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Photo by Cindy Peery
NOTE: This is an original copyrighted article containing much information not available elsewhere. Please do not reprint, rewrite, or redistribute in any form, in part or entirety, without my permission or that of the family.

Donald Allison Durae was born November 20, 1932 in Long Beach,California.  His father had been killed two months earlier when the truck he was driving lost its brakes on the notorious "Grapevine" route near Bakersfield.  His mother would remarry three times before her tragic death from lung cancer in 1959 at age 46.

His childhood took a nightmarish turn when, just two weeks before his eleventh birthday, he and his friends were playing a game that involved riding their bikes as fast as they could down a steep street and braking hard to see who could make the longest skid marks.  The chain on Don's bicycle broke and he sailed into the path of a cement truck!  He was in a coma for three days.  His right arm was badly fractured, and his right femur and hip so terribly crushed that physicians prepared to amputate the leg.

The family scraped together modest resources and brought in a pediatric orthopedist from Chicago who saved the limb.  Don would spend fourteen months in the hospital in full body casts, often immobilized in traction.  At one point the cast extended from neck to ankle.  Two birthdays came and went.  He managed to keep up his school work and passed the time "with a stack of comic books that grew taller than the bed!"

His next stepfather owned a cattle ranch near Elko, Nevada where Don worked hard as a youth, learning to ride, rope, and shoot straight.  Missing any sort of social life in his teens, however, he returned to California to live with a friend's family who owned a bakery.  Don worked there after school.

Don grew up fast, and his voice matured early.  In junior high he dee-jayed his own radio program over KPRO in Riverside on which he also sang, accompanied by a classmate's piano.  He played left halfback in high school football (with metal plates to protect the right leg) and was the school spelling-bee champ.

While still in school, he joined the Naval Reserves for a three and a half-year hitch.  The Korean War interceded and at discharge time he found himself owing six months' active duty.  The Navy offered re-enlistment for two years or face possible draft.  Don took his chances and was promptly drafted by the Army.  Near the end of training camp at San Luis Obispo, he was troubled by the hip injury and confined to quarters.  Then someone asked for his Naval discharge papers.  When he said he had never gotten them it was discovered the Navy hadn't properly discharged him!  So he officially served in both branches of the service simultaneously for nearly three months!  Sent there at first for treatment, he completed his tour-of-duty in the Special Services entertaining veterans at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco.

Finally out of the military, he began to vigorously pursue a career as a singer/actor, studying with some of the best vocal and acting coaches of the time, including Estelle Harmon.  He toured the western states as a singer and stage manager in THE STUDENT PRINCE and as a singing emcee with ICE-ARAMA.  By late 1953, he was appearing at top Las Vegas night spots, including THE SANDS and THE SAHARA.  And he made his feature film debut with a small but very visible role in Warner Brothers' BATTLE CRY! starring Aldo Ray.

Like any other struggling young actor, he took odd jobs to support himself while studying and auditioning.  He worked for Lockheed riveting Constellation aircraft (the plane with three tail-feathers), taught other actors how to ride horseback and do stunt fights, and worked a night job with RCA as an electronics technician, helping build the first kinescopic recorder and stereophonic sound recorder for Warner Brothers.

In 1954, Don signed on with CBS Television Studios, working as a bit player in the early, heady days of live TV.  Cast most often as a singer or the young lover, he would do as many as five shows per night, dashing backstage from one to the other to appear in such programs as THE JACK BENNY SHOW, THE RED SKELTON SHOW, SHOWER OF STARS, GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER, YOU ARE THERE, and YOU BET YOUR LIFE.  In the latter he also sang the celebrated jingle "It's Delightful, It's De-Lovely, It's Desoto!"  in those patented "Tell 'em Groucho sent ya" commercials.

Other roles followed in television: MEET MILLIE, MY FAVORITE HUSBAND, WEST POINT STORY, MEN OF ANNAPOLIS, CLIMAX!, SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON, STUDIO 57, etc.  He also sang with the Frankie Carle and Tommy Dorsey orchestras.  In 1955 he began an important association with Ray Anthony, one of the last of the big-band leaders.  And he did several T.V. ads that year, including the famous Papermate dancing pens commercial which starred a pert and pretty young blonde actress named Trudy Wroe.  Her co-star was Tommy Irish, but the singing voice dubbed in with hers belonged to Don.  Don and Trudy would not actually meet until 1957.

Don spent two weeks of the summer of 1956 in Hawaii filming his first starring role in the early Roger Corman flick, SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF.  This drive-in movie featured pioneering underwater footage with sharks (Don did his own stunts here), lots of scantily-clad native girls, colorful scenery, and has since attained dubious cult-film status. 

