Tim Holt Stagecoach

Curtin call

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The Hustons and Holts share a laugh during production of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. From left: Walter Huston and Tim Holt, stars of the production, John Huston, director, and Jack Holt, who played a bit part.

Maybe you remember Tim Holt as the snap-to young cavalry lieutenant in Stagecoach with John Wayne. Or as priggish young George in The Magnificent Ambersons. Or as doomed Virgil Earp in My Darling Clementine. For me, he’ll always be Curtin, the naïve and honorable gold hunter in Mexico who’s shot and left for dead by Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Tim Holt was also a hero in RKO B-Westerns made in the early 1940s and then after the war into the early 1950s when, for reasons you’ll soon learn, he decided to give up on Hollywood and head east to life on a horse farm. In all, his career spanned 35 years and more than 70 credits in A and B pictures.

The other month, a colleague heard that I love old movies and told me he knew Tim Holt’s son Jack. Well, my ears perked right up, and I asked for contact info so I could ask for an interview and pepper him with questions. Luckily, Jack Holt was receptive and we talked about his famous dad.

Jack Holt is the eldest of Tim Holt’s three children born to third wife Berdee Stephens—their half-brother Lance had resulted from Holt’s marriage to Virginia Ashcroft. Jack, along with sister Bryanna and brother Jay, were born in Oklahoma, where Tim and Berdee had decided to call home after his movie career. Jack spent 20 years in the National Guard and U.S. Army, and still works as a federal contractor with DoD, which is how I came in contact with him. I spoke with Jack on Saturday, November 17, and here is what resulted.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The ensemble cast of Stagecoach plus Tim Holt as the young cavalry lieutenant who must leave them to their fate.

RM: Tim Holt’s father—your grandfather—was Jack Holt, the actor. I know he started out in the silent Westerns, and then in the 1930s he played feds and even had his own serials, didn’t he?

JH: He had one serial, Holt of the Secret Service. This was long before James Bond and before Jason Bourne. Nobody really thought much about spies or secret agents. Back then, all there was was the Secret Service. That gave him a chance to bring his style of hero to a different audience. My grandfather was also his own man and had his own way of doing things. He was a little more hard-edged I think. They called him “Mad Jack” because he always seemed to be mad at something. At Columbia he was having trouble with [Harry] Cohn—who my grandfather just did not like. But this serial was a moneymaker and gave him a chance to shine as the tough-guy hero while being a little bit older.

RM: Did your dad tell stories about his Hollywood years? Did he have mementos around the house?

JH: He didn’t really have mementos. There were a few photos around from the war, and a few from his movie career. As a kid I had one of his movie posters on the wall, but Dad was always looking ahead. He would look back to find out where he was, which is something I learned in the military. Sometimes to find out where you are you have to shoot a back azimuth, which is turn around 180 degrees and see if everything is where it’s supposed to be on the map. So, you have to look back in order to move forward sometimes—and that’s the way he looked at his career. It was something he did, and then he was looking for the next thing.

Hugh Beaumont from Leave It to Beaver was in some of my dad’s westerns, so when Leave It to Beaver would come on, I can remember him talking to the TV saying, “Hugh! It’s good to see you’re doin’ well!”

While he loved the business and the people he was working with, World War II really did change him. I can’t remember what movie it was that I saw him in, but it was the quintessential Tim Holt movie. He was a young kid, and he’s at a campfire and a guy reaches for his pistol. There’s this look in Dad’s face of sheer mischievous joy right before he pulls a blanket out from under this guy’s feet and upends him. That was Tim Holt early in his career up until the war years. He was fun-loving and having the time of his life in those early films. My wife had never seen any of those films before and she said, “These are so much fun!”

RM: Did you sit down and watch his movies with him, like Stagecoach, for example?

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The Earp brothers, played by Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and Holt, discover what a wild town Tombstone is in My Darling Clementine.

JH: We did. There were three of them that would come back around at least once every couple years on TV while my dad was alive. Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They were big pictures. We would sit down and watch them. He wasn’t really a fan of watching himself. However, we would sit and talk about different things.

He said in Stagecoach there was a scene in the weigh station where John Wayne was supposed to wash his face. John Ford made him do it over and over and over again. Ford was riding him—“Can you not just wash your damn face?” Kept on him and on him. And this is John Wayne’s first big movie. The crew was all mad at Ford for being so ridiculously rough on him, and everybody was tired. My dad had known John Ford for years because John Ford was a friend of my granddad and came up in the industry as my granddad was a star. Finally, Dad stood up and said, “Pappy, will you leave the kid alone!” and walked off. He said that moment just kind of broke the tension. What was funny was that John Wayne was older than my dad. But Dad had that familiarity with John Ford that allowed him to do what probably nobody else on the set could have done.

