Richard Simmons had feature roles in two serials early in his career (“King of the Royal Mounted” and “King of the Texas Rangers”) and later starred as Jerry Randall, who became a Zorro-like character known as El Latigo, in “Man with the Steel Whip” (‘54). He will, however, always be known as television’s “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”.
Born in 1918 in Minnesota, Dick began working as a radio announcer while he was attending school. He went west to L.A. with no idea of entering the picture business, but upon arriving there went to work again as a radio announcer, as well as announcing big bands at the Palladium. Work in little theater followed, then minor roles in those two Republic serials as well as features like “Sergeant York”.
Shortly before World War II Dick was placed under contract to MGM. The war interrupted his career while he served as a fighter pilot. After the war, MGM picked up his contract and he continued his career as an actor.
Reflecting on what it was like to work in serials, Dick said, “Working on a serial is difficult because they are so repetitious, but you become accustomed to it. It’s always very interesting and kind of fun, but when you keep repeating and repeating what you do, it gets a little monotonous. You do have some trouble trying to get rid of the monotony and keep up the pace.”
When asked about the work schedule, Dick answered, “The schedule was very hectic because it was a complete show every week almost like a series. These were not shot in sequence. You had to be prepared to either go back or go forward and it’s not always easy. You go back and think, ‘What the hell was that line?’ What you are doing is rememorizing lines. Just trying to remember all of the dialogue was difficult. I used to be driving home on the freeway and would be rehearsing the lines out loud. People would look over from another car and nudge their partner and say, ‘Hey, look at that guy. He’s talking to himself.’ Things like that,” he laughed.
Asked if he could think of anything dangerous that happened on the set, Dick replied, “Something people don’t really understand about the motion picture business, there were a lot of companies that would not insure actors simply for that reason...because it is dangerous. You never know what you’re going to do and there are times when you are presented with things to do that are dangerous. You don’t look at it that way but other people do. Everything was a little bit dangerous in respect to what you would normally do. Lots of things people see on the screen they think, ‘How the hell did he get away from that?’ And they are actually kind of real in a way. You’re used to it, you live with it, and that’s it.”
One harrowing incident on “Steel Whip” Dick recalls involved a stagecoach chase in which Simmons was driving. The passengers inside were only dummies. Stuntman Dave Sharpe was a heavy on horseback firing and chasing the coach. The camera crew was driving along a road beside the coach to film the sequence. Dick noticed Davy was yelling at him, and as soon as he got closer Dick could hear, “Get off that thing and jump on the horses. The pin came out of the wheel!” The road Simmons was on was flat and straight to that point, but a curve was approaching. The horses would make it, but the coach couldn’t. Even the camera truck had stopped to avoid being in the impending wreck. Dick tossed himself forward onto the team of horses just before the turn where the coach, in fact, did turn over. Dave Sharpe saved Dick’s life!
Asked about other incidents on the set, Dick stated, “Some of those things maybe a person should remember, but don’t lose sight of the fact this is 50 years after I did it.”
Producers and writers at Republic loved the word “king”. They used it in the titles of their feature films, but they particularly liked using it in serials: “King of the Royal Mounted”, “King of the Texas Rangers”, King of the Mounties”, King of the Forest Rangers”, King of the Rocket Men” and “King of Jungleland” (the reissue title of “Darkest Africa”). Therefore, with this re-release title change, we have ‘king’ in the first Republic serial as well as the last, “King of the Carnival”.
I looked up the word “king” in Webster’s dictionary and found many descriptions listed. I applied them to the first serial and decided which came closest. “King of Jungleland” (re-released 11/10/48). Dictionary definition of king: one that holds a supreme or preeminent position in a particular sphere or class. Since Clyde Beatty was equally adept at besting savage beasts and dangerous men, that would be our boy. This was not Beatty’s first venture in front of serial cameras. Back in ‘34 he was the star of Mascot’s “Lost Jungle”. In a situation that is simply a coincidence, Beatty’s co-star in “Darkest Africa” (‘36) was Manuel King, billed as the world’s youngest wild animal trainer at the tender age of 12.
