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Volume 4552

Denny shares anecdotes from his long career in show business
Shared with ERBzine by Denny and Nancy Miller ~ Illustrated by Bill Hillman
Ghost Riders in the Sky
The Night the Knight Won't Forget
Left Holding the Nag

Denny and Nancy

"Denny Miller Flashbacks" was an ongoing feature in ERBzine
in which Denny shared a different anecdote each week.
Readers joined us each Friday for a new Miller flashback.
Ghost Riders in the Sky
Ojai, California, is seventy-one miles northwest of Los Angeles. I lived there for many years and when I would get an interview I would drive in.  On a good traffic day, it would take me a little over an hour, depending what part of town the casting call was being held.

I got a call for a TV commercial for a German cigarette called WEST.  My agent said the commercial was not going to being shown in the U.S. and I did not have to be a smoker.  Since I did not smoke, that was good.

When I got to the casting agency and signed in, I almost turned around and went home.  The ten or twelve other guys there for the audition were at least fifteen years younger than me.  Since I would have driven over one hundred and fifty miles, I stuck around.  They were seeing two guys at a time.   The first pair they called in were in there for about five minutes.  Me and my new, imaginary buddy were next.  The Director explained that they were looking for truck driver pals driving an eighteen wheeler out west.  Thus the name of the cigarette - WEST.

It was pretty close to a Marlboro ad.  Their package was red and white.  Their truck was going to be red.  The cowboy was the truck driver and the background would be every red mountain in the west.  Southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico were the planned locations.

The interview -- just be yourself in front of the camera and carry on a conversation with your trucker buddy.  "Roll camera, introduce yourselves and Action." said the director.  And we were off.

For the next five minutes I turned into a wisecracking, down home, out west, good, ole boy.  I used props from the desk,and photos off the walls. That's what I was ... off the wall! Since I didn't think I had a chance for the part, I really hammed it up.

The Director cut and we eighteen-wheeled truckers headed for the exit.  My partner was a step or two ahead of me when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  It was the Director.  He asked if I would mind staying to do another interview.  They called each of the actors in on at a time and I interviewed with each of them.

All of a sudden my odds for getting a little work seemed to be getting better.  I got to do my thing with twenty-one other guys.  They must have had about two hours of tape on me by the end of the day. I did not repeat my routine and tried to keep it fresh.  I had a great time!

I got the job... so much for being too old.  My weather-beaten face worked for me that day.

They sent me to truck driving school and I got my eighteen wheeler driver's license.  For two weeks each of the next three years I drove my big, red semi all over the west.  One time we shot film of me driving from Flagstaff, Arizona to Paige... one hundred thirty-three miles.  Another day, we pulled into Santa Fe, New Mexico and stopped in front of a bank and began filming.  We made a quick getaway when the bank manager came out to question us.

The best part was when we worked all day in Monument Valley.  That's where "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "Wagon Master," and many other western were filmed. And in the foreground was John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen and two wonderful guys I worked with for three and a half years -- Terry Wilson and Frank McGrath.  Each one was on horse.  I had four hundred horses under me.

At sunset, at the foot of "The Mittens" - "GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY"... I got chills all over. 
I miss those guys!
LISTEN to 12 of the best cowboy songs

In forty-five years of acting, I've only played two characters out of the Middle Ages.  One was Little John, Robin Hood's right-hand man, a character in rags and tights.  The other role, the one that took me back to all those drawings of castles and moats, with jousting tournaments and sword fights, was that of a medieval king.

I was to play the White Knight in a human-size chess set.  The chessboard was big. Each square was five feet by five feet.  The Knights were stunt men, on horseback.  It was so important to the producers that the armor look authentic, that they flew a specialist to California, from London.  Even my sword, Excalibur, the legendary sword belonging to King Arthur, had to look just right.

The chessboard was assembled, with Vasquez Rocks looming in the background.  These rocks are a many-layered formation, located in the high desert, about forty miles north of Hollywood, CA.  They have been used for thousands of film productions since the time of Gene Autry westerns.  TV shows, commercials, movies, and documentaries have been shot with this impressive background.  It is also a State Park, with camp grounds.

