Hoist 'em, Pards, Lash Is Back
—Rap comedian Lord Buckley
Lash LaRue ducks questions about his past like an old gunfighter dodging bullets. Ask about his marriages (nine, I've been told) or his run-ins with the law, and he clouds over and answers with a line from an old Lord Buckley routine—stock footage that he's obviously unreeled before. He is sitting in the Encino, Calif. living room of his peppery manager, 74-year-old Thelma White. Thelma's a former actress (she starred in Reefer Madness back in 1935) and knew there would be some hard questions in this interview. But Lash, dressed in black just as he was in his old Western movies, is determined to talk about his future and not the old "bad jazz."
LaRue has just finished his first starring role since Hollywood "slammed the door" on him more than 24 years ago. The Dark Power, scheduled for release this fall, is a "youth-oriented horror film," according to its producer-director, Phil Smoot, and it was filmed in North Carolina on a minuscule budget of $330,000. Though this is hardly big-time Hollywood, Lash hopes it will reopen the door a crack. Because at 67-plus (he's equally secretive about his age), the onetime star is more than ready to return to action.
In the film LaRue plays a grizzled forest ranger fighting Indian sorcerers risen from the grave. His weapon is a bull-whip, the tool that gave him his name back in the B-Westerns of the 1940s. Even after all these years, he growls good-naturedly, "They still won't let me get that whip out of my hands."
And small wonder. To a generation of matinee movie fans, LaRue's bull-whip was as memorable a trademark as Clark Gable's mustache and John Wayne's swagger. As the leading man in scores of low-budget oaters, he brought bad guys to justice with a sneer as dark as his costume and a 15-foot whapper as lethal as any six-gun. Between films, he picked up "$3,000 to $4,000 a day in personal appearances, slicing cigarettes from the mouths of trusting fans and targets from the hands of children."
Yet it all came about quite by accident. Born in Gretna, La., the young Alfred LaRue had spent his early years traveling about the country with his widowed mother, a troubleshooter for Clairol. At the University of the Pacific he entered a drama course to overcome a speech impediment and eventually took a role in a small theater production "because a pretty little girl wanted me to." The role led to a job with Universal Pictures.
While there, he approached producer Bob Tansey, who was casting Song of Old Wyoming, a 1945 Western starring singing cowboy Eddie Dean. "I'm probably the best actor that's ever been in your office," LaRue boasted. "Well, I need somebody who can handle a whip," said Tansey. No problem, LaRue assured him: "I been messin' with one since I was a kid."
Alas, it was a lie. LaRue rushed to a local merchant, rented a whip, then "beat myself half to death tryin' to learn how to handle that sucker." Three days into the film, LaRue finally confessed. Tansey, fearing a delay in production, barked back: "But you said you could...." "Wait a minute," interrupted LaRue. "You doubted I could act. I just acted like I could."
Tansey kept the young actor, and LaRue kept practicing, aided by a pro. By the time he started his next picture, "he was using the whip a lot," remembers Dean, now 77. "They'd have to holler at him on the set to shut up so we could get some scenes made." With his screen persona growing ever more popular, he soon took on starring roles, as well as a change of name. "When I was a kid sellin' papers," he says now, "every fat, tobacco-spittin', cigar-smokin' character was named Al. I hated the name Al."
By the late '40s, LaRue was cranking out a half-dozen celluloid potboilers per year. Films like Law of the Lash (1947) and Fighting Vigilantes (1948) were low art, but LaRue's life-style was plenty high. He chummed through Hollywood with Bud Abbott and Hoot Gibson, became "good friends" with Marilyn Maxwell and dated Deanna Durbin. His home in Laurel Canyon was "a party house," Lash remembers. Says a friend: "He was always generous, giving everything away."
In the '50s, LaRue switched briefly to television, settling into a role on Hugh O'Brian's Wyatt Earp series. A clash of personalities quickly ensued ("He would upstage you pretty bad," says Lash), and in a quick-draw scene that O'Brian was supposed to win, LaRue kept outdrawing him. "The director said, 'Jesus Christ, Lash, can't you slow it down?' I said, 'No, it's instinct. I'd like to kill him.' " Predictably, LaRue left the show when his contract expired. As for TV: "I didn't think it was going to do anything. I thought, who's going to look at that little ol' box when they can go out and see a big picture?"
"Perhaps this cigarette in his neck will make him feel a little different. What about it, LaRue? Feel like talkin'?"
