s from his co-starring roles as Jess Harper and Cooper Smith on the popular 1960s Western series Laramie and Wagon Train, and was also well known for his starring role as Dr. Kelly Brackett in the 1970s medical /action drama Emergency!

Fuller was born as Leonard Leroy Lee on July 29, 1933, in Troy, New York, the only child of Betty Simpson, a dance instructor. Prior to his birth, Betty married Robert Simpson, Sr., a Naval Academy officer. In 1939, at the age of 6, his family moved to Key West, Florida, where, already known by the nickname of “Buddy,” he took the name Robert Simpson Jr. The early highlights of his life were acting and dancing. His parents owned a dancing school in Florida. His family also moved to Chicago, Illinois, where they lived for 1 year, before moving back to Florida. Simpson Jr., as he was then still formally known, attended the Miami Military School for fifth and sixth grade, and Key West High School for ninth grade. He dropped out in 1948, at the age of 14, due to the fact that he disliked school and was doing poorly there. In 1950, at the age of 16, he traveled with his family to Hollywood, California, where his first job was as a stunt man. He also worked at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, beginning as a doorman and working his way up to Assistant Manager by age 18. At the urging of friends, the up-to-then Simpson Jr. joined the Screen Actors Guild, embarked on a career in acting, and changed his name from Robert Simpson Jr. to Robert Fuller, the name by which he would be known at his most prominent.

Fuller’s first small role was as an extra in the 1952 film Above and Beyond. This part led to much extra work on many projects, one of which was in I Love Melvin. In 1953, he again had another minor part in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which starred Marilyn Monroe. Fuller’s career then went on hold for service in the United States Army. He served a tour of duty in Korea and returned to the United States in 1955. Though he had been considering giving up acting, Fuller, at the suggestion of his best friend, Chuck Courtney, attended Richard Boone‘s acting classes. Boone suggested that Fuller study under the tutelage of Sanford Meisner at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.  Fuller’s first speaking role was in Friendly Persuasion in 1956, where he worked with his future Laramie co-star John Smith and another close friend, Doug McClure.

In the 1956 episode “The Comeback” in the religion anthology seriesCrossroads, Fuller played the part of a former soldier. In the story line, Don DeFore, as the Reverend C. E. “Stoney” Jackson, offers spiritual insight to assist Lou Brissie (Chuck Connors) who is recovering from wounds sustained in World War II to enable him to return to professional baseball. Grant Withers appeared as Coach Whitey Martin and Crossroads regular Robert Carson appeared as a coach.

In 1957, Fuller was cast in his first major film role in Teenage Thunder. He said of it:

I always wanted to be in show business and with the help of my best buddy, Chuck Courtney, who was an actor then, he helped get me my first starring role in a movie called Teenage Thunder. It was a break for me and since Chuck had the pull at the time to get the director, Paul Helmick, use me for the bad guy and not another actor that he really wanted. It was the gateway to many other roles which led to the Laramie series and so on and so forth.[4]— Robert Fuller,

Also in 1957, Fuller starred in the science fiction film The Brain from Planet Arous.

Fuller became an immensely popular character actor, guest-starring in dozens of television programs including Buckskin, The Big Valley, Official Detective, The Californians, The Restless Gun, The Lawless Years (in the role of “Cutie Jaffe” on May 7, 1959), U.S. Marshal, Panic!,  M Squad, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, “The Monroes” and the Lux Playhouse. He also appeared in the series Strange Intruder as a villain who dies in the third episode. In 1959, he portrayed a character accused of arson in Broderick Crawford‘s syndicated series, Highway Patrol. He also made appearances in ABC‘s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Mickey Spillane‘s syndicated Mike Hammer.

On February 24, 1959, Fuller guest-starred in the episode “Blind Is the Killer,” in NBC‘s Cimarron City television series. This appearance propelled him into a lead role seven months later in Laramie, one of the comparatively few network programs set in Wyoming. Fuller appeared as Joe Cole, a young gunfighter seeking a reputation, who found his target in Cimarron City Mayor Matt Rockford, played by George Montgomery. Cole temporarily blinded Rockford with glass from a broken whisky bottle. The two were ultimately reconciled after each had a chance to prove his courage. John Smith, Fuller’s co-star on Laramie, was a regular in Cimarron City, and the two appeared together briefly in this episode, which also featured Dennis McCarthy as Dr. “Doc” Hodges, who successfully treated Rockford’s eyes.

