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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:17 pm

Often acting with a Southern accent, Jerome Courtland was a tall, gangling, boyish-looking actor who came to motion pictures as a teenager, and, over the next decade and a half, exhibited an ingratiating, easygoing charm in a string of productions ranging from musicals to dramas to comedies. He was especially memorable as "Li'l Abner" Spudler, a “hillbilly with the biggest pair of feet in the ETO,” in the classic World War II film Battleground. He also participated in some fine, uniquely scripted westerns, such as The Man from Colorado with Glenn Ford and The Walking Hills starring Randolph Scott. Shortly after playing the title role in The Barefoot Mailman, Jerome, or “Jerry” as his friends called him, began a long and fruitful association with the Walt Disney organization. This included starring in his own TV miniseries, The Saga of Andy Burnett, as well as some producing and directing assignments.

    “Talk about typecasting,” chuckled Courtland, following a screening of The Texas Rangers at the 1999 Charlotte Western Film Fair.  “You know, they always wanted me to be that shy, manure-kicking, kid brother character. Producers and casting agents saw me that way, and that's what I was hired to do.” In Texas Rangers he played George Montgomery's all-too-honest younger sibling, and in our ensuing interview at Charlotte he spoke to me in detail about his life and career.

    Born Courtland Jourolman, Jr., on Monday, December 27, 1926, in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was the older of two children (he had a younger sister) and early on was tagged with the moniker “Cujo,” an abbreviated combination of his first and last names. His father, a former attorney, owned and operated an array of businesses, including restaurants and a dry-cleaning plant. At the time of his divorce from Jerry's mother during the 1930s, he functioned primarily as a Methodist preacher. Jerry's mother was drawn to the arts. A lover of music and singing, she devoted a number of years to pursuing a singing career. As Mary Courtland, she had her own radio show on NBC, and even helped to open Manhattan's famous Rainbow Room. Following his parents' legal separation, Jerry spent his winters in Knoxville with his father. His summers were spent in Los Angeles where his mother had moved after leaving New York. She eventually married a prominent California architect named Walter Wurdeman.

    After grade school and junior high, Jerry put in a year at the Riverside Military Academy in Gainsville, Georgia. A sports enthusiast, he made the school's football, basketball and boxing teams, and ran as a member of the cross-country track team. His sports background later served him well when he made action films as he was in excellent physical condition and needed little or no help in performing some of his own stunts. “Growing up, I was involved with many, many things,” Courtland said. “I've played most sports most of my life. I liked to draw at 15; I illustrated the Tennessee University Annual. I have always been interested in animals and reptiles—actually, I thought I would someday go off to Africa and photograph the exotic, wild beasts of the jungle.”

    Seventeen years old and enrolled at UCLA, Jerry attended an anniversary party for a couple of his mother's friends. Also there was Hollywood film director Charles Vidor who came up to him with the possibility of a job offer. Courtland didn't realize it at the time, but the course of his life would change suddenly. Vidor was about to start shooting Columbia's Together Again (1944) starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and he was looking for a young man of roughly Jerry's age and looks to play the male juvenile lead. The director totally floored the teenager by casually suggesting that he test for the role. “Prior to that night, I hadn't even thought of being an actor, let alone train for it,” Courtland explained. “I did the screen test really expecting not to get the part, just thinking it would be fun, something to brag about to the other kids when I returned to school after the summer vacation. Lo and behold, Columbia put me under a seven-year contract. I couldn't believe it.”

    An amorous farce, Together Again involves a small-town mayor (Irene Dunne) who goes to New York to commission a statue of her late husband and ends up falling for the sculptor (Charles Boyer). Jerry, the boyfriend of the mayor's stepdaughter, mistakenly believes the older woman is really attracted to him. Wrote Variety: “Jerome Courtland virtually stops the show with a sparkling puppy-love romantic episode with Miss Dunne, and shows plenty of possibilities for feature buildup.”