—An outlaw, in The Black Lash (1952)
Lash didn't talk, naturally. And he still doesn't have much to say about a lot of things. Take those marriages. Were there really nine—or 10, as some biographies have stated? "I doubt that. Now if you want to count a few weekends or something like that...."
And those problems with the law? " 'The bad jazz a man blows wails long after he's cut out.' And I guess that's some of the bad jazz I blew."
In 1956 Lash was arrested in Memphis and accused of fencing hot property. "I bought an adding machine that happened to be stolen," he says, clearly pained by the questioning. The incident made headlines back home ("Lash LaRue Seized"); his exoneration after a four-day trial did not. After his appearance in an independently financed movie titled Please Don't Touch Me, nobody did.
With his film career stymied, Lash concentrated on the carnival circuit, touring the U.S. and Canada with Lash LaRue's Great Western Show. Then in the '60s he put the bullwhip away, bought a Nevada motel and settled into semi-retirement with his wife, Reno Brown, a former actress.
In Nevada the aging ex-star underwent a religious "awakening" and began speaking to church groups as a lay evangelist. When his newfound commitment caused another marital split ("Reno didn't want a religious fanatic giving all the money away," says a friend), Lash hit the road again. Troubles followed like a mounted posse: an arrest in Florida for vagrancy, another in Georgia for possession of marijuana (which he later beat on appeal).
Financially drained by his marital missteps, he lived off "love offerings" from the Southern congregations where he spoke. The old panache never faltered, and he would give his "testimony" in an all-black outfit designed by Nudie of Hollywood. By the mid-'70s, "He was busy speaking several times a week," says the Rev. Tom Popelka, who acted as his sponsor and gave him a home between gigs. "Churches just loved him."
"I'm a witness of a sort," says Lash. "I spent 40 years in the wilderness before God opened my spiritual eyes. As soon as I have the attention that's worthy of that which will yet be said, I'll speak authoritatively of one who has been and is not evidently dead. But I'm not fooling myself; I could never be righteous. As I study it, none are."
After a tour of duty with evangelist John Cook, another former actor, LaRue left the gospel circuit. To some ministers his eclectic blend of beliefs—old-time fundamentalism, Eastern mysticism and reincarnation—seemed just a bit too ecumenical. He became, instead, a celebrity for hire, turning up at car dealerships and making personal appearances for a mobile-home distributor, a clothing manufacturer, whoever needed him. It wasn't Hollywood, but it was a living.
For all his hard riding, the years have treated Lash kindly. His hair is now a distinguished shock of gray, his rough-hewn face framed with a trim beard. The only casualty has been his hearing, dimmed first by a childhood swimming accident, later by countless cracks of his whip.
Having "gone through some serious money" in his life, he has been denied a pension by the Screen Actors Guild—because much of his work was nonunion. Still, there are prospects. He hopes to market one of his old serials, the only film property he owns, in videocassette form soon, and there has been talk of an autobiography. In June he'll start work on another film, a science-fiction piece, and Smoot will again be behind the camera. On the first project "I thought he might be nervous since he probably had more lines to read than in 10 of his Westerns," says the 34-year-old director. "But he was really an actor first."
At lunch with me the next day Lash certainly seemed determined. "I'm in the last furlong," he confided, "and I feel like I've really got to run for it." He was also more relaxed, displaying photos of his children (three grown sons, two daughters) and even doing a squeaky-voiced impression of a young granddaughter seeing her first Lash LaRue movie at a Western film festival.
Though he now shares a Hollywood apartment with a 27-year-old grandson ("He's a little ornery; nobody can handle him but me"), LaRue remains rootless, keeping to the road and often dropping in on his children. "I just go where I feel. I'm not raisin' a garden," he says firmly. His transport is a 1974 white Caddy convertible that he bought secondhand, and in its trunk he keeps a store of old-movie stills, posters, a pair of boots—and a whip.
After lunch, we agreed to meet once more at the Comedy Store, the Sunset Strip nightclub where a New York friend of mine would be performing. As promised, Lash arrived at 9, in black as always. A woman at the front door, perhaps 30 years old, recognized his name and breathlessly asked for an autograph. Though he hadn't lit up the screen in 24 years, he reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a photo and graciously signed it.
Onstage the acts were a typical mix of dreadful novices and promising up-and-comers. But the evening was delightful; there was no bad jazz in the air that night, no regrets on either side, only the feeling that I was in good company and that I would like to see this resolute lone rider on the screen once again. Afterward, outside the club, Lash LaRue shook my hand in farewell, hailed a cab and rode off into the boulevard known as Sunset.