“The Nine Lives of
Buoyed by their success on the frontier with “Davy Crockett” (‘54-‘55) and “Zorro” (‘57), ABC wanted more Westerns from Walt Disney, so Uncle Walt presented them to the network beginning on “Walt Disney Presents”. “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca” premiered on October 3, 1958, during Disney’s fifth season for ABC on Friday nights from 8-9pm ET. Ten action filled hours were spread over the fifth and sixth seasons through March ‘60. Sicilian Robert Loggia starred as real life Mexican lawman turned lawyer Elfego Baca of Socorro County, New Mexico, in the 1880s.
Ethnic characters were still a rarity on television in the late ‘50s and Elfego Baca was an exceptional role model. For the “Walt Disney Treasures” boxed DVD set of “Elfego Baca” and “Swamp Fox” episodes, Robert Loggia told interviewer Leonard Maltin, “(The real) Elfego Baca was an extremely complex character, he even chased Pancho Villa down in Mexico. He had the courage of a lion. He became a lawyer, a man who defended the poor, much like Clarence Darrow, a defender of the common man. Very brave, very flamboyant. For me, a kid brought up in the streets of New York, I was not part of the horsey set. Westerns to me were Gene Autry or Buck Jones, guys that rode horses were an alien activity (to me); then to suddenly have the opportunity to be a hero in a Western endeavor by Walt Disney was like I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d been working on stage in NY; I got a call from my agent…‘we think this is already cast but we managed to secure an interview for you.’ I think it was Ricardo Montalban who was going to play Elfego Baca, it was almost like a case closed situation. Nevertheless, they procured an appointment with Walt.”
“When I came in, Walt took an instant liking to me. They did a screen test and he offered me the role. Walt said, ‘Can you ride, son?’ (chuckles) ‘No sir, but I can learn;’ I was a good athlete. I got the accelerated course in drawing a gun, wearing a cowboy hat… I certainly had a frame of reference—Buck Jones, Gene Autry, Tom Mix. Hudkins Stables in the Valley is where I learned riding. The first thing was to develop ‘a seat,’ then I learned to ride bareback. I graduated to a Western saddle. People that ride long, your feet are like shock absorbers, you develop a sense of balance, and the way you rein a horse, especially if you have a good horse that neck reins. I had a quick draw instructor. The fighting I’m very handy with, I played football, baseball, basketball. I had a football scholarship to college so the transition from the football field to a cowboy was not that difficult.”
“The first episode was based on truth. We went to (near) Santa Fe, NM (Cerrillos) to film. That episode is really quite authentic in the legacy of Elfego Baca. Other episodes were shot around Thousand Oaks, and Lake Sherwood (in California). Norman Foster was the director but Walt’s presence was there. You paid attention to what he said, no question. Foster never got full credit for his input in initiating the project. He became a father figure to me. He was a wonderful man, a generous man, an intelligent man. He also wrote some episodes.”
“Walt Disney wanted to be called Walt by everybody, he was really a father figure. When you were at the studio it looked like a high school or college campus—people playing volleyball, everybody was on a first name basis. Walt was quite an unusual man. As for stuntmen, Davy Sharpe sought me out. He said I used to do it for Doug Fairbanks…he said you’re the best guy I’ve ever known since Fairbanks in the way you can handle yourself. I did all my fighting, riding, shooting—I was very handy. And Davy Sharpe paid me the ultimate compliment. What a great guy he was.”
“Elfego was born in Kansas, he was as American as could be but he was bilingual. He was the first Mexican American hero. Walt said, ‘How do you want to play him?’ I said, ‘He’s Mexican American. If he’s gonna be the All American Boy, call him Jack Armstrong. He’s gotta have that ethnicity.’ And Walt went with it, so I played him with a definite accent and celebrated his ethnicity.”
Semi-regulars on the series included Robert F. Simon as Baca’s deputy, James Dunn as his senior law partner, Carl Benton Reid, Annette, Beverly Garland, and Lisa Montell who recalled for WC, “One of my favorite filming experiences was playing the role of Anita in ‘The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca’. It gave me a chance to discover and explore the special beauty and culture of New Mexico where we filmed the show, adding to my ever deepening love for the American Southwest. Everyone connected was a pleasure to work with, and I particularly enjoyed getting to know Walt Disney, who visited during the shooting and spent quite a bit of time with us on location. My only regret is that Anita ended up choosing another man, breaking Elfego’s heart. I would definitely rewrite that part of the script, and happily ride off into the sunset with Robert Loggia.”