Actor Eric Fleming is best remember for his role as Gil Favor on the long-running and hugely influential CBS Western series Rawhide.
That program, which ran from 1959 to 1966, credited with turning Fleming’s co-star Clint Eastwood into a household name. But despite the fact that Eastwood is the name that most people typically think of when remembering Rawhide. It was Fleming that was the top-billed star of the show. You probably wouldn’t be left with that impression. Though, if you were to take a look at things like Rawhide promotional materials or the show’s DVD collection box art.
Rawhide was without a doubt the highlight of Fleming’s acting career, but he might have gone on to outperform that particular offering if he hadn’t passed away at such a young age. Eric tragically killed in a horrific accident in the Huallaga River on September 28, 1966. He was only 41 years old when he left behind his soon-to-be wife, Lynne Garber. It’s no telling what his career might have looked like if he hadn’t died in such an untimely way.
Right before his death, Fleming had just signed a contract to star in an episode of an anthology series called Off to See The Wizard that intended to receive a theatrical release in Europe. In a blink of an eye, everything that his life and professional career might have become snuffed out. But that wasn’t the only bit of tragedy that marred Fleming’s life story. Join Facts Verse as we reveal the series of tragic events that led to Eric Fleming’s death.
Fleming’s Early Life And Career
Eric Fleming was born Edward Heddy Jr. on July 4, 1925, in Santa Paula, California. He was the only child of Mildred and Edward Heddy.
He had been born with a club foot which required him to utilize crutches to get around. His disability made him stand out among his peers, likely leading him to be the victim of bullying. On top of that, Fleming’s father was a cruel man who would often beat him severely.
Eric hated his father and couldn’t understand what made him the monster that he was. When he was eight years old, Fleming decided that enough was enough. After sneaking into his father’s gun cabinet and grabbing a pistol, he crept up on him and pulled the trigger. Fully thinking that his troubles would be over once his father was dead and gone. Fleming was no doubt disappointed when the gun he held in his tiny little hands jammed.
Not much is known about how his dad reacted after discovering that his son had just attempted to waste him. But you can assume that he didn’t take too kindly to such a gesture.
Not long after the failed homicide attempt, Fleming ran away from home. First, he made his way to Los Angeles. Whatever he thought he was looking for there, however, he didn’t seem to find it because he next made his way out to the Windy City of Chicago. Riding a freight train all the way there. Once in Chi-Town, Eric lived broke and destitute in the company of vagrants and gangsters. Doing odd jobs to get by.
When he was just 11, Fleming took a bullet in a gunfight between some local thugs. Fortunately, he survive the incident but had to be hospitalize. After he had healed from his injuries, he returned home to live with his mother who had just recently finalized her divorce from her ghastly husband.
During the Great Depression, Eric Fleming dropped out of high school and worked a handful of menial jobs before enlisting in the Merchant Marines. During World War II, he decided that he should perform his patriotic duty and joined the Navy. Where he served as a Seabee in a naval construction battalion.
While working in this often grueling field for the military, Fleming did whatever he could to make the best of the situation. On a bet with one of his fellow Seabees, he attempted to lift a 200-pound weight. Unfortunately, it seems that he had bitten off a little more than he could chew, because halfway through the lift. Eric lost his grip and severely injured himself.
Fleming sustained several facial injuries to his forehead, jaw, and nose. As a result of the accident, he had to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery to try and fix his mangled face. Ironically, before the incident, Eric Fleming had always considered himself to be especially ‘ugly’. Afterward he’s saying that the accident had been a ‘wonderful balance of values’.
After his plastic surgery, Fleming jumped right back into work over at Paramount Studios. Where he had been working as a carpenter, grip, and construction worker. Apparently, he didn’t learn a thing about the dangers of making bets, because not long after getting back on the job, he made a wager with an actor that he could deliver a better audition that he could.
Once again, albeit with a lot less detrimental consequences, Fleming lost that bet, which cost him a hundred bucks and a lot of pride. Peeved that acting had cost him so much money, Eric became determined to earn back what he had lost by acting. He then enrolled in acting classes at the studio in the evening hours.
It didn’t take long for Fleming to start getting discover for his talent. While the acting classes undoubtedly helped, he was also natural at it. He made his acting debut in a road company production of Anita Loos’s play Happy Birthday.
