Forrest Tucker, best known to the Baby Boom generation as Sergeant O’Rourke on the classic TV sitcom F Troop (1965), was born on February 12, 1919, in Plainfield, Indiana. He began his performing career at age 14 at the 1933 Chicago “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, pushing big wicker tourists’ chairs by day and singing at night. His family moved to Arlington, Virginia, where he attended Washington-Lee High School in 1938.
Big for his age, as a youth Tucker was hired by the Old Gayety Burlesque Theater in Washington, DC, to serve as a Master of Ceremonies for the burly-cue after consecutively winning Saturday night amateur contests. He was fired when it was found out that he was underage. When he turned 18, he was rehired by the Old Gayety.
After graduating from high school in 1938, the 6’4″, 200-lb. Tucker played semi-pro football in the Washington, DC, area. He also enlisted in the National Guard and was assigned to a cavalry unit in Ft. Myers, Virginia. He started at the top when he entered the movies, in a supporting role in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) opposite Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, who won his third Oscar for portraying Judge Roy Bean in the picture. He got the role during his 1939 vacation from the Old Gayety, which shut down due to the District of Columbia’s horrible summers in the days before air conditioning was common.He was signed to the part in the Wyler picture, which required a big fellow with enough presence for a fight scene with the 6’3″ superstar Cooper.
Tucker moved to California and began auditioning for parts in films. After “The Westerner”, it was off to Poverty Row, where he appeared in William Beaudine’s Emergency Landing (1941) at rock-bottom PRC (Producers Releasing Corp.). He was soon signed by Columbia and assigned to the B-pictures unit, though he was lent to MGM for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle Keeper of the Flame (1942), his last film before going off to World War II.
Tucker served as an enlisted man in the Army during the war, being discharged as a second lieutenant in 1945. He returned to Columbia and resumed his acting career with an appearance in the classic film The Yearling (1946). He signed with Republic Pictures in 1948, which brought him one of his greatest roles, that of the Marine corporal bearing a grudge against gung-ho sergeant John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). At Republic Tucker was top-billed in many of the “B’ pictures in the action and western genres the studio was famous for, such as Rock Island Trail (1950), California Passage (1950) and Ride the Man Down (1952), among many others. In 1958 he broke out of action / western pictures and played Beauregard Burnside to Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame (1958), the highest grossing US film of the year. It showed that Tucker was capable of performing in light comedy.
Morton DaCosta, his director on “Auntie Mame”, cast Tucker as “Professor” Harold Hill in the national touring production of The Music Man (1962), and he was a more than credible substitute for the great Broadway star Robert Preston, who originated the role. Tucker made 2,008 appearances in The Music Man over the next five years, then starred in “Fair Game for Lovers” on Broadway in 1964.
However, it was television that provided Tucker with his most famous role: scheming cavalry sergeant Morgan O’Rourke in “F Troop”, which ran from 1965 to 1967 on ABC. Ably supported by Larry Storch, Ken Berry and James Hampton, Tucker showed a flair for comedy and he and Storch had great chemistry, but the series was canceled after only two seasons. It has, however, remained in syndication ever since.
Following “F Troop”, Tucker returned to films in supporting parts (having a good turn as the villain in the John Wayne western Chisum (1970)) and character leads (The Wild McCullochs (1975)). On television he was a regular on three series: Dusty’s Trail (1973) with Bob Denver; The Ghost Busters (1975), which reunited him with Larry Storch; and Filthy Rich (1982). Tucker was also a frequent guest star on TV, with many appearances on Gunsmoke (1955) and in the recurring role of Jarvis Castleberry, Flo’s estranged father, on Alice (1976) and its spin-off, Flo (1980). He continued to be active on stage as well, starring in the national productions of Plaza Suite (1971), Show Boat (1936), and That Championship Season (1982). He also toured with Roy Radin’s Vaudeville Revue, a variety show in which, as a headliner, he told Irish stories and jokes and sang Irish songs.
Tucker returned to the big screen after an absence of several years in 1986, playing hero trucker Charlie Morrison in the action film Thunder Run (1986). His comeback to features was short-lived, however, as he died on October 25, 1986, in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, of complications from lung cancer and emphysema. He was 67 years old. Tucker was buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.
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