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Biography BIOGRAPHY Claude Akins: From Bad Guys to Good Roles

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Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:14 pm

Typecasting is not always permanent. Like Paul Fix, R.G. Armstrong and Ward Bond, broad-shouldered Claude Akins began his motion picture career as a character actor in tough guy and villain roles. Then slowly, over time, his screen persona mellowed as he learned to use his rough-hewn looks to play sensitive and complex roles. Eventually, he even became a star in series television, somewhat in the vein of rascally MGM star Wallace Beery.

A former limestone salesman who once acted in exchange for food, he began his rise to Hollywood prominence in support roles in such classic films as The Caine Mutiny, The Defiant Ones, Rio Bravo, Porgy and Bess, and How the West Was Won. His screen debut wasn’t bad either, playing a boxer in the Oscar-winning hit film From Here To Eternity.

This unusual actor with the face and build of a prize fighter proved himself surprisingly effective as a clergyman in Inherit the Wind which is one indication of how he was able to rack up credits in 54 feature films. In 1974, after much TV work, Claude starred as a sympathetic trucker in his own series, Movin’ On. Five years later, he played a lovable, conniving peace officer on B.J. and the Bear, which, in turn, led to him recreating the Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo part, in Lobo, the following fall.

“I love acting and I’ve always wanted to do it,” proclaimed Akins at a film festival in Memphis in 1990. Knowing all too well of the sacrifices demanded of an actor, he added, “But it’s one of those professions where you have to keep asking yourself, ‘How much do I really want this?’ and ‘How much inconvenience am I willing to take?’ I know a lot of good actors who fell by the wayside.”

The younger of two children—he had an older sister, Hazel—the wavy-haired Claude Marion Akins was born on Saturday, May 25, 1918, in Nelson, Georgia, about 45 miles north of Atlanta. (1926 is usually claimed as his birth year.) Six months later, his father, Ernest, moved the family to Bedford, Indiana, about 20 miles south of Bloomington, where the elder Akins worked as a stonecutter before becoming a policeman for the last 22 years of his life.

Claude’s mother, Maude, gave him a life-long love of home cooking (“for breakfast, she’d cook pork chops and eggs, milk gravy and biscuits”), but he inherited an important tool of his trade from his father—a strong voice coupled with a smooth Southern accent. Claude traced his interest in performing back to when he was five years old. “I heard the applause,” he once said of the time he played a talking bird in a church play, “and I’ve been chasing that mistress ever since.”

Coming from a town of 12,000, Claude early on aspired to be somebody or something, though he wasn’t really sure how to go about it. Following service with the U.S. Signal Corps during World War II (in Burma and the Philippines) and graduation from Northwestern University (where he majored in speech and theater), he took a job as a limestone salesman. Luckily, the president of the company, who knew Claude wanted to be an actor, happened to be a theater fan. The man got Akins a job with the Barter Theater, a unique organization out of Abingdon, Virginia. The brainchild of a fellow named Bob Porterfield who brought from New York a bunch of unemployed actors willing to work for the bare necessities, the Barter Theater allowed patrons to pay for admission with things like food. Thus actors were afforded the opportunity of plying their craft while poor people could enjoy an evening’s entertainment at little cost.

“Sometimes, the Barter Theater went on the road,” recalled Akins. “During the season I was with the group, we toured in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and The Show-Off for half a year, then we regrouped at Christmas and took out The Hasty Heart. I learned a lot. We traveled in a bus, while all of our equipment went by truck. And when we got to our destination, we’d put up the sets and lights and do the show, then strike it that night and travel to the next place.”

Now about 30 years old, the six-foot-one actor sold his motorcycle for enough money to get to New York City, where he did some live television. Following summer stock in Cragsmore, New York, he landed a small part in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, which was running on Broadway with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, about a hot-blooded Sicilian-born widow who is romanced by a rambunctious truck driver.

After touring with The Rose Tattoo, Claude returned to Indiana in 1952 and married Theresa “Pie” (short for “Sweetie Pie”) Fairfield, a registered nurse and the sister of one of his Northwestern fraternity (Lambda Chi Alpha) brothers. They had met four years earlier when Claude came home from school for Christmas. Following the wedding and the couple’s arrival in Manhattan, the budding thespian faced unemployment; whereas, his bride secured a promising nursing position within 48 hours.

Hating the idea of being supported by his wife, Claude accepted another summer stock assignment, this time in Toledo, Ohio. Then, upon his return to New York, he received word of a special casting call Columbia Pictures was conducting for an upcoming film. He had never been in a movie before, but, from what he had heard, Columbia was looking for unknowns to play boxers, and he was about as unknown as could be.