He went on to appear on stage in Chicago and in a handful of commercially successful Broadway plays such as the musical Plain and Fancy. At that point, Fleming had successfully healed his wounded pride and knew that he possessed a valuable gift.
Around this time, he started acting in television shows. After finding success on-screen, Fleming moved to Hollywood where he began to appear in various low-budget movies including the cult classic Queen of Outer Space. A couple of his other early film credits include roles in films like Curse of the Undead and Fright.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Keep watching to find out how Eric Fleming met his tragic end in 1966.
The Role That Made Fleming A Star
Fleming, who stood tall at 6 feet 3 inchs, landed the most significant role of his career playing trail boss Gil Favor in Rawhide in 1958. Set in the mid-19th century, Rawhide depicted the many challenges that the cowboys of the cattle drive faced on their journey between San Antonio, Texas and Sedalia, Missouri.
The program produced by Charles Marquis Warren, who also worked on Gunsmoke. He drew inspiration for the series from a hand-written diary penned in 1866 by a trail boss named George C. Duffield.
Rawhide ended up becoming one of the biggest Western hits of it’s time. Alongside co-stars Paul Brinegar, Sheb Wooley, and the living legend Clint Eastwood, Fleming stuck with the series for the majority of it’s between 1959 and 1966.
Fleming and Eastwood essentially flip-flopped, taking turns playing the show’s lead each week, but Eric always billed first. Fleming credited with writing two of Rawhide’s scripts; season three’s ‘Incident of the Night on the Town’ and season four’s ‘A Woman’s Place’.
By 1965, the once strong in the ratings series had began to decline in popularity. During a hiatus before filming of the eighth season had began, Fleming and several other cast members got fire by the newly install director Ben Brady.
Eastwood took over as Rawhide’s trail boss for 13 episodes before CBS’ chief executive Willaim S. Paley decided to give the show the ax.
Fleming’s Career Post-Rawhide
After being dismissed from Rawhide, Fleming bounced back quickly by scoring a supporting role as a sophisticated spy in the 1966 Doris Day rom-com The Glass Bottom Boat. He also given a guest-starring role in three episodes of the show that became number one in the ratings, NBC’s Bonanza.
He followed that up by portraying the sadistic yet effective character Wes Dunn in the seventh season of Peace Officer. The following season, the series’ creator David Dortort brought Fleming back to play a Mormon rancher named Heber Clauson. Sadly, the two-parter he appeared in would air just four days after Fleming’s tragic death.
In late-summer 1966, Fleming cast star in High Jungle, a two-part episode of the MGM-produced anthology series Off to See The Wizard. He feel optimistic about the role since it had been plan to get a theatrical release in Europe.
A little under two months after arriving in Peru to film on location, Fleming and his co-star Nico Minardos were floating down the Huallaga River in a dugout career when it suddenly capsized. Minardos was a strong swimmer and was able to swim to solid ground. Fleming, however, wasn’t so lucky. He got swept away by the current and ended up drowning on September 28, 1966. He is only 41 years old when he got killed. Even sadder is the fact that he had just gotten engaged to his fiancee Lynne Garber.
The High Jungle will supposed to be Fleming’s big comeback. He had high hopes for the picture, but alas, we’ll never see what might have become of his career if he hadn’t died at such an early point in his story.
According to Nico, Fleming’s last words were ‘now or never!’. It seems like at least, in this case, the answer was “never”.
It’s crazy to think that a man who had been through all of the hardship that Fleming had would finally be done in by something as trivial as a canoe accident. This is a guy who, at 8 years old, braved freight trains, gangsters, and homelessness just to flee an abusive home situation. He got shot for crying out loud – and SURVIVED – before he even turned 13!
It just goes to show you how fragile and unpredictable life can be. You never know when your time is going to be up and your number will be called. At least Fleming seamed to live life to the fullest in the short time that he was here. It doesn’t seem like he let people or self-doubt hold him back from chasing his dreams.
Anyway, we’re just about out of time for this video, but we’d love to hear from you. Who was your favorite character on Rawhide, Fleming’s or Eastwood’s? And how do you think Fleming’s career would have panned out if he hadn’t died in that shocking accident? Share your thoughts with us in the comments down below.
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