Meanwhile, Ray Anthony had landed his own television show, designed as an upscale version of Lawrence Welk's, so by fall of that year Don was appearing as featured vocalist each week in the live ABC production.  He also recorded an album with Ray Anthony on the Capitol label, plus his own pop/rock compositions, "Seal Rock" and "Love Me Baby" for Challenge (Faber) Records. During this time he performed at the Hollywood Bowl and headlined at the Mocambo night club.

This coast-to-coast exposure brought him increasingly important roles, some guest-starring, in series like WAGON TRAIN, GUNSMOKE, RICHARD DIAMOND, PERRY MASON, TRACKDOWN, MAVERICK, and WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE.  He had tested for the new role of Bart Maverick, but when it was awarded to Jack Kelly, Don was cast as the villain--a singing bad guy!--in Bart's first episode.  For this he bought a Martin guitar and learned to play it over the weekend!

In 1957 he traveled up the coast of California with a group of actors to film an extended commercial introducing the 1958 Fords, and spotlighting the Thunderbirds.  (Interestingly, Dick Powell was the host of this ad.) On the bus he met the lovely actress and model Trudy Wroe, who had co-starred on the series BIG TOWN, and with whom he had technically done a commercial.  He recalls, "There was this girl on the bus who kept yak yak yakking about Elvis Presley.  Finally I told her that I had been to some of the Elvis parties in L.A.  So we talked about that."  The two did a roadside scene on horseback together and began dating.

Don made a pilot film for Four-Star studios in 1958 with Jane Russell called "MacCreedy's Woman."  It was shown as part of COLGATE THEATER but didn't sell.  Dick Powell, head of Four-Star, saw Don in that and cast him in an episode of ZANE GREY THEATER entitled "The Loner" [aka "Man Alone"].  The story was scripted by a young actor-turned-writer, Aaron Spelling, who had been penning the witty intros for Powell.

The series sold quickly, with Spelling as creator/producer (his first production), Lorillard's Kent cigarettes as initial sponsor, CBS as the network, and the well-oiled Four-Star machine as its powerhouse.  Don asked to try his hand at writing the theme and Spelling agreed.  It was done in just a few days, with Don singing harmony and lead via multi-track dubbing.  A version more complete than the one used in the show was released by RCA Victor.  (You can listen to both sides of this 45rpm on the THEME SONG page.)

On February 28, 1959, Don and Trudy were married.  Filming on the show began in July.  The ZANE GREY pilot script was slightly re-written, re-titled "The Arrival," and re-shot with different actors.  The second episode, which acted as Part Two, introduced Mark Goddard as the young trick-shot "Kid Adonis," who comes to town as part of a traveling show-wagon and ends up as Johnny Ringo's deputy, Cully.  Karen Sharpe was cast as the daughter of Case Thomas, played by Terence de Marney.

The 1959-60 television season is remarkable in that it featured more prime-time Westerns than any before or since--thirty of them!  JOHNNY RINGO ran for thirty-eight episodes with very respectable ratings against mega-hit THE REAL McCOYS.  John Cassavetes' JOHNNY STACCATO on NBC was not successful.  RINGO occupied the Thursday night 8:30 time slot vacated by another widely popular one-season show, YANCY DERRINGER.

Many famous actors filled the guest star roster: James Coburn, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Culp, Lon Chaney Jr., Burt Reynolds, Debra Paget, John Carradine, Gloria DeHaven, Buddy Ebsen, Royal Dano, and more. Heavyweight directors such as Howard Koch, Tom Gries, and R.G. Springsteen, plus writers like William Link and Richard Levinson (who were also employed as script "doctors") gave considerable depth to the show.

The Marx Toy Company believed in it enough to produce what would become the most valuable TV Western toy of all time: the big JOHNNY RINGO PLAYSET, with a special mold of Don made at great expense.  Along with other toy manufacturers such as Transogram and Actoy, more different toys and collectibles were licensed and issued for this show than any other TV Western ever.

When renewal time came the current sponsor, Johnson's Wax (which owned the hour shared with ZANE GREY THEATER) felt the airwaves had been stampeded by Westerns and lobbied for one of theirs to be replaced by a situation comedy.  Dick Powell, who had liked the show, was out of the country at the time.  And Aaron Spelling had been offered the job of producing DuPont's prestigious JUNE ALLYSON SHOW, which he viewed as a step up.  So JOHNNY RINGO was lost in the melee.

