His voice was his fortune, an unusually resonant instrument compounded with a Texas drawl that made him a natural for westerns. He was discovered by an RKO executive, who saw him perform with his musical group, Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys, at the Trocadero in Hollywood. His first movie, It’s a Gift (1934), came soon afterwards and kicked off a 43-year film career defined by numerous cowboy roles, a recurring, high profile voice-over gig and an ill-advised campaign for an Academy Award.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Though an ensemble piece, the Vincente Minnelli-directed family sage can be seen as having two central characters: Esther Smith (Judy Garland) and her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). Esther’s journey is to eventually get engaged in the last reel to the fellow she pines for in the first. Tootie’s is more geographic than emotional: she is first seen riding the neighborhood ice wagon and ends up in a carriage heading for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. To usher Tootie into the movie and—by way of a brief, casual conversation—establish her rather ghoulish nature, Chill Wills is on hand as Mr. Neely the Ice Man, discussing with Tootie, among other things, the various fatal diseases afflicting her dolls.
Second Lieutenant Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor) is saved from a series of tough spots by his buddy, a talking army mule named Francis, and continually sent to the looney bin because he insists his four-legged friend can talk. Francis is the first of six Francis the Talking Mule movies starring O’Connor and Chill Wills, who gives the jackass an engagingly sarcastic, cynical personality.
Edna Ferber’s ambitious tale of a Texas ranching family came to the big screen in 1956 with A-list talent that included director George Stevens and actors Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers, Sal Mineo and Carroll Baker. In the midst of all of this is Chill Wills playing Uncle Bawley. He doesn’t have much to do but look concerned as the main characters go through their power struggles and emotional setbacks. But he looks mighty authentic doing it.
The Alamo (1960)
Chill Wills gave one of the best-received performances of his career in director/star John Wayne’s 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. He then proceeded to ruin any chance in hell of winning when he became the subject of a rather overblown campaign for the golden statuette. 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. Wayne was so turned off by the ad’s poor taste 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” elicited the following response from Academy member Groucho Marx: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo." In the end, Peter Ustinov took home the Oscar for his performance in Spartacus (1960).
John Wayne stars as G.W. McLintock in this likeable western comedy about a cattle baron with a host of problems, including pesky land grabbers and the return of his estranged wife Katherine Gilhooley McLintock (Maureen O’Hara). Wills plays Drago, G.W.’s right-hand man, whose remembrances of things past soften the heretofore cantankerous Katherine. In the end, Katherine and G.W. reach a truce, and any resemblance to The Taming of the Shrew is purely intentional.