Forrest Tucker occupied an odd niche in movies -- though not an "A" movie lead, he was, nonetheless, a prominent "B" picture star and even a marquee name, who could pull audiences into theaters for certain kinds of pictures. From the early/mid-1950s on, he was a solid presence in westerns and other genre pictures. Born Forrest Meredith Tucker in Plainfield, Indiana in 1919, he was bitten by the performing bug early in life -- he made his debut in burlesque while he was still under-age. Shortly after graduating from high school in 1937, he enlisted in the United States Army, joining a cavalry unit. Tucker next headed for Hollywood, where his powerful build and six-foot-four frame and his enthusiasm were sufficient to get him a big-screen debut in The Westerner (1940), starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Signed to Columbia Pictures, he mostly played anonymous tough-guy roles over the next two years, primarily in B pictures, before entering the army in 1943. Resuming his career in 1946, he started getting bigger roles on a steady basis in better pictures, and in 1948 signed with Republic Pictures.
He became a mainstay of that studio's star roster, moving up to a co-starring role in Sands Of Iwo Jima (1949), which also brought him into the professional orbit of John Wayne, the movie's star. Across the early/middle 1950s, Tucker starred in a brace of action/adventure films and westerns, alternating between heroes and villains, building up a significant fan base. By the mid-1950s, he was one of the company's top box-office draws. As it also turned out, Tucker's appeal was international, and he went to England in the second half of the decade to play starring roles in a handful of movies. At that time, British studios such as Hammer Films needed visiting American actors to boost the international appeal of their best productions, and Tucker fulfilled the role admirably in a trio of sci-fi/horror films: The Crawling Eye, The Cosmic Monsters, and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Part of Tucker's motivation for taking these roles, beyond the money, he later admitted, was his desire to sample the offerings of England's pubs -- Tucker was a two-fisted drinker and, in those days, was well able to handle the effects of that activity so that it never showed up on-screen. And he ran with the opportunity afforded by those three science fiction movies -- each of those films, he played a distinctly different role, in a different way, but always with a certain fundamental honesty that resonated with audiences.
When he returned to Hollywood, he was cast as Beauregard Burnside in Auntie Mame (1958), which was the top-grossing movie of the year. Then stage director Morton De Costa, seeing a joyful, playful romantic huckster in Tucker (where others had mostly seen an earnest tough-guy), picked him to star as Professor Harold Hill in the touring production of The Music Man -- Tucker played that role more than 2000 times over the years that followed. He was also the star of the 1964 Broadway show Fair Game For Lovers (in a cast that included Leo Genn, Maggie Hayes, and a young Alan Alda), which closed after eight performances.
The Music Man opened a new phase for Tucker's career. The wily huckster became his image, one that was picked up by Warner Bros.' television division, which cast him in the role of Sgt. Morgan O'Rourke, the charmingly larcenous post-Civil War cavalry soldier at the center of the western/spoof series F-Troop. That series only ran for two seasons, but was in syndicated reruns for decades afterward, and though Tucker kept his hand in other media -- returning to The Music Man and also starring in an unsold pilot based on the movie The Flim-Flam Man (taking over the George C. Scott part), it was the part of O'Rourke with which he would be most closely identified for the rest of his life. He did occasionally take tougher roles that moved him away from the comedy in that series -- in one of the better episodes of the series Hondo, entitled "Hondo And The Judas", he played Colonel William Clark Quantrill very effectively. At the end of the decade, he returned to straight dramatic acting, most notably in the John Wayne western Chisum, in which he played primary villain Lawrence Murphy. That same year, he appeared in a challenging episode of the series Bracken's World entitled "Love It Or Leave It, Change It Or Lose It", playing "Jim Grange," a sort of film-a-clef version of John Wayne -- a World War II-era film star known for his patriotism, Grange is determined to express his political views while working alongside a young film star (portrayed by Tony Bill) who is closely associated with the anti-war movement. Tucker continued getting television work and occasional film roles, in addition to returning to the straw-hat circuit, mostly as Professor Harold Hill. None of his subsequent series lasted very long, but he was seldom out of work, despite a drinking problem that did worsen significantly during his final decade. In his final years, he had brought that under control, and was in the process of making a comeback -- there was even talk of an F-Troop revival in film form -- when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and emphysema. He died in the fall of 1986 at age 67. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi