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Stuntman December 31, 2014

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

Neal Russell at home in Wofford Heights May 2008

Neal Russell at home in Wofford Heights May 2008


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.


Kids Go To Court for Dad June 27, 2013

RODDY MAC postcardMy Dad, as “Roddy Mac”

Kate MacDonald

Editor, writer, director

Kids Go to Court for Their Dad

Posted: 06/26/2013 6:00 pm

Imagine waking to an unfamiliar hospital-looking room. You recognize no one; you can’t remember how you got there. Everyone you ask lies. No matter how logically you ask, they will not tell you why you’ve been imprisoned; but from the looks on their faces, you begin to fear you will never get out. You will die here.

This is not a Kafkaesque torture scene. It is happening here in America, to my 87-year old father. He, and five and a half million other Americans, has Alzheimer’s.

Growing up in Rockford, in the ’50s and early ’60s, my Dad, Rod MacDonald, was well known in his trademark red beret as TV personality “Roddy Mac.” The popular kid’s show was just a side-line for Dad, as he also wrote, produced, and sold television and radio ads at WREX Channel 13; he was also an actor, a musician, a WW2 veteran, and typical Dad who did lots of chauffeuring and dispensing petty cash. He worked a lot, as all Dads did then, and he and our mother Virginia MacDonald were for decades, until Ginny’s death of cancer in 1987, a driving force behind the inception and success of the Rockford theatre scene.

After Ginny died, Dad remarried and seemed happy. He and his wife continued to act, and travel occasionally to New York and Chicago to visit theatre friends and see shows. But his memory problems began to become apparent; he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For a few years the disease did not seem to make that much of an impact on his daily life, although he did quit driving and later, going to the gym. Then a year ago, my sister began getting paid to stay with him during the day, while Dad’s wife worked. Sarah and Dad did crosswords, drank coffee, sang songs, and took naps.

Then I heard Dad’s wife was talking about putting him in a nursing home. My sister and I both offered to take dad home with us and care for him, but were told that wasn’t feasible.

Within weeks, Dad was on the waiting list of the Illinois Veteran’s Home in La Salle, Illinois, about two hours from Rockford. Sarah initiated a tour of the facility, which was not the awful B movie nightmare they’d imagined; the staff seemed caring and the facility modern and adequate. We were told Dad would adjust. We were told there were no restrictions on visiting: we would be able to take Dad out for a walk, a sandwich on a park bench, even on vacation if his doctor agreed.

But he was adamant he didn’t want to go, he wanted to be with his family.

They all said leaving him there was awful. “It was the hardest thing I ever did,” said his wife. “Don’t leave me here, please,” Dad cried.

Scott was shaken to the core by this scene. He thought back to helping to care for dad’s own parents, in Madison in the 1970s. And Ginny, during her eight-year battle with cancer. Scott decided to step up.

My brother offered to quit his job and take Dad. We phoned and emailed with detailed plans for Dad’s care. This is when I first heard that Dad had signed a POA — or, Power of Attorney, giving the power of healthcare decisions to his wife.

What sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea has turned our dad into a virtual prisoner, a man with an ankle bracelet, a “resident,” who is not allowed to talk to his own kids; a disenfranchised, income-producing ex-person, a man with no room of his own, who wonders what has become of his family; whose identity is gradually wiped away along with his civil rights.

In theory, a POA entrusts someone with one’s healthcare decisions if you become incapacitated. In theory, your POA has your best interests at heart, and is bound to act in your behalf. But in our reality, we have found out that a POA can be a concrete wall,isolating patients from all contact with friends and family.

We were told to wait a few days before calling Dad. I waited a week, but in the meantime, talked to the staff. Dad’s social worker said something I thought strange, something about the family problem. I told her I wasn’t aware of any problem; but soon found out that the staff considered my sister’s call’s to dad a “problem.”

From the very first, every conversation we had with Dad, he begged to be released from the VA Home. We would try to change the subject in creative ways, but he would have none of that.

“Not another night in this place,” he’d suggest hopefully, and when we would dodge that question, he would ask who wanted him to stay there. “I’ve already done four weeks in this joint,” he said to me on June 1. “I’m ready to go. I went to war with these guys, why do I have to live with them now?” We would explain he had Alzheimer’s. He’d say, he knew he had “memory problems” but still couldn’t understand why he had been committed to an institution. “Don’t I have family that will take care of me?”

It became more and more difficult to dodge that question, and explain his wife’s position because by the time I visited at the beginning of June, communication had broken between my siblings, me and our stepmother.

When Scott offered to care for Dad, I questioned his commitment and motives, but after a few lengthy phone calls, was satisfied it would work just fine. Scott and Dad could live on Dad’s social security income; Scott’s is a first floor apartment, with a fenced backyard. And like before, Sarah could help out.

But Dad’s wife replied it was “unacceptable.”

I made plans to visit even before Dad went into the VA Home, and managed to get a couple days off at the end of May. The rain, endless construction on the toll roads, vivid greenness and humid air — I was home. We drove to LaSalle the next day. Dad cried when he realized we were not all there to take him with us. He looked a lot smaller and thinner but he was still Dad — a confused, lonely version, but no zombie. I was so relieved. We stayed several hours, but Dad didn’t want to leave his room, unless it was for good. We were there several hours, and he never let go of the topic of going home although we tried lots of diversions.

The staff was friendly, but when we broached the topic of taking dad home to live with Scott, the smiles faded. Sarah was taking video of Dad when one said, “That’s enough. We’re not going to have any more of that.”

The next day we saw the director. He spent over an hour listening to our concerns about dad, and seemed sympathetic to the idea of Scott living with family, but said “we are bound by the wishes of the POA.”

We were about to find out what that meant. We tried to take dad out to dinner. They made a call; permission refused. It struck me that he was wearing an ankle bracelet, and the near-constant beeping that was giving me a headache was caused by the residents straying too near a door. The Alzheimer’s ward, behind a locked door, consists of twin dining rooms, a circular nurses’ station, a sort of sitting area next to the locked outdoor patio, and twin hallways off in either direction. There is a locked “nourishment room” that Sarah had already found for making coffee. The resident’s rooms are hospital-like, with personal touches, except for Dad’s. The pictures Sarah had put on the wall were gone, he was packed. Ready to go.

He was happy to see us, and had spruced up for our visit; he’d remembered we were coming back. We cajoled him into the dining room and sang songs. Dad belted out verse and chorus to “Old Man River.” The other residents gathered slowly for their dinner, and soon were clapping along. Dad laughed at our dumb jokes and danced a soft-shoe to show us he was fit enough to go home. The next day, he did four pushups. (“See? Nothing wrong with me that hugs won’t fix.”)