Actor Don Collier has had a successful career in television, movies, commercials and voiceover work spanning several decades. He is perhaps best known as the stalwart ranch foreman on the popular ‘70s TV Western “The High Chaparral”– a show which the PBS’s “Pioneers of Television” praised for the way it “subtly explored the groundbreaking idea that Mexicans, Anglos and Native Americans all have a place in the American tapestry.”
Don’s rugged good looks and distinctively deep voice have made him a sought-after actor in movies and commercials, including his ‘80s-era “Big Bubbles, No Troubles” TV ads for Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum, which became a permanent part of pop culture history.
In total, Collier has appeared in over 200 credited movies and television programs, performing with actors such as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Dean Martin, James Arness, and even Elvis Presley. Today, he remains active in film and voiceover projects, and is a popular personality at Western movie and TV festivals, including “The High Chaparral Reunion,” held every spring in Tucson, Arizona, where the original series was filmed.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your career. How many years have you been in show business and how did you get started?
A. I first joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1948, so 65 years – a long time ago. I was in the Navy in 1945 and ’46 and then in the Merchant Marine in 1947. When I came home to the San Fernando Valley, my folks were working for an old actor, Francis Lederer. He had a big cattle ranch and I did a lot of horseback riding out there. He had drama classes there at his ranch and he asked me to join in. He got me started and the first thing I did was a little demo film, me and a young girl – her name was Mitzi Gerber, but she changed it later to Mitzi Gaynor and she did a lot of work through the years.
I worked in a couple more Westerns, one was called “Massacre River,” and “Fort Apache,” but I also had a football scholarship to Hardin-Simmons University down in Abilene, Texas, so I took that and went down there to become a scholar and play football. Well, I could play football, but I certainly wasn’t a scholar. After the first year, I dropped out of school and went back home and I worked at odd jobs just here and there.
After about four years, I got back in the picture business. I started with a group called the Estelle Harman group over in Hollywood and I was there three years. I started getting work in about 1957 or ’58. I got the “Outlaws” series in ’59 and we did that in ’60, ’61, and part of ’62. When they canceled that show, I did a lot of shows like “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Virginian,” “Wagon Train,” and all those old Westerns through the years. Then, they hired me for “The High Chaparral” and I did that for four years.
I worked with John Wayne in three pictures – one was just a few days, but the other two I worked 13 weeks in each one of them – “The Undefeated” and “The War Wagon.” I should’ve done more, but as things worked out, I didn’t.
Then, I did a lot of commercial work in the ‘70s – a lot of commercials for different companies and institutions throughout the United States. I did the Houston Light and Power commercials for 11 years. My biggest commercial was for Wrigley’s gum. I did a Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum commercial for eight years. That was a nice commercial – I went to Australia and did it down there for several years and I understand they’re still using it down there now.
Eventually, I got tired of living in Los Angeles because it got too crowded. I had gotten used to Arizona, working down here so much, that I moved down here in 1983. I did a lot of local stuff down here, on camera and a lot of voice work. I did a series for the University (of Arizona) called “The Desert Speaks” for 11 years, which was a nice job. I enjoyed that. We did a lot of different locales and different subjects, and it was a good job.
Now, we do the High Chaparral reunion. We were doing it every two years, but now we’re doing it every year. We’re going to have it again in March of 2014. But we’re running out of people (laughs).
Q. Well, I’m glad you’re still there.
A. Yes, I’m still hanging in there.
Q. You have had such longevity in show business, going all the way back to 1948, and you’re still working today. What qualities have given you the ability to be successful over so many years?
A. Well, I guess the main driving force – unless you’re a big-name actor making huge money – is supporting a family. I have six kids and I had to continue to work to make sure we had beans on the table. That’s a driving force. I also enjoyed the acting profession very much. In fact, I’m in a little picture, I’m going to work down in Texas the end of next month for a couple of weeks on a movie down there. I keep active and I keep doing things. We’ve got some plans for some other projects and, God willing and if time doesn’t run out on me, we’ll get some more stuff done.
Q. You mentioned working with John Wayne and I know you’ve worked with many famous people. What was it like working with Elvis Presley on a movie?
A. I did one scene in a picture called “Paradise, Hawaiian Style.” I picked on a young girl in a food line and he shoved a steak in my face and pushed me into a dessert cart with cakes and whipped cream and all. It was fun. I worked on it three days. He was a nice young man and good to work with. He was a good guy.
Q. I have to ask you a little bit about “The High Chaparral,” one of my favorite TV shows. Would you say it was the favorite project you’ve ever worked on?
A. Well, there are three of them. The bubble gum commercial ensured my retirement. “The High Chaparral” was a whole lot of fun and there were a lot of wonderful people that I met. And the John Wayne pictures that I worked on. Those three things are highlights of my life. “The High Chaparral” was really a lot of fun to do, because I think it was the best Western that television has ever produced. We were actually a real, functioning cattle ranch, much more so, I think, than “Rawhide.”
