‘That’s Matt Dillon! I couldn’t believe I was in the Long Branch with those guys’
Few towns combine rodeo and Western history as well as Fort Worth, Texas. More than 4 million head of cattle came through this outpost on the Trinity River between 1866 and 1890, earning the city the nickname “Cowtown,” a moniker it still uses.
Cowtown fits. In 1889 the Union Stockyards opened for business. The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo started in 1896. Bill Pickett, credited as the father of bulldogging, performed there in 1904. Cowtown Coliseum went up in 1908, hosted the world’s first indoor rodeo 10 years later and held the first bull-riding competition in 1934. Fort Worth rodeos brought in everyone from Comanche Chief Quanah Parker to former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
Hollywood B-Western hero “Wild Bill” Elliott was there, too, along with sidekick Dub Taylor and Dub’s son. You know Dub’s son: actor Buck Taylor, who made a name for himself on the classic CBS-TV Western Gunsmoke (portraying gunsmith Newly O’Brien for eight years) and went on to appear in The Sacketts, Tombstone, Gettysburg and even last year’s Cowboys & Aliens. These days, however, he’s making a name for himself as an artist.
“I was at the Fort Worth stockyards in 1948 or ’47,” recalls Taylor, 73. “I was on tour with my dad, and Wild Bill was in the stockyards with some horses. I got to see Wild Bill there, never knowing that in years to come I’d be creating a poster of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.” Taylor’s poster of this year’s 116th annual event (which runs January 13–February 4) isn’t his first. He has been designing posters for Fort Worth’s premier rodeo since 1996. He created 100th anniversary posters for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Fort Worth Stockyards and Pendleton [Ore.] Round-Up, as well as the 50th anniversary poster for the National Finals Rodeo. And the Western event poster assignments keep pouring in. “I just pinch myself,” he says.
Although Taylor says “the painting came before the acting,” he first caught the public’s eye following in his dad’s footsteps, playing guest roles on such early 1960s TV series as The Fugitive and Have Gun, Will Travel before becoming a series regular on Gunsmoke in 1967. That put him on the set with James Arness (in his iconic role as Marshal Matt Dillon) and the other great actors and actresses who brought Dodge City, Kan., into living rooms for 20 years. “That’s Matt Dillon!” Taylor recalls. “I couldn’t believe I was in the Long Branch with those guys. I was uncomfortable. I ain’t kidding you. Think about it: You grow up watching a TV show like that, and all of a sudden you’re part of it?”
One challenge while working on Gunsmoke was to keep a straight face. “It was hard to work with him [Arness, who died in 2011], because he was a funny guy,” Taylor explains. “He had a great sense of humor. I’d run into the marshal’s office in the rehearsal, out of breath, and say, ‘Marshal, there’s a fight in the Long Branch!’ He’d look at me and go: ‘Oh, all right now. OK. We’ve got ourselves a serious actor. Let’s just wait till the take before we do all that stuff, Buck.’ And then when I would try to be serious, he’d start laughing. Once they got to laughing, they’d laugh for weeks. Milburn Stone [who played crusty but lovable Doc], they were all the same way. You’ve got to have a sense of humor and have some fun. We had some great times.”
After CBS canceled Gunsmoke in 1975, Taylor got serious about Western history, in his acting and in his art. He became obsessed with looking authentic in his acting roles. “It got so when I went in to get my wardrobe, they’d lay off me,” he recalls. “They’d say, ‘He knows what he wants. Just let him pick it.’”
Taylor’s love for history predates even his acting. “My history was handed down to me at a really young age by people who actually lived in the 1880s,” he says. “Although growing up in the San Fernando Valley in California, I was surrounded by our Western lifestyle and heritage, something handed down like a legacy.” Art was also a hand-me-down to Buck. Taylor’s Aunt Fay was a fashion illustrator, and maternal grandfather Thomas Heffernan was a painter (and muskrat trapper) in upstate New York.
Taylor’s own art, predominately watercolors, isn’t just about rodeos. He does historic works—buffalo, cattle, cowboys, trains, stagecoaches, outlaws, even ranch buildings—but finds great pleasure in creating posters. “Doing a poster is more design than a regular painting,” he says. “It requires a lot of thumbnail sketches—I do that anyway. You design something to bring your eye into this image, wander around it and find its way back out again, leading you into your subject. Posters can do that. I love it.”
He finds inspiration in other artists, from LeRoy Neiman, best known for his Kentucky Derby posters (“I love his style, his looseness, his daring to try different things”) to Frederic Remington, Andrew Wyeth and Frank Tenney Johnson. “It’s like an actor,” Taylor says. “You find someone you really like, and you just try to steal a little bit from him.” Who did Taylor try to steal from as an actor? “David Janssen,” he says. “And, of course, Marlon Brando.” He enjoys his fame as a poster artist and appreciates the challenges each assignment presents. “Each one has its own story,” he says, “and every one I’ve done has been a great adventure. It’s my hand on it. That’s the way I did it.”
Yet Fort Worth holds a special appeal. “That history is phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve competed there. My wife’s been in it. Casey Tibbs has been in it. Bill Pickett’s been in it. Practically every rodeo cowboy I know has been in it. When they’re doing Fort Worth, it’s an open rodeo. I can be in team roping, and there’s Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith. I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but that’s the way it is.”
Acting, painting and Western history. It doesn’t get any better for Buck Taylor. “It’s a hell of a ride,” he says. “I love every bit of it.”
To see more of Taylor’s work visit his Web site.