Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Simon's Early Roles: A Treasure-Trove of Classics

Something that may not be very well-known except to those interested enough to research is that Simon Oakland got his film start on television rather than in the movies. A very young Simon can be seen in early episodes of Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Decoy, Brenner, and other mid to late 1950s shows, including episodes of anthology series.

It’s interesting to note that for the most part, these early roles were all as protagonists and “good guys.” When it comes to guest-starring roles, it sometimes seems as though Simon is most usually remembered for his villains. And while they are excellent, so are his heroes, and they should be well remembered too.

Among the earliest of Simon’s works that is still commercially available appears to be his second appearance on Beverly Garland’s gritty vehicle Decoy, in the episode Saturday Lost. He portrays a hard-nosed, cynical sergeant, Steve Necclo, who works with Beverly’s character Casey Jones on a strange and disturbing amnesia case. He is both no-nonsense and compassionate, and by the episode’s end he is grim over the heart-breaking solution to the mystery.

Sancho Fernandez, from the first season finale of Have Gun-Will Travel, The Statue of San Sebastian, is an angry man locked in a rivalry with a local, believing him to have killed his brother. His rage is certainly understandable. Simon portrays him, as always, as very human and three-dimensional.

In the early days of Gunsmoke, Simon played everything from a protective Mexican father enraged over the treatment of his daughter to an honest businessman in Dodge City to an innocent man accused of murder. Jim Nation, the latter role, is my favorite of his Gunsmoke characters. It’s thrilling to see Matt Dillon forced into a position where he must trust that Jim will help them when their stagecoach is hijacked. And it’s even more thrilling to see Jim come through with flying colors.

The poker player Enoch Mills doesn’t appear for too long in the episode How to Cure a Friend, but it is highly gratifying to see that the richest man in Dodge is upright. Sometimes it seems a bit too cliché that businessmen in old Westerns will be crooked. And an important note: Simon filmed this role in 1956, making it one of the very earliest television appearances he ever made. And, next to Decoy’s Saturday Lost, it is the oldest Simon Oakland role that is easily viewed today.

The titular character in Miguel’s Daughter is the darkest of Simon’s early Gunsmoke roles. And it’s difficult to know what to say about him. He is not a villain, but he has a warped sense of justice. When Matt tries to explain to him that if he goes after and kills the men who assaulted his daughter, he will end up leaving his daughter alone because he will be arrested and executed, it makes no difference. He still pursues his brand of justice, seeking and killing the one man who escaped Matt’s capture. The last line of the episode is heart-breaking, as Matt says to Chester that now he must tell the daughter of Miguel’s kind of justice.

Simon plays Miguel complete with a Spanish accent. Another thing about him that has always impressed me, which I believe Crystal wrote an entry on, is his amazing array of accents. I have heard him portray Russians, Mexicans, Italians, and men in the Old West, each with an appropriate and well-done voice. I have also heard him disguise his natural Brooklyn tones and speak without any accent at all.

On Brenner, in the episode Small Take, Simon plays one of his earliest villains. And even then, Mike Dover is certainly not the same breed of slime as later wretches. He bribes a young cop and runs various rackets in his neighborhood, but he does not have a dangerous temper and does not decide to kill a policeman who is getting too close to the truth until it looks like the only possibility. And still, when one of his lackeys cackles psychotically at the thought of killing the man, Dover reacts in disturbed disgust. This is a world apart from men such as Vernon Kane on Laramie or Mel Barnes on Bonanza. Those killers would be the ones doing the delighted cackling.

It’s difficult to narrow down exactly if Simon had one character type that was more prominent than all the rest. Unlike some people, I do not believe Simon was typecast. He played just as many good guys as bad guys, if not more. It’s just that his villains are so memorable, perhaps sometimes viewers don’t recall or seek out his other roles. Also, regretfully, many of Simon’s roles, including a vast number of his protagonists, are not currently commercially available. But hopefully soon, with the continuing interest in shows of yesteryear, more rare golden oldies will make their way onto DVDs and television channels, and we will be able to explore many more facets of Simon’s incredible acting abilities.

~Lucky Ladybug

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