“Columbia sent casting director Max Arno to test new faces to play boxers in From Here to Eternity, and I was one of the guys tested,” recounted Akins. “We all went out to the old Signal Corps studio in Long Island, and I remember waiting my turn and listening to the actor in front of me, James Gregory, turn in this truly remarkable performance. I thought, ‘You’ve been up all night working on this scene and you don’t sound anywhere near as good as he does, why don’t you just leave.’ But I stayed and ended up being one of eight men chosen that day to be in the movie. You’ve probably heard of some of the others … Mickey Shaughnessy, Jack Warden, and Ernest Borgnine.”

Adapted from the James Jones best-selling novel, From Here to Eternity is set in Hawaii shortly before and after Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The story’s primary conflict pits an insecure officer, obsessed with the prestige of winning an annual boxing competition, against a newly arrived private (Prewitt played by Monty Clift) who refuses to fight in the ring despite his proven skills. Claude played Sergeant Baldy Thom, one of the company boxers who tries to change Prewitt’s mind.

“My first scene on film” recalled Akins, “was where I walk into the office and report Private Prewitt absent to Sergeant Warden, played by Burt Lancaster—and I was scared to death. Burt was one of the big stars of that era, but still very nice. Fred Zinnemann, the director, was extremely patient and understanding. And somehow I got through it. My panic has always been the time right up to the end of my first scene. Once that first shot is in the can, I’m home free.”

From Here to Eternity was released in August, 1953 and became one of the most acclaimed films of that year, winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. Although uncredited in the film, Claude had turned in a performance that was noticed by a casting agent who saw his potential and put him to work. During 1954 alone, Claude was seen (albeit sometimes fleetingly) in eight different features: Bitter Creek, Witness to Murder, The Caine Mutiny, The Raid, Shield for Murder, Down Three Dark Streets, The Adventures of Hajji Baba, The Human Jungle.

“I portrayed a lot of heavies in those days—really mean guys,” emphasized Akins. “I believe the meanest character I ever played was in Down Three Dark Streets. Gene Reynolds is arrested by the police and the Mob doesn’t want him to talk, so they send me, an ex-boxer with scars and a cauliflower ear, to visit his blind wife, played by Marisa Pavan. And I went in and just beat the livin’ daylights out of this poor girl.”

Next, thanks to his acting success, he got to meet an idol. “Then, I acted in my first western, Bitter Creek, starring Bill Elliott, who had been a childhood hero of mine. I was 12 years old when Bill made a personal appearance at a theater in Bedford, Indiana and I waited outside the stage door just so I could stare at him real hard. My wife visited the set when we did Bitter Creek, and when I introduced her as a nurse, Bill fell back into character and said, ‘Ma’am, I have this terrible gunshot wound to my arm and would surely appreciate it if you could help me out.’ He was marvelous.”

Claude wore a green hat in Bitter Creek and took some kidding from his fellow cast members; especially, the ones playing the bad guys, who nicknamed him “Greenie”. Also generating some laughs were the young man’s scenes involving horses. At one point, when he was riding with his gang towards the camera, Claude inadvertently got turned around and started heading in the opposite direction. Another time, he was racing out of a saloon, he got his boot caught on the door frame and fell into his horse, knocking the startled animal to its knees.

The most prestigious project Claude worked on in 1954 was The Caine Mutiny, with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Jose Ferrer. Based on Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize novel, it tells the story of a Navy commander newly assigned to a disorderly minesweeper who seems unable to handle his troubled relationships with subordinates. Billed twelfth, Akins played a seaman named Horrible, who, because of a heat rash, leaves his shirttail out which so upsets the captain that the ship steams in a circle, cutting its own towline.

“I knew when my scene with Humphrey Bogart on the bridge was coming, so the night before I stayed up working on it,” said Akins. “Next day, I’m there early, waiting. Out of makeup came Bogart. He walked across the bridge, built on these big hydraulic rockers, and said to the director, Eddie Dmytryk, ‘Alright, what are we shooting?’ Bogart read though the scene once and said, ‘Okay, let’s shoot it,’ The guy had a photographic memory. Having been up all night myself, I thought, ‘I could really hate you.’

“Another thing I remember. On location, we actors changed out clothes in the ship’s engine room. So, when Bogie first came aboard and asked where his dressing room was, he was directed down there. ‘This is the Navy,’ he was told by an assistant. ‘We don’t have a dressing room for you.’ ‘I’m not in the Navy,’ shot back Bogart. ‘Get my uniform and I’ll go back to the hotel and change.’ Well, they ended up getting him the captain’s quarters to use, and we all applauded because he was the only one of us who spoke up.”

