El Dorado News-Times
Actor, Arkansas native Arthur Hunnicutt
Some actors become famous starring in blockbuster movies or may only be famous for one line or one part. Sometimes the actors who rarely play the leading role are the ones who make a movie the most enjoyable part of the story. Arkansas native and character actor Arthur Hunnicutt was one such actor, known for his supporting roles in dozens of westerns between the 1940s and 1970s, starring with some of the most famous actors of the era.
Arthur Lee Hunnicutt was born in Yell County in western Arkansas in 1910. As a youth, he was a clever student and eventually made his way to what was then the Arkansas State Teachers College in Conway (the modern University of Central Arkansas). Out of money, Hunnicutt was forced to drop out of college in his junior year. He took to the road, working a series of odd jobs until he came to Boston where he became an actor.
He quickly found a lot of success on stage. Hunnicutt easily exaggerated his natural Arkansas drawl for memorable effect in roles that called for a rural character. This, added to his charm and skills as an actor, led to his being in demand on stage. Soon afterward, he began appearing on stage in New York and in touring productions sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. By the early 1940s, he attracted the attention of film producers. His first role was co-starring in the 1942 film “Wildcat,” a story about oilmen. This would be the first of more than 90 film and television appearances for Hunnicutt. Later in 1942, he appeared as “Arkansas” in the first of a series of low-budget westerns with actor Charles Starrett.
In the 1950s, he appeared in some of his most acclaimed roles. In 1950, he co-starred with Jimmy Stewart in “Broken Arrow.” The next year, he co-starred with war hero Audie Murphy in the adaptation of the Civil War epic “The Red Badge of Courage.” In 1952, he appeared in his most celebrated film, “The Big Sky,” with Kirk Douglas. In “The Big Sky,” Hunnicutt played Zeb Calloway, a fur trader in the soft-spoken, wise-cracking persona that he had become known for. The film earned two Academy Award nominations, including Hunnicutt for Best Supporting Actor. In 1955, he appeared as Davy Crockett in “The Last Command,” a tale of the ill-fated defense of the Alamo in 1836. Such noted actors as Sterling Hayden, Ernest Borgnine, and Slim Pickens also appeared in the film.
In 1962, in one of his later roles, he played a gruff mountain farmer in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Hunt.” In the episode, his character and his beloved dog both die in a hunting accident. He spends most of the episode perplexed as to why his wife and friends are ignoring him until he
realizes that the two had died the night before.
Hunnicutt was popular with co-stars and the general public. In appreciation for his acting and goodwill, he was made honorary mayor of Granada Hills, a wealthy neighborhood of Los Angeles.
In 1965, he played an older Butch Cassidy in the western “Cat Ballou” with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. In 1967, he co-starred in the western “El Dorado” with John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Caan. In this film, he plays a sidekick to Wayne and steals many scenes with his quips and one-liners.
Hunnicutt continued to appear in a series of guest roles on various television series in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had several roles on Bonanza and guest starred as the patriarch of a feuding family on The Andy Griffith Show in 1960. He appeared on such programs as Perry Mason, Adam-12, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and My Three Sons. By the 1970s, his career was quietly winding down. He played in a few small roles, mostly madefor-TV movies, with his last appearance in the 1975 western “Winterhawk.”
In the late 1970s, he was struck with cancer. He died in 1979 at the age of 69 and was buried in his beloved Arkansas.