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Gail Davis as Annie Oakley.GAIL DAVIS
"I Was Annie Oakley"

by Boyd Magers

TV’s first female heroine was Gail Davis. From 12/11/53 through 3/1/57, Gene Autry’s Flying-A Productions produced 81 b/w half hour episodes of “Annie Oakley”, with reruns to 1960. Oddly, after co-starring with Gene in 14 features, Gail wasn’t considered at first for the sharpshooting gal when Flying-A proposed the series. Eventually persuading executive producer Armand Schaefer to give her the role she was born for, Gail, from age 27 on, never stopped being “Annie Oakley.”

Set in the mythical town of Diablo, AZ, Annie kept law and order with the aid of deputy sheriff Lofty Craig (Brad Johnson), who handled all the fisticuffs, and Annie’s kid brother Tagg (Jimmy Hawkins). Oddly, Tagg was played in the original pilot by Billy Gray. In the pilot, Annie’s uncle was Sheriff Luke McTavish (Kenneth MacDonald), thereafter seldom referred to. Annie, in a conversation with Tagg, refers to their mother’s death. Annie’s horse, Target, was played by at least three similarly colored Palominos. Tagg’s horse was Pixie. Gail was usually doubled by Donna Hall but sometimes by Alice Van (who later married director R. G. “Buddy” Springsteen). Gail’s best friend, actress Nan Leslie, doubled Gail once (in “Alias Annie Oakley”) when Gail broke her ankle.

"Annie Oakley" television logo.In 1955 Annie Oakley licensed merchandise topped $10,000,000 in sales. The series was guided by veteran western directors such as George Archainbaud, Frank McDonald, Earl Bellamy, the disliked Ray Nazarro and D. Ross Lederman. Many of the scripts came from the prolific western pens of Norman S. Hall, Robert Schaefer (Oakley producer Mandy Schaefer’s nephew) and Eric Freiwald, Maurice Tombragel and Paul Gangelin. Brad Johnson was only 56 when he died in 1981. Hawkins, now in his 50’s, went on to produce TV movies and has sat on the board of the Donna Reed Foundation which awards scholarships in performing arts. “I’m real proud of my little guy,” Gail beamed.

The 5'2" Gail Davis, newly married, came to Hollywood from McGehee, AR (near Little Rock) at 20, hoping for stardom. “Really and truly I wanted to be a musical comedy star. I thought, jeepers, they were super. That’s the thing I wanna do. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the voice or the feet.” Gail did record a few discs for Columbia and RCA but they were not hits.

“I started out at MGM for about three months, then they sold my contract to RKO. I was there for a year before I started freelancing and made ‘The Far Frontier’ with Roy Rogers when Dale was pregnant and then Dale came back. I freelanced in shows with Monte Hale, Rocky Lane, Jimmy Wakely, the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger…many others.”

Gail fondly remembers her sole film with Tim Holt, “Overland Telegraph”. “It was a good part for the girl…not just one of those smile into the sunset pictures. Tim was really cute…he had a friendly personality but was a bit of a kidder. So was (his sidekick, Chito) Dick Martin, but both were very conscientious about their pictures.”

As for Johnny Mack Brown, “He was a gentleman. The sweetest man. He loved people, he loved animals, and the crew just adored him. I’m sorry I only got to make two films with him.”

In 1949 Gail hooked up with Gene Autry, appearing in a string of 14 features at Columbia and 15 of the singing cowboy’s TV shows before Gene’s Flying-A production company started “Annie Oakley”. Many of these features co-starred the irascible Smiley Burnette. “I loved Smiley. He’s a legend. It’s wonderful, the laughs he brought all the people where he toured. Not only that, he did so many kind things for people when he went on the road. And cook? Good heavens could that man cook. He used to have his trailer and we’d be doing one-night stands and Smiley’d say, ‘Come on in Gail. Let’s get some flapjacks and molasses.’…or he’d fix fried chicken for dinner. He was really down home.”

After appearing in 25 B-Westerns and as many TV episodes from 1949-1953, Gail learned Gene’s Flying-A Productions was going to do an “Annie Oakley” series. She wasn’t even considered for the role at first. “They came up with the idea of a western series for a girl…it’d never been done before. So they ran a contest throughout the United States…trying to find someone who could ride and shoot and act. I got very upset because this was right down my alley, really a part I wanted. I felt it was me. I went to talk to the producer, Mandy Schaefer, (Armand Schaefer) and he said, ‘No.’ So, I went home and put on my bluejeans, a gingham shirt—put freckles on my nose and put my hair in pigtails and I walked back in to Mandy’s office and said, ‘I think I should play the part.’ He said, ‘You got enough courage to do this—let’s give you a test.’ We did the test—and I guess I passed. (Laughs) I’ve been Annie ever since.”

As far as being able to handle a gun, Gail laughed, “My father was a doctor back in Little Rock. He liked to go hunting with a .22 rifle, so I learned early how to shoot.” During the “Annie” run, Gail put together a shooting act and toured extensively, even after the series left the air. She played Empress Hall in London, Madison Square Garden in New York, the Fat Stock Show in Chicago and literally hundreds of rodeos and fairs in nearly every state. But, as to her abilities as a ‘real’ marksman, “Let’s just say I’d hate to get into competition with those police boys.” On her personal appearance tours, Gail, from the back of a galloping horse, lit a series of six matches with well placed shots from her .22 revolver. “The faster (the horse) goes, the smoother the ride—and at 8-10 feet head on, how can you miss? I average about four out of six. Once I lighted only one, but let’s not talk about that.”

