Gene Evans was known for his work in a number of war and western films, was much seen on television over 3 decades, and never quite made it big but is an instantly recognizable face and safe to say holds a special place in the hearts of many film buffs.
Born Eugene Evans in Arizona in 1922, Gene ended up in California in 1930 when the family moved there and ran a grocery store. Gene got interested in stage acting and spent 1941- 42 as apprentice at the Pasadena playhouse before his enlistment in the Army. Evans rose to the rank of Sergeant in the combat engineers, and was awarded 5 stars for service in WWII.
Back home and pursuing acting, Evans struggled to get work, firmly believing that the big reason for the slow start was his red hair and complexion. He once read an article by cinematographer Stanley Cortez (brother of actor Ricardo) that said actors with dark hair and eyes looked better in black and white, so he practically accepted that he was doomed to have difficulty landing leads. It wasn’t until 1947 when Republic started shooting the western Under Colorado Skies in Trucolor, and needed someone convincing to play a character named “Red,” that Evans was perfect casting and got a break. He joked that with the lower quality color process his red hair and beard ended up looking more green, but it was a start. Besides his actual pay for the film, he collected a bonus $65 in silver dollars from star Monte Hale through their habit of pitching them between takes.
Up until 1951 Evans was lucky if he made more than $1000 a year from film work, so he supplemented by working odd jobs like pumping gas, dishwashing and doing carpentry. Increasingly he was seen on screen, but not always with credit, so now you can have a fun game of “where’s Gene?” in noirs like Berlin Express, Larceny, Storm Warning, and Ace in the Hole. There he is in Criss Cross, rolling up his sleeves at the armored car company, asking Burt Lancaster an awkward question. In Armored Car Robbery he’s an accomplice to William Talman and second to get himself “air-conditioned.” And look closely in Asphalt Jungle, to see him as a uniformed cop at the door of Anthony Caruso’s apartment. With his rough manner, gravelly voice, burly 6’2″ build and permanently furrowed brow, Evans was pegged as an authoritative and menacing presence, typecasting which always amused him since he had started out on stage mainly doing comedy.
When Sam Fuller made the Korean war picture The Steel Helmet, he insisted on casting Evans, and resisted the studio’s suggestions of big names like John Wayne or Larry Parks. In this first of 5 movies he would do with Fuller, Evans gave an outstanding performance, making “Sgt. Zack” a battle hardened, cigar chomping cynic and survivor. Right after The Steel Helmet he was on TV’s Lone Ranger, and that same year was seen in a half dozen movies including Storm Warning, Ace in the Hole and Fixed Bayonets!, another Sam Fuller movie. Evans’ The Steel Helmet performance earned him Photoplay magazine’s best actor of 1951, but very little progress toward stardom went with the honor. Instead of rising to Van Heflin or Spencer Tracy status, as Evans had hoped, his success as the grizzly Sarge tied him to that gentle giant persona. The big time may have eluded him, but he did steadily gain fans and familiarity with audiences by working diligently, making over 50 films, including the Richard Widmark submarine drama Hell and High Water, and an especially meaty part as the aspiring newspaper mogul in the great movie Park Row (which I wrote on here). He was also much seen on TV, racking up more than 100 TV appearances and made-for-TV movies.
He said anything resembling a work ethic was really due to never having had the representation to guide his career choices, so he took whatever came up, and was game for any kind of role or challenge, whether western, action, sci-fi, or family fare. He also admitted he often needed the money, because he played hard and blew his earnings quickly. In Donovan’s Brain he played the scientist helping Lew Ayres, and for the first time got to wear his real-life glasses on-screen; poor eyesight was the reason for his signature squint. He said it was a revelation to finally see everyone he was working with, and at the same time realized how much of a distraction he had been avoiding all those years by not seeing them. In 1956, during his run as the father on TV’s My Friend Flicka, he married actress and singer Patti Powers, formerly a vocalist for Tony Pastor and Harry James bands. As the 1950s wound down Evans was seen in Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant, The Hangman with Robert Taylor, and The Bravados with Gregory Peck. Through the 60s he was on every imaginable type of series from Perry Mason to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, loads of westerns, in movies like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, in Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen, and in the excellent cowboy caper The War Wagon, with Kirk Douglas and John Wayne.
He eventually moved to a lakeside Tennessee home, a location he discovered by accident when shooting Walking Tall in 1973. While waiting for a replacement car to finish a chase scene, he heard a puppy’s cry and followed the sound into the wild; it led him to what he considered the perfect spot to live. The place became a new home for Evans and family, which by then included a daughter and two sons, a place where Evans fished, continued his love of car racing, attended many nearby western film fests, and it was where he died in 1998 of a heart attack. He was remembered by good friends and fellow screen cowboys James Arness and Jack Elam as a good guy who worked hard. He’d always thought of himself as a prizefighter who just had to keep fighting: “Better get all that you can,” he said, ”and get out of here.”
A version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, the newsletter for film noir fans. Click here to check out the latest issues