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Dale Robertson and his Longhorn Buick
March 1, 2013  | By Noel Holston  | 11 comments
 

Dale Robertson, who joined those ghost riders in the sky this week at the age of 89, was the first celebrity I ever met. And though I went on to interview hundreds more as a media and entertainment writer, it’s still one of my favorite encounters.

I was 12 years old when Robertson, riding high as the star of NBC’s popular Western series Tales of Wells Fargo, visited my little hometown, Laurel, Mississippi. He was pals with a local car dealer who shared his passion for raising and riding quarter horses.

Robertson made a guest appearance at Red Martin’s car lot on a sunny Saturday to help drum up some business. He had driven to Laurel from out West in the customized convertible that his show’s sponsor, Buick, had given him as a token of appreciation. It was parked on Martin’s lot when my dad pulled in his 1954 Ford pick-up with me and my buddy, Leslie Davies, in the cab. Daddy wasn’t exactly the star-struck type, but he respected cowboy actors like Robertson who knew how to sit a horse.

The customized Buick was the most fabulous vehicle we had ever seen. Even today, I would take it over the Batmobile or Knight Rider’s KITT. It was white, waxed to a blinding shine, with gorgeous brown leather interior stitched like a fine saddle, a holstered, chrome-plated six-gun on each interior door, and a longhorn steer-head for a hood ornament. People stood around it at a respectful distance, staring at it as though it were the spaceship in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Robertson appeared this day not in his Jim Hardie/Wells Fargo costume but in a summer sport shirt and slacks. The only nod to cowboy-ism was his handsome pair of boots.

Red Martin introduced him, and he hopped up on a low stack of Royal Crown Cola crates to make some remarks to the crowd, most about his host’s ranch and the beautiful working horses he raised. When he was done, he offered to take questions.

My buddy Leslie, an incorrigible smart-ass who could have been the model for Bart Simpson, raised his hand. Robertson pointed to him.

“Why would you ride quarter horses?” Leslie asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to ride whole ones?”

Robertson looked as Leslie like he would have pulled his revolver if he’d been strapping. Then he sort of rolled his eyes and recognized another questioner.

Afterwards, when he was signing autographs, I apologized on behalf of my friend and told him I was such a big fan of Wells Fargo I was trying to learn to draw my gun left-handed in homage to agent Jim Hardie. He asked me and a few other kids if we would like to sit in the Buick. We took turns sitting behind the wheel, but only after one of Red Martin’s salesmen brought over a mat on which we had to wipe our feet. Even Leslie eventually got a turn.

Robertson was never a great actor, but he had an outsized personality, gregarious and confident. He carried himself with a swagger, like he was a walking tall tale. Wells Fargo, which ran for five seasons, was the peak of his success. A second Western series, The Iron Horse, never caught on, nor did J.J. Starbuck, a series about a rich Texan who drove around the country in a convertible much like the legendary Buick — it had actual cow horns on the hood — solving crimes and helping people out of jams.

Starbuck and the recurring characters Robertson played on both Dallas and Dynasty were well tailored to Robertson’s robust persona, but for me, the role of his career was the title character in Melvin Purvis, G-Man, a 1974 made-for-TV movie in which he played the FBI agent who led the hunts for Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and other Depression-era most-wanteds. The real Purvis was notorious publicity hound, and Robertson, working under the direction of Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker) with a script by John Milius (Dirty Harry, Apocolypse Now), played him with full-throttle flamboyance, resplendent in double-breasted period suits and waving a big cigar as he plotted strategy and held court. If this wasn’t the real deal, it was very close to the real Dale.

 
 
 
 
 
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11 Comments
 
 
Robert
Thanks for this tribute. I remember Death Valley Days and 20 Mule Team Borax! Other than horses, I wonder what the connection with car dealer ? I always heard he used to come to my hometown in Copiah County, MS to hunt birds. Enjoyed his acting and this article.
Oct 9, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
Bob Drevitson
I’m 64 years old and Ive never seen Tales of Wells Fargo until just a few months ago. I was pleasantly surprised by Jim, (Dale Robertson) was such a good and moral man always giving people such good Bible based advice. I wish I had seen this series when I was a boy without a father. It would have been a good influence on me.
Jul 22, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
C. M. Crawford
I thought Dale Roberston was a great actor for he did a lot of rough and tumble scenes. He was a sharpshooter with the most immaculately kept hair cut on the screen. Today is 3/27/2020 and I am still watching his reruns. Love them!
Mar 28, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
w richardson
Where did Arvil Martin, from Laurel, fit in with the Buick? He drove the car at Ms State University in the fall of 1965 as a daily driver. Car had a automatic transmission with a slippy drag.
Jan 5, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
P.R.WAllace
I really love his Tales Of Wells Fargo series and watch it everyday on the western channel. I record and save them. I think he was a good enough of an actor to give enjoyment and pleasure. What more can you ask of an actor? It isn't brain surgery. I wish more of his old movies were available on tv. Is a biography about him available? Thanks for your article as it seems that he truly was a gentleman, just as he seemed to be.
May 29, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
MARIAN BOLSTAD
MY MOTHER WAITED ON HIM WHEN HE WAS PERFORMING AT THE STATE FAIR IN PUYALLUP. HE WAS KIND VEY FRIENDLY AND A PURE GENTLEMAN..MY MOTHER SAID HE HAD EYES SO BEAUTIFUL. PERSONALLY I THOUGHT HE WAS ONE OF THE MOST HANDSOME MEN EVER BORN AND A MAN'S MAN. I WATCHED AND STILL DO WELLS FARGO. HIS VOICE WAS ...MELT THE NORTH POLE..NEVER AGAIN WILL THERE BE A DALE ROBERTSON...
Jun 21, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
edward fleury
I met Dale at the 1958 auto show in chicago It is one of my fondest memories and that is where I saw the 1958 buick and that has been 58 years ago and still very fresh in my mind
Jan 11, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Arvel Martin
Just FYI, Red Martin was my Dad, and your story sounds very true, but my dad never had a car lot. He did, however, own other property, and that's where this probably took place. Glad you have those memories. My dad bought the car from Dale after he had owned it for a year, and that's what I drove to High School and College.
Aug 26, 2015   |  Reply
 
Karol
I have an unused postcard ,autographed in very good condition.The one as above with him standing in front of the car.Is it of any value?
Nov 6, 2018
 
 
 
Larry McDonald
Nice piece. I saw Robertson in "Lydia Bailey" when I was 10 years old (1952) and it launched me on a decades long love for Kenneth Roberts' books. I also became a Robertson fan and always felt that regardless how hokey the movie or TV show was, his innate good nature would somehow redeem it.
Mar 7, 2013   |  Reply
 
Noel
"His innate good nature." Nice phrase. Spot on. Wish I'd thought of it.
Mar 8, 2013
 
 
 
Noel
Delighted you liked it, Eileen. He was, as you noted, a handsome devil. But he never seemed overly pleased with himself or vain, just keenly appreciative of his good fortune.
Mar 4, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Eileen
Thanks for paying homage to Dale Robertson. He was a tv staple in my formative years, and we girls thought he was quite the looker! I appreciate your tribute; too often these older stars pass away with nary a blink from the viewing public too young to remember the early days of tv and the stars that made the networks a fortune. You knew if you watched anything with Dale in it you were going to be entertained. He seemed like a nice guy and a real gentleman, as confirmed by your childhood meeting with him. It's always nice to find out that people we admire are the real deal. Thanks for your thoughtful remembrance.
Mar 2, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
 
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