I love me some Bonanza. Watching that legendary show thrills me for many reasons, not the least of which is it’s standing in the world of nostalgia television. It is so of it’s time that watching it can really take you back. Additionally, the cast is one of the better to be found on classic television, evidenced by their easy rapport and the family way they had with each other. But “the Cartwrights” may make for better viewing than does Bonanza; watching those old episodes, you are struck by some poor production values; the too-obvious use of stunt men, the clunky and visually jarring cuts between studio and location shooting.
Watching an episode of Rawhide right after a Bonanza can also be jarring. Rawhide premiered on television on January 9, 1959 on CBS and ran for seven-and-a-half years, making it the sixth-longest running American western. The show was ran by writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren, who had made many western films in the past. He would later return to films, his last being Charro! (1969) starring Elvis Presley. You don’t have to watch many episodes to realize that Rawhide has a very different “look” from Bonanza. Perhaps the producers of Rawhide were going for a leaner, meaner optic for their show. Every episode was in black and white for one thing and most episodes feature little-to-no claustrophobic studio interiors and instead spend the bulk of the time on location in the great outdoors.
Rawhide is remembered today as the show that gave Clint Eastwood his start but the star of the show was Eric Fleming who portrayed trail boss Gil Favor. By the time he showed up on TV every Friday night on the dusty trail to Sedalia, Missouri, Fleming had appeared in a few episodes of television and three minor B movies. Fleming is impressive as Favor, whom writer Warren had based on the diary of a real trail boss that was written in 1866. Eastwood is featured almost as much as Fleming but the latter was always billed first. Fleming also wrote two episodes of Rawhide.
Check this out, though. Fleming had been born with a club foot and had to use crutches as a child. This infirmity did not keep his father from regularly beating him. Things got so bad during Fleming’s childhood that he was pushed finally to kill his father. One day when Fleming was eight years old, he aimed a gun at his dad ready to end his own torment by taking his father’s life. The gun jammed. Fleming was left with no choice but to flee his home.
When Fleming was 11 – eleven years old – he was doing odd jobs for gangsters in Chicago when he was inadvertently wounded by a stray bullet during a gunfight between two rival mobsters. After he was released from hospital, he decided to return home to California and his mother, who had recently divorced Fleming’s father. But Fleming found himself not suited to high school and joined the Merchant Marine, serving as a Seabee – as Ward Cleaver had – during World War 2.
Considering his history, you can imagine the type of man Fleming was at this point in his life. While in the service, someone made him a bet that he couldn’t lift a 200-pound weight. Fleming, of course, attempted the lift but failed and dropped the weight on his face. He had to have his forehead, nose and jaw reconstructed. This left him scarred and with a feeling of being ugly. He eventually, though, took some acting classes and appeared in stage productions before moving into television and some low-budget films.
By the time Rawhide entered it’s eighth season, the ratings had dropped substantially. After an apparent dispute with producers, Fleming was let go from the show. The final season features Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates as trail boss. Fleming soon made perhaps his only other really notable screen appearance in 1966’s The Glass Bottom Boat starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor. Interestingly, he then guest starred on three episodes of Bonanza, then the number one-rated western on TV.
Off to See the Wizard was a short-lived anthology TV series from MGM in the mold of The Wonderful World of Disney. Produced by animation legend Chuck Jones, the show presented original hour-long stories and also broadcast many films from MGM’s vault. Eric Fleming signed up to appear in High Jungle, a program that was also slated to be released to theatres and that would serve as a pilot for a proposed series starring Fleming. High Jungle was a somewhat typical story of a search for an American who was being held captive in the Amazon River region of Peru. Perhaps atypically, the film was being shot in the actual locations, a dense jungle with all manner of challenges and dangers.
Nico Minardos was a minor Greek actor who had appeared in Monkey Business (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Nico was co-starring with Eric in High Jungle and the two – plus Fleming’s fiancée, Lynne Garber, who had traveled to Peru with Eric – had become friends. In an extensive interview I found online, Minardos recounts the story of his time in Peru with Fleming, the hardships they faced on location and the careless way the production crew handled the shoot. Minardos talks of wretched conditions, such as muddy streets in towns with no sewage. Harrowing bus rides along sheer cliffs at the bottom of which could be seen the wrecks of previous buses who’s drivers could not navigate the treacherous turns in the road. “Hotels” that were little more than shelter from the rains – 140 inches annually in that region.
