Rawhide star Eric Fleming had the roughest and most rugged life of any TV star

You think Clint Eastwood is tough? Read more about his costar.

All images: The Everett Collection

Clint Eastwood may be the face of Rawhide today, but that is mostly due to what he did in movies afterward. For the first seven seasons, from 1959–65, Eric Fleming was undeniably the star of Western. When Fleming left Rawhide at the start of the eighth and final season, the cattle drive was over for all intents and purposes. The show sank (even more dramatically) in the ratings. The CBS boss supposedly hated the show so much without Fleming, that he axed the series after seeing a single episode without the star.

Why did Fleming leave the show? It's complicated and it isn't. "They fired me because they were paying me a million dollars a year," Fleming told TV Guide in 1965. (It was an exaggeration. He was earning $220,000.) Other reports said he left the show. It's a bit of a He Said / He Said decades later. But, in short, what it came down to is money and viewership.

The show just wasn't the same without the hard-as-nails Gil Favor as the trail boss. And no wonder. Eric Fleming was hard-as-nails. His biography reads as if it were written in parts by Charles Dickens, Jack London and Joseph Conrad. It's by turns tragic and inspiring — but tragic in the end.

Like the story of why he left Rawhide, it might be a little muddy, it might be a little mythologized, but it's a fascinating tale nonetheless.

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1. He ran away from home as a young child and rode a freight train to Chicago.


Fleming had a hardscrabble, cruel upbringing. His father abused the clubfoot, crutched-bound child. The violence eventually forced Fleming to run away from home. Some say he was 8-year-old; others claim 11-year-old. In either case, it was a precious age to hop aboard a freight train from California to Chicago during the Great Depression. Before he was a teenager, Fleming was living on the streets, entering the world of crime. 

2. He ran around with gangsters as a kid and ended up in the hospital.


The tween fell in with gangsters, running errands for the mob and whatnot. Eventually, this street life put him in the hospital. Again, the story varies based on who's telling it, but he was either hit with a bullet in gunfire exchange fit for a Jimmy Cagney movie, or he was beaten. But he did end up in the hospital, where authorities reconnected him with his thankfully divorced mother.

3. He built ships for the Navy and dropped a 200-pound weight on his face.


As a young man, Fleming ended up in the Merchant Marines and, eventually, the Navy. He served as a "Seabee" — as in "C.B." for Construction Battalion. It was in a shipyard, circa 1942, that he bet a fellow Navy man that he could lift a 200-pound weight over his head. He couldn't. The weight smashed his face, severely maiming his forehead, nose and jaw. After extensive reconstructive surgery, Fleming had a new face. He joked it was better than his first mug. Those were some skilled plastic surgeons. They sculpted a leading man.

4. He got into acting out of spite after losing a bet.


With his new face, Fleming did not immediately leap into acting. He was working construction on the Paramount set when he made another bet, albeit a less damaging one. Still, he lost again. Fleming wagered $100 that he could act better than a professional actor. He couldn't. But losing that hundred bucks lit a fire under him and he enrolled in acting classes. That got him his break.

5. He died deep in a Peruvian jungle filming a TV movie.


After leaving Rawhide, Fleming popped up in a handful of Bonanza episodes and landed a role alongside Doris Day in the 1966 spy comedy The Glass Bottom Boat. It would be another kind of boat that led to Fleming's untimely death at the age of 41. That same year, Fleming flew to South America to film a made-for-TV movie called High Jungle. This was no cozy studio lot, rather a harrowing, on-location shoot deep in the Amazonian river basin. His costar Nico Minardos kept a heartbreaking diary of the ordeal