For the remainder of the 1950s, Claude had small yet noticeable parts in a variety of films (1955: The Sea Chase, Man with a Gun; 1956: Battle Stations, The Proud and the Profane, Johnny Concho, The Burning Hills, The Sharkfighters; 1957: The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, The Lonely Man, Joe Dakota, Hot Summer Night; 1958: The Defiant Ones, Onionhead; 1959: Rio Bravo, Porgy and Bess, Don’t Give Up the Ship, Frontier Rangers, Yellowstone Kelly, Hound-Dog Man). Westerns and war movies dominated his resume at this time.

Most significantly, he was a lynch mob leader in Stanley Kramer’s socially conscious The Defiant Ones, with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier; the brother of a ruthless land baron jailed for murder in the Howard Hawks adult western Rio Bravo, with John Wayne and Dean Martin; and a detective in the Otto Preminger folk opera Porgy and Bess, with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

“I think Red River is the best western John Wayne ever made, and Rio Bravo the next best,” stated Akins. “He was really something to work with. There’s a scene in the picture where he looks down the street and realizes it’s not Dean Martin on guard, so he does a running mount onto his horse and rides off as fast as he can. Now, Duke was in his fifties at the time and a bit on the heavy side. But when he grabbed that pommel and went off the ground into the saddle, I thought, ‘Damn, I wish I could do that!’

“Another time—when John comes into the saloon and hits me over the head with his rifle—the camera was behind my shoulder and trained on Duke. Director Howard Hawks said [to Wayne], ‘You can miss him by six inches and it’ll still look good.’ And Wayne responded, ‘What if I just catch the corner of his hat.’ Now, I’m one of the few people on the set who knows that he and Ward Bond had been up all night drinking. So you can imagine how nervous I was, standing there while he swung a Winchester 73 at my head as hard as he could. But he did it five times, and five times the rifle barrel just nicked the brim of my hat.”

Howard Hawks demanded a quiet set as he liked to improvise. Many times, when Claude arrived for a 9 o’clock call, Hawks would be sitting with an actor discussing some new bit of business he had just come up with, while perhaps a hundred people, cast and crew alike, stood around and silently waited to go to work. Then, when the cameras did roll, things moved rapidly—unless, as with a sequence involving Ricky Nelson, a major problem arose.

Nelson, guns blazing, was supposed to throw himself in front of some mounted outlaws who are unable to return fire because their horses are skittishly jumping over the prone figure before them. To check it out first, Hawks tossed a dummy in the path of the horses and to his dismay, all four stepped on it. As a result, three days were spent building a ramp and teaching the animals to run up and jump off. That way, the camera, positioned beneath the ramp, could catch the horses approaching, and as they landed on the other side of the body. Claude said he spent all three of those days playing chess.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Claude appeared in nineteen features (1960: Comanche Station, Inherit the Wind; 1961; Claudelle Inglish; 1962: Merrill’s Marauders; 1963: Black Gold; 1964: A Distant Trumpet, The Killers; 1966: Ride Beyond Vengeance, Incident at Phantom Hill, Return of the Seven; 1967: First to Fight, Waterhole #3; 1968: The Devil’s Brigade; 1969: The Great Bank Robbery; 1970: A Man Called Sledge, Flap; 1972: Skyjacked; The Timber Tramp, Battle for the Planet of the Apes; 1977: Tentacles) and went from being a supporting actor with a key scene or two in each of his pictures to an outright featured player with name recognition.

Occasionally, he even popped up as one of the principals as when he assumed the role of primary antagonist in the Randolph Scott western, Comanche Station, about a woman recently rescued from Indians and the men escorting her to safety. Harder than usual to define as either good or evil, Akins is cast as a smiling bounty hunter who plots to kill the Randolph Scott character one minute, then rides to his defense the next.

“I guess Comanche Station was the next to the last film Randolph Scott made,” pointed out Akins. “My wife came up to Lone Pine where we were shooting and I gave a birthday party for her. Next day, Randy came up and said, ‘Claude, I want to apologize for not attending your wife’s birthday party, but, you see, I am at that age now that when I finish a day’s work I just want to go home and read the Wall Street Journal. I certainly wish her the very best.’

“Randy was a fantastic golfer. In fact, during the ‘30s, he and Richard Arlen would write their contracts with [time set aside] in the spring so they could go out and play with the pros. He lived by the sixth hole of the Los Angeles Country Club and wanted to join—only they didn’t accept actors. So, when he retired from the business, he had to promise not to perform again in order to become a member.”