He told a story about Bogart, who was pissed because they were all down in Mexico shooting [Sierra Madre] when there was a yacht race he wanted to be in. John Huston said, “No, we’ve got a schedule to keep.” So here came Ronald Reagan, who was racing in the yacht race. He came in wearing a yachting cap and the blue coat and white pants looking for all the world like Hollywood aristocracy. Bogart was in costume sitting there looking all grimy, and he looked at Reagan and said, “Damned all-American boy.” It really set Bogart off. I can’t remember what city they were close to, maybe Acapulco but I’m not sure, but Bogart took off. Dad thought, John’s not going to like this a bit, but I better go along with him. So, they were gone and nobody heard from them. John Huston was pissed. So, when they finally came back, Huston was all over Bogart yellin’ and screamin’ about being gone. Then Huston turned to my dad and said, “And what the hell were you doin’?” My dad said, “Just making sure he came back.”

RM: So, he did The Magnificent Ambersons and was working on RKO B-Westerns. Then came the war. Did your dad enlist, or was he drafted?

JH: No, he enlisted. After Pearl Harbor, RKO kept telling him no, no, no, you’ve got a contract. The only way he could join the service was to make almost a film a week for the next year to [fulfill his contract and] free him up so he could join. Meantime [Gen.] George Marshall, head of the War Dept., was Granddad’s cousin, so they knew each other and my granddad was made a major so he could buy horses for the Army at Fort Reno in Oklahoma. I don’t believe much in coincidences, but a funny little story—one of the soldiers in Europe fighting around the Spanish Riding School, maybe in Italy, was Dale Robertson. It turned out they saved the Lipizzaner Stallions, which the Army had to then get out of Europe. Eventually my granddad ended up receiving them at Fort Reno, and then they were shipped to the polo stables of people he knew in California. That’s where they were held until after the war. So, a future movie star helped save horses that were sent to a former movie star and then to the stables of current movie stars. It was crazy. And Dale Robertson was born in Harrah, Oklahoma, the same town as my mom. How in the world do things like that happen?

RM: Your father picked the Army Air Forces?

JH: Yes. He wanted to learn to fly. He signed up for pilot training, got through Victorville learning to fly airplanes. But there was a shortage of bombardiers, and so he was picked to be a lead bombardier and one of the first to use the Norden bombsight. It had just come out. The ones chosen were skilled pilots and had other skills as well.

RM: It sounds like he was a training bombardier in addition to a lead bombardier. How did he end up in the Pacific?

JH: George Marshall, being a cousin and knowing of my dad’s career, learned of a message that had been intercepted by British Intelligence—one of the last movies my dad made before going into the service was called Hitler’s Children. His appearance in that movie infuriated Hitler and the communique that was intercepted read, “If this man is ever found, he’s to be shot on sight.” There was also a photo of my father from the day he enlisted in the Air Forces. Marshall said, “War is hell enough” and he wasn’t going to put Tim Holt in that position. That’s how he ended up in the Pacific.

RM: Was he flying in b-17s or B-24s? Do you know?

JH: I think most of the combat positions he flew were in 17s and 29s, the Superfortresses. Most of the missions over Japan were in 29s. He was a bombardier or pilot in almost anything that flew, from the 25s, the [twin-engine] Mitchells, to the 29s. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for one of his last missions. The plane was named after a Disney character, The Reluctant Dragon, and it was shot all to hell. Most of the crew was wounded. It barely made it back and crash-landed when it got there. Supposedly it was laying the groundwork for the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Holt also received a Purple Heart for wounds received in this mission.]

RM: Do you have his medals and combat ribbons?

JH: No, I don’t. Some of it was stolen when we lived in Oklahoma. I think I was just a baby. My mom told a story that they came home one night and the place had been broken into. My dad had some guns that were stolen, including a Winchester, or it might have been a Henry, with an ox-bow ring. It was identical to the one John Wayne had in Stagecoach. Dad said it was an awkward rifle, but when you learned to use it, it was pretty handy. It was an awkward rifle and so Dad had a house in Malibu. Before getting started on Stagecoach, John Wayne would come by and they’d throw bottles in the ocean and shoot at them just to get used to shooting those rifles. That got Wayne to the point where he could handle the rifle in the movie.

RM: So, you talked about your dad’s plane being shot up, and barely making it back. And you said that before the war he was one kind of guy and after the war another. Do you think he suffered some sort of lingering trauma from the war?

