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August 23rd, 2012
Bartee Haile: ‘Big boy’ Williams has eerie premonition of his death

by BARTEE HAILE

Cowboy actor “Big Boy” Williams attended an invitation-only funeral on Aug. 22, 1935 for polo pal Will Rogers, killed in an Alaska airplane crash.

Guinn Williams, Jr. was born in 1899 at the North Texas town of Decatur. He came home from the First World War in 1919 to find that his father, an influential banker and cattleman, had obtained an appointment for him to the U.S. Military Academy.

“I figured that I had already made second lieutenant and to go to West Point and work my butt off just to become a second lieutenant again seemed kind of silly,” the younger Williams explained in an interview years later. “So I told my father I’d sooner play baseball and that I had an offer from the Chicago White Sox.”

Junior left home and Senior entered politics. The son learned that being the best baseball player in Decatur did not make him a major-league prospect and fell back on his ranch skills to earn a living on the rodeo circuit. The father won election to the Texas senate followed by five terms as a congressman.

Guinn, Jr., who went by Tex at the time, wandered west to Hollywood arriving with $2.50 in his britches. Coming upon a film company shooting an outdoor scene and a laborer listlessly digging a hole, he had a brilliant idea.

“I said, ‘Say! Would you lend me your pick for just a minute?’ The fellow was glad to hand it to me and I tore into that hole like nobody’s business.

“Pretty soon everybody began to watch me. They thought it was funny that anybody could be so enthusiastic about digging.” Williams was hired on the spot as a stuntman.

With his wavy brown hair, gray-green eyes and muscular build, it was only a matter of time until the handsome Texan was in front of the camera. Will Rogers chose him for bit parts in three comedies the popular humorist produced out of his own pocket. The Oklahoman also dubbed the youngster “Big Boy,” a catchy nickname inspired by his size — six feet two inches and 200-plus pounds.

As an authentic cowboy instead of the drugstore variety, Williams decided he deserved the starring role in sagebrush sagas. Although he landed the lead in The Jack Riders in 1921, he soon wound up trapped in so-called B-westerns as a supporting actor.

After having an unsuccessful go at moviemaking, Williams accepted his typecast fate and made the most of it. He developed his trademark “puzzled squint” which he used with equal effectiveness as a dimwitted cowhand or a tender-hearted tough guy.

As Williams’ career picked up steam in the mid-1920’s, he shared the screen with four-legged performers Rex, King of the Wild Horses, and Wolfheart, a Rin-Tin-Tin wannabe. His athletic looks occasionally got him out of the western rut with parts in sports pictures with titles like Brown of Harvard, Slide Kelly Slide, Forward Pass and Big Fight.

Even though he was one of the busiest actors in Tinsel Town appearing in at least 76 pictures between 1921 and 1935, Williams always found time for Will Rogers. The 20-year difference in their ages did not keep the two from becoming the best of friends.

“Big Boy” was a charter member of Will’s fun-loving inner circle. Williams never asked where they were going or when they would be back, when Rogers picked him up in his Pierce Arrow. All he knew for sure was that everyone was bound to have a good time.

The folksy comedian introduced Williams to polo, the rich man’s game that became his passion. The dirt field on Rogers’ ranch was the scene of many rough-and-tumble matches featuring the host’s cowboy cronies, serious polo players and motion picture people like Walt Disney, Hal Roach, Darryl Zanuck and Spencer Tracy.

Hard-riding “Big Boy” was the best of the Hollywood participants. He was, in fact, a world-class polo player known as the Babe Ruth of the sport.

The tragic death of Will Rogers in a 1935 plane crash shocked all Americans, but no one took it harder than “Big Boy.” He never seemed to come to terms with the loss.

Williams made no bones about the fact that movies were a well-paid means to an end that included 125 polo ponies and a 5,500-acre ranch in South Texas. “I worked all the time, 12 pictures a year, but I hated every one of them. I never studied a script. I’d glance over my part just before a scene and bluff it through. I lived to drink and play polo.”

When the movie studios started calling less often in the 1950’s, “Big Boy” switched to the small screen. He was a cast member of two early television series playing the village blacksmith in “My Friend Flicka” and Pete the canvas boss in “Circus Boy.”

Williams had just finished a pilot for a new show “Button and Bows,” when Joel McCrea paid him a visit in 1962. The actor was surprised to find his old friend, who should have been on top of the world, down in the dumps.

“The last three nights I dreamed about Will Rogers,” Williams said. “He is riding Soapsuds, and he says, ‘Come on, Big Boy, get on your horse and go with me!’”

“I don’t feel good, Joel. It’s like he was calling me.”

Less than a week later, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams died of uremic poisoning at 62.


BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.

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