Following Comanche Station, Claude turned in three of his strongest performances in a trio of films released back to back: Inherit the Wind, Claudelle Inglish and Merrill’s Marauders. Adapted from the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee play (based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee), Inherit the Wind pits a fundamentalist prosecutor and three-time Presidential candidate against a famed defense attorney in a debate between the literal interpretation of the Bible and scientific theories. Claude played a clergyman supporting the former.

“There are times in this business when you would pay to be in it, and Inherit the Wind was one of those times,” asserted Akins. “Spencer Tracy and Fredric March—it was absolutely marvelous watching those two old pros go head to head. Spence had just walked out on Tribute to a Bad Man—they were filming it at 12,000 feet and he was having trouble breathing—so, when he came to our project, rumors abounded that he was a tough bird to work with, and for awhile, he did have trouble doing what Stanley Kramer wanted. You see, about 80 percent of the movie takes place in a courtroom, and to make things more interesting, Kramer wanted these long takes where the camera would follow Tracy around and he would have to say, ‘Mr. Tracy, you’re off your mark.’ Well, finally, at five o’clock, they got this one particularly long scene—I think it was 9 minutes in one take—and the next morning, when Tracy saw what Kramer had done with that moving camera, he changed his whole attitude. Suddenly, he became one of the most cooperative people on the set.

“Fredric March was what I would call a character star who went out of his way to hide his own personality behind that of the part. He wore a fat pad and a bald pate, and every so often he’d click his teeth as if his dentures were slipping. Then, at night, when he came out of his dressing room to go home, you couldn’t believe that this gorgeous-looking guy with the gray hair and fine clothes was the same person you’d been working with all day.”

Merrill’s Marauders is a grim and gritty account of soldiers in World War II struggling against miserable conditions in the jungles of Burma while fighting a determined enemy in a series of violent battles. Claude’s character, a bearded platoon sergeant tying to maintain discipline among his increasingly demoralized fellow soldiers, is eventually wounded in hand-to-hand combat when his position is overrun by the Japanese.

“Merrill’s Marauders was directed by Sam Fuller, who is a madman—but what a fantastic director,” remarked Akins. “We had one sequence where the men had come into a village totally exhausted. And, as I’m sitting down, this little old lady kneels in front of me with a bowl of rice. To show me it isn’t poisoned, she starts to eat it. And as I look at her, I begin to cry. Then she looks at me and she starts to cry—a really powerful scene that Sam just came up with. Well, we finished the principal photography for Merrill’s Marauders and I was having lunch in the Warner Bros. commissary when I bumped into the guy editing the picture. ‘I nearly lost my job because of you,’ he said. ‘I was editing the scene with the little old lady when Steve Trilling [executive assistant to Jack Warner] came in, saw that you were crying in the scene and told me to take it out because it made no sense to him. I then told him that if he took that scene out of the movie I’d resign, and luckily, he backed off.’ But that’s how things sometimes happen.”

Akins, who had regularly interspersed his film roles with TV appearances (You Are There, Dragnet, General Electric Theater, Medic, The Man Behind the Badge, Soldiers of Fortune, TV Reader’s Digest, Gunsmoke, The Millionaire, Studio 57, My Friend Flicka, Crusader, Frontier, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Adventures of Superman, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, I Love Lucy, Zane Grey Theater, Fireside Theatre, The 20th Century-Fox Hour, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Boots and Saddles, The Restless Gun, Perry Mason, Maverick, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Cheyenne, Bronco, Yancey Derringer, Northwest Passage, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Rifleman, The Loretta Young Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Bat Masterson, The Texan, Riverboat, Rawhide, Laramie, Bonanza, The Untouchables, Law of the Plainsman, The Twilight Zone, Adventures in Paradise, The Overland Trail, The Alaskans, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Death Valley Days, The Rebel, The Tall Man, Klondike, Surfside 6, Shirley Temple’s Storybook, The Deputy, The Roaring Twenties, Frontier Circus, Bus Stop, The Outlaws, Hawaiian Eye, Empire, The Wide Country, The Virginian, Alcoa Premiere, The Dick Powell Show, The Dakotas, The Great Adventure, Destry, The Fugitive, Kraft Suspense Theater, Mr. Novak, Branded, Daniel Boone, Slattery’s People, A Man Called Shenandoah, The Trials of O’Brien, The F.B.I., The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Legend of Jesse James, Laredo, Combat, The Monroes, The Lucy Show, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Hondo, Garrison’s Gorillas, The Outsider), stepped it up a notch in the ‘70s, when the networks began showing “movies made for television” and multi-episode “mini-series” as routine offerings.

