Actually, there’s no need to “Netflix and chill” when a Chill Wills flick is on the tube. It demands your full attention. The colorful, guitar-strumming character actor above was a 43-year film veteran, whose career was defined by numerous cowboy roles, including Giant, The Alamo, and McClintock!
Chill Theodore Wills was born on a hot July day in 1902 in Seagoville, Texas. A musician from his youth, he performed from the age of 12 with tent shows, in vaudeville, and with stock companies.
He formed a musical group, Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys. During an appearance at the Trocadero in Hollywood, they were spotted by an RKO executive, who featured them as a group in several low-budget Westerns. His first movie, It’s a Gift came out in 1934, and led to a prominent appearance with both The Avalon Boys and as the bass-singing voice of Stan Laurel in Way Out West (1937). Soon after, Wills disbanded the group and began his solo film career.
One of his more memorable roles was that of the distinctive voice of Francis the Mule in a series of popular films. Wills’ deep voice and Texas drawl were suited to the personality of the cynical mule.
While performing in vaudeville in Kansas City, Wills married ballet dancer Hattie Elizabeth Chappelle, with whom he had two children, Jill Wills (born 1939) and Will Wills (born 1942). Jill and Will Wills, you guys.
One of his best-received performances was in John Wayne’s The Alamo, an epic about Davy Crockett and the historic Texas battle against Mexican troops. Playing Beekeeper, one of Crockett’s fellow Tennesseans, Wills received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Unfortunately, an ad that appeared in Variety stated that the cast of The Alamo was praying harder for Chill Wills to win than the defenders of the Alamo prayed for their lives before the actual battle.
The ad left such a bad taste in Wayne’s mouth that he felt compelled to issue a public apology. Another ad that quoted Wills as saying “Win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you” evoked this response from Academy member Groucho Marx: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.” Ouch!
Ultimately, Wills’ fabulously-named publicity agent, W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz, accepted blame for the tasteless effort, claiming that Wills had known nothing about it. The Oscar was instead won by Peter Ustinov for his role in Spartacus.
Wills enjoyed poker and consequently befriended Benny Binion (below right), the founder of the World Series of Poker and former owner of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Don’t they look happier than a pig in slop?
Wills’ wife died in 1971, and he remarried…wait for it…Novadeen Googe, in 1973. He continued to work in films and television up until his death in 1978.