    Pleased by their new contractee's appealing naturalness before the camera, Columbia cast him as the male lead (billed second) in Kiss and Tell (1945), a minor reworking of the F. Hugh Herbert Broadway hit of the same title about the repercussions caused by an unwed teenager claiming to be pregnant. Its top star, Shirley Temple, in one of her first adult roles, was on loan to producer Sol C. Siegel from David O. Selznick, whose insistence on approving the screenplay and the daily rushes helped inflate production costs. Fortunately, the picture grossed a whopping $4 million, and significantly boosted Jerry's standing as an actor.

    With World War II still raging and Courtland's draft status listed as 1-A, it wasn't a question of if he would be called to serve in the military, but when. Kiss and Tell was still in production when he received his first induction notice. After asking for and getting a couple of deferments to finish the picture, he was on his way overseas by the mid-summer of 1945. Luckily, Japan surrendered in August, before Jerry's outfit had reached its final destination. Hence, they quickly shifted from a fighting force to one of occupation and control. “I went into the Army as part of the infantry,” said Courtland, “and was transferred to heavy automotive maintenance, about which I knew absolutely nothing. It seems the Army has a way of finding out exactly what you don't know and that's where they put you. And since the war ended as I was on my way overseas, I went straight into Japan with an empty rifle instead of a loaded one, and had a great time.

    “During the year I was there, I climbed Mt. Fuji, and was probably the first American to do that after the war, because I took a train out of Tokyo which was off limits to Allied military personnel. I remember, I couldn't get any of my buddies to go with me—they all thought I was out of my mind. So anyway, I made this climb and it was really quite a wonderful experience. I spent the night halfway up with a Japanese family, slept in the middle of the living room with them. Gave them my cigarette and chocolate rations. And the next day, I finished my climb.”

    Discharged in 1947 with the rank of sergeant, Jerry wasted little time getting back to Hollywood. Unlike many GIs returning home, the 20-year-old was fortunate in so far as he had a job waiting since film studios were obliged to take back everyone under contract who had gone to war. Initially signed for seven years, Jerry had barely put in a year with Columbia before being drafted; consequently, considerable time remained on the agreement as long as the company did not exercise its option of discontinuing it at half-year intervals.

    The first film Columbia assigned after his military release was The Man from Colorado (1948), with Glenn Ford, William Holden and Ellen Drew, and, although a western, it proved anything but routine. Ford plays a Civil War vet mentally scarred by his battle experiences, and he terrorizes a town he's been appointed to serve as a federal district judge. Holden, on the other hand, takes on the job of marshal and tries to offset some of the injustice perpetrated by his onetime commanding officer. “A lot of the men coming back from World War II suffered psychological trauma, and this picture was supposed to parallel some of that,” states Courtland. “Of course, even the most serious of project has its moments of lightheartedness and absurdity. I remember Glenn Ford, who's not a short man, became so obsessed with his character's height that he couldn't just wear the high-heeled boots. He had to have the built-up insoles inside the high-heeled boots. I don't know how he walked.”

    Next, Jerry was cast as one of the principals in The Walking Hills (1949), another offbeat western set in Death Valley and involving a party of gold seekers. Tautly directed by John Sturges (who later piloted such noteworthy films as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape), the picture focuses on the emotional tensions of treasure hunters laboring under terrible conditions. A sandstorm sequence is particularly realistic and was written about in many of the movie's reviews. The Walking Hills, starred Randolph Scott and Ella Raines, and came out in March of 1949.

    Next came Make Believe Ballroom, with Virginia Welles; Battleground, with Van Johnson and John Hodiak; and Tokyo Joe, with Humphrey Bogart. Make Believe Ballroom, featuring the music of Frankie Lane, the King Cole Trio, Kay Starr and others, was a starring vehicle for Jerry. He and Miss Welles play carhops who enter a radio quiz show, fall in love and walk away with the contest's top prize. It also marked the actor's onscreen singing debut and the beginning of an on-again, off-again crooning career that would extend into the '60s. “Well, my mother had been a singer so I grew up with music and singing,” said Courtland. “It's true that Make Believe Ballroom was the first film I sang in, but, at that time, a lot of non-singers were making musicals and having their singing dubbed in by others. Therefore, a number of people questioned whether it was really me doing it. Then I made some other musicals, after which I went to Broadway and did a musical. Then, when I was with Disney, I was on their record label singing some songs. So, music has been in my background for many years, although today I don't even sing in the shower.”

