Clu Gulager (born November 16, 1928) is an American television and film actor and director, particularly noted for his co-starring role as William H. Bonney (Billy The Kid) in the 1960–1962 NBC television series The Tall Man and for his role as Emmett Ryker in another NBC western series, The Virginian.
He also appeared in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and the racing film Winning, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Gulager was the protagonist Burt Wilson in the cult horror movie The Return of the Living Dead, starred in McQ with John Wayne, and in director Don Siegel’s The Killers with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.
Gulager’s short film A Day with the Boys was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or for best short film at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.
Gulager was born William Martin Gulager in Holdenville in Hughes County in east central Oklahoma, the son of John Gulager, a cowboy entertainer. Through his paternal grandmother, Gulager was a cousin of the western entertainer Will Rogers. From 1946 to 1948, Gulager served in the United States Marine Corps. He has Cherokee Native American ancestry.
His nickname was given to him by his father for the clu-clu birds (known in English as martins, like his middle name) that were nesting at the Gulager home at the time Clu was born. After attending Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Gulager transferred to Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
In 1958, Clu Gulager appeared as Roy Carter in the episode “The Return of Roy Carter” (written by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame) in the western television series Have Gun-Will Travel starring Richard Boone.
In the spring of 1959, Gulager appeared as Tommy Pavlock in the episode “The Immigrant” of NBC’s series The Lawless Years, a 1920s crime drama. In the fall of 1959, he appeared in the episode “The Temple of the Swinging Doll” of NBC’s short-lived espionage drama, Five Fingers, starring David Hedison.
On June 3, 1959, Gulager guest starred as the unscrupulous photographer Elliott Garrison in “The Andrew Hale Story” on NBC’s Wagon Train, with John McIntire in the lead in this episode before he was named two years later as Ward Bond’s successor on the popular series.
This Andrew Hale is a minister mistakenly on the run who is found dying on the desert. He soon displays great knowledge of healing and spiritual matters and restores the faith of many on the wagon train. James Best also appears in this episode in the role of Garth English.
On October 11, 1959, Gulager appeared as a U.S. Navy sailor in the “Appointment at Eleven” episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and again as an escaped convict in “Pen Pal” on November 1, 1960.
On The Untouchables, he played the role of vicious mob killer Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Gulager was hailed for his utterly chilling performance as the psychopathic Coll.
Late in 1959, Gulager was cast as Beau Chandler in the episode “Jessie Quinn” of the NBC western series, Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds.
The episode is a tale of intrigue involving the Texas Revolution. Captain Holden attempts to send weapons to Sam Houston, but forces of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in Mexico threaten to blow up Holden’s vessel, the Enterprise.
Mercedes McCambridge is cast in the title role, with Kevin Hagen as John Hollister.
From 1960 to 1962, Gulager played Billy the Kid in The Tall Man opposite Barry Sullivan as Sheriff Pat Garrett. The episodes portray Billy as a sympathetic character without resorting to the “misunderstood young man” theme used in such films as The Outlaw and The Left Handed Gun.
In 1961, Gulager guest starred on another NBC western, Whispering Smith, Audie Murphy’s only attempt at series television.
Gulager portrayed Deputy Sheriff Emmett Ryker from 1964 to 1968 on The Virginian, the 90-minute western series in which he starred with James Drury, Doug McClure, Lee J. Cobb, Roberta Shore, Randy Boone, Gary Clarke, and Diane Roter.
Gulager appeared more than sixty times in other roles in film and television, including the film Winning and the CBS series Three for the Road. He also appeared several times on NBC’s Bonanza.
He starred with Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, and Angie Dickinson in the 1964 version of The Killers.
Gulager is the father of film director John Gulager (contest winner in third season of Project Greenlight). His wife, actress Miriam Byrd Nethery, died in Los Angeles in 2003.
He appeared notably in The Last Picture Show (1971), along with Cybill Shepherd and Ellen Burstyn. In 1977, long after his role on The Virginian, he appeared in Rod Taylor’s unsuccessful NBC western series, The Oregon Trail, in the episode “The Army Deserter”.
He appeared in his son John Gulager’s Feast series of films as a shotgun-toting bartender and will have a role in Piranha 3DD.
He was also a featured player in director John Landis’ darkly comedic 1985 film noir satire, Into The Night, a film rife with insider Hollywood cameos, as an FBI agent, courier of a cache of clandestine funds, which he grudgingly delivers to secure the safety of the film’s two romantic leads (Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum).
In an example of the film’s dry humor, their characters find they are not in a position to object as the agent/courier (Gulager) angrily pilfers as many packets of bills from the treasure trove as he can resentfully stuff into his pockets in plain sight of them, before leaving the bewildered pair in a huff.
He was cast as Burt Wilson in the Dan O’Bannon-directed 1985 cult classic, The Return of the Living Dead.