“Brave Eagle” was the first TV western to present an Indian as a hero—in the lead. The Lone Ranger’s Tonto did predate “Brave Eagle” but Jay Silverheels was a sidekick, not the lead character.
Produced by Roy Rogers’ Frontier Productions, with location shooting done at Corriganville and in the Chatsworth, CA, area (some even on Roy’s own ranch), Keith Larsen as Brave Eagle premiered on Wednesday September 28, 1955, on CBS at 7:30 Eastern. The half hour series centered on the exploits of Brave Eagle, young chief of the peaceful Cheyenne, his problems with renegade Indians, other warring tribes and his fight to keep his homeland free from settlers.
Stressing authenticity, young Keena (played by 13 year old Tony Numkena) was Brave Eagle’s young foster son.
22 year old Kim Winona played Morning Star, a young Indian maiden love interest for Brave Eagle. It was stated at the time that her real name was Happan Mackey and that whe was three-quarter Sioux born on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. In truth it was actor Pat Hogan (who often played Indian roles) who got her an agent when she moved to L.A. as a secretary. The name Kim Winona was a creation of executive producer Mike North. aAccording to her daughter, Mimi Richman, Kim’s real name was Constance Elaine Mackey and she was of American Indian heritage. She was married to Seattle pharmaceutical salesman Harvey Buck during the filming of "Brave Eagle". Llikely born August 24, 1931, suffering from mental illness she died of a self inflicted gunshot to the head in 1978.
Totally miscast as Smokey Joe was Jewish comedian Bert Wheeler (formerly of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey) as a half-breed tribal sage and sidekick of sorts to Larsen.
As to the series’ origin, Keith Larsen told WC, “Roy Rogers’ manager, Art Rush, is the one who put the whole concept of ‘Brave Eagle’ together. As I understand, it was his idea. He brought it to Roy. I had played an Indian before…‘Hiawatha’ at Monogram (‘52)… ‘War Paint’ for Howard Koch (‘53), so it was a normal casting situation. (With the Indian as the hero) we were serving to change the image of Indians. We used to talk about that all the time. When you think about it, it was their country. We used to get letters from Navajos in Utah. We visited them and used a lot of their dialogue.”
“Keena’s family was (on the set) a lot. He was Hopi (and Karuk), which is almost a religion…their way of life…about keeping the earth the way it is. Keena was a great little guy.” Keena made his film debut in Tyrone Power’s “Pony Soldier” (‘52). Editor's note: There will be a full interview with Tony Numkena in WC's Centennial print issue in March of 2011.
As for Bert Wheeler’s miscast Jewish Indian, Smokey Joe, Keith said, “That’s what a lot of people thought. It could have been more of a Tonto type of thing. What happened was, his agent put him up for it. The powers that be may have been Wheeler and Woolsey fans…they thought maybe the marquee value. I remember he’d married a really darling, very young girl. They were living in a trailer at the time. He had wonderful stories to tell about the money he’d had, the amount they’d made. They would have huge parties and bring in everybody, hundreds and hundreds. But he lost it all to agents and one thing and another. He ended up, by the time he was in our show, he was in his 60s. We used to have lunch lots of times in that trailer and he was a little bit depressed about it, to think he left everything to other people like managers. It was like, when the music stopped there was no chair. But he was a charming little guy.” Wheeler was born in 1895 and died of emphysema in New York in 1968.
Keith continued, “Kim Winona had a nice charm about her. I have a very minuscule amount of Cherokee blood…but I’m basically Scot, Danish and Spanish.”
Keith told me, “Roy Rogers wasn’t involved other than just an interest in the series. We worked at his ranch a few times. I know at one time he was talking about maybe doing one of the segments as a guest star, which would have been good for the show. We also shot out at Corriganville. Really, really hot out there!”
“I’d learned to ride from the wranglers on previous westerns by the time I did ‘Brave Eagle’. They gave me a big horse…King (called White Cloud in the series)…I’ve forgotten how many hands high he was. Huge horse. With all the paraphernalia you have to carry, bows and everything, I was always afraid I’d get impaled when I was thrown…spears and arrows and no saddle. And when that horse decides to get rid of you, you’re gone! He was very temperamental. He would just stop and throw you and there was nothing to hang onto. I can remember over and over again being in mid-air, throwing stuff away, getting as far away as I could…not thinking about going through the air ‘cause I knew I had to get to the ground. But I didn’t want to land on an arrow or something like that. But the horse looked great on screen.”
By not using a saddle Keith recalls, “It was different on the mounts. Just running and leaping on the horse. But in some ways, it’s easier to learn than to learn hitting the stirrups on a dead run. My double was Bill Catching. But they didn’t use stuntmen a lot because they liked to stay with the principals. We did a lot of our own. I broke a toe, broke my hand, broke a bone in my ankle. I really got busted up on that series, more than any other picture. There’s a lot of ways accidents can happen on a set. More than people realize. Things fall. Wind would knock over the lights. Lots of ways.”
Keith didn’t see a dime from any of the comic books or other merchandising. “It went with the territory. It didn’t amount to much anyway by the time they watered it down.”
He always felt the series would be remembered, “because of the premise of having the Indian as a lead. But there was a different sort of gamesmanship with the networks vying for different shows…something would come up and they’d orchestrate one against the other,” therefore only 26 episodes were filmed and aired between September ‘55 and June ‘56. The series did continue in reruns.
Born in Salt Lake City, UT, in 1924, Larsen went on to star in “Northwest Passage” ‘58-‘59) for MGM and “The Aquanauts” (‘60-‘61) as well as features such as “Apache Warrior”, “Wichita” and “Last of the Badmen”. Keith later directed and wrote several pictures on his own such as “Night of the Witches”, “Trap On Cougar Mountain”, “Mission Batangas” and “White Water Sam”. At 82, Keith Larsen died December 13, 2006, in Santa Barbara, CA.