Considering the vast audience support--Don was, by then, the number one fan-mail draw at Four-Star--and massive merchandising campaign, the cancellation came as a shock to many.  Don continued to fill requests for his personal appearance act as JOHNNY RINGO well into 1964, the year his series was repackaged with three other Four-Star shows and called THE WESTERNERS, which continues in syndication today.

While riding high as the star of his own series (at $750 per show), he wisely began to invest his personal appearance earnings--more generous than his salary--in apartment buildings and other real-estate ventures.  He guest-starred in an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and was chosen to play opposite Lucille Ball in the Broadway musical WILDCAT!  The latter role fortunately fell through, as the play quickly foundered .

In 1962 he obtained his broker's license and signed a contract with Universal's Revue Studios.  They had pledged to find him another series, but he would soon regret the confines of a studio contract-player.  

THE PLAINSMAN, a proposed show casting him as a young Buffalo Bill Cody--he was costumed and made-up for photos, but no pilot was filmed--failed to sell.  He was told he had the lead in THE VIRGINIAN, but a last-minute decision gave the part back to James Drury (who had played the role in an obscure version from 1958 wearing lace cuffs.)  He did appear as a hard-riding, polo-playing cavalryman in the early episode, "Riff-Raff."

A LARAMIE episode aired early in 1963 with Don cast as Gandy Ross, a charming ex-safecracker who had fought with John Mosby ("The Gray Ghost")in the war.  His character was set up to replace John Smith's (who reportedly wanted out of the show) in the event LARAMIE went to a fifth season.  It took a beating in the ratings opposite COMBAT! however, and was cancelled.  Contrary to a myth perpetuated by several reference works, neither Don nor Arch Johnson were ever LARAMIE regulars.

Several good guest-star roles followed, but when it became clear Revue wasn't as committed to finding him a new series as he would like, Don confronted "Papa Lew" Wasserman by easing his new black Cadillac up beside him and his companions as they walked in the studio lot.

Don opened the passenger door and asked Mr. Wasserman inside.  He recalls, "Well, you just didn't do that.  Nobody talked to Mr. Wasserman that way.  I was polite, but I told him how disappointed I was and that I'd buy back the rest of my contract."

Lew Wasserman was not the only one astonished.  The William Morris Agency had represented him a number of years.  No one just walked out!

But that is exactly what he did.  Calmly and resolutely, he turned his back on his show business career to pursue one in which he had more control and security.  Daughter Heidi was born in 1962 and son Jeff in 1964.  His family was his first responsibility.  He felt he had been fortunate in the breaks he had, but did not want to spend the rest of his life waiting for another one.

Don continued to fill requests for personal appearances as Johnny Ringo well into 1964, and hosted a summer replacement variety show, YOUTH PANORAMA, in which he sang popular hits of the day.  After that he devoted his time to his realty and investment company.

During the original series of interviews with Don carried out over a period of four years (beginning in 1983) and in all the time we have known each other since, I never detected any significant rancor or regret regarding the turn of events in his life.  He is singularly self-assured and confident of his choices, and seems satisfied with careers on and off the stage.  If pressed, he admits "I do miss the singing."  

This part always breaks my heart, and if you have heard him sing as I have, you know what I mean.  But music was changing drastically.  The big-band era was gone, and crooners were falling out of favor.  Very few of the romantic pop singers managed to survive the new fads.

Many have said Westerns "shot themselves in the foot," but they did peak higher and mightier than the critics thought they could.  They re-defined the genre as adult, and still refuse to die out.  Perhaps it was necessary for this very decent man to go on to something else, yet he will always be proudly identified as a cowboy.

******

In June of 1998 Don and Trudy sold the Encino home they had lived in for forty years and moved to a new one they built near Dana Point.  They spend time in the Desert and in Maui.  Don fishes in Alaska for salmon each summer, plays golf, and together they take trips to many exotic locales.  Both have remained fit and beautiful.  They are devoted to their family and to each other.  The couple has also retained a down-to-earth graciousness that defies pretension.

Heidi (a former actress and model) married an Arizona businessman that same June, and they have a home in the northern part of the Valley where she teaches school.  Currently they spend most of their time in Raton, New Mexico.  They are heavily involved in rodeo--Heidi is an expert team-roper.  Jeff, a successful mortgage-broker, lives with his wife Shelly and their two children, Daniella and Toren, near San Diego.

M. Jacquelyn Patterson
copyright 1991, 2000, 2001,2002, 2005
All Rights Reserved

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TV YEARBOOK #8

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