“King of the Royal Mounted” (‘40) 12 chapters: In his first of four Republic serials, Allan Lane portrays Sgt. Dave King. This film was based on the popular comic strip of the same name whose continuing adventures made their newspaper debut on 2/17/35, winning the approval of the public to the extent that a little over a year later on 3/2/36 a daily strip was added. The serial itself enjoyed such popularity that Republic released it as a 70 minute feature film, “Yukon Patrol”, on April 30, ‘42.
“King of the Texas Rangers” (‘41) 12 chapters: Producers at Republic were always looking for a “hook”, something different to catch and hold the interest of the movie-going public. For the past several years a young football star had attracted national attention. A new serial was being prepared and a male star was needed. On 2/27/41, Samuel Adrian Baugh, known now by the nickname “Slingin’ Sammy” due to his football throwing prowess, signed a contract with Republic. For an individual that had never acted professionally before, the financial arrangement was impressive. For the filming schedule of June 17 to July 18 he would receive $1,000 a week. It’s interesting to note Sammy’s salary was the top dollar amount paid to a serial lead up to that time, matched by only 3 other actors: Ray Mala, Hoot Gibson and Ralph Byrd. A native of Sweetwater, TX, Baugh was brought up around horses, the reason he looked so natural in riding scenes.
In keeping with his reputation, producers wisely utilized some football game newsreel shots although a radio announcer identifies him by his movie character name as throwing the winning pass. At 6' 2" and 180 lbs., Sammy had the look and agility of a screen hero. In the serial script he plays the part of Tom King Jr. His father, Tom King Sr., is a Texas Ranger who has discovered valuable evidence concerning a ring of 5th Columnists. Within the first 10 minutes of the first chapter, Slingin’ Sammy is upgraded from Tom Jr. to Tom Sr. when enemy agents kill his father. The son now joins the Texas Rangers and thus begins one of Republic’s most exciting cliffhangers.
“King of the Mounties” (‘42) 12 chapters: The role of Dave King was reprised by Allan Lane with nothing in the new script that would indicate King resented still being a sergeant after his incredible acts of courage against saboteurs and terrorists in the previous serial. The new cliffhanger had two tentative titles: “King of the Royal Mounted Rides Again” and “King of the Royal Mounted Strikes Again”. It didn’t take long to realize these unusually lengthy choices would crowd any double feature displays (in those days) on a theatre’s marquee, so the abbreviated title “King of the Mounties” was decided upon. Since the studio had the same star in the same Mountie uniform, it was an easy economic decision to insert stock footage from the first serial into the current one. This was done several times, most notably in chapter 9, “Reign of Terror”, where the audience is treated to the entire cliffhanger sequence from chapter 8, “Satan’s Cauldron”, from “King of the Royal Mounted”. However, this time it’s shown mid-chapter. A few minutes later the episode ends with stock footage from chapter 4, “Devil Doctor”, lifted from “Royal Mounted”. Permission to reuse certain scenes with Allan Lane was given by Lane and he subsequently received a check in the amount of $162.50.
“King of the Forest Rangers” (‘46) 12 chapters: Filmed 9/27/45 to 10/25/45 with the lead role of Steve King portrayed by Larry Thompson who had a checkered career working for Republic. Prior to this assignment he’d only worked for the studio twice before, in the serial “Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island” (’36) and the John Wayne western, “Dakota” (‘45). His role in both these films was so small he received no screen credit for either. Now, 10 years after he first walked through Republic’s gates, he was starring in a serial. Whatever personal pride Thompson took in this fact would soon be diminished as he was never hired by the studio again. Once more Republic used the Big Bear Lake location that had figured so prominently in the two Mountie serials. Sadly, due to mounting production costs, this would be the last extensive photography done at this terrific location.
The cast members numbered 40 with leading lady Helen Talbot one of only two women players in this group. Helen told me she learned very quickly when you were on location and the day’s shooting ended there wasn’t a great deal to do except play practical jokes and pranks on each other. Helen went on to say she had to spend time each evening peeking behind shower curtains, looking into closets and under the bed. She knew it was all in fun and had to laugh at some of the film crew’s antics.
