In my rounds about town, I met an interesting character. Horseman, stuntman, actor; leatherworker, silversmith, beadworker; horse show and parade judge; and self avowed “half-breed”: Wofford Heights resident Neal Russell.
“My father was Comanche. Everybody loved my father – except my mother, ha ha” he began as we talked in the loft apartment built by his son, Rocky. The walls are lined with photos of recognizable celebrities: Angie Dickenson, Anthony Quinn, John Goodman, Whoopie Goldberg and more. They are all inscribed “To Neil”, or “Chee”, Russell’s nickname.
Horseman and Stuntman Neil Russell at home in Wofford Heights
Russell’s father worked “…herding cattle. He was a cowboy.” So it was natural the Russell was riding at 6 years old. “I had horses all my life,” he said. I asked if he remembered his first horse… “I forgot my first kiss. Hell, I forgot my last one!” he laughed. But, jokes aside, he did recall. His first horse was “a stunted calf. He wouldn’t grow.” So he traded for a horse that turned out to be “Loco. Crazier than fruitcake. I told Dad that he cheated me, but he said, ‘you cheated him.’ That horse ran away…”
“I believe you only have one horse. You may own hundreds of them, but there’s only one in your heart.” For Russell, it was a Morab – a Morgan-Arabian cross, named Cebavik (“Chief” in Comanche). “That horse, I’m in love with,” he said, using the present tense even though Cebavik died at age 24. “We were one,” he said. He pointed out a photo on the wall depicting Russell in Indian garb mounted on Cebavik. The horse is a big brown and white Paint with a proudly arched Morgan neck and beautiful markings and head. Russell said he never did groundwork with the horse, “I just put a saddle on him. Well, I plow-horsed* him, then got on him.” (*meaning ground driving, for you city slickers.) He raised the horse from a just-born colt. “They were going to put him down; he was not supposed to have any color.” Russell got up every few hours all night to bottle feed the colt, and Cebavick began to thrive.
A few years later, Russell was riding with “those charros”, and Cebavick showed so much talent that Russell decided to send him to “a big trainer of charro horses” in Mexico. The trainer told him, “This is a good horse. But not a good charro horse,” and told Russell he would charge $300 to train Cebavik. “My wife said, what $300? So I got a job washing dishes.” In three months he went to retrieve his horse whereupon the trainer told him, “You better get a hotel room. You’re going to have to learn how to ride him.’ Well, I been riding my whole life, I didn’t need to learn to ride my own horse! But I went down there, got a hotel room, went out there, and the guy said, ‘take him down, and stop him,’ so I lope him out and stop him, and he stopped – but I didn’t!” Because the horse was responding so quickly, the same result occurred when he asked Cebavik to turn at a lope. “And I’m not making a dime on these falls!” Russell said, referring to his career as a stuntman and actor. His movie credits include Heartbreak Ridge, The Electric Horseman, Ruthless People, Jeremiah Johnson, The Flintstones, and Rocky 1,2, and 3; and his TV credits include Maverick, Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, Little House on the Prairie, Charlie’s Angels, Fame, Cheers, Fantasy Island, Simon and Simon, and The Waltons, among many others.
But before he “fell into” into a career in TV and the movies, Russell’s childhood was spent shuttling between his parents -“my mother didn’t cotton (to me), I was too ornery” – and he took jobs shocking hay, in a fertilizer factory, breaking horses, cleaning stalls, and riding cattle. “I did about everything you could do out in that desert. Always brought money home to Daddy.” Russell’s father fell ill and he and his elder sister essentially ran the household. “We lived out in that shack. Then we had a pretty nice house, but it didn’t have no windows or doors. The sand would come through. Then Daddy went to work for Mr. Stocker. We moved, had doors, windows, a wood stove. We were stompin’ in high cotton there.”
There were three sister and brothers each. Russell was happiest when living with his father, and never “took” to school. When he was in sixth grade, he decided he wanted to go home, so he set fire to the school. “That got me out of Bellflower in a hurry!”
A few years later, after jobs cowboying, in a Velveeta factory, and as a housepainter, he was hired by a rancher “for a big silver dollar a day. He taught me all about horses; training, working, from the twinkle in their eye to how they (eliminate). He taught me everything.”
When he was 17, “one cowboy said he was joining the Navy” and one thing led to another and until Russell found himself enlisted, at a Navy base in Idaho, and from there to Washington State, Portland Maine, Charleston, SC, and then on convoys to the United Kingdom and back. Then he heard the next trip would be to Normandy. “I said where the hell is Normandy?” The year was 1943. WW II was still raging. He spent time in Casablanca, Zurich and France. “After the Germans surrendered, I thought we’d go home. But we got sent to Okinawa.”