In the summer of 1959, Fuller guest-starred as young outlaw, Buck Harmon, in the episode “The Friend” on the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Lawman. In the story line, Harmon is estranged from his minister father, played by Robert F. Simon. When the outlaw gang comes into Laramie, Buck switches sides to help his old friend, Deputy Johnny McKay (Peter Brown). In the shootout, Harmon is gunned down, but his father is spared.[6] That same year Fuller also appeared as Davey Carey in another Lawman episode titled “The Souvenir.”

In 1959, Patrick Kelly called Fuller to his office to offer him an opportunity to co-star opposite Academy Award-winner Ray Milland, in the CBSdetective series, Markham. Fuller quickly turned down the role because he wanted to appear in westerns. He was David Dortort‘s second choice for the role of Lorne Greene‘s youngest cocky, impish son, Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright, on NBC’s Bonanza, but he lost the role to another young and then unknown actor–Michael Landon, whose career was made by that role.  At about the same time, Fuller landed the co-starring role of Jess Harper on Laramie, which ran from 1959 to 1963, and Fuller was cast opposite another of his best friends, John Smith. Being the unknown, struggling actor that he was, Fuller was asked to do a screen test for the character of Slim Sherman, and John Smith had originally been cast as Jess Harper. Fuller insisted that he would be better cast as Harper, and after the screen test, he won the role of Jess, while Smith got the part of Slim.

Laramie was eventually aired in more than 70 countries. When Laramie ended its run, Fuller jumped to another western, Wagon Train, alongside John McIntire (a veteran film actor, a two-time guest-star on Laramie, and a future star of The Virginian), Frank McGrath, and Terry Wilson. According to an August 17, 2009 interview for On Screen and Beyond, Fuller noted that he was not brought into the show to replace Robert Horton (an actor Fuller met in 1954, when he and friend James Drury were under contract at MGM, and befriended for 62 years until Horton’s death in March 2016) in the role of the wagon train scout. He resembled Horton and the two shared the same birthday, but Horton was nine years Fuller’s senior.[9]While Horton had worn a dark cowboy hat, Fuller usually wore a light one. Horton had already departed from the cast a season earlier, and McIntire had carried the series for a year. Fuller stepped in the following year, where he remained in the series (which switched to ABC in 1962) until it ended its run after two additional seasons.

Over the next six years, Fuller appeared in a handful of nondescript films. It seemed his career was stalling as the Western was slowly being retired from the American film industry. The one exception was his role as Vin in Return of the Seven (1966) which was a modest, if lackluster, sequel to The Magnificent Seven.

In 1966, Fuller starred in the Western film Incident at Phantom Hill. That same year, he portrayed the ill-fated western military Captain William Judd Fetterman in the episode “Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney,” near Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming, one of NBC’s Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre. His co-stars included Richard EganPhyllis AveryRobert Pine, and Carroll O’Connor. He also appeared in the 1969 thriller What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, opposite Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page, and co-starred with Joel McCrea in the 1976 western Mustang Country, McCrea’s last movie. He also had a role in the 1979 TV action movie Disaster on the Coastliner, opposite Lloyd Bridges and Raymond Burr.

After producer Jack Webb saw Fuller in the 1971 movie The Hard Ride, he insisted Fuller star in his new NBC medical dramaEmergency! Webb had already signed his own ex-wife, 1950s/1960s singer and B-movie actress Julie London, as Nurse Dixie McCall alongside her by-then real-life husband, Bobby Troup, as Dr. Joe Early. Fuller was reluctant to play a doctor, especially in a series with a contemporary urban setting, but the persistent Webb convinced him to accept the role of Dr. Kelly Brackett, Chief of Emergency Medicine at the fictitious Rampart General Hospital. In the aforementioned 2009 interview with On Screen and Beyond, Fuller said that he had twice, politely, rejected the role of Brackett. Webb then reminded Fuller, much less politely, that Western shows had been repeatedly cancelled over the previous five years and that the genre was on the decline.

