Eric Fleming – Rawhide Star, Actor – Tragedy

Posted on Dec 09, 2011 under ARCHIVES | 25 Comments


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

Courtesy of Nacaro

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25 Responses to “Eric Fleming – Rawhide Star, Actor – Tragedy”

  1. Hugh McIntosh Says:

    To Whom It May Concern

    I have watched many episodes of Rawhide throughout my life and was always greatly impressed by the acting style and unique presence of Eric Fleming.I was profoundly moved by the fact he had an awful upbringing and was totally unaware of the circumstances of his tragic demise.In my opinion his rise to fame gives great credit to his tenacity and willingness to succeed. May he rest in peace.


  2. ellent Says:

    I couldn’t agree more Hugh. His life was tragic, but he was, without doubt, Rawhide’s success. I thought he was a marvelous talent! Thank you for stopping by and I surely appreciate your comment.


  3. Hankmeister Says:

    Being 57 years old I remember watching “Rawhide”, “Death Valley Days”, and other westerns of the era including the somewhat hokey King of the Cowboys Roy Rogers. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Roy but I guess he was a generation ahead of Eric Fleming’s and Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of rawbone get ‘er done cowboys.

    Having bought several early seasons worth of Rawhide on DVD from eBay and now a local cable station is running both seasons 6 and 7, I have to say Eric Fleming really did grow in the part as hard-bitten task master Gil Favor. Though rarely physically abusive of his men, I imagine his character’s hard-nosed view of life as trail boss on the Sedalia trail probably was a little too close for comfort given Fleming’s own tragic childhood experiences with his abusive father.

    I was not aware Eric Fleming had died so soon after his stint on Rawhide while filming a movie until about three years ago when I was doing a Google search reacquainting myself with the Rawhide regulars. How utterly sad. Mr. Fleming was certainly a man’s man and I guess that’s what made him perfect for the role as a rawbone trail boss riding herd not only over the cattle he drove but also the men he hired to get his cattle to market.

    BTW, Clint Eastwood is spot on as the ramrod of Favor’s outfit. You can see the dedication of each man to his craft and no wonder the show was well received not only here in America but also elsewhere in the world that had an interest in the old American west.

  4. ellent Says:

    Eric was a wonderful actor.. his history in theater alone was a sound bite on his talent. I have always had a close love for his talent and his absolute strength to rise above what he experienced as a child. I think that he has always held a very special place in my thoughts… He was a man that rose above his situations and became a greater person. I have always loved him for that inner power that made him the pure talent and great human being he was. He should be remembered always for his strength and his knowing he was far better than where he started from. I believe that he met that challenge and even though he died young — he knew and understood the demons and rose above them.

  5. Dan Iovacchini Says:

    Well I’ve a lot in common with Eric Fleming I see!! I certainly know the trials of a similar childhood. I am a bit different I guess because I embraced & confronted my Demon ( who walked himself to Dry out 20 yrs ago now) I attribute the Person I am today to the struggles I went thru as a kid. As Eric Flemming may well have done & kinda Sounds that way. I met a woman with 3 kids in an abusive relationship on a Property I managed & felt inclined to help her get safe. That was in Sept. 97…We’ve been together had 3 more kids & I think I’d never be THAT person inclined to Help EVERYbody who ever needed it…lol. But this was special & we’ve been together 15 yrs. now. So it depends HOW one developes from a Brutal upbringing…& fair if it isn’t similar, But it IS within ones own Power to make it a positive rather then take a less desirable path!…Eric Flemming seems to have made peace with his Demons & Made a Good Life for himself I feel very Good knowing somebody like him I can identify with..& thank you again Ellen…Dan

  6. carl johnson Says:

    Eric Flemin was an amazing actor with scu a bright future ahead of him. He was rawhide and had such comand on the show. Head em up “Trail boss”

  7. ellent Says:

    Hi Dan:

    Thank you so much for your insight and comments regarding your life as well as relating to Eric. I was an extremely fortunate child with a household full of love, but I certainly know many kids were not as fortunate. I am so very proud of you and the fact that you could rise above your misgivings and find a stronger you and a better life. God bless you for reaching out to others less fortunate and in similar situations. I’m sure Eric would be very proud of you as well! Yes, he had a very tough childhood and yes, he did find peace because he became such a kind and gentle man. He also understood the difference between artificial friends and those that were truly his friends and therefore could truly count his friends on one hand. How many of us could learn from that because that is every so true!

    You are a strong man, Dan and can truly see life in a very clear image. Again, God Bless


  8. ellent Says:

    I agree, the era of Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel etc, was after the Gene Autry/Roy Rogers era. I too kind of grew up with these shows but still remember when I was really, really small Roy and Gene! Jack Warner (Warner Brothers) definitely produced some of the finest westerns of the era, where ironically he himself was such a horrible little man that everyone ran when they saw him coming – lol!

    Thanks so much for stopping by and I hope you will enjoy other posts I’ll be adding. I will continue to search for info on members of the supporting cast of Rawhide and hopefully add some fresh thoughts on them as well!


