When I was young, Sunday afternoon television instilled in me a great love for old Hollywood musicals and westerns. While Gene Kelly danced his way across the screen, John Wayne rode horses and frequently sparred with Maureen O’Hara. To this day, Gene Kelly is still my favorite male dancer, and John Wayne… his grit and swagger find their way into some of the characters I create. To me, he is the ultimate cowboy. Running a close second to him are Peter Breck and Cameron Mitchell.
Joseph Peter Breck was born on March 13, 1929 in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He is best known for playing Nick Barkley on The Big Valley. Breck’s father was a jazz musician who played with legends such as Fats Waller and Billie Holiday. As a child, Breck often traveled with his parents until they decided he needed a more stable home life and sent him to live with his grandparents. During this time, his parent divorced and he went to live with his mother in Rochester. She later married Al Weber, the sports writer for the Rochester Times Union.
Upon graduating high school, Breck enlisted in the Navy. After his tour, he moved to Houston and centered his attention on education. He enrolled in the University of Houston and studied drama and English. It was there he got his start in acting, performing at Houston’s Alley Theatre. Stalag 17 was one of the productions he appeared in before moving to Washington D.C.’s theater district. Actor Robert Mitchum discovered Breck in the stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Man of Destiny and cast him in an unbilled role in the film, Thunder Road. Mitchum later brought Breck to Hollywood and helped to launch Breck’s acting career.
Breck appeared in several movies, portraying a variety of characters, before being cast to play Nick Barkley in 1965. The Big Valley is where I know Breck best, as I loved his character. Tall, dark and handsome, Nick Barkley was rough around the edges and had a warm heart. He could ride, rope and shoot, was quick to lose his temper and throw his fists, but at the end of the day, family and honesty mattered most to him. As with John Wayne, I model a lot of my cowboys after Nick Barkley.
Breck later moved to Canada with his wife and son. He founded an acting academy in Vancouver, The Breck Academy, and managed it for ten years. Sadly, his son died at a young age after suffering a long bout with acute myeloid leukemia. Breck laid low after the tragedy, but eventually went on to guest star on several television shows. He died on February 6, 2012 from dementia. I will always remember him as Nick Barkley, the rough-and-tumble, sweet-as-pie cowboy from my childhood.
Cameron McDowell Mitzell was born November 4, 1918 in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. (He later changed his name to Cameron Mitchell at actress Lynn Fontanne’s urging.) Mitchell is the 4th of seven children. His father and mother were both ministers of the Reformed Lutheran Church. Several other men in his family were also ministers, and Mitchell’s father hoped Cameron would follow the same path, but early on Cameron had a love for acting. With the help of a high school teacher, he enrolled in a New York City dramatic school. During his time in the city, he held a variety of jobs while acting on Broadway and writing letters to producers, agents and other actors to further his career. It wasn’t until he criticized a performance of Alfred Hunt did he receive a reply from Hunt offering him an audition.
Mitchell served in World War II as an Air Force bombardier. He made his film debut in 1945, appearing in What Next, Corporal Hargrove? Afterward, he continued with stage and film, gaining recognition twice for his portrayal of Happy in the stage and screen productions of Death of A Salesman. Mitchell continued with roles in westerns, establishing himself as a character actor. He met producer David Dohort when Dohort produced one of Mitchell’s first short-lived television series. Later on, when Dohort was casting for High Chaparral, his first choice to play Buck Cannon was Cameron Mitchell.
As with Peter Breck’s Nick Barkley, Buck Cannon became Mitchell’s signature role. This is where I know Mitchell best. His portrayal of Uncle Buck captivated me at a young age. Buck was strong, determined, loyal to family and funny. I model some of Buck’s grit and humor in my own writing.
Mitchell’s love for acting wasn’t his only love. He also had a love for golf, traveling and gambling on the dogs, though by his own words he didn’t gamble often. He loved golf too much for that. Married three times, he sometimes found himself broke, even though, according to him, he made 1,000’s from residuals. Mitchell passed away on July 6, 1994. He was survived by his children and grandchildren, some of which have found their way into acting. To me, he will always be Uncle Buck, that larger-than-life figure on the television screen.