“Johnny Yuma was a rebel. He roamed through the West.”
Those words were sung over the credits of The Rebel, a half-hour western drama from the early 1960s that is probably familiar to most baby boomers. It doesn’t resonate as strongly as a Beatles song, but it resonates. In an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer absent-mindedly sings the theme on the phone after he's put on hold. It might have been scripted, but it could have just been a bit of improv by Michael Richards, an actor old enough to remember when the show starring Nick Adams originally aired. It helps that the theme was sung by Johnny Cash, a bonafide music legend whose death in 2002 was marked with all the hoopla one expects post-Elvis.
The Rebel's star died in February 1968 at age 36, and though his passing was not a media event, it was front page news, certainly in Cleveland, Ohio. The Plain Dealer ran the headline, “Actor Nick Adams Found Dead,” near the bottom of its front page. A few days later, The Cleveland Press’ "Showtime," an entertainment tabloid included in the Friday edition, featured a eulogy by a showbiz columnist titled “Then His Star Began to Fade,” detailing Adams’ struggle to achieve stardom in Hollywood and of how he fell short of realizing his ambition while still coming closer than most to grabbing the brass ring.
As a poor kid growing up in Pennsylvania, Adams escaped at the movies, idolizing John Wayne and James Cagney in whose footsteps he hoped to follow. In Hollywood, he hooked up with another wannabe star, James Dean. If the more sensational accounts of their history are accurate, the two survived by hustling gay men on the streets of Hollywood and Vine. In Hollywood Babylon Revisited, author Darwin Porter claims Adams used his rumored “well hung” status to land auditions and movie roles. However he went about realizing his dream, he succeeded in being cast in Mister Roberts with Cagney and Henry Fonda, though he’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him presence. He was a little more prominent, though not by much, in Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s follow-up to East of Eden which rocketed him to stardom in early 1955. By the time Rebel was released later that same year, Dean was dead and about to be reborn as the object of one of the first celebrity death cults.
A born hustler, Adams exploited his Dean connection to work his way into the shadow of Elvis Presley, who admired Dean and inherited his place as the misunderstood rebel whose sneer was but a cover for a sensitive, wounded heart. It is primarily through his association with these two legends that Adams is known today, but he had a few memorable roles in such films as Picnic, Pillow Talk, and The Last Wagon. His finest moment came in a comedic part, that of Private Ben Whitledge, Andy Griffith’s bespectacled pal in the hilarious No Time for Sergeants. But such a role wasn’t compatible with the image that Adams wanted to project, that of the tight-jawed hero like those he worshiped in his movie-going youth. If casting directors didn’t see the 5'7" actor in the Duke Wayne mold, he’d have to take matters into his own hands, and did, by co-creating The Rebel with Andrew J. Fenady, and successfully selling the idea to ABC.
Popular for a time, The Rebel survived only two seasons (1959-1961) on the then struggling network, but Adams wasn’t through. After landing a minor supporting role in Twilight of Honor, a 1963 courtroom drama dashed off to cash in on Richard Chamberlain’s popularity as TV’s Dr. Kildare, Adams seized the opportunity to position himself for an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. He hustled - buying $8,000 worth of trade ads to promote himself and successfully bought a nomination. It was a classic example of chutzpah, all the more remarkable since Adams’ role in the film wound up on the cutting room floor. Melvyn Douglas won for Hud. If Douglas hadn’t triumphed, singer Bobby Darin would likely have won for an impressive turn as a traumatized soldier in Captain Newman, M.D.
With Hollywood concerned that so many productions were now being filmed on foreign soil, Adams made some noise by telling reporters he would only accept parts in movies made at home. Trouble is, he wasn’t receiving offers in the States, so he did an about face, and went to England to co-star with Boris Karloff in Die, Monster, Die, an above average adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story released by American International in 1965, the same year Allied Artists tossed out Young Dillinger, with Adams in the title role, as one half of a drive-in double bill.
His co-star in the latter film was a young actor for whom Adams was a mentor: Robert Conrad, already popular due to his role on TV’s Hawaiian Eye, and about to win more fans as James T. West, the secret service agent of The Wild, Wild, West. Conrad managed to squeeze Adams in as a guest star on a pair of episodes at a time when his only other options were such made-in-Japan atrocities as Frankenstein Conquers the World and Monster Zero. By then, Adams was more familiar to TV audiences as a celebrity contestant on PDQ, a game show hosted by Dennis James.
The circumstances of Adams’ death in February 1968 remain a subject of debate with some mystery aficionados suggesting he was knocked off, perhaps by someone intent on covering some shady business practices. He was found slumped against the wall of his bedroom, eyes open and staring. An autopsy found a combination of drugs in his system, usually a sign of either an accidental overdose or suicide.
Before his death, he managed two more film roles. Mission Mars, a shoddy space travel flick with Darren McGavin, may not have been released theatrically (it never arrived in my hometown, anyway), but Fever Heat, a racing drama for Paramount, was unloaded at drive-ins four months after his death, supported by a re-issue of The Sons of Katie Elder.
Adams comes to mind because The Rebel is being revived on Me TV (Memorable Television), a network whose programming is a sort of Greatest Hits from TV’s past (look for it on one of the many sub-stations that popped up after the switch from analog to digital broadcasting). Nick Adams may be little more than a blip on the radar screen of pop culture today, but there was a time when, for a half-hour of network prime time each week, he was the brave, somewhat surly, hero he always wanted to be. And now, thanks to reruns, he is sneering heroically again.
POSTSCRIPT: Allyson Adams, daughter of the late Nick Adams, recently found a diary written by her father during the eight days he accompanied Elvis Presley when the latter was being celebrated by his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. Titled The Rebel and the King, you can find more information about the book (and pre-order a copy) at the following link: http://therebelandtheking.com/
© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks
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