Eric Fleming was one of those actors who always seemed mysterious, aloof and little was known about him. Although he was an amazing actor and another one of those people who became a household name, he had a hard and tragic life. I believe it’s time people got to know and understand this great man.
Born Edward Heddy, Jr on July 4, 1925 in Santa Paula, CA, he was an only child and had a very unhappy childhood. The physical abuse he endured by his father was, according to Fleming, “quite sadistic”. In 1934, at the age of nine, he held a revolver to his sleeping father’s head in an attempt to kill him. Fleming’s father had beaten him so severely with the buckle end of a belt, he was unable to get up for two days.
Eric said of his childhood:
“The beginning wasn’t so hot. I was born in Santa Paula, California. My father was an oil rigger and the best I can remember of him were the beatings he gave me.”
Fleming stated “the reason I tried to kill him is because it was either him or me.” The gun misfired and Eric left home by hopping a freight train.
He ended up as a gang member, learned how to use a switchblade and committed petty thefts. He also broke into houses and stores and remained one step ahead of being caught. He was eleven at the time and was badly injured in a gang fight. The police were going to send him back to his father until they saw the absolute terror in his eyes. They sent him to live with his mother instead.
Although many critics believe Eric was a grade B movie star, they could not have been further from the truth. His acting repertoire consisted of many years in theater, many films and television performances and as a screenwriter.
Before becoming an actor he was a Merchant Marine serving in the Pacific during World War II, at 15 years of age, he was a master carpenter with the Seabees. As he appeared older than he really was, the Navy never questioned his claiming to be 17.
In 1942 Eric was stationed in Seattle at a foundry. He was trying to balance a 200 pound block of steel when it slipped from the hoist and shattered his face. Forty stitches and facial reconstruction that required four plastic surgeries gave him a new face, the face we all grew to know.
“I look altogether different; I had no idea I’d end up looking like this. I’ve learned that it’s give and take all the way and I have the ‘before and after’ advantage which gives a wonderful balance of values.”
He returned to Paramount, where he had been working as a construction worker, grip and carpenter. He made a bet with an actor that he could do better at a particular audition. He lost the bet and it cost him $100. As he stated “I lost a lot of pride too, which hurt, but the $100 hurt worse. I decided I would do something about it; acting cost me that hundred and I made up my mind it was going to pay me back.”
Eric studied acting during the evenings and had some bit parts in a few Paramount films. He also worked with small theater groups and stock companies He toured with Miriam Hopkins, Philip Faversham and Margaret Irving in Anita Loos’ “Happy Birthday” which brought him to Chicago and from Chicago he moved to New York City. He appeared in “The Tower Beyond Tragedy” with Judith Anderson, Alfred Ryder and Robert Harrison at the ANTA Playhouse for 30 performances.
Throughout the early 50s, New York was the production center for live television shows. Eric worked steadily through this time under such companies as Hallmark Summer Theatre and Kraft Television Theatre. In 1955 he began rehearsals for a feature role in “Plain and Fancy” on Broadway. In 1956 he replaced Richard Derr in the role of Dan King which utilized his talents as a singer and dancer.
In the summer of 1956 he was cast in “No Time For Sergeants” as Irvin Blanchard. He received critical acclaim for his portrayal and was deemed a great success.
Rawhide 1958 – 1965
In the summer of 1958, 33-year-old Eric Fleming auditioned for the leading role of trail boss Gil Favor in the new CBS television western Rawhide. His rugged good looks, magnetic presence and rich baritone voice won him the part.
Heading a 20 man cattle drive with 3,000 cattle from San Antonio, TX to Sedalia, Missouri made both Gil Favor and Eric Fleming household names. The show also starred Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates, Sheb Wooley as scout Pete Nolan, Paul Brinegar as cook Wishbone and James Murdock as Wishbone’s assistant Mushy.
The show aired on January 9, 1959 and was in the top twenty shows through 1962, The show was also number one in both Europe and in Japan. Rawhide was considered the best written and directed Western on television. Eric and screenwriter Chris Miller co-wrote two episodes “A Woman’s Place” and “Incident of a Night on the Town.” Fleming’s strong portrayal of an honest, strong, intelligent and hero with a strong sense of justice and morality overrode all others.
His presence was so dominant that his character centered the show and formed a base that all the other characters revolved around. Gil Favor’s background as Confederate Captain and a widower with two young daughters in Philadelphia added a maturity and quite poignant romantic appeal.
In 1966, Eric signed with MGM TV to film a television movie which would be shown as a part of ABC’s “Off to See the Wizard”, a series of adventure films. High Jungle was to be shot on location in Peru in which he played a 19th century U.S. naval office who rescues lost explorers. Eric and long time girlfriend, Lynne Garber, arrived in Lima on August 17th.
Filming in a bad storm was to turn fatal. The canoe that Fleming and Minardos were in started taking on water. In an effort to swim to shore, Minardos made it — Eric did not. Locals dove in to help rescue him but upon reaching him, he went down. His body was recovered 15 miles down river.
Due to Fleming’s death the Screen Actors Guild started placing huge pressure for greater producer adherence to safety standards.
Very sadly, Eric Fleming and Lynne Garber were to have been married within two days of his death. An interview with Lynne, following the tragedy, she stated: “the three years with Eric were the happiest of my life.”
Eric Fleming was only 41 years old when he died. He was a loner who lived modestly, had few close friends and chose not to be a part of the Hollywood mechanism. He was an accomplished actor, sculptor and writer who loved to read and play chess. He was soft spoken, kind and gentle.
His life held a sadness that can only be attributed to his abusive childhood and dysfunctional family. He managed to rise above it and still lives in the hearts of his many fans. He will be sadly missed for years to come.
“Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince. and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” – (Hamlet) – Wm Shakespeare