The heat and humidity were oppressive and the insects and mosquitoes were simply part of the atmosphere, a constant source of irritation and stripping to the waist – as many scenes called for – would result in a mass of bug bites. The final shots that needed to be filmed before wrapping in this trying location involved shooting the boiling rapids of the Huallaga River along a treacherous stretch where boulders the size of small homes jutted out of the water. The sharp turns in this part of the river called for skill and timing and Fleming and Minardos – who had done their own stunts up to this point – were considering having doubles ride the rapids. This, they soon learned, was not possible; “The Indians, approached to serve as doubles for us, flatly refused. They were afraid; even the most expert of the river boatmen in Tinga Maria wouldn’t attempt it for any amount of money”. This should have served as the sternest of warnings.
Fleming and Minardos felt confident in their ability as strong swimmers if they should capsize. The night before, Minardos – the more experienced boat man of the two – advised Fleming that should their conoa tip over, to hold on to it and let it carry him out of danger. Fleming “half-heartedly shook his head in agreement” and the two adjourned for dinner. That evening, Eric and Nico agreed to meet in the Florida Keys for a holiday after the production wrapped. In two days time, Fleming and Garber were going to be married and the newlyweds, joining Nico and his wife, would enjoy a honeymoon in South Florida. The two friends went to bed that night, Eric advising Nico to have a good sleep and rest up for tomorrow; “we’ll probably need it”.
On Wednesday, September 28th, Nico awoke with an unsettled feeling. Before filming the scene, Minardos looked at the course the canoa would take. He was inspired to consider tying a rope to the small craft so as to be tethered to someone on land. Time was becoming a factor, however. Storm clouds were gathering in the sky and if another torrential rainfall occurred it may be a few days before they could shoot the scene and leave this rugged location. Eric saw what Nico was considering and, noting the time it would take to rig, told Minardos to forget it; “Nico, now or never”, Fleming said.
Once in the canoa traveling down river, Minardos says he felt more at ease as the strong current was doing the navigating and they were avoiding the rocks. Suddenly, at a bend in the river, the rapids increased in severity and the canoa catapulted ahead at breakneck speed. The small craft began to take on water and Minardos saw Fleming stand up and prepare to jump. Nico’s warning to stay in the boat could not be heard over the deafening rapids and Eric jumped into the water. Without Fleming’s weight in the front, the canoa flipped and Minardos found himself in the water, as well. He says he felt his lungs bursting and his only thought was that he was dead. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and saw the canoa, grabbed it and rode it to shore.
Two Indians were standing in the water and Nico implored them to look for Eric. Fleming was spotted face down in a whirlpool and the Indians jumped in the canoa and went to him. An Indian grabbed Fleming by the hair but had to let go as the churning waters threatened to capsize them as well. Fleming’s body disappeared from sight. That night the crew lay in an unfathomable horror. Fleming’s fiancée, Lynne, had witnessed the whole tragedy from the camera’s location and was inconsolable. Eric Fleming’s body was found down river several days later. He was 41.
Sidebar: in 1986, Nico Minardos was one of the defendants in the Iran-Contra Affair. Then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani indicted Minardos for illegally shipping arms to Iran. The indictment was eventually thrown out but legal fees bankrupted Minardos and the affair ended his acting career. He retired to Fort Lauderdale and died in 2009. Check out the film Finding Nico.
You’ll often hear tell of a celebrated western actor who came into people’s homes of a weekday evening for many years only to be cut adrift when his television show went off the air. Many of these actors lament the loss of income and status. Eric Fleming, though, was a victim of the extreme carelessness that could sometimes exist during productions of the golden age of entertainment. To think that local Indians refused to ride these rapids. This is one of Hollywood’s most tragic – and avoidable – events.
Special thanks to Jeremy Roberts at Medium.com for his article reprinting the Minardos interview.