Who was Slim Pickens?
Louis Burton Lindley Jr., more famous by his stage name Slim Pickens, was a well-known film and television actor and rodeo clown. This veteran showman spent a big part of his life in the saddle either as a rodeo clown or portraying cowboy roles on-screen. He was successful in creating a cowboy image for himself on-screen. The most memorable films of his career are ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ where he tickled the funny bones of the audience with perfection. Pickens was an expert rider who started rodeoing during his teens adopting the name Slim Pickens. With time, he earned name as a rodeo bronco buster, trick rider and clown spending around two decades. He forayed into acting with the 1950 western film ‘Rocky Mountain’. His Texas-like twang, wiry and tough built personality saw him playing cowboy roles in films and television. He is still recalled for his bomber pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong role in the 1964 political satire black comedy film ‘Dr. Strangelove’. Other notable films of Pickens include ‘The Cowboys‘, ‘Major Dundee’, ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ and 'The Apple Dumpling Gang’. He succumbed to pneumonia shortly after undergoing a brain tumour surgery.
Childhood & Early Life
Slim Pickens was born Louis Burton Lindley Jr. on June 29, 1919, in Kingsburg, California, US, to Louis Bert Lindley Sr., a Texas-born dairy farmer, and his wife, Sally Mosher (née Turk).
At age 4 he got his first horse and he slowly became an outstanding rider. During his early teens he would get bored of dairy farming and ride broncos and roping steers that would also fetch him a few dollars.
Gradually, he developed a knack in rodeo and his passion for the same saw him pursuing it much to his father’s disliking. He adopted the name Slim Pickens for competing in rodeo so that his father couldn’t discover his participation in the sport.
Recalling the subject he once said ''My father was against rodeoing and told me he didn't want to see my name on the entry lists ever again. While I was fretting about what to call myself, some old boy sittin' on a wagon said, 'Why don't you call yourself Slim Pickens, 'cause that's shore what yore prize money'll be.''
He attended Hanford High School in Hanford, California, from where he completed his graduation. He also remained a member of the Future Farmers of America.
He was enlisted in the United States Army at the time of the Second World War and while noting his profession the recruiter mistakenly took it as radio when Pickens said “Rodeo”. This resulted in Pickens spending the whole of his enlistment period at an American Midwest radio station.
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Pickens became a skilled rider of bucking bulls and horses and with time became a famous rodeo clown. Such daring endeavours saw him suffering numerous injuries including being thrown, kicked, bitten, gored and trampled by bulls and horses. He endured several fractures including breaking his wrists, back and feet bones.
With over a decade long background in rodeo, he forayed into acting with an un-credited role in the 1946 Western film ‘Smoky’ that became a smashing hit.
This was followed by a screen test in 1950, after he was spotted by American stage actor and Hollywood film director William Keighley at a rodeo that helped him with the role of Plank in the director’s film ‘Rocky Mountain’. This 1950 film starred Errol Flynn and Patrice Wymore.
His big eyes, husky voice with a Texas-like twang and strong physique was well utilised by Hollywood. He went on to play cowboy roles in several films both in the darker shade and in comic roles. An ace rider with a good rodeo background, Pickens never required a stand-in for riding shots and used his own horses, mules, hats and boots in many of the films and television productions he featured in.
Many of his initial films featured him as Slim Pickens. These include starring roles in films like ‘The Last Musketeer’ (1952), ‘Border Saddlemates’ (1952), ‘South Pacific Trail’ (1952), ‘Old Overland Trail’ (1953) and ‘Iron Mountain Trail’ (1953).
Starting from the mid-1950s, he appeared in several television series. Some of the notable ones that featured him in more than one episode includes the NBC Western television series ‘Outlaws’ (1960–62); the ABC military-western television series ‘Custer’ (1967); the ABC western TV series ‘Alias Smith and Jones’ (1971) and the NBC comedy television series ‘B.J. and the Bear’ (1979–81).
He played starring roles in several films that featured many Hollywood stars. These included ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ (1961) starring Marlon Brando, the only film directed by the latter; ‘Major Dundee’ (1965) starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris among others; ‘The Cowboys’ (1972) starring John Wayne; and ‘Beyond the Poseidon Adventure’ (1979) starring Michael Caine and Sally Field.
He was also a successful voice actor. Bobby Bridger's three-part story ‘A Ballad of the West’ saw Pickens narrating its part 1 titled ‘Seekers of the Fleece’ in its 1975 studio recording. In 1978, he voiced as Rube Dugan in a ‘Silver Dollar City’ theme park ride called ‘Rube Dugan's Diving Bell’. He also gave voiceover as Old B.O.B. (uncredited), one of the main robots in the American space opera film ‘The Black Hole’ (1979).
The Steven Spielberg directed 1979 period comedy film ‘1941’ featured Pickens in a small yet remarkable role of Hollis P. Wood. The film garnered $94.9 million at box-office.
He remained emcee of ‘The Nashville Palace’ (1981) an NBC aired country music variety series.
The last film of his career was, however, not impressive considering his rich and expansive body of work. It was a sex comedy called ‘Pink Motel’ where he starred along with Phyllis Diller and Andrea Howard. That year at the Oklahoma City, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the ‘National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’.
He was honoured by the Rodeo Historical Society posthumously in 1986. His contributions as a rodeo clown were also recognised when he was inducted posthumously into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs in 2005.
The most memorable role of his career was that of an overzealous and cartoonishly patriotic B-52 pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong in the Stanley Kubrick directed political satire black comedy ‘Dr. Strangelove’ that released on January 29, 1964. It proved to be a major breakthrough in his career paving way for other notable roles. He said, "After Dr. Strangelove, the roles, the dressing rooms, and the checks all started gettin' bigger."
The Mel Brooks directed 1974 satirical Western comedy film ‘Blazing Saddles’ where Pickens played the role of Taggart with finesse proved to be yet another landmark in his career. The film not only received kudos from both audience and critics but also garnered a whooping $119.6 million at box-office.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Margaret Elizabeth Harmon on March 22, 1950. He had three children - Margaret Louise Wittman (née Lindley), Thomas Michael Lindley and step-daughter Daryle Ann Giardino née Wofford. American film actor Samuel T. Lindley, more famous by stage name Easy Pickens, was his brother.
Pickens resided with his wife in Columbia, California during the last years of his life. He battled brain tumour and also underwent a surgery in San Francisco but soon suffered from pneumonia which eventually took his life on December 8, 1983.