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Don Megowan: "Coolest Father in the World" ... Interview with Vikki Megowan

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 4:40 pm

    Western stars not only walked tall and rode tall in the 1950s and ’60s, they usually WERE tall, especially on TV—think of James Arness, Clint Walker, Chuck Connors and John Russell. Finding actors who could go toe to toe with them was a cinch; the trick was to find actors who could go nose to nose with these man-mountain town tamers.

    Don Megowan (1922-81) more than filled the bill—and his sturdy 6’ 7” frame also made him right for monster roles, including the Creature in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) and a Karloff-like monster in the TV pilot Tales of Frankenstein.

    Megowan had a mother who was a Hollywood film cutter, so perhaps even in his youth he considered the possibility of someday trying out for movie roles. As a teenager, however, this native of Inglewood, California, concentrated on athletics and became a track and field star. At USC, the already king-sized Megowan played football; at the time, he may have been the country’s largest lineman. During World War II Army service, he won a heavyweight boxing title.

    After the war, Megowan became “intrigued with drama” (according to his LA Times obituary) and by the 1950s he was squeezing his big physique into small movie roles. Eventually he starred in a handful of movies, but his greater success was in TV where he guested (sometimes repeatedly) on the top Western shows.

     During his years in Hollywood, little was written about this giant (size-wise) of the acting world, with Variety even failing to note his passing; this made him something of a man of mystery to his fans. In this interview, his daughter Vikki at last sheds some light on the subject and describes the fun of having “the coolest father in the world.”

    CI: Do you know the name of your dad’s mother? I bet she never got an on-screen credit for cutting a movie, but I’d love to check.

    Vikki Megowan: Her name was Lelia Dale Megowan, and her story is rather interesting by itself. She was born in West Virginia and her mother died when she was very young. Her father could not raise her on his own so he decided to send her by train to a family friend, Leo Pennington, in California. Her father wrote her name on a card and pinned it to her blouse, put her on the train and sent her off to this new family. Later in life she married our grandfather Robert Megowan. He was a baker and a heavy gambler. He became so [deep] in debt that Grandmother went to her brother and asked him to help her find a job. This is when she obtained a job cutting negatives for a company named Pathé. She left Robert and then, through the Depression years, raised three children on her own: Doris was the oldest, Eileen next, and Dad was the youngest. She was only 5' 2" but her tenacity and strength made her look seven feet tall! Robert was 6' 7", and this is where Dad and his two sisters got their height. They were all taller than six foot.

    Dad lived a VERY colorful life as a child and there are some pretty good stories about him. When he was still in his younger years but close to six foot tall, he decided it would be fun to climb up on top of a large water tower close to his house. Attached to the side of the tower was a ladder that did not go all the way to the top. Even at that young age, Dad was tall enough to make up the distance between the ladder and the top of the tower; only a tall person would be able to hoist themselves up to the top. But then he couldn’t get DOWN from it, and even the firemen were stumped on how to help him! In his teen years he would jump trains to get around and traveled to many cities in and out of California. He was a rebel and a huge handful for his mother.

    Dad would talk about how she would punish him by sending him out to the backyard to prune a tree and find her the largest stick for a spanking. This would give her time to cool down, so Dad would spend hours working on the tree, hoping she would forget about the whole thing.

    CI: He was quite an athlete in his youth. What can you tell me about that?

    Vikki: I know Dad played baseball—he was the catcher. He also held the discus record at Inglewood High School. In addition, he played football as both defensive and offensive tackle. He went to the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. He allegedly was the biggest football player around at the time and was offered a pro contract after college. He was proud to be tall. He stood out in a crowd and walked with confidence, always. He made it a point to get out of the car if pulled over for a ticket. He would stand up and tower over the officer; I think he thought he could intimidate them out of giving him a ticket! Dad had a lead foot and would get caught pretty frequently.

    CI: Are you tall?

    Vikki: No, I take after my grandmother, I’m the runt of the family. I am 5' 5", while my brother Greg is 6' 4" and my mother was 5' 7".

    CI: Is there a cute story that goes along with how he met your mother?

    Vikki: When they met, Mom was a stewardess and she did not live in California, she was here on a layover. Back then, layovers were days, not hours. She and the other stewardesses went to State Beach to sun-tan. She was lying on a towel soaking up the sun when Dad rolled over from his towel next door and asked for a cigarette. That started the courtship. Mom thought he was so handsome and for a while they had a long-distance relationship. Then Dad met her family and finally convinced her to move to California.

