Sunday, April 7, 2019

Tom Nolan, Child Actor

Here’s something I hadn’t known before: Long before he embarked on a freelance-writing career, became The Wall Street Journal’s crime-fiction critic (a post he’s held since 1990), and wrote Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), Tom Nolan was a child actor.

Born Bernard Girouard in Montreal, Quebec, on January 15, 1948, he says he moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1953. Soon thereafter, he started working in Hollywood, appearing—originally as “Butch Bernard” (1953-1958), later as “Tommy Nolan”—in such TV programs as Medic (starring Richard Boone), My Friend Flicka, The Life of Riley, and The Thin Man (inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1933 mystery novel of that same name). IMDb says he was an “adorable, jug-eared presence, … considered a reliable and talented tyke who could easily turn on the waterworks on command.” Its short bio continues:
Tommy hit his TV peak at age 10 after being cast as Jody [O’Connell] in the gentle, non-violent TV Western Buckskin [1958-1959] opposite Sally Brophy, who played his widowed mom. Set in the frontier town of Buckskin, Montana, the show was seen from his young perspective* ... Although [Buckskin] only played for one full season [preceded by a half season in the summer of 1958—39 episodes in all], Tommy had comic books out with his character and his autograph was well in demand at parades, conventions and other public outings.

After the series’ demise, Tommy continued on other shows, many of them Westerns such as
Rawhide, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, not to mention recurring roles [two different ones] on Lassie.
Nolan tells me that he changed his name from the French-Canadian Bernard Girouard to Tommy Nolan in 1958—the year he signed to work on Buckskin—at the request of Revue Productions, a subsidiary of MCA that supplied Buckskin as well as other programming to the American television networks, particularly NBC. The author explains: “That’s the name I used until 1966, say, when I became ‘Tom Nolan.’ I started writing for magazines that year, too—the L.A. TimesWest, Cheetah, eye, Rolling Stone, etc.—and, by 1969, I chose writing full-time. It’s what I’d always wanted to do, from as soon as I could read.”

IMDb notes that Nolan “ended his [Hollywood] career with a small part in the movie The Moonshine War (1970).”† That film about Prohibition-era whiskey-making was scripted by none other than Elmore Leonard—the first screenplay he’d ever composed (based on his 1968 novel of the same name). Nolan recalls that Leonard “visited the [movie] set in Stockton, California—a short, skinny man in a flat cap.”

Interestingly, it was while he was working in television that Nolan first heard of Kenneth Millar, better known as detective novelist Ross Macdonald. Here’s Nolan again:

“I was working at Revue Studios (then on the old Republic lot) in 1959, in a TV series called Buckskin, when Linda Millar disappeared [from her college dorm room]. Her father’s search for her was front-page news in L.A. for a week. The writer and the producer of our Western show were knowledgeable mystery-men: Harold Swanton, Buckskin’s creator, began his career writing scripts for radio detective shows including The Fat Man, based on Hammett’s Continental Op character; producer Robert Bassler had also produced The Brasher Doubloon, a 1947 movie version of [Raymond] Chandler’s The High Window. Of Macdonald, Mr. Swanton said: ‘We met him. His wife’s a mystery writer too. They came to the lot a couple years ago to write some scripts for City Detective’—a cop series starring Rod Cameron. This all seemed so strange and intriguing to me: the fact that people I knew had known that mystery writer now on the front page of the newspaper. … It was one of the reasons I started reading Ross Macdonald at the age of 11.”

I recently discovered one episode of Buckskin on YouTube, “The Trial of Chrissy Miller,” which was originally aired on July 31, 1958. It’s presented below, in four parts.

* I’ve cut out something else the IMDb bio note asserts: that the character Jody “narrat[ed] each episode sitting on his corral fence and playing his harmonica.” Au contraire, says Nolan. No one narrated Buckskin episodes, he explains, and Jody “didn’t sit on a fence nor play harmonica.”

† Both IMDb’s Tom Nolan credits page and Wikipedia’s page about him err in conflating this actor turned journalist turned biographer with another man of that same name, who evidently started performing as an adult in Hollywood around the same time the Nolan we’re interested in here stopped. Author Nolan explains that he began his acting career in 1953 (at age 5) and left it in 1969, though his final screen credit, for The Moonshine War, is listed as 1970. The actor listed in IMDb as having later appeared in movies such as Pretty Woman (1990), Taking Care of Business (1990), and White Man's Burden (1995), and in TV series on the order of Jessie and Simon & Simon, was somebody else entirely.

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