We were to work nights, for a week.  When it got dark, spotlights raked the ominous rocks.  The chessboard was rimmed with hundreds of lights shooting straight up. Two forty-foot high propane torches roared between the set and the rocks, making shadows dance on the steep, craggy face. Misters (fog machines) were used to make a three-foot mist float across the chess set.

Who has the money to go to all this expense for a thirty-second TV commercial?  The American taxpayers, that's who. This production company was making a recruitment spot for the U.S. Marines. You may have seen it.  It is the one where the medieval knight morphs into a U.S. Marine. It ran for three years and finally they retired it to the U.S. Marine Corp Museum.

Anyway, one night while we were filming, it got so cold that the mist froze on the chessboard.  Not good for horses. As the Chess King I stood on a pedestal.  The Chess Queen stood on a rug.  The horse directly in front of the queen and me slipped on the ice.  His back hoof went over the edge of the chessboard and hit one of the spotlights, making it explode.  The circus was on!

Me? I bailed out.  I headed off the chessboard in the direction of my queen.

The next night things went well.  There were no surprises.  Well, there was one.  Around midnight, the king felt the "call of nature." So, I walked into the darkness, in the direction of the campgrounds and a line of seven-foot sentinels... aka porta potties. They were not built for anyone wearing armor; especially a six-foot four-inch King wearing a crown.  So, I left my crown on a nearby rock.

The troubles I had the next ten minutes could have been made into an episode of the English comic "Mr. Bean."  A Cirque du Soleil contortionist comes to mind.  You can imagine the urgency on my part to solve the puzzle of my armor's buckles and clasps.  While I was in this Houdini imitation, I heard three or four vehicles pull up nearby.  Their passengers spilled out and began setting up camp.  By the sound of their high-pitched voices I deduced that they were possible a Cub Scout group earning their camping badge..

I was too busy to care.  My priority was to get out of the armor suit I was wrapped in.  Relief at last!

I took my time reassembling.  The kids were unloading their gear and oohing and aahing over the strange lighted chess game off in the distance.  That's when I made my dramatic entrance into their dark world.  I slammed the door open, jumped down the two steps, armor clanking, glistening in the moon light, donned my crown, and strode off into night.

I am sure that was a night we will never forget the knight!


Much of the Dynamite film A Princess of Mars was filmed in the Vasquez Rocks area

and the Vasquez Rocks were used in some of the CGI effects for Disney's John Carter film.
From the ERBzine Card and Poster Mosaic Archive

Graphic Story Page with Hot Thumbnails

A Chuck "Rifleman" Conners Flashback
Name an athlete that was good enough to make the professional ranks in two different sports. . . Baseball and Basketball.  Chuck Conners was one of the three that have achieved that feat.  He was good enough to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Celtics.

As an actor he played cowboys, Native American Indians good guys and bad guys.  He starred in THE RIFLEMAN and I had the pleasure of doing an episode where I played a cowboy known for my strength. In one scene I offer my help to "the rifleman", to help load his wagon with provisions.  I say to Chuck, "I can help you.  I am really strong."

During rehearsal, I walk over to Chuck's horse, put my hands under the horse's belly and say, "I can lift your horse.  Let me show you."  Chuck says, "No we're about finished here."  He loads up the last sack of potatoes, climbs in the wagon and rides off.

The director says that's fine, let's do a take. "Places everybody.  Action!"   When we get to the part where I go over to horse and say "I can lift your horse.  Let me show you," Chuck folds his arms and says, "Go ahead. I'd like to see that."  You can imagine the expression on my face...

Chuck cracks up and high fives a couple of his baseball teammates that were visiting the set.  I was left holding the nag!

Forty years later, Chuck is starring in a television series "THE WEREWOLF." The Werewolf is stalking my character, a German fisherman, in the dark of the night.  I could hear Chuck's laughter through the fog.  I guessed he hadn't forgotten the horse.

I have been so lucky to help tell stories on film for over a half a century.  I really like not growing up!

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