The High Chaparral

"The Dusty Trail to the High Chaparral"

By Dwight Whitney
TV Guide, Aug 23-29, 1969

For a guy who, he says, has been ham-and-beaning it all his life, it ain't bad at all.  All that money rolling in!  All those strangers recognizing you on the street, coming at you as if you were at least Howard Hughes, waving ball-point pens and autograph books.

For Leif Erickson (pronounce it "life") the success of The High Chaparral, which is the ham-and-bean version of Bonanza striving to be the caviar, is particularly sweet.    Erickson has been around awhile.  He signed his first contract with Paramount in 1935, heard himself described as a "blond Adonis" so many times it made his stomach turn over, made more than 100 movies (he has long since lost track), and still managed to be one of the movies' most inconspicuous "stars."  On the screen he blew hot and cold.  He married a star, Frances Farmer, one of the most glittering (and later tragic) adornments of the era.  He even tried Method acting with the Group Theatre in New York in an attempt to restore, as it were, some of the rough edges.  No good.  While the ugly, big-eared ones, the Bogarts and Garfields and Gables, jangled cash registers, Erickson jangled only feminine hearts -- or that's what the press releases said.

"It's too much," exclaimed son Bill a few years ago when he caught his father in 'The Big Broadcast of 1936.' Dad's prettier than Dorothy Lamour."

Consequently Erickson -- whose real name is William Wycliffe Anderson -- fell into the limbo reserved for near-stars -- the Patric Knowleses and Philip Reeds of the era -- who were too good-looking to be believable.  To make matters worse, someone was always rediscovering him; his career would take a spurt, then peter out again.  He would appear on Broadway from time to time (in 1953 he supported Deborah Kerr in "Tea and Sympathy"), but he never made the star dressing room.  He was dead honest about it.  "I was always conscious of status.  Non-stars do not mix with stars.  Always it ate away inside me.  I asked myself over and over, what's wrong?  Why doesn't it work?"

When David Dortort, the celebrated father-image fancier and creator of Bonanza, picked him up in 1965 to play John Cannon, the blue-eyed, stone-visaged patriarch and Apache fighter of The High Chaparral, Erickson's main job was selling boats in the Marina del Rey.  This he did with a good humor which is not entirely explained away by his love of boats.  Dortort first noticed him in a Bonanza Erickson made back in 1961.  "He played God," Dortort explains.  "A hermit who was a little boy's image of God, a stern Jeremiah who went to seek help for the child's ill father."

Dortort, who likes all his patriarchs to have a little bit of Jeremiah in them, remembered and cast him as John Cannon.  Age (he is 57) had done what youth never could -- made the face interesting.  TV had made it the face of a celebrity.  At last Erickson was home.

We are sitting in the Erickson living room, a little bit of suburbia perched on a cliff above the Pacific.  The picture window commands a sweeping view of Santa Monica Bay, now dotted with sails.  The Brahms C Major is playing on the stereo with its handsome French Provincal cabinet which has been delivered only this morning.  The house is antiseptically neat, the handwork of his third wife, Ann, a quiet, well-turned-out woman to whom he has been married for 27 years.  The rubber plant is dusted, and on the south wall hangs a gaudy oil painting of the mythical ranch known as "The High Chaparral."

Erickson peers through a telescope looking for his 44-foot schooner, the Pagan, which today is being moved up from Long Beach by son Bill, 22, just out of the Green Berets.  "This business," he is saying jubilantly.  "It's a crap game...Yeah, that looks like them...just coming around the point...But now I enjoy every moment.  I enjoy being known, associated with success for a change."

He puts a new recording of "Rigoletto" on the stereo.  The duke is speaking flippantly of love.  Questa o quella!  "Beautiful!" Erickson muses.  "It got me into show business.  When I was a kid in Alameda, my mother took me to hear Balli-Curci sing Gilda at the old San Francisco Opera House.  I can taste it, hear it, smell it right to this day.  I wanted to be the greatest singer who ever lived!  That's right...singer.  My father was a sea captain on the Alaskan Packer Corp's square-rigged barks, out of San Francisco.  Stubborn old Norwegian!  We were never close.  He galled me.  He was never satisfied with anything.  No matter what you said, he would say, 'Not necessarily.'  To him, singing was insanity.  Real men became carpenters, plumbers."

His mother, he says, named him William Wycliffe after an Englishman who made a translation of the Bible, because she thought with that name, he would have to turn out all right.  In later life, his father invented a push-button turn-on for furnaces and became an executive of Magic-Way Furnace Co. in Los Angeles.  Young Bill Anderson became a singer despite his father.  Harvesting wheat in Texas, in 1929, he sang on the combine.  He picked up money theater-ushering and got himself fired from three theaters for singing bass-baritone in the aisles.  He made appearances at the old Uplifters' Club in Santa Monica Canyon singing "Invictus" and "Asleep in the Deep."  "I did one in the falsetto that really set 'em afire," he recalls.