The war over, Russell did come home, and “got married then, like all dummies.”
Three children followed and he worked at Boeing and other companies as a riveter, and he began working with leather, working at night, on wallets, then holsters, belts, saddles and bridles. “A rough duty, boy, when you’ve got three kids,” he said. “In them days there was no welfare or disability. You had to work or you didn’t eat. If you had any upbringing or culture at all, you wouldn’t take it (welfare) anyway. If you’re a man, you work! I don’t care if it hurts, you do it anyway.” In addition to his day job, and leatherwork, he trained and broke horses at home and on weekends rode in parades and did a little rodeo. At one rodeo, “A bull threw me off, and as they were carrying me out, a guy threw a business card on my chest and said, ‘You’re not a very good bull rider, but you might make a stunt man, call me’.” The card read AGENT.
A while later when he was laid off from his job at Boeing, he called the agent, and was hired for a day on “Have Gun Will Travel”. “I went, fell off a horse, and they said to go back to the agent to get paid.” The agent told him of another job. “I came down like a bat out of hell, fell off, did that sucker five times. I sure got tired of falling off that horse.” But at the end of the day, he got one hundred dollars. He went home and told his wife, “I’m going to be a movie star!” But his wife said he’d gotten a call to work in a gypsum mill in Long Beach. So he fit the movie jobs in between work for a while, until he got called for a three-month shoot in Arizona. Russell quit the factory and never looked back.
His long hair and his riding (and falling off) skills kept him steadily employed “playing” an Indian. “In those days there were 27 Westerns on TV. You could go from one to the other. After five years, I got tired of playing Indians so I put my hair up under my hat and started playing cowboys too.”
He learned to drive a 4-horse stagecoach the hard way, by saying he could and having to prove it. The stage driver didn’t show for a movie starring Andy Devine. “I can do that,” Russell fibbed. “I got up there, shoved the brake off, got the reins, pointed their noses, then popped ‘em and we took off! I drove ‘em down, spun ‘em around came back and pulled ‘en up.” He was hired, and during the day drove Mr. Devine (in a car) from one area of the location to another. Devine told him, “I’d ride anywhere in a stagecoach with you but never again in a car. You’re one crazy Indian!”
By the mid-eighties, Westerns had fell out of fashion, and Russell found himself asking his agent why he wasn’t getting work. He was told that if he cut his hair he might be more employable. “I told him, no way, I haven’t cut my hair in 20 years. But my wife said, ‘Hell you’re not!’ So I cut my hair, got a job on a little show, then got called for an Indian job.” So he had to buy a wig, and rented it back to the production company. “They gave me $25 for the wig, all those years I never got a cent for my real hair!”
“Next I got a job as a wino. I didn’t drink, but I remembered my Daddy.” He wasn’t happy with the wardrobe’s choice, so he went to Salvation Army and got a suit and drove over it with his car until it looked right, got a makeup artist friend show him how to create a black eye, and got the job – as the “resident drunk” on Hill Street Blues. Then Simon & Simon called. “Every time they needed a drunk to die, they called me. I made more money as a drunk than all those cowboys and Indians. Didn’t have as much fun, but made more money. And I could clean up and be a doctor, priest, and other things.”
His career was in full swing when one day in his agent’s office, another actor was complaining, “How come I don’t work as much as that half-breed?” The agent said, “Do you have a tux? Can you ballroom dance, square dance, do you have a priest outfit? When you can do all the things Neal can do I’ll hire you in a minute.”
“People ask me all the time, ‘how do I get to be in the movies, be a stunt man?’ Not by the seat of your pants, I tell them. Get a college education, then play movie star.”
Thirteen years ago, at age 70, Russell was riding with Sam Elliott at the Disney Ranch when Elliot said to him, “What the hell are you doing (riding horses)? You don’t need the money, don’t need the publicity.” “I don’t know!” Russell said, “and I retired (professionally riding) then and there.”
These days he still judges parades and horse shows, which he has been doing since the 1950’s. He is a member of the California State Horseman’s Association, and has an honorary Lifetime Parade license. He still keeps his Screen Actor’s Guild membership current; and is a Comanche Elder and a member of the Kern River Piute Council and the National Indian Conference. Since moving to the Kern River Valley he has helped form the Nun Cunni Indian Center, where he teaches bead and leather work.
“People have been real good to me here,” he said. His daily philosophy is “This is the day the Lord has given us and we will rejoice in it.”
Rocky told me yesterday Neal died the Saturday before Christmas. He was 88. I will miss him.