Willingham may have gone on to fame and fortune through Walker and roles in more than 60 films, including The Last Picture Show and Chinatown, but he says he has never forgotten the hard times he knew in tiny Mineola, where he sometimes sang in a choir for supper and dug graves for spending money. "Anybody who is less fortunate than me I can identify with," he says. "I can bring more security to these people."
And that, he says, is what he would like to do as a congressman. With a little help from GOP brass ("I can knock on his door and he knows who it is," he says of presidential candidate George W. Bush), he hopes on Nov. 7 to unseat Democratic incumbent Max Sandlin in Texas's 1st Congressional District. To that end, he allowed his character to be written out of Walker last season so he could campaign. "I'm not a politician," he says. "I want to be a public servant, plain and simple."
Willingham, a decided underdog in his race, says he would champion two causes. He wants Social Security contributions invested in a protective trust fund so Congress can't spend the money. And while retaining credits for such things as mortgage interest and charitable contributions, he supports a flat tax. "Seventeen percent, no matter what you make," he says. Chris Lippincott, a former aide to Sandlin, is unimpressed by the actor's down-home slant, noting that Willingham spent much of the past 30 years in Southern California. "If he wanted to run for Congress," says Lippincott, "he should have challenged his congressperson in Palm Springs."
Willingham insists his old hometown is in his blood. Family lore has it that his grandfather Henry was the first local marshal to deputize a black man. His father, Noble Sr., who died in 1973, worked 12-hour days while Noble attended school and did odd jobs around their small farm. In 1944, when Noble was 13, his mother, Ladelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer. "She wanted to live until I graduated from high school, but she didn't have a chance," says Willingham, who helped care for her until her death three years later.
Enraged, he became short-fused, always spoiling for a fight. But he fulfilled one dream: attending college, earning a bachelor's degree in education. That was followed by a stint in the Army, after which he returned to school, obtaining a master's in education from Baylor University in 1959. While he was working on a Ph.D. and teaching high school economics and government, another teacher suggested Willingham read for a movie shooting nearby. "I said, 'Yeah, why don't we start robbing banks,' " joked Willingham. But he went, and landed the part of Chester in The Last Picture Show. "From then on I was ruined," he says of the arrogance of success.
In fact, he blames the Hollywood high life for the eventual collapse of his marriage. He and Doris Humphrey, a high school classmate, wed in 1955 and had one child, Stori, now 35, an educational psychologist in East Texas. Shortly after their divorce in 1983, Doris died of ovarian cancer, a condition Willingham didn't know she had.
Willingham got a second chance at love six years ago when he met Patti McGlohen, now 52, a college administrator and the mother of two. "Being with Noble is like always being on a trip to somewhere," says McGlohen. They have no current wedding plans, but Willingham vows not to let her get away. His daddy taught him how: Once, Noble Sr. saw his son lifting weights and asked what he was doing. "I said, 'I'm going to be a man,' " recalls Willingham. "He said, 'That's silly. You want to know how to be a man? You treat a woman nice.' "
Bob Stewart in Mineola