    On a more weighty level, Battleground (1949) became the second highest grossing film of 1950, behind only Samson and Delilah (1949), and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It helped reestablish the war film after the immediate postwar period when much of Hollywood, and moviegoers in general, had had their fill of the genre. Written by Robert Pirosh, whose own WWII experiences were often reflected in the situations in the movie, Battleground tells the story of a group of men in the elite 101st Airborne Division, “The Screaming Eagles,” as they are caught up in the Battle of the Bulge and the dramatic winter siege of Bastogne that saw the men under General McAuliffe surrounded, cut off, and pinned down for days by the Germans in their last big offensive of the war. Although set in Belgium and France, 95 percent of the movie was filmed in California on MGM's huge indoor Stage 15, where weather conditions could be simulated. A backdrop stretched completely around the shooting area to help sustain the illusion of overcast skies and fog, with several artificial substances used for snow.

     “Battleground was … was different from many of the ones that had glorified combat for propaganda purposes [during WWII]" Jerry recalled. "The main thing is, William Wellman directed it, and he was a very hard-boiled, realistic kind of guy, who didn't see anything glamorous about war and wasn't going to portray it that way.” In Battleground, the men often try to shirk their duties, quite unlike the sterling heroes of many Hollywood films made during the war. Key characters like Holley (Van Johnson) actually run away during combat, but become heroes in spite of themselves. In the film, Jerry played an easygoing recruit from the Kentucky hills named Abner Spudler whose homespun manner and language exasperates and even disgusts an educated fellow soldier, Jarvess (John Hodiak). In the end, however, Jarvess experiences a profound change of heart, thus making Jerry's character key to another unusual theme found in Battleground—the humanizing effect of war.

    Wrapping up Jerry's quartet of films for 1949 was Tokyo Joe, a rather understated tale of smuggling and blackmail. Humphrey Bogart assumed the role of an Army Air Forces veteran in postwar Japan, trying to extricate his ex-wife and small child from the clutches of a criminal warlord. Billed fifth with little to do, Courtland played a pilot named Danny. Nearly ten inches taller than Bogey, Jerry delivered most of his lines from a sitting position, to keep from overshadowing the star.

    “My height was definitely a problem for me in getting certain roles,” Courtland recalled. “I went in for an interview at Metro once. Clark Gable was going to make a film called The Tall Men, and, being one of the tall, young guys in town, I interviewed. So, I was waiting to go into the producer's office, and out walks James Arness—this was before Gunsmoke—who had just had a meeting himself. Well, Jim is much taller than I, and I was 6’ 5” at the time—I've shrunk a little since—but I didn't want to say I was that tall because I knew Gable was shorter and I probably wouldn't get the job if the producer knew I was bigger than the star. So I'm talking with the producer and director, and, finally, the producer said, ‘Jerry, how tall are you?’ And I said, ‘6' 3",’ thinking I would at least be several inches shorter than what Jim Arness said he was. And the producer turned to the director and exclaimed, ‘See, I told you he was taller than Arness, Jim's only 6' 1".’ As it turned out, neither of us got the part."

    The years 1950 and '51 proved an exceptionally busy time for Jerry's career as he participated in seven feature-length motion pictures, three of them as the implicit lead player: Palomino (Columbia, 1950), with Beverly Tyler; A Woman of Distinction (Columbia, 1950), with Rosalind Russell and Ray Milland; When You're Smiling (Columbia, 1950), with Lola Albright; Santa Fe (Columbia, 1951), with Randolph Scott; The Texas Rangers (Columbia, 1951), with George Montgomery; Sunny Side of the Street (Columbia, 1951), with Frankie Lane and Terry Moore; and The Barefoot Mailman (Columbia, 1951), with Robert Cummings and Terry Moore.