Fuller’s and London’s co-stars on Emergency! were previously unknown actors Randolph Mantooth as John Roderick “Johnny” Gage and Kevin Tighe as Roy DeSoto, both playing paramedics. The other cast members got along very well with both Fuller and London, who herself, became a surrogate mother to both of the guys. During its first season, as a mid-season replacement in the 1971–1972 season and despite the especially fierce and vigorous competition of CBS’s All in the Family, Emergency! became a hit, and NBC renewed the show for the 1972-1973 season. It remained on the air for the next five years. In the sixth season of Emergency! in 1976 and 1977, Fuller’s on-screen appearances were reduced because he had grown unhappy with the direction the show was taking, after feuding with one of the producers, off-camera, while at the same time, he was looking for Westerns. In 1977, after a six-season run, Emergency! was put on hiatus, despite good ratings, and eventually canceled in 1979, after eight and a half seasons and 134 episodes. In 1986, the entire Emergency! cast (with the exception of series star, Julie London) appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America.

In 1980 Fuller starred in the pilot of a CBS Western series, Jake’s Way, as the title character, along with younger newer actors Ben LemonKristin Griffith and Stephen McNaughton; the series failed to sell.[10] As the 1990s approached, he played supporting roles in more than 20 television shows, including The Love Boat, The Fall Guy (in two episodes which reunited him with Lee Majors, who met Fuller on The Big Valley), Murder, She Wrote (which reunited him with Eddie Albert, who guest-starred with Fuller on Laramie), Matt Houston, Tour of Duty, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., JAG, and  Diagnosis: Murder, in an episode which reunited him with his former Emergency! co-star Randolph Mantooth (Malibu Fire). Toward the end of his acting career, he had a recurring role as Jess’s supposed great-great-grandson Wade Harper on Walker, Texas Ranger with Chuck Norris and Clarence Gilyard. He also portrayed another character in the same series (in the second part of the episode “Last of a Breed”) before being cast as Wade. His film appearances were fewer, consisting of a small role as a doctor in the comedy film Repossessed (1990) and a cameo as a poker player in Maverick (1994).

Fuller is an accomplished singer. He did several “bandstand” gigs with Bill Aken’s Los Nomadas rock group at holiday festivities in Whiskey Flats, California. While acting as grand marshal for the local Memorial Day parade, he performed a vocal rendition of the 1950s song “Caribbean,” singing the same verse over and over. He later told the band that he only knew the first verse of the song. In 1967, he recorded an LP in MunichGermany. Most of the songs were recorded in German, including “Ein Einsamer Cowboy” (“Lonesome Cowboy”), “Adios Mexicana” (“Goodbye Mexican Girl”), “Uberall Auf Der Welt” (“All Over the World”), “Sind Wie Blumen” (“Girls Are Like Flowers”). Whether the album was successful in Germany is unknown.

By the 1990s Fuller had largely retired from the film business. Since May 19, 2001, he has been married to actress Jennifer Savidge, known for her role on NBC’s St. Elsewhere series. Through Savidge, Fuller also became very good friends with her acting coach, veteran producer and actor Norman Lloyd, who played Dr. Daniel Auschlander.[11] Formerly Fuller was married for 22 years to Patricia Lee Lyon, whom he wed on December 20, 1962, and with whom he has three children: Rob, Christine, and Patrick. The two divorced in 1984; Lyon died the year after the divorce.

Since March 18, 1990, Fuller, along with longtime friend James Drury, has been on the celebrity panel of the annual Festival of the West, a public/private party where die-hard fans can ask questions about his roles on Laramie, Wagon Train, and other Westerns. He also tells the story of his becoming a cowboy. Included at his party are country-Western dancing, lunch, and dinner.

From October 9 to October 11, 1998, Fuller was reunited with the rest of the surviving Emergency! cast, at the Emergency! Convention ’98, which took place at the Burbank Airport Hilton in Burbank, California. All of the main actors attended except for Julie London, who had suffered a stroke in 1995. London’s husband Bobby Troup attended just four months before his own death. Fuller and the rest of the cast and crew answered fans’ questions and reminisced about their time together, during which the cast-mates said they got along well.[12]

On March 10, 2010, Fuller presented James Drury with the “Cowboy Spirit Award” at the Festival of the West.[13] He also paid tribute to John Smith, who died fifteen years earlier on January 25, 1995 of cirrhosis of the liver and heart problems. In the tribute he recounted many details about Smith’s life, especially their on- and off-screen chemistry during their days on Laramie. Smith had also attended the Festival of the West for two seasons before his declining health rendered it impossible for him to appear.[14]

On October 9, 2010, Fuller, James Drury, and Don Reynolds participated in the Wild West Toy Show, sponsored by Bob Terry in Azle near Fort WorthTexas. The event promotes horse riding and the purchase and exchange of Western merchandise.[15]

In September 2012 Fuller, along with several other western celebrities, attended the first annual Spirit of the Cowboy Western festival held at Chestnut Square in McKinney, Texas. The event is billed as the biggest and best Western festival in North Texas.

