"I want to keep all this pristine," said Jack Williams, surveying the 360-degree panorama view from his Agua Dulce ranch. It's just a few miles as the crow flies from Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, where so many classic Westerns have been filmed.
A Santa Clarita Valley resident since the mid-1970s, Williams is one of the four Western film and television legends whose names will be added to the Walk of Western Stars in Newhall on Friday as part of the Cowboy Festival celebration. He joins fellow inductees Powers Boothe, Graham Greene and Harry Carey Jr. in receiving the honor.
Williams bought his "few hundred acres of paradise," as he put it, in 1964 with proceeds from a lucrative career as one of Hollywood's best, most active and celebrated Western stuntmen.
"Coco bought the ranch," he said, referring to the horse he rode in many of his most famous scenes. Coco died at age 33 and is buried near Williams' adobe-style home on the spread.
Williams' finely chiseled facial features, muscular build and stunt expertise made him a popular stand-in for nearly every top Western actor in Hollywood during the genre's golden era. His specialty: making a horse rear up on its hind legs and fall on its side as if shot out from under the rider without causing injury to either.
Today, Williams calls his property Quail Trail Springs and has kept the vast majority of the acreage untouched, except for fire access roads.
"It will never be developed," he said. "I'm no tree-hugger, but we're all just caretakers here. I want to give it back to all the critters that used to live here. This place is my tranquility."
The peace and quiet Williams enjoys today contrasts with the action-packed film and television career that took him to locations throughout the SCV and all over the world.
Williams, who turned 84 on April 15, performed his first stunt on a horse at age 4, being tossed from one rider to another in "The Flaming Forest," a 1926 silent film. Little more than a decade later, at 15, he rode in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which starred Errol Flynn.
Starting as a 16-year-old freshman at USC, where he soon became a varsity polo star, Williams worked his way through college stunting for movies. He earned up to $225 a day taking spills from horses, bull-dogging steers, and standing on and jumping two horses over a car at the same time, Roman-style.
While still in school, Williams performed stunts in "Dodge City" and had a bit part as a hot-headed soldier in "Gone with the Wind," both released in 1939. Since then with a few years off during and just after World War II serving with the Coast Guard in the Pacific, including navigating an LST troop carrier in the April 1, 1945, invasion of Okinawa ("The greatest production I ever saw," he said) his work has been featured in more than 80 films.
Williams' most recent was 1999's "Wild Wild West"; he was 78. "We shot that in Placerita Canyon," he said.
Along with Flynn, Williams doubled for or worked with many other Western icons in those six decades, including John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Fess Parker, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor, Yul Brynner, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, William Holden and Kirk Douglas. Williams even doubled for actresses including Olivia de Havilland, Julie Adams, Greer Garson, Sophia Loren, Lucille Ball, Claudia Cardinale and Angie Dickinson.
Williams and his stable-full of tricks appeared in genre-defining oaters such as "The Alamo," "The Last Outpost," "Bugles in the Afternoon," "Bend of the River," "The Far Country," "Yellowstone Kelly," "How the West Was Won," "A Man Called Horse," "Cat Ballou," "The Professionals," "Major Dundee," "Alvarez Kelly," "Cheyenne Autumn," "The Sons of Katie Elder," "Rio Bravo," "Rio Lobo," "The War Wagon," and many more that can still be seen on cable, video and DVD.
On the small screen, Williams was the go-to guy for many '50s and '60s Western series, including Roy Rogers' and Dale Evans' long-running television show. Through the '50s, '60s and '70s, he had acting roles in series such as "Bonanza," "The High Chaparral," "The Monroes," "Rawhide," "Daniel Boone," "Laredo" and "Maverick." In 2002, he was prominently featured in the TNT cable channel's "Behind the Action: Stuntmen in the Movies" documentary.
Williams counts himself lucky to have worked with many of the legendary Western directors along the trail including Howard Hawks, John Ford, Yakima Canut, George Stevens and John Sturgess.
The horse-fall stunt that made Williams so in-demand is one he learned from his father, George Williams, a cowboy from the Montana plains, who could train a horse to fall on cue. As a youngster, Jack said, "There was probably no feat I could have imagined that was as fascinating as that. So I took the technique and perfected it."
Paris Williams, Jack's mother, was a world-champion trick rider on the rodeo circuit and a pioneering movie stuntwoman. She also taught her son many tricks.
Williams said the right combination of horse and rider is what it takes to pull the horse fall, a very unnatural thing for a horse to do.
"It's as hard to get a horse that has all of the things you need to do this as it is to find a Willie Mays," he said. "The other part is communication I could communicate with the horse. There were cases (on movie sets) where they'd been wasting valuable production time trying to get a horse to fall, and I'd be the guy they'd call in who could put it on film in one shot."
One of the few stuntman members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Williams was a founder of the Stuntman's Association of Motion Pictures and is a member of the Stuntman's Hall of Fame. He's also a proud recipient of the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Golden Boot Award.
Williams, who first visited Saugus with his folks in 1927, and whose mother lived in Newhall and at the Agua Dulce ranch in her later years, views his new five-pointer on the Walk of Western Stars as an honor just as significant as his previous accolades.
"I've been such a part of Newhall over the years, and if my mom and dad could see this, she would be honored, and he'd think that's the way it should be," he said, eyes welling up a bit. "They thought I was the greatest guy that ever lived, that I was Superman. Just thinking about it breaks me up even now."
Williams paused to reflect and compose. "As a stuntman, life's an adventure," he said. "It's marvelous, but so fragile. You remember in ŒThe War Wagon' where they've got the dynamite shaking and it could go off any second? That's the way life is."
For more info about the Walk of Western Stars, visit www.cowboyfestival.org.