    Palomino, one of the movies shown at the Charlotte film festival in conjunction with Courtland's appearance there in 1999, pits a meat packer's son (Courtland) against the owner of a once-prosperous breeding farm (Beverly Tyler). Their bickering romance, coupled with some beautiful location sites and the skullduggery of Roy Roberts (who stole a prized equine and is selling the offspring), makes this an entertaining if sometimes overly sentimental little programmer. “My wife is laughing at that wedding proposal at the end,” remarked Courtland, after the film's screening. “Kind of corny, but fun ... You know, the location we used for this was up above the San Fernando Valley, and we were the very first company to shoot up there. Later, it became famous because that's where Charles Manson and his group of people lived. Now that very pretty view you saw there by the reservoir and valley has all been transformed into houses. Believe it or not, we shot this whole thing in six days. The Screen Actors Guild wasn't very strong then, so we worked 16 and 17 hours a day. And given that I was living at the time in a little bachelor apartment in Beverly Hills, and there were no freeways, I think I only got two or three hours sleep a night.

    “Richard Farnsworth, who's now an actor, then worked as a stuntman, and he did the scene where the cowboy ropes the lead palomino and is pulled off his horse, saddle and all. You can imagine how difficult it is to train horses to go places and do things on cue, like when the foal climbed up into the car with me, and that was the work of Ralph McCutcheon, an absolutely sensational animal trainer and person. He just talked to those horses and they understood him.

    “Ray Nazzaro directed the picture, and he was kind of a mad man. For the fight we did up there on the cliff, he didn't want any safety lines or anything like that used. And when they staged the avalanche, the special effects man was supposed to throw some gravel down first as a signal for me to duck under the ledge. Only I didn't see any gravel. The first time I looked up, these huge artificial boulders, which still weigh enough to hurt you, were coming straight at me, and one even caught me on the arm. I wheeled Nugget, my horse, under the ledge and he stood there while all this junk was coming down around us and never moved ... a terrific horse.”

    When You're Smiling and Sunny Side of the Street, more or less follow-ups to Jerry's earlier Make Believe Ballroom, showcased the vocal abilities of an ensemble of talented artists as they serve to inspire a young singer (Courtland) to learn the music business. In contrast, Santa Fe and The Texas Rangers took the actor out of the recording studio and back on a horse. In Santa Fe, he's a reluctant outlaw who's killed while surrounded by a posse led by Bat Masterson, and, in The Texas Rangers, he's a novice lawman mortally wounded by the notorious Sam Bass gang.

    “Hollywood writers would take these historical names, like Sam Bass, Butch Cassidy, John Wesley Hardin, and write them into a story, whether it was close to being factual or not, because it added an authenticity to the whole thing,” stated Courtland. “Jock Mahoney, who played one of the bad guys in both Santa Fe and The Texas Rangers, did a lot of the stunt work as well. He was kind of like a big brother to me. He'd take me out to Ralph McCutcheon's ranch and teach me all sorts of trick mounts and things of that nature. And, as with so many of the really good stuntmen, Jocko had the ability to even walk like the actors they're supposed to be, so there was never a point in the scene when the moviegoer knew for sure where the actor stopped and his double began.

    “One of the scenes in The Texas Rangers I remember well is when George Montgomery, Noah Beery, Jr., and I were riding down the road about to be bushwhacked and the special effects guys had set up some squibs, dynamite caps actually, to explode and raise the dust like a gunshot would. Well, accidentally, they set one off right under my horse. That animal's head flew up and hit me square in the face—I want to tell you, I had one sore nose.”

    The Texas Rangers was produced by Edward Small, a onetime actor and talent agent who in the early '30s had co-founded Reliance Pictures and subsequently organized Edward Small Productions. He produced many commercially successful films, as well as TV programs, generally with an eye towards economy. Taking the same top three leads in The Texas Rangers, George Montgomery, Jerome Courtland and William Bishop, Small turned right around and made Cripple Creek, a 78-minute shoot-'em-up about Federal agents infiltrating a powerful gold-smuggling ring. For Jerry, who plays Montgomery's pal and co-worker, Cripple Creek came to be one of his last theatrical westerns as an actor, and, certainly, the last one he did where the important plotlines revolve more around violence than the moral growth of the characters, as Tonka would do six years later, and, to a lesser degree, Black Spurs, after that.