  9. Ernie Cooper Says:

    I have been recording all of the Raw Hide series, noticed that Clint Eastwood had taken over as trail boss and thats when I found that Eric had passed. The series really missed or at least I did. I’m 62 and I watch one of the series almost every day…I even remember some that I saw as a kid. Thanks

  10. ellent Says:

    Unfortunately the producers thought Eastwood could carry the show and they failed. Fleming truly was Rawhide and all the other characters kind of revolved around “Favor”. That said, I am so thrilled that you, like me, follow these wonderful old westerns! I hope these actors and their work live for many generations!

  11. Virgini Says:

    I watched Rawhide as a young teenager, and was so sad when I heard of his tragic death. He was a great actor, and I loved his deep voice. Thanks for filling in the “rest of the story” for us.

  12. Steve Macaulay Says:

    Rawhide and Gunsmoke were a lot closer to reality than today’s so-called “super
    heroes” playing arrogant, smug parts in physically improbable (if not impossible) plots in high-tech and therefore expensive movies. My wife and I watch these reruns with almost religious zeal. The day the producers stop running them will be a sad one indeed.Three cheers for the likes of Eric Fleming and James Arness!

  13. ellent Says:

    Ame! Couldn’t say it better! Dillon’s the man! What other character could scream “hero”!

  14. ellent Says:

    I loved Jim Arness! I grew up from the days that I was sent off to “bed” because I was too young, to the days I could Watch it anytime I wanted to! God love Dillon!

  15. antonia Says:

    Eric Fleming was Rawhide. Whenever he was on screen, he eclipsed everybody else. I recognized his talent when I first watched it as a young girl. I’m 63 and I now realize what a talent that we lost with his untimely death. Is it true that he was offered A Fistful of Dollars before Clint Eastwood and that he turned it down? If so, what would have happened, had he accepted that role?

  16. Mareah Says:

    I was not born yet when “Rawhide” was on television. Thank GOD for reruns. I Love this show and the stand out for me was Mr. Eric Fleming.I was sad to learn of his childhood abuse and his death at such a young age. He was an amazing actor and to overcome so much he had to have been an amazing man. RIP Mr. Fleming. Your work will touch many more generations to come.

  17. ellent Says:

    Hi Mareah, Thank you so much for your comments. I also loved Eric Fleming’s work and know he is now in a much better place. I am so glad that keeping these wonderful actors alive for other generations has allowed those of you not around at the time to get to know them. With so many stations carrying the old westerns now, it’s a wonderful chance for all of you to enjoy their talents.

  18. ellent Says:

    Amen Antonia! I too grew up with these people and am so thrilled that so many stations are now bringing them back. One thing that really stood out with Eric Fleming was his “body language” as Favor. He’s always have so sort of prop that fed right into the conversation or scene he was doing. This is a very prominent part of his acting technique from theater. Props play a huge part in plays and he obviously carried that technique into television.

  19. ej kelley Says:

    I am so overjoyed that so many people love Eric Fleming. He was such a special person. Unfortunately, we have very little information on him. Even with the wide world of internet, there is little out there. Most of the photos we have of him are captures from Rawhide or his movies. I am 64 years and remember the day the newspaper posted the article about his death. I was angry because the studio didn’t take better care of him and allowed such a dangerous stunt. My hope is that we will meet him in Heaven someday and can at last be friends.

  20. Janet Says:

    Born in 1953 and raised in California, while I was a bit young to watch the Westerns (any form of violence on TV terrified me, so my mom wouldn’t let me watch much), from the beginning I loved horses, cowboys, the idea of the Old West. Recently I have had the great pleasure of watching as many episodes of Rawhide, Gumsmoke, Bonanza and any and all old westerns on Netflix, and come to love the admire the wonderful work of these shows. Eric Flemings personal story is terribly sad – but his life experiences surely informed the veracity of his performance as Gil Favor – a man who would, if he had to, whop or shoot any man with dispatch, but would prefer not to. A man who innately stood up for what’s right and would not tolerate bullies, cheats and murderers. He exemplified everything that a good American man from the West should be. And he wasn’t just a man’s man. Women instinctively trusted and respected him. And he was the sort of man that a lot of us women would have been desperately glad to throw a whole lot of loving onto. Sure wish there were more men like that around.

  21. ellent Says:

    Gil Favor was the “perfection” of the western images! God Bless == The thew 50′s and 60′s

  22. Wild Bill Says:

    Antonia – it’s true that Fleming and Charles Bronson were offered the starring role in the firsts Dollars film before Clint. James Coburn also turned it down. As you say, what might have happened to Eric’s career? I worked briefly on a Charlie Bronson film in the ’80s and heard crew members say that he regarded turning down Fistful as a major mistake.

  23. Celia Says:

    I have often wondered about Clint Eastwood’s reluctance to speak about Eric, not even a tribute to him when he died. Jealousy? Well, whatever the reason, as my youtube tribute says, Eric WAS the true star of Rawhide. Such an awful tragedy that he died so young, but it’s wonderful that so many people around the world still love him after all these years. A great testament to a great man.

  24. Jo Says:

    Mr. Fleming was an amazing man and actor. May be always feel peace and love. He left us far too soon..

  25. Sue Holtzclaw Says:

    Loved Eric Fleming. He was right up there with James Arness

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