In the middle of 2004, Fuller and wife Jennifer Savidge moved from Los Angeles to North Texas to raise horses on a ranch. His neighbor and long-term friend Alex Cord had urged Fuller to move to Cooke County. The two, who are the same age, had met in 1961 on the set of Laramie when Cord made his television acting debut.[16] Fuller’s former Emergency! co-star and long-time friend, Randolph Mantooth, said in an interview with Tom Blixa of WTVN that he would no longer keep in touch with Fuller because of the relocation.[17]

On July 29, 2013, Fuller celebrated his 80th birthday with his fans and his wife while vacationing on a ranch in Libby, Montana.

James Drury

Fuller’s longest-lasting friendship has been with James Drury, whom he met (along with the late Robert Horton, 9 years Fuller’s senior) when the three were under contract to MGM in 1954. Drury put Fuller in touch with Jock Mahoney, who in turn contacted Dick Jones. When their contracts were over, Drury and Fuller moved to Universal, where they each starred in their own Western series. In 1959, Fuller co-starred opposite another old friend, John Smith, in Laramie (before joining the cast of Wagon Train after Laramie’s cancellation), while Drury starred in The Virginian for 9 seasons, between 1962 and 1971. Fuller appeared in The Virginian later in its run, in two episodes in which Drury did not appear.

Drury was a fan of Fuller’s and Julie London’s Emergency! series, a show that lasted 8 1/2 years. In an interview with another of Fuller’s best friends, Drury said, “I had known Bobby Troup very well. We’ve done several shows together. But I never really knew Julie, except just to meet her. Bobby [of course] became lifelong friends with her, and so forth, but I never spent any time on the road with her, but I think Bobby Fuller did… Fuller… didn’t really want to do a modern show. He wanted to do another Western, but Jack Webb talked him into it or insisted that he do it, and he was very happy, [of course] because it was a great success and he had a wonderful time with Julie London and Bobby Troup.”

Julie London

Fuller’s second longest-running friendship was that of Julie London, a young, new popular singer and an accomplished movie actress, whom he met (alongside her future husband Bobby Troup, 15 years Fuller’s senior), when he was stopping in for a beer at one of the clubs in Los Angeles, California, in 1955. Being 7 years his senior, the young, unfamiliar, struggling actor even witnessed her own singing. Then, five years later, London would guest-star with Fuller on the first episode of the second season of Laramie, “Queen of Diamonds.” London acted the part of the sheriff’s wife (played by Claude Akins). That episode was the beginning of a wonderful relationship, while at approximately the same time, he continued keeping in touch with Troup. In late 1971, thanks to London’s ex-husband (Jack Webb), he didn’t have a choice other than to be reunited with both London & Troup, to star in Emergency! with them, where the three enjoyed a special on- and off-screen chemistry with each other, sharing a 12 lb. medical dictionary to pronounce words. When Emergency! was canceled, after over 130 episodes, Fuller continued to stay in touch with London. Thanks to her popularity on Emergency!, Jack Webb wanted Julie London to become the executive producer of future projects, but she turned it down, and eventually retired from acting. Like Drury, London also called Fuller, “Bobby.”

According to Fuller’s co-star and London’s second husband, Bobby Troup, London was known to be a very private and introverted lady who spent most of her time with her extended family and hated attending shows.nTroup died on February 7, 1999. Fuller, London and the rest of the surviving Emergency! cast attended his funeral. London herself passed away almost two years later on October 18 2000.

In a June 2013 interview with Tom Blixa of WTVN, Fuller said of his Emergency! medical partner and secondary series’ lead Julie London that she had what he called a “potty-mouth.” He added, “She should’ve been a sailor. I’m telling you, I loved Julie. I’ve known Julie for years and one of the things that made me happy about doing Emergency! was working with Julie and Bobby because they were friends of mine. I’ve known them for years. Before that, Julie did Laramie with me and I loved her. I loved her singing and I loved his playing. But to Julie, to get away with anything and when it came out of her mouth, it sounded like candy and we loved it. She was wild.”