    The 26-year-old Courtland finished up his contract with Take the High Ground (MGM, 1953), with Richard Widmark and Karl Malden, and The Bamboo Prison (1954), with Robert Francis and Brian Keith. In the former, only the second time Columbia loaned him to another studio (the other occasion being for Battleground), Jerry plays a Southern raw recruit named Elvin in a tense account of infantry basic training; whereas, in the latter, he's a prisoner called Arkansas in a North Korean P.O.W. camp.

    Although keeping their contractees busy, studio execs at Columbia seemed to be at odds as to how best to showcase and promote Jerry. Mostly, they shuffled him back and forth between lightweight musicals and action films, without providing a single significant role which could have elevated him to star status. On the other hand, while it was standard practice for a studio to sign a newcomer to a seven-year contract, rarely did a performer go the distance before the company exercised its option to release him. Jerry, however, remained on the Columbia payroll the entire period. He hadn't been a highly-paid actor, he earned $150 a week when he made Palomino, yet, for nearly a decade, he wasn't unemployed either.

    Freelancing, and more or less on his own for the first time in his professional life, Jerry decided to try his hand in the theatre. Playing the part of Van, he became one of a large cast of relative unknowns in Strip for Action, a musical in two acts and sixteen scenes that featured actors, singers, dancers and showgirls. It opened at the Shubert Theatre, in New Haven, Connecticut, on March 17, 1956, and closed April 14, 1956, at the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Earlier, in 1951, Courtland appeared in the short-lived Broadway musical Flahooley, with Yma Sumac.)

    Returning to Hollywood following his brief fling at musical theater, Jerry was hired to sing the theme song for Old Yeller (1957), Walt Disney's first (and many consider his best) feature film about a boy and his dog. This, in turn, led to another long-term contract and a diverse range of interests and responsibilities, including recording on the Disney label and acting in Disney movies and TV shows. Billed third in Tonka, Courtland played a peripheral character in this story of the only survivor of the U.S. Cavalry in its battle with the Sioux at Little Big Horn. The only survivor, of course, was a horse, Tonka, a wild stallion who was captured and trained by an Indian brave and then put into service with the cavalry. Jerry is brought into a few scenes to play a character who seems to represent the benevolent side of the military.

    “I liked Walt Disney; he was a very involved type of guy,” recalled Courtland. “We got along well, but he could be tough, tough in the sense of a hard taskmaster. When he gave you a job to do, he expected you to do it—not just me, but anybody—and if you didn't do it, you were in trouble. Walt had seen me in a picture titled The Barefoot Mailman where I wrestled alligators and all that kind of stuff, so he called me into his office one day to tell me of a TV miniseries he was planning where the lead character behaved the same way. And that's how I got Andy Burnett.” Broadcast on ABC-TV as segments of Walt Disney Presents, The Saga of Andy Burnett, starring Jerome Courtland in the title role, told the story of a young pioneer traveling west from Pittsburgh to the Rockies. Written by Tom Blackburn (who had also written for Disney's earlier success, Davy Crockett) and based on the novels of Stuart Edward White, six adventures eventually aired between October, 1957, and March, 1958. In addition to Jerry, continuing cast members included Jeff York, Andrew Duggan, Slim Pickens and Iron Eyes Cody.

    “Andy Burnett was never intended as a regular weekly series,” Courtland explained. “It started out as a three-part miniseries, then we made three more, for a total of six one-hour shows. That's why they killed off a couple of the principal characters towards the end of it. And, as so often with Disney, the production was simply terrific. For example, the teepees were made of actual buckskin, not just canvas. And it was that way all the way through, very authentic. The Plains Indian sign language I used, I worked a long time with Iron Eyes Cody on that.”