One night in 1931, some friends persuaded him to sing "Chloe" and "Ol' Man River" in a post speak-easy on the Sunset Strip.  In a corner sat a suave gentleman in a blue suit and a furry Borsalino hat.  It was Ted Fio Rito, the bandleader.  Fio Rito took a shine to him, changed his name to Leif Erickson ("Anderson? That just won't do, son") and made him into an intermission singer.  He came out nattily attired in a dinner jacket with wide lapels, and let 'em have it with "Temptation," "Great Day" and "Trees," backed by violins.  He was singing at the Saint Francis hotel in San Francisco the night they ended Prohibition.

While he loved Fio Rito, he hated clubs, and he quit after about a year.  He returned to Los Angeles "to study some more" and be near his mother, who had long since divorced Gabriel Anderson and married an attorney.  He lived in a boardinghouse run by a kookie landlady.  "She had a 'friend from the old country,' she kept telling me.  'I want you should take the bus to MGM and see Gottfried Reinhardt.'"

Gottfried turned out to be the son of the great Max, who at the time (1932) was casting "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  Leif joined the company of a young girl named Olivia de Havilland (Hermia) and an up-and-coming juvenile named Mickey Rooney (Puck).  He played Philostrate, later Lysander, finally Oberon.  By the crazy logic of show business, he ended up singing "June in January" and sitting in a tree in the lobby as part of a touring version of Olsen & Johnson's "Hellzapoppin,"  By equally crazy logic, Paramount sent him a telegram in Peoria wanting to screen-test him.

Erickson was sure it was a gag.  It wasn't a gag; just a mistake.  They were looking for some other Erickson.  But they didn't discover that until too late.  Leif, then 23, had already been signed.

In the Paramount school for stock players, he met Frances Farmer.  She was a poignantly beautiful young girl out of the University of Washington, who had been catapulted into the hurly-burly of starletdom by winning a local popularity contest.  Erickson immediately fell in love and married her.  What he didn't know was that Frances couldn't take the success that was to come.

When Harold Clurman cast her as Lorna Moon, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Clifford Odets's "Golden Boy" on Broadway, she became the Mia Farrow of her time, 1937's Golden Girl.  Movie producers fought for her services.  By 1939, the marriage to her "blond Adonis" seemed less desirable.  On a drive to New York, she broke the news to "Bill."  He was "stupefied," according to her later account of it.  She found him "strong, kind and loving," but, she added, "he is not fatherly.  He could never fulfill the role of husband."

In 1942, she was arrested for drunken driving.  "You bore me," she told the arresting officer.  She didn't pay the fine, and a bench warrant was issued.  When the officers arrived at the house, she refused to dress.  After a wild scene in a Santa Monica courtroom, she blew what was left of her career and ended up for a while in a mental hospital.  They were finally divorced and he married another actress, Margaret Hayes.  It lasted about a year.

He didn't become the Alan Ladd or even the Allan Jones of his time.  "I wasn't focused enough.  No aura.  No sense of direction...I just wasn't ready...."  His voice trails off.  He is momentarily lost in "Rigoletto."

The turning point came when he went into the Navy.  He became proficient at combat photography, covering among other things, the surrender of Japan.  At Pensacola, he had met Ann Diamond, a civilian accountant for the Navy, who later became a WAC.  In December 1945, they were married.  After 24 years, he says, "she keeps me organized.  Without Ann, the place would fall apart."

One thing you can say for Leif -- he never fell apart.  He begat Bill and he begat Susie, now 17, and he loved them dearly.  He had his moments of defeat when reduced to making movies with titles like "Blond Savage."  Always, he bounced back.

The hour grows late.  Leif half listens, half talks.  We discuss how good life really is, the pleasures of being able to cook Beef Wellington when the spirit moves ("I enjoy the hell out of cooking it!"), how he likes to read an occasional scripture at a sunrise service in Hollywood Bowl because "it is a kick and I do it well" and how he keeps the TV set in the back room because "there just isn't a helluva lot I care to watch."

The High Chaparral?  That's different.  "I've got a gold mine by the tail and it's something we all want to protect.  We knock ourselves out...Linda there's a woman with zap!  She'll sit in the sun all day and not complain...Cam Mitchell...tough customer...we understand each other...Good kid, Mark Slade...We all get around the country quite a bit and all the time this thing grows bigger and bigger."

The music swells.  The grief-stricken Rigoletto is taking his dying daughter in his arms.  "...What matter that you work until you're too tired even to complain?  They know me now...."  Lassu!  "It is luck, it is fate."  Leif Erickson is sayin, "It is where I was going all the time."

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