JH: Yeah, I think everybody does. War changes everybody. It’s something I’ve grappled with myself. You don’t see the world the same way and for Dad, the war meant growing up and making an adjustment because it changes you. Then you have to figure out, what am I gonna do about it? I talk to troops today and it’s like, there’s no magic answer for this. You figure it out one day at a time. You have experiences nobody else has, even others that were in the war. That was all wars and all soldiers. It’s not the same for everybody, but it does change everybody.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Most defining role: as Curtin with Walter Huston as Howard and Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

RM: Then he worked for RKO making a ton of Westerns into the early 1950s. Why did he decide to retire?

JH: I think for Dad there were a couple of things that happened that were instrumental for him deciding to leave Hollywood. One of them was coming back from the war and it’s just different. He was still under contract to RKO. He had aged and was no longer the kid, and there were others who had stepped up.

Another was the change in Hollywood itself. They had moved from the studio system where you were under contract to a studio and went to the idea of stars as independent contractors. That’s something Dad never considered or wanted to do. It’s a lot more work or responsibility than just being under contract to a studio. He didn’t really want to deal with that. At that time something happened between him and his dad that caused a bit of a split. I don’t know what it was; my aunt never would say, but it was something that happened between the two of them. It was disillusioning to my dad. My granddad is one of the founding members of the Academy. There were a lot of things that were happening that built a wall between my dad and granddad.

I think the thing that bothered my dad more than anything else at that time was the McCarthy hearings and watching all these people he had grown up with, knew, loved, all were friends, and they were at each other’s throats. He said, “I can’t deal with this. I want no part of this.” He was a journeyman actor who came to work with his toolbox and did what was needed, adjusted to the role, did his job, and moved on to the next one. So, all of these things were converging in the early 1950s and he said, “No, I’m not playing anymore.”

RM: You grew up with Tim Holt as a 45- and 50-year-old man. What was the physical toll of all that riding, all that shooting, the war—everything he went through? I know he had broken bones and things. What was the physical toll that you saw?

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

On The Virginian in 1962.

JH: You could kinda tell it in the way he walked. There were lower back issues. There’s a scene in My Darling Clementine with this horse fall. Some prints cut it out. He’s chasing down the Clanton boy across the desert. His horse stumbles on a sand dune and horse and rider tumble down. After the cut, he says, “I think I need to go to the doctor”—he had broken all his ribs. They had him rooming with Ward Bond, who had broken his leg. Dad said he had never hurt so much in his life as when he was laughing at Ward Bond and Bond was laughing at him as they were trying to get out of bed in the morning. He said, “It was the funniest time of being in pain I ever had.”

By the time we were school age he had given up the ranch and was working at a radio station in Oklahoma City. I think not having horses was part of the problem. He loved horses—it was his exercise. Lack of exercise meant more aches, more pains. He had just turned 53 when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was pretty fast-moving. It was bone cancer. This was Dad—he had had a couple of spells where he had passed out and was rushed to the hospital. They couldn’t find out what was wrong. They thought maybe it’s epilepsy, but he’d never had anything like that before. As they started doing the tests, they came back and said you’ve got cancer. Dad came home after getting that diagnosis and said, “OK, gather ’round. They tell me I’ve got cancer. They tell me I’ve got six months. Let’s make the most of it.” That was Dad. That was just him.

RM: What did he do with those six months?

JH: Well, he spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital, and we’d all go down and spend time in the hospital. He’d get out, but he was limited in what he could do because of the physical toll of the treatments. But it wasn’t so much doing stuff with him as it was being around him. He never lost his sense of humor. He never let us get down about anything. He was just, “This is life and here’s what we’re going to do with it.” And we’d talk about stuff. Sometimes he would confide in me some things that were bugging him because we were on the same wavelength. It was always like that; there was just this rapport between us. But during that time, it was just about being together.

RM: That’s cool. You know what else is cool? You sound like Tim Holt. I feel like I’m talking to Tim Holt.

JH: That’s one of the things my wife has said as she’s watched some of his movies over the years. She said, “It is uncanny, your mannerisms. You are exactly alike.” And it freaked her out. She saw a picture of my dad from the last TV show he did, The Virginian, and she said to me, “When did you get this picture made?” I said, “That’s not me, that’s my dad.” She said, “No, it’s not.” I said, “Yes, it is!” She couldn’t believe it wasn’t me.

Holt Afghanistan

Jack Holt in Afghanistan, looking a lot like his father in The Virginian.