For much of his life, Gregory Walcott resented his most famous movie, embarrassed by the schlock-horror dialogue, the sets that wobbled when you touched them, the props too amateurish for a sixth-grade play.
He tried to distance himself from “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Ed Wood’s preposterous masterpiece – a film that featured flying saucers dangling from strings and starred ex-vampire Bela Lugosi, despite his being dead at the time.
But campy notoriety pursued Walcott well beyond retirement, bringing him bags of fan letters from eccentrics worldwide. So before he died last month at 87, the veteran actor from Wilson forgave the director who cast him in what is often described as the world’s worst movie.
“It is Ed Wood who has kept my name alive across the world – not Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood,” Walcott wrote in his 2003 autobiography “Hollywood Adventures.”
“So, Mr. Wood, if you can hear me in that big sound stage in the sky, I offer you my humble apology.”
Walcott’s turn as an airline pilot plagued by grave-robbing aliens represented only four days in a career that spanned 45 years – a collection of roles so wide-ranging that he acted alongside Henry Fonda in “Mister Roberts” and Chaka the monkey-boy on TV’s “Land of the Lost.”
That he endured in Hollywood at all beat long odds. Born Bernard Mattox in Wendell, Walcott grew up in Depression-era Wilson, where he inhabited a world of tobacco festivals and weenie roasts at the Baptist Church. A mischievous and not too studious boy, he spent long afternoons at the Wilson Theater, watching Flash Gordon and Zorro movies, re-enacting scenes in his back meadow.
He admitted to being somewhat girl-crazy, and he fleshed out his skinny physique with the Charles Atlas technique he learned from comic books. He slicked back his hair with Wild Root Cream Oil, trying his best to look like Clark Gable, his screen idol.
Walcott developed into a broad-shouldered, square-jawed football star who stood 6-foot-1. And in 1949, he hitchhiked to Hollywood from the corner of Nash Street and Raleigh Road in Wilson, $100 in his pocket.
“A lot of us felt like he was that type of guy,” said Lee Gliarmis, a longtime friend who still runs Dick’s Hot Dog Stand in Wilson. “A bit crazy to do things like that.”
In Hollywood, Walcott bunked for a while at the YMCA. He sweated through evening acting classes with money from the GI Bill. He thumbed a ride one night and discovered Montgomery Clift driving the car. He got his haircut at an expensive Hollywood hair salon and found Ava Gardner inside, a fellow Tar Heel.
“She asked where I was from in the Tar Heel state,” he remembered in his book, “who my people were and what schools I attended. I answered each question obediently and managed not to say anything dumb. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her splendorous legs.”
Success came slowly. He got hired to teach the suave Engish actor David Niven how to speak with a Southern accent. He caught a role in a Western with a young Charles Bronson, who told him, “You got a big Adam’s apple,” to which Walcott replied, “Yeah, and you got skinny legs.”
But when he appeared in his first film, “Red Skies of Montana” in 1951, the Wilson Theater showed it under a huge banner carrying his name. Soon he was acting with Eastwood on “Rawhide,” then in guest roles on “Maverick” and “Bonanza.” His name appears in the credits of 50 films, including “The Eiger Sanction,” “Norma Rae,” and “Every Which Way But Loose.”
Walcott only did “Plan 9” in 1959 as a favor to Ed Reynolds, an ardent Baptist who had come to Hollywood to make biblical films and had gotten crazily mixed up with the low-budget Ed Wood. Walcott didn’t even tell his agent. When Walcott heard about Lugosi’s role, he protested, “But ... Bela Lugosi is dead.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem,” came the reply from Reynolds. “There’s a very impressive director, Ed Wood, who has some excellent footage of Lugosi, and he has written a very clever screenplay around that film.”
In “Hollywood Adventures,” Walcott called it “the most atrocious piece of writing I had ever seen.”
But decades later, in 2000, the town of Wilson held a film festival in Walcott’s honor. “We actually had a red carpet,” recalled Debbie Williams, one of the organizers with the Arts Council event. “He drove up in an antique car.”
And of all the films shown that night, “Plan 9” got the most attention and drew the biggest crowd. Walcott lived it down, happy to be recognized at all.
About Gregory Walcott
Gregory Walcott, born Bernard Mattox, is survived by two daughters, Pamela Graves and Jina Virtue, and a son, Todd Mattox. His wife, Barbara, died in 2010 after 55 years of marriage that began in the Hollywood Christian Group, which Walcott joined after his mother in Wilson wrote a letter to Dale Evans, its organizer. A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles this month.