IN YOUNGER DAYS, now faded to memory, we had our innocent dreams of growing up to be like those we admired. Some hoped to sing like Elvis; others wanted to become an All-American football hero. A few even dreamed of flying off into the distant skies with the pioneering astronauts of our time. Me, I wanted to become a fast-drawing, straight-shooting Western movie star or maybe an Olympic champion. Sparing you the O. Henry ending, be aware that I fell light-years short on both counts.
Dean Smith, a fellow traveler through my boyhood ’50s, fared much better.
It’s not likely that you New Generation readers will remember him, but those of us with slightly higher mileage and reasonably good recall do. A University of Texas track standout, Dean came home from the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki with a gold medal earned as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team. After flirting briefly with professional football as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, he became a familiar face to movie and TV watchers for decades.
Things came naturally to the young man who was both the high school state sprint champion and a gifted rodeo performer during his schoolboy days back in little Graham, Texas. It was at the National Theatre on Saturday afternoons, watching B-Westerns that seemed always to have titles like Gunfight at Black Rock, when his own dream began to take shape.
“I was a big fan of the Westerns as a kid,” he recalls, “and knew that someday that’s what I wanted to do.” And, with the help of a friend of a friend named James Bumgarner (you know him best by his screen name, James Garner), he got his Big Break. Garner made some calls, Dean got an audition, and he soon was riding and roping, chasing down runaway stagecoaches and engaging in more mock fistfights than you could shake a stick at. Lord only knows how many times he was shot and killed on screen. He quickly became one of Hollywood’s most wanted stuntmen, stepping in for the big-name stars when time came for the dangerous dirty work.
If you were watching closely, you saw him working alongside John Wayne in 10 of the Duke’s movies. And that was Dean doubling for a Who’s Who of Hollywood — Roy Rogers, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Michael Douglas, Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern and Frankie Avalon. In McLintock!, it was Dean — red wig, skirt and all — who stepped in to take a second-story fall for Maureen O’Hara. He was among the defenders in The Alamo, portrayed Kit Carson in Seven Alone and saved the day in Stagecoach, replicating a famous scene in movie history when he climbed on a galloping team of horses to stop a runaway stagecoach. And that’s just for starters.
While his first love was the Westerns, their popularity ultimately faded, forcing him to seek other roles that required his special talents. The TV reporter in Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, The Sugarland Express? That was Dean. He was a member of the ship’s crew in PT 109 and even had his moments in Stephen King’s Christine. Had the makers of The Lonely Guy not made the poor choice to cut the scene (Dean was Steve Martin’s double), you would have watched him dangling from a helicopter high above the New York skyline.
“But, I was never a daredevil,” he says. During his career, he was injured only once, suffering a broken rib while doubling for Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. He missed but one day of work.
And he continued to run. When an Orange Bowl crowd was needed for a scene in Black Sunday, a match race was organized between the 44-year-old Olympian and Miami Dolphins receiver Nat Moore, 20 years his junior. Dean won.
Today he’s 81, back home in Texas living with his wife, Debby, and his teenage son, Finis, on his 500-acre ranch near Breckenridge. There, he watches over his herd of longhorns and still rides his palomino, Yella Fella, when not off being recognized for past achievements. He’s been inducted into the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The list of accolades bestowed on him fills a complete page in his recently released autobiography, Cowboy Stuntman: From Olympic Gold to the Silver Screen, authored with fellow Texan Mike Cox.
“When I first got into the movie business,” Dean says, “it was my hope to one day be a big cowboy star like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or John Wayne. But, it just wasn’t to be. My job was to be a stuntman, and it was a wonderful way to earn a living.”
Which is to say Dean Smith came a lot closer to his childhood dream than most of us.