Between 1970 and 1994, Claude acted in 28 movies made especially for television, two mini-series and six weekly series in which he either starred or had a strong recurring role (1974-76: Movin’ On; 1977: Nashville 99, The Rhinemann Exchange; 1979: B.J. and the Bear, Lobo; 1984: Legmen).

“I did a lot of TV movies,” recalled Akins. “And the one people seem to ask most about is The Night Stalker, which I thought was the best kind of horror flick going because the audience is almost a third of the way into the picture before vampires are even mentioned. And by the time, you’re caught up with how these murders are being committed and all that stuff…

“After the movie was finished, 20th Century-Fox held a special screening. And I was sitting in the theater with my 12-year-old daughter, Wendy, when she started tugging at my sleeve and saying she wanted to move. At first, I thought she couldn’t see, then I noticed the person in front of her was the guy who played the Night Stalker, the monster. She met him later and smiled, but she still didn’t trust him.”

It was television and a 1973 episode of Police Story (“The Ten Year Honeymoon”) which provided Claude with what he judged was the “most complete role” he ever had. In it, he played a jovial, hard-working cop and loving husband/father, who upon hearing he has a terminal illness, gets himself killed in the line of duty so his wife can receive surviving spouse death benefits. The most enjoyable part he played was Elroy P. Lobo in The Misadventure of Sheriff Lobo (shortened to simply Lobo after the first season).

“We were shooting a night scene of Lobo at Falls Lake on the backlot of Universal,” related Akins, “and the crew was setting up, when a huge roar of laughter erupted because of something Mills Watson [one of Claude’s co-stars] had done. I said to the person I was walking with, ‘That’s the sound of our set—the sound of laughter.’ We got the job done, but we still had such fun doing it.”

Lobo was a slapstick version of police shows, set in mythical Orly County, Georgia. Claude’s character, modeled lightly after his own father, was a bit shady in his dealings with others, especially where money was concerned; yet, in the long run, he always seemed to do the right thing. Assisting him was a bumbling deputy and the naïve son of the mayor, who, like their boss, were better at concocting schemes than bringing them to fruition. For the second season, the three figures moved to Atlanta and joined a special police task force.

“During the hiatus between the first and second season, Fred Silverman [then NBC programmer], his wife and our producer, Glen Larson, were sunning themselves in Hawaii, when they decided to change the whole format of Lobo around. First, they moved us from the country to the city. Well, the stuff we did in Orly County may have been innocently larcenous, but in Atlanta, it came across as plain and simple graft. Then, they added four people to the cast and insisted all seven of us appear in every episode, which unnecessarily broadened the stories and became a nightmare for the writers. Fifteen episodes into our second season, we were cancelled.”

Of his later features (1984: Master Ninja I; 1986: Pushed Too Far; 1987: Monster in the Closet, The Curse; 1992: Falling from Grace; 1993: Seasons of the Heart; 1994: Twisted Fear), Claude probably had his meatiest part in Falling from Grace, about the problems that arise when a country music star returns to his hometown. Claude’s role was especially written with him in mind.

“John Mellencamp commissioned Horton Foote to write the script for Falling from Grace,” stated Akins, “and he had the father part written for me. Eight years later, when it came time to cast the picture, I found out about it. Heavy dialogue, intense scenes. In my first scene, I make a pass at John’s wife [played by Mariel Hemingway] in the kitchen and she proceeds to break my nose with a frying pan. I’ve been hit by ladies before. Linda Evans hit me with a riding crop in an episode of Big Valley. She was supposed to wait until I looked down and hit me in the crown of the hat; instead, she hit me three times in the forehead.”

To supplement his income as an actor, Akins made investments in a Las Vegas condominium, a shopping center in the San Fernando Valley and a 69-house developing in Vista, California. For recreation, he loved to play golf and swim. A very gregarious and likeable person, with a Cheshire cat grin, Claude continued to work in films and television until the time of his death of cancer on January 27, 1994, in Altadena, California. He was survived by his wife of 41 years, Theresa, and his three children, Claude Marion, Jr., Michele, and Wendy.

“I feel very fortunate that I get paid for what I love to do,” Akins said at the Memphis Film Festival in 1990. “I know a lot of good actors who simply can’t find work. Every time I get a job, I say to myself, ‘You’ve beaten the odds.’ “