It was a good show with good writing, good actors, good people, and good production. We had one of the greatest Unit Managers that ever existed in Hollywood, Kent McCray. He’s a wonderful guy and he knew what he was doing. Everybody that worked with him knew that he was fair, honest, and beyond reproach, and they would do anything in the world for him. We had great directors. We had Billy Claxton, who was a great guy. He produced our show for four years and directed a lot of them. It was a great experience.
Q. When I hear people talking about the show now, looking back on it in retrospect, they talk about it being groundbreaking in the way it dealt with the issues of Hispanics and Native Americans and whites trying to coexist. When you were doing the series, did you realize that people would look back on it and think of it in that way?
A. Well, as an actor, you’re happy to have a job, first – groundbreaking or not (laughs). We knew that the stories were good and we knew that the premise was good. We knew it was a good association being so close to the border, so we worked with the Mexican influence and we had a lot of experiences that exist still today. It was just a good crossroads of what was going on and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Q. How can people learn more about “The High Chaparral” reunion?
A. It will be next March and, although the cast keeps shrinking every year, the reunion gets bigger. It looks like this year it will be twice as big as it was last year. We have a tremendous amount of people that follow it and many of them have gotten to know each other and they’ve gotten to know the cast members. We have a close relationship and we talk a lot. We talk to each other on the internet every day. We’ve been holding it in Tucson now for the last four years. We go out to the old High Chaparral ranch house and we’ll visit that for the afternoon.
Q. If you were to give career advice to young people today wanting to break into acting or voiceover work, what would you say that might help them have the type of success that you’ve had?
A. Well, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in this business. When I joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1948, I was the 3754th person, I think, to join the Screen Actors Guild. Today, they’ve merged with AFTRA, so it’s one big union, and there are probably 200,000 people in that combined union today. And, of that group – I’m just guessing, but I would say maybe 20,000-25,000 out of that group are able to make a living. The rest of them are working at it and trying to become one of the 20,000.
If I were a young fella again and considering the acting profession, I would make sure that I had a college degree first. Get that first and then, you know, you’re only 21 or 22 and you can do your acting at night or on the weekend, whenever you want to get to the stage and play some things. But get an education if you can, or learn a trade. Then, if your acting is working out and you’re doing some stage plays and workshops and things like that, proceed. But, if it starts to run out of gas, you have your profession or your degree to fall back on.
I’ve seen so many people through the years – good, brilliant actors – that don’t get that break. It’s not all talent. It’s luck, who you’ve met through the years, the associations that you’ve cultivated. You have to work at it and it’s a full-time job meeting people. You have to know directors. You have to know casting people. It’s a tough grind.
For more about Don Collier, visit www.doncollier.com
For more about “The High Chaparral Reunion” 2014, visit www.thehighchaparralreunion.com
Don Collier was born in Santa Monica, California on 17 October 1928. He has appeared in more than two hundred movies and TV-shows. To this very day, he is working in different TV and film industry projects. He is well known for several popular roles in great films and TV-shows. He played the role of deputy marshal Will Foreman in the western drama, Outlaws. It was a very popular show; it ran for two successful seasons, 1960-1962. His career started with a small role in a western drama The Deputy, 1959-1961 and he hasn’t retired yet!
After graduating from high school, Collier didn’t choose the entertainment industry as his career. In fact, he did something that has no connection to acting; he joined and served in the US Navy. It was Francis Lederer, a famous film and stage actor, who encouraged Collier to take acting classes when he came back home after serving time in the Navy. His parents worked for Lederer at his ranch where he was giving free acting classes.
Collier acting career started when someone from Selznick International Studios noticed Collier and the potential he had. From there onwards, his acting career really took off. He has worked in many western dramas.
One of his most memorable roles was Sam Butler in hugely popular drama-series, The High Chaparral. He has appeared in more than two hundred films and TV dramas. He also appeared in numerous commercials. Collier said some very amazing stuff about life and career. His advice for the young is to attend college even if they love acting and want to make it a career; earn a degree that can enable you to get a well-paid office job. Off-course, he is saying this because he wants kids to have a backup plan in case they have trouble in their acting career.
The entertainment industry is huge today, but successful acting career is never a guarantee no matter how good of an actor you are. You must be able to provide food for yourself and your family. You can make a lot of money in showbiz, but only if you get the lucky-break that makes you famous and puts you in the spotlight. The more fan following you have, the more work you can get. So many people are struggling in this industry, so it is better to have a backup plan in place. It doesn’t mean you give up on your dreams; you just need to get educated and then you can try to make your mark in the entertainment industry.
Collier appeared in commercials for a bubble gum company for several years and he made good money for doing it. He had a very successful career in acting and made good money even tough back in the old days, the entertainment industry wasn’t paying the kind of money that actors are making these days. For instance, actors in comedy series Modern-Family are making $100,000+ per episode; they are also receiving a certain percentage of income the show generates. Collier managed to gain both fame and fortune in his acting career.