    CI: Do you know why and how he got into movies?

    Vikki: I don't know for sure. He always said that he was seen playing sports and encouraged to go into acting, but I know he took acting classes. So I am not sure how exactly that all came together.

    CI: Were his friends “movie people”? What did he do in his spare time?

    Vikki: He had friends of every background and walk of life. He loved people. As for spare time, he loved the pool table and playing the horses. But his favorite hobby was playing cards. He had weekly games, sometimes nightly. He played with Clint Eastwood, Clint Walker and Jack Elam along with other close friends. Incidentally, not only was his mother a film cutter way back in the day, but his cousin was the comedian Foster Brooks, and other family members were also in the television field. His sister Doris was an artist and worked for Walter Lantz, drawing Woody Woodpecker! She taught me how to draw both Woody and Bugs Bunny—she knew how to draw all the cartoons from all the different companies.

    We were very close because he was an incredible father to me. All my friends thought he was the coolest father in the world. He knew just the right things to say to keep me in line and make the right decisions. He could reason with me and get results without yelling or spanking. He always said I was a female clone of him and our thoughts were so much the same that it was frightening. We were on the same wavelength and in the same moods at the same time. At times it was almost eerie. He used to say if I were older and not his daughter, we would probably be married! The trust between the two of us was incredible. I always wanted to be a parent like him, but I just could not get to that level of trust with my kids. God knows I tried! He never got riled about things, something I couldn't control with my children.

    I can only remember one time when he told me NO and that was when I was a teenager and planned on being the only girl to go camping with several teenage boys. He put his foot down on that one! But any other time I wanted to do something crazy, he would allow me to, after we talked the entire plan through. I thank him for my analytical way of thinking and down-to-earth personality.

    CI: Do you have any recollection of him talking about playing the Creature in The Creature Walks Among Us or the Monster in Tales of Frankenstein or any of his other sci-fi credits?

    Vikki: He downplayed all his sci-fi movies because he did not want to be stereotyped as just a sci-fi actor. Quite honestly, back in those days he really didn't want it widely publicized that he played the Creature, for fear it would hurt his opportunities for other roles. He did not want to be a sci-fi actor. As you probably have found in your research, he also did The Creation of the Humanoids [1962] and a couple of werewolf movies [the 1956 movie The Werewolf and the 1974 telemovie Scream of the Wolf]. That was enough for him!

    In fact, he really was not a movie fan. He didn’t even like to watch himself on TV or at the movies. Although, I do remember going to the drive-in theater to see Snowfire [1958], a movie about a wild horse everyone wants to catch. He played the father of two young daughters and I cried the entire movie because they kept calling him Dad. I cried, "He is NOT your dad, he is MY dad!" Mom and Dad left before the end because I was so upset. Today, Snowfire is my favorite movie that Dad did. I love horses and owned many in my younger days. They were NOT related to us but the two girls who played his daughters were named McGowan, and so were the guys who made the movie. The credits are almost comical with all the McGowans and the different spellings.

    CI: I’ve found some old articles about your parents’ split, and it sounds a little messy: “Megowan accused his wife of unjustified and unreasonable jealousy,” “Mrs. Megowan charged that her husband was too friendly with French actress Denise Darcel,” etc.

    Vikki: It takes two to tango. I think there was guilt on both sides. Mom was a very jealous woman. Dad on the other hand had women practically throwing themselves at him. I do remember Dad saying several years after the divorce that he always loved Mom and she was his first and only love until Alva [his second wife] came into his life. He made it a point to respect our mother and swore he would never say a negative thing about her to us. He kept that promise.

    After the divorce, my brother Greg and I went to live with our mom, and he would pick Greg and me up religiously every Saturday or Sunday and take us back to his apartment to spend the day. He taught me how to drive his car at 12 years old! It was a yellow 1967 Bonneville and I was allowed to drive on the freeway, to the beach, wherever I wanted. He enjoyed letting me drive him back to his apartment each week. While I was still 12, he even trusted me to drive withOUT him. Back in the ’60s, it was a very different time. Not much traffic, and I could pass for 16 years old.