In a September 2017 interview with Joe Collura of Quad-City Times, Fuller said about the time he met his future Emergency! female lead, Julie London, immediately after serving his time in the Army: “Shortly after I got out of the Army in ’55, I happened to be in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard drinking a beer when all of a sudden this gorgeous blonde came out with a man with a guitar,” He recalled. “The woman started to sing and, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. That was my introduction to Julie London. Also that year, I met Richard Boone for the first time.”

Clu Gulager

While struggling as an actor, Clu Gulager met Fuller on the fourth episode of Laramie, in which Gulager played the role of a private who showed up at the Sherman Ranch Relay Station beaten and half-starved looking for help from Jess Harper, who was his brother-in-law. The friendship took off from there and a lifelong connection began. Gulager was also reunited with Fuller on 2 more episodes of Wagon Train and 1 episode of The Virginian, where Gulager was credited as a star, but like Drury, Gulager did not appear in the episode.

In 1995, along with Fuller, Drury and Walker, Gulager also appeared on an episode of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, in which his role was that of a drunken deputy.

In 2012, after six decades of acting, at age 83, Gulager retired, but continues to stay in touch with Fuller and travels with him to various festivals including Festival of The West and the Memphis Film Festival.

John Smith

When he was just 23 years of age, Fuller first met the not-so-famous actor, John Smith, along with another young, new TV actor, Doug McClure (Drury’s future co-star on The Virginian), in the movie Friendly Persuasion, where he only had a limited line. The two began to develop a lifelong friendship, in 1956. At the same approximate time when co-starring with Smith in Laramie, Fuller also guest-starred with Smith on an episode of Cimmaron City.

During the time Smith starred with Fuller in Laramie, the two had a wonderful on and off screen chemistry and would even meet some familiar, as well as unfamiliar, guest stars who went on to bigger and better things. When Laramie ended in 1963 after a 4-season run and 124 episodes, Fuller moved on to the cast of Wagon Train where he created part of a character modeled after himself, while Smith found himself a victim of typecasting as Slim Sherman.

Smith also guest-starred in a few roles, most notably Emergency! with Fuller & London, and Police Woman with Angie Dickinson, but in time withdrew from acting.

Second-only to Fuller, Smith was also a social butterfly, known for traveling and raising horses. He was the very first guest at the Festival of The West. However, bad health prevented him from attending. He died on January 25, 1995, and was cremated.

Alex Cord

At only 28, the same age as Fuller, Alex Cord met him on an episode of Laramie playing the son of Dan Duryea‘s character. This was Cord’s first guest-starring role in a long career. The two remained friendly.

In 2001, when Fuller remarried, Cord served as his best man. Then Fuller attended Cord’s wedding to Susannah Moller, where Fuller served as best man. Two years later, Fuller moved with his wife to Texas, becoming Cord’s neighbors.

James Best

Already an immensely popular character actor and movie star of several Westerns, James Best appeared on the sixth episode of Laramie. Best played a worried young man who demanded that Jess Harper help save a young man dying of a snake bite. Fuller and Best had a great connection and since the writers loved him from his first appearance, Best later did two additional guest spots on Laramie with Fuller, long before landing a starring role in the popular actioncomedy satire, The Dukes of Hazzard, in the 1980s and later, two movies, in 1997 and 2000.

Being the traveling man that he was, ‘Jimmie’ would travel to festivals and run into ‘Bobby’ many times.

On June 12, 2013, aged 86, and very healthy at the time, Best reunited with Fuller, Drury, Johnny Crawford and Henry Darrow at the Memphis Film Festival in Olive Branch, Mississippi, where massive crowds of die-hard Western fans could ask questions before attending a sock hop dance.

On November 8, 2014, aged 88, Best’s final appearance with Fuller was when the two (with their wives) flew to Los Angeles, California, from their homes (Best was living in North Carolina), to celebrate the 100th Birthday of their dear friend Norman Lloyd (who worked with Fuller’s wife, Jennifer Savidge on St. Elsewhere), and reminisce over Lloyd’s memories. Five months later, on April 6, 2015, Best died of pneumonia. Fuller did not attend his funeral in North Carolina.

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