April 3, 2005
Men’s News Daily
On February 1, Canadian-born actor John Vernon died at the age of 72, of complications following heart surgery.
Vernon, born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz, was famous for playing authority figures who tended to be hypocritical, pompous asses. Such casting owed much to Vernon’s broad-shouldered, 6’2” frame, booming baritone, and lack of leading man looks. The movies most frequently mentioned by obit writers were Clint Eastwood’s serial killer cop story, Dirty Harry (1971; directed by Don Siegel), and the National Lampoon farce, Animal House (1978; directed by John Landis of The Twilight Zone: The Movie notoriety).
In Dirty Harry, Vernon played the pompous, hypocritical mayor, who is worried more about impressions and criminals’ rights than about getting the bad guy; in Animal House, he played the mean college Dean Wormer, who is looking to run the fun-loving frat boys of Delta House (John Belushi, et al.) off of campus.
To my knowledge, no one noted that the two roles were antipodes. “The Mayor” in Dirty Harry is a weakling who shies away from doing what is necessary, while Dean Wormer (described at imdb.com as “sinister”) is just the sort of no-nonsense tough guy that colleges have lacked for the past forty years.
Despite auspicious beginnings and a busy career on stage, screen, and TV, during the last fifteen or so years of Vernon’s career, when he did work, it was often doing voice work in cartoons or in movies so obscure (and presumably so bad), such as 1988’s Dixie Lanes and Deadly Stranger, that I never so much as heard of them. A few weeks before Vernon died, however, I got to see the sort of dramatic power he possessed. For some time (until today; I don’t know whether the programming has been ended) the Hallmark Channel devoted its Saturday afternoon programming to airing TV westerns from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, including Rawhide (1959-65), The Virginian (1962-71), and The High Chapparal (1967-71).
In an episode of The High Chaparral that first aired on January 17, 1969, entitled “No Irish Need Apply,” Vernon gave a tour de force performance as heroic but bullheaded Irish miner Sean McLaren, who leads an increasingly violent strike against a murderous, crooked, mine owner.
Vernon’s overpowering performance deserved, at the very least, an Emmy nomination. But he never had a chance. Although westerns like Gunsmoke (1955-75), Bonanza (1959-73), and The Virginian, if no longer dominant, were still popular, and The High Chaparral had graced the cover of TV Guide, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ powers that be rarely nominated performers from westerns. In a twenty-year run that, for instance, made Gunsmoke the most successful prime-time series of all time, the show was only nominated for six Emmys, winning but two.
And so, in the Emmy categories for which Vernon qualified, “Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” and “Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role,” only three and four (of a possible five) actors were nominated, respectively. The Academy left nominations vacant! In the supporting role category, no one was awarded an Emmy, and in the lead category, the award went to Paul Scofield for Male of the Species.
John Vernon never won any awards or achieved immortality. And yet in his day, his face was instantly recognizable to millions of moviegoers and TV viewers, even if they couldn’t tell you his name, and he managed to handsomely support a wife (though they eventually divorced) and three children, two accomplishments which put him way ahead of 99 percent of America’s actors.
The Outlaw Josey Wales: Final Scene
John Vernon as “Fletcher”; Clint Eastwood as “Mr. Wilson” (the Outlaw Josey Wales).
Fletcher was Josey Wales’ Confederate commanding officer during the Civil War, but at war’s end, Fletcher betrayed his old comrades, and became part of a group of paid Federal Army killers hunting them down and slaughtering them, one by one, in competition with bounty hunters. They murdered Josey’s wife and children, and Josey became a notorious outlaw with a price on his head. At the end of the picture, after Josey has killed all of his original nemeses, save for Fletcher, the latter finds him in a ghost town saloon. The other patrons, who know Wales, warn him by addressing him as “Mr. Wilson.”