All images: The Everett Collection
Clint Eastwood may be the face of Rawhide today, but that is mostly due to what he did in movies afterward. For the first seven seasons, from 1959–65, Eric Fleming was undeniably the star of the Western. When Fleming left Rawhide at the start of the eighth and final season, the cattle drive was over for all intents and purposes. The show sank (even more dramatically) in the ratings. The CBS boss supposedly hated the show so much without Fleming, that he axed the series after seeing a single episode without the star.
Why did Fleming leave the show? It's complicated and it isn't. "They fired me because they were paying me a million dollars a year," Fleming told TV Guide in 1965. (It was an exaggeration. He was earning $220,000.) Other reports said he left the show. It's a bit of a He Said / He Said decades later. But, in short, what it came down to is money and viewership.
The show just wasn't the same without the hard-as-nails Gil Favor as the trail boss. And no wonder. Eric Fleming was hard-as-nails. His biography reads as if it were written in parts by Charles Dickens, Jack London and Joseph Conrad. It's by turns tragic and inspiring — but tragic in the end.
Like the story of why he left Rawhide, it might be a little muddy, it might be a little mythologized, but it's a fascinating tale nonetheless.
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He ran away from home as a young child and rode a freight train to Chicago.
Fleming had a hardscrabble, cruel upbringing. His father abused the clubfoot, crutched-bound child. The violence eventually forced Fleming to run away from home. Some say he was 8-year-old; others claim 11-year-old. In either case, it was a precious age to hop aboard a freight train from California to Chicago during the Great Depression. Before he was a teenager, Fleming was living on the streets, entering the world of crime.
He ran around with gangsters as a kid and ended up in the hospital.
The tween fell in with gangsters, running errands for the mob and whatnot. Eventually, this street life put him in the hospital. Again, the story varies based on who's telling it, but he was either hit with a bullet in gunfire exchange fit for a Jimmy Cagney movie, or he was beaten. But he did end up in the hospital, where authorities reconnected him with his thankfully divorced mother.
He built ships for the Navy and dropped a 200-pound weight on his face.
As a young man, Fleming ended up in the Merchant Marines and, eventually, the Navy. He served as a "Seebee" — as in "C.B." for Construction Battalion. It was in a shipyard, circa 1942, that he bet a fellow Navy man that he could lift a 200-pound weight over his head. He couldn't. The weight smashed his face, severely maiming his forehead, nose and jaw. After extensive reconstructive surgery, Fleming had a new face. He joked it was better than his first mug. Those were some skilled plastic surgeons. They sculpted a leading man.
He got into acting out of spite after losing a bet.
With his new face, Fleming did not immediately leap into acting. He was working construction on the Paramount set when he made another bet, albeit a less damaging one. Still, he lost again. Fleming wagered $100 that he could act better than a professional actor. He couldn't. But losing that hundred bucks lit a fire under him and he enrolled in acting classes. That got him his break.
He died deep in a Peruvian jungle filming a TV movie.
After leaving Rawhide, Fleming popped up in a handful of Bonanza episodes and landed a role alongside Doris Day in the 1966 spy comedy The Glass Bottom Boat. It would be another kind of boat that led to Fleming's untimely death at the age of 41. That same year, Fleming flew to South America to film a made-for-TV movie called High Jungle. This was no cozy studio lot, rather a harrowing, on-location shoot deep in the Amazonian river basin. His costar Nico Minardos kept a heartbreaking diary of the ordeal. "Eric has been living in semi-retirement in Hawaii, and it was the role of the other adventurer that was to mark his comeback in Hollywood," he wrote. "Deadly snakes, hordes of mosquitoes, ants two inches long and around the clock humidity that made it impossible to keep your clothes dry, were a constant menace." The production pushed into "the most inaccessible regions of Peru." The two were filming a scene inside a hand-carved canoe. Gathering rainclouds had the cast and crew scrambling to get the shot. "Nico, now or never!" Fleming said. Those were his last words. Fleming left the small vessel in roaring rapids and drowned.
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