The serial also featured the back-from-service return of a favorite stuntman, Dave Sharpe, whose last serial was “Perils of Nyoka” (‘42).
“King of the Rocket Men” (‘49) 12 chapters: Leading man in this 51st Republic serial was Tristram Coffin who played rocket propulsion expert Jeff King. Ironically, this actor’s last name was pretty much of an indication of what type of roles he had been playing. In cliffhangers like “Spy Smasher”, “Perils of Nyoka” and “Jesse James Rides Again”, he was the catalyst for much of the mayhem. Now, he was going to change his screen persona and become the “Good Guy”.
I met Coffin only once, at the 5th Annual Western Film Collectors Convention in Nashville, TN, in July of ‘76. Tris, as he liked to be called, said he was genuinely surprised, after all the years of playing villains, to be asked to portray a hero. He went on to say that somehow he had the idea serial heroes did not wear mustaches and was apprehensive the producer would request he shave it off. I told him he was close to being right. Up to that time (and beyond) only two of Republic’s leading men wore mustaches: Reed Hadley in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” (‘39) and Tom Neal in “Jungle Girl” (‘41). Coffin was unaware of these exceptions.
When I mentioned his leading lady, Mae Clarke, was probably best known for having a grapefruit pushed into her face by James Cagney in “Public Enemy”, Tris broke into a big smile upon hearing her name. He told me that during the filming the cast and crew made sure Clarke found a nice fresh grapefruit awaiting her on the makeup table she used.
Certainly a bonus for him on a personal basis was establishing a long standing off-screen personal friendship with actor Don Haggerty who played lead henchman to the unknown villain, Dr. Vulcan.
Tris said as far as the serial was concerned, he was most impressed by the special effects flying scenes. Serial fans received a surprise in the closing minutes of Chapter 11—for the first time in a Republic serial the mystery criminal has his identity revealed before the final chapter!
“King of the Carnival” (‘55) 12 chapters: Republic’s last serial was filmed between 3/8/55 and 3/25/55 with an original working title of “King of the Circus”. This final cliffhanger was budgeted at $172,995 and was released to theatres 6/27/55. Harry Lauter played Bert King, a carnival performer specializing in daredevil acts. In the first episode, King is approached by old Army buddy Rick Vallin who is now a treasury investigator and asked to help him find and destroy a counterfeiting ring.
In the mid ‘80s I visited Harry at an artists’ colony in southern California. I don’t believe it is generally known, but Lauter was a particularly talented artist who brought his canvas paints and brushes with him whenever he went on a film location. “King of the Carnival” was Harry’s 4th serial for Republic. He was lead henchman in “Flying Disc Man From Mars” (‘51), then a small role as a Mountie in “Canadian Mounties Vs. Atomic Invaders” (‘53), and was handed the title role in “Trader Tom of the China Seas” (‘54).
Harry had a great sense of humor. When I pointed out there were only 17 days between the first and last day of “King of the Carnival”, he agreed, saying, “Don’t forget, that included two Sundays off! So actually, it came down to a 15 day shooting schedule. It was like being in basic training in the service. All that fighting and running around was a real endurance test. When I finally saw the serial I remember being surprised none of the scenes showed me with my tongue hanging out!”
When I asked if he was aware this serial was the end of an era for Republic since it was the last cliffhanger they produced, Harry said he had no knowledge of that fact. I was so impressed by his artwork that I purchased one of his paintings for myself. I sensed he lowered the price as a gesture of friendship. His work hangs prominently displayed in the living room of my home.
Now we know why “King” was used so frequently. The movie going public was led to believe exactly what it wanted to believe. On a movie marquee, one-sheet poster or lobby card, “King” in the public mind would mean “the best of”. If an individual pays the admission price and enters the theatre as a fan of serials, the advertising has accomplished its purpose. And actually, some of these serials were “the best” of this special era.