Shooting an action TV Western was not easy work, but Gail loved it. “I was up at four o’clock every morning braiding my pigtails, have breakfast and head for the ranch. We worked from sunup to sundown. We worked in Pioneertown (a Western town location near Palm Springs) and there was a big tall mountain out there called Panic Peak, and we could get the last shot of the day on the top of that mountain at about 8:30 at night. By the time we took the bus back into town it was 9:30, get a bite to eat, go to bed and get back up at four o’clock the next morning. When we first started, we were doing three shows a week; working seven days a week when we were on location.”

Donna Hall.“I had a wonderful gal that did my stunts. Her name’s Donna Hall and she could do anything with a horse…anything with stunts as far as that’s concerned. She used to take that horse and go underneath his neck, his belly and ride standing up and sideways and everything else. Donna’s the one that did all the long shots. This gal was terrific!”

Hundreds of terrific character actors populated the series, but one stood out in Gail’s memory, Stanley Andrews. “I loved him almost as much as my father. My Dad passed away quite sometime before I met Stanley. He was so wonderful to me all the time we worked together. He wasn’t my real father, but it felt like that.”

Only once did Gail invoke her star status, “I went in to talk to the producer. I said, ‘I do think we deserve a honeywagon up in the mountains.’ Everytime anybody wanted to go potty, they had to go behind a rock or they had to go all the way back to town, which was 40 miles. He finally said okay.”

The hardest part of playing Annie was being separated from her young daughter, but the best part was the closeness she enjoyed with the tireless crew and co-stars, Brad Johnson (Lofty Craig) and Jimmy Hawkins (little brother Tagg). “We worked together for seven years, in the mountains, in the desert, in the snow, sleet, rain, dust storms…everything under the sun. These people were family.” The series finally came to a halt in 1957. “Tagg grew to be six feet tall. I couldn’t pat him on the head as my ‘little’ brother anymore. It broke my heart to have to give the show up.”

Gail was so typecast as Annie Oakley, producers just wouldn’t hire the sharpshooting shemale. “Some of ‘em said why don’t you cut your pigtails off, dye your hair black, change your personality…well, that wouldn’t work. I was Gail Davis…but…I was Annie Oakley.” Gail was always proud of the character and what she stood for. “I felt like Annie was me…and she was. Oh wow—she really and truly was.”

Gail Davis—“Annie Oakley”—left a large void in the Western field when she died at 71 on March 15, 1997, of brain cancer.

Gail’s Western Filmography


Movies: Far Frontier (‘48 Republic)—Roy Rogers Brand of Fear (‘49 Monogram) —Jimmy Wakely Death Valley Gunfighter (‘49 Republic)—Allan “Rocky” Lane Frontier Investigator (‘49 Republic)—Allan “Rocky” Lane Law of the Golden West (‘49 Republic)—Monte Hale Sons of New Mexico (‘49 Columbia)—Gene Autry South of Death Valley (‘49 Columbia)—Charles Starrett Cow Town (‘50 Columbia)—Gene Autry Indian Territory (‘50 Columbia)—Gene Autry Six Gun Mesa (‘50 Monogram) —Johnny Mack Brown Trail of the Rustlers (‘50 Columbia)—Charles Starrett West of Wyoming (‘50 Monogram)—Johnny Mack Brown Overland Telegraph (‘51 RKO) —Tim Holt Silver Canyon (‘51 Columbia)—Gene Autry Texans Never Cry (‘51 Columbia)—Gene Autry Valley of Fire (‘51 Columbia)—Gene Autry Whirlwind (‘51 Columbia)—Gene Autry Yukon  Manhunt (‘51 Monogram)—Kirby Grant Blue Canadian Rockies (‘52 Columbia)—Gene Autry Old West (‘52 Columbia)—Gene Autry Wagon Team (‘52 Columbia)—Gene Autry Goldtown Ghost Riders (‘53 Columbia)—Gene Autry On Top of Old Smoky (‘53 Columbia)—Gene Autry Pack Train (‘53 Columbia)—Gene Autry Winning of the West (‘53 Columbia)—Gene Autry Alias Jesse James (‘59 United Artists)—Bob Hope TV: Lone Ranger: Buried Treasure (‘50) Lone Ranger: Spanish Gold (‘50) Cisco  Kid: Convict Story (‘50) Cisco Kid: The Will (‘50) Cisco Kid: False Marriage (‘50) Gene Autry: Blackwater Valley Feud (‘50) Gene Autry: Doublecross Valley (‘50) Gene Autry: Devil’s Brand (‘50) Gene Autry: Gun Powder Range (‘50) Gene Autry: Fight At Peaceful Mesa (‘50) Gene Autry: Frame For Trouble (‘51) Gene Autry: Revenge Trail (‘51) Gene Autry: Outlaw Escape (‘51) Gene Autry: Galloping Hoofs (‘51) Gene Autry: Heir To the Lazy L (‘51) Lone Ranger: Friend In Need (‘51) Range Rider: Outlaw’s Double (‘51) Range Rider: Greed Rides the Range (‘52) Gene Autry: Melody Mesa (‘52) Gene Autry: Horse Sense (‘52) Lone Ranger: Trial By fire (‘52) Cisco Kid: Talking Dog (‘52) Cisco Kid: Big Steal (‘52) Kit  Carson: Golden Trap (‘52) Kit Carson: Trouble in Tuscarora (‘52)  Death Valley Days: Land of the Free (‘53) Gene Autry: Ransom Cross (‘53) Gene Autry: Steel Ribbon (‘53) Gene Autry: Civil War at Deadwood (‘54) Annie Oakley: series (‘54-‘57)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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