    In the late '50s, Jerry guested on some TV shows like The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and The Rifleman, then, about 1959, he went to Europe to star in a syndicated series of his own called Tales of the Vikings, a half-hour medieval adventure in which he portrayed the 10th-century explorer, Leif Eriksson. The show was produced by Bryna Productions, a company owned by Kirk Douglas, and was filmed on location using sets, costumes and ships left over from the film The Vikings (1958) which starred Douglas.

    Having completed 39 episodes of the Nordic series, Jerry remained overseas and made some German- and Italian-language films, shooting in Italy, Yugoslavia and other places, before finally returning to Hollywood in 1965. It was then he had a supporting role in his last western feature, Black Spurs, for Paramount, with Rory Calhoun and Terry Moore. It told a complicated yarn of a rancher, turned top gun, turned bounty hunter, turned good guy, who gets involved in a railroad franchise threatening the survival of a town.

    “I did another picture in '65 called The Restless Ones, about rebellious teenagers,” says Courtland. “However, that was more or less the end of my acting career. I wanted to get into directing, so I phoned Walt Disney and told him I was interested in getting into production. His initial response was, ‘Acting slow, Jerome? Are you going to wait until a good job comes along then leave me again?’ So I had to convince him that I was really serious, and, when I had, he brought me into the studio and started me in the production office. I began breaking down scripts, then they moved me over into budgeting and things like that.” Disney would pass away in 1966.

    In 1972, after directing several things for television including some of The Flying Nun series, Jerry directed Run, Cougar, Run, a Disney feature with Stuart Whitman and Frank Aletter. It was followed by Diamond on Wheels (1972) and many other projects. In the late '70s, he directed and co-produced a two-hour made-for-TV movie, Hog Wild, which led him to produce or co-produce such Disney films as Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Ride a Wild Pony (1976), Pete's Dragon (1977), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) and Amy (1981).

    “I've spent my life trying to challenge myself,” remarked Courtland. “And becoming a producer was a new challenge.” Before retiring from show business, Jerry directed many episodes of Dynasty and Knots Landing, two long-running primetime series. Plus, he once played a judge on L.A. Law and a doctor on Knots Landing. “Well, I had directed a lot of the Knots Landing shows,” explained Courtland, “so, when one of the other directors asked me to play a surgeon, I thought it’d be fun. And, in this particular case, I was supposed to come out and tell the principals standing there that the patient was in critical condition but she'd make it. So we rehearsed the scene straight, but, for what was supposed to be an actual take, I decided to surprise them. When I came through the door, I carried a bucket of blood. There was blood on the butcher's apron I wore, and the welder's goggles, the carpenter's belt, and my leather workers' gloves. All props that wardrobe had helped me to assemble for this gag. So I'm watching the actors' faces as I'm delivering my lines, and, do you know, we got almost all the way through the scene before somebody finally broke up. That was my last acting job.”

    Once briefly wed to actress/singer Polly Bergen in the mid-1950s, Jerry married again in 1981. He and his new wife, Marlene (nee Juttner), were the parents of five children (three sons, two daughters). For a number of years they lived on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, before moving to Beverly Hills. Later, the couple moved to Chicago and Jerry began teaching directing and producing at Columbia College.

    “Believe it or not, Columbia College is the largest film school in the world,” he pointed out. “Before I retired, I did some teaching at UCLA and enjoyed it. Then, after I retired, when we moved to Chicago, my wife and I fired off a few letters to schools there. And Columbia was the first reply I got. I went in and was impressed with the people I met, especially the chair of the film department, so I never looked any farther ... Teaching is different from anything else, and, again, it's a new challenge. It keeps me learning because the only way you can teach is to learn. And I intend to teach the next semester better than I taught the last. In fact, that's the very way I felt as an actor, director and producer, I want this show to be better than anything else I've ever done. Of course,” laughed Courtland, “it doesn't always work out that way.”

    Eventually, he retired from teaching and moved for a while to Florida where he wrote children’s' books. On March 1, 2012 he died of heart disease in Santa Clarita Valley, California. He was 85 years old.