    Every Christmas, Greg and I would have Christmas breakfast with Mom and Christmas dinner with Dad and his mother and sisters and cousins. Dad was as much of a kid as us, if not MORE. I think many times the toys he got for us, really were for him. One Christmas, Dad and his family bought Greg every wind-up toy known to Man—wind-up helicopters, army trucks, soldiers, planes, etc. When Dad brought us back to Mom's house, he wound each toy up and let it loose on the kitchen floor. They covered the entire kitchen. Mom was agitated, but was used to Dad's playfulness.

    Years after Dad passed, I was eating lunch in our lunchroom at work. Several other people were eating there also, including one lady I had seen but really didn't know. She and another lady sitting at our table were conversing, and this lady said that she once worked for Rex's Toytown in Reseda. She remembered an actor who would come in every Christmas Eve after closing and, in her words, he would “buy out the store” for his kids on Christmas morning: “His name was ... Don. Hmmm, what was his last name? Oh, yeah, Megowan!” I was married and my last name was different so she had no idea she was talking about my father. I immediately said, "That was my dad!" She didn't believe me until I showed her an old driver’s license with my maiden name on it!

    CI: Greg told me that your dad was also an apartment building manager.

    Vikki: Dad managed several apartment buildings at one time. A man named Albert Moore was married to Dad’s sister, Eileen, and Uncle Albert owned and oversaw the construction of many apartment buildings. They were in different parts of North Hollywood but he had several on Arch Drive in the 4100 block in ... well, it was North Hollywood back then but now the city is Studio City. My dad managed the Arch Drive apartment buildings while living in one of them. The one he lived in the longest was 4150 Arch Drive, near Ventura Blvd. That place became “party central” because many colorful people lived there: the members of the old rock band The Seeds, a couple members from Yellow Balloon, [songwriter-singer-actor] Keefe Brasselle, [Shazam! TV star] Michael Gray, and a few others I can't remember. The parties there were out of this world. Some parts of the parties are better off kept as memories, but they would run well into the wee hours of the morning with all different band people jamming. It seemed like there were hundreds of people coming and going. They were held in the middle of the courtyard around the pool with lots of people ending up being thrown in. Dad was the manager and had to approve all parties. I don't know who originally came up with the idea of the parties but they were ALL party animals so any excuse was a good reason. One of the tenants had a refrigerator with a beer tap, and there was so much talent in the building I think some parties just happened without planning.

    Also, my dad owned many exotic animals: an ocelot, monkey and most famously an Italian alligator named Juliet, who lived in one of his bathtubs at 4150. Juliet was written-about in many newspaper articles. Italian alligators are small, so Juliet was fine living in his apartment and had the full run of the place. Later, after he moved to Panorama City, he lived with a woman—rather, she lived with him—who owned a tiger!

    CI: In the 1960s he made a couple of foreign films. Did you get to go along?

    Vikki: I loved to tag along with Dad but was not allowed to do so until the ’70s and ’80s. Before the divorce, he took Mom to Italy while filming, but Greg and I had to stay home with the babysitter.

    CI: I also found a 1963 news item about a serious auto accident that he was in.

    Vikki: This accident was scary as he almost died. Dad drove his car up a light pole. He was thrown through the windshield and "scalped" the top part of his head so that it was barely still attached. He was half in and half out of the car. Because of his size, they could not humanly remove him so they used a crane to pull him out of the car. Afterwards, he was unconscious for 36 hours. He claims he fell asleep from carbon monoxide fumes from the car, but I think he had had a drink or two also. The divorce was hard on him and he did enjoy a drink or two. That head scar was used later in a movie called Tarzan and the Valley of Gold [1966] where he played Mr. Train. They shaved his head for the part and emphasized the nasty scar.

    CI: Greg also mentioned that he owned a couple of restaurants. Did he do all this on-the-side stuff because the movie-TV work was slowing down?

    Vikki: The movie business IS a difficult business. One moment you have more work than you can handle and the next you are unemployed. Managing the apartments provided free living and a steady income. Later he purchased a condominium and opened a bar and grill for steady income. He loved to cook and was really good at it. His first place, Johnny’s, on Lankershim in North Hollywood, was started in the late ’60s.

    CI: Why did he name the place Johnny’s?

    Vikki: He took it over and the name was already on the marquee, so he kept it. Then in the mid-70s, after Johnny’s, he opened a much nicer bar and grill, Megowan's Clubhouse, on Webb in North Hollywood. He maintained that place until he passed in 1981. At Megowan's Clubhouse, people were not allowed to swear. Dad printed up a code book with code numbers for different colorful remarks. The idea was to say, "Oh, code 371!" which would mean something like “S.O.B.!” There were even whole sentences with codes. It was actually interesting to see the people carry on entire conversations in code. Both places were always filled with regulars. His specialties that drew people in were his homemade lasagna and hamburgers. He loved people and they loved him.

    CI: A little bit ago, you mentioned his second wife Alva.

    Vikki: Alva Lacy May and my dad married in the late ’70s. Alva was Dad's last true love and a beautiful person. Their wedding rings had "FIRST, LAST AND ALWAYS" inscribed on the inside. When he passed, she also put it on his gravestone. Alva outlived Dad but later breast cancer took her. Incidentally, Alva was an actress and had some small parts in a couple of movies as Alva Megowan.

    CI: Your dad also died of cancer. Was he a smoker?

    Vikki: Dad began smoking cigarettes at age 12. He rolled his own and became a pretty heavy smoker. When he was 48 years old, he decided to quit and did so cold turkey. He had an incredible ability to quit any addiction on his own.

    I am thankful that Dad was able to walk me down the aisle for my wedding to my second and current husband, Mike. Dad got to hold both my children, his grandkids. Greg was not as lucky because Dad did not see Greg get married or meet Greg's kids; in fact, he never met Greg's wife. Dad died about a month after Greg started dating the woman who became his wife—and, understandably, he did not want to meet anyone at that point of his illness. He would have been an awesome grandfather and would have added value to their upbringing in a way only he could.

    I married Mike on June 1, 1980, and Dad passed June 26, 1981. His throat cancer took an incredible toll on him. He went from weighing close to 300 pounds to less than 150. He wanted to die at home so his last days were spent in bed, in his own bedroom. He was always well manicured and clean. Every morning he would roll out of bed, crawl to the shower, bathe sitting on the floor and shave, then crawl back to bed. Sometimes he would ask Greg to shave him because he was exhausted from the shower. I would take a two-hour lunch break from work every day and go see him. His throat was so filled with cancer that he could not swallow food. I made protein shakes for him to drink, to try and keep his strength up. Alva was working at the bar and said he would only drink shakes or sometimes eat for me, so I made it my daily routine.

    On June 26, 1981, my oldest child Michael was graduating from pre-school into grade school. It was a big affair with a cap and gown, the whole enchilada. I told Dad I would not make it for lunch that day and that I really wished he could be there for the graduation. He said, "Honey, I wish I could be there too." Greg came home from college that afternoon to find Dad in his room, not breathing, half on and half off the bed. It was a tough experience for Greg that I know he will never forget. The coroner said the time of death was around the time I would have been there for lunch. So I believe Dad WAS there to see the graduation. I also believe that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and he and Dad made sure I would be preoccupied at the time of his passing.

    It was devastating that he passed at such an early age. His mother outlived him; she got to be 92 years old and outlived two of her three children. She was a devout Baptist who never smoked a cigarette or drank alcohol. It was almost comical when she would come to visit our house: Mom and Dad would hide all the alcohol so that our grandmother didn't know they drank! She’s now buried in Inglewood Cemetery next to my dad and one of his sisters.

    In the ’60s and ’70s, Greg and I were very popular at school and in our neighborhood: We were known as the "movie star's" kids, and people would go out of their way to tell us they had watched one of Dad's movies. One time, Greg went to a summer camp and the movie of the week was the World War II The Devil's Brigade [1968, with Megowan in a supporting part]. The camp director came over and asked Greg if there was any relation to the actor in the movie. Greg confirmed it was his father, and instantly became the most popular person in camp! I still get calls today from friends telling me they either saw Dad on TV recently or letting me know that one of his movies is scheduled to run.

    One other thing that Greg and I are so very thankful for is the fact that there will always be a resource of pictures and movies of Dad. Our current and future families will have an opportunity that so many families don't have: being able to see our dad act, hear his voice and see his mannerisms. This is something you just can't get from a still picture, if you are fortunate enough to HAVE a picture. My grandkids get so excited when we play a movie with Dad in it and tell them he is their great-grandfather! It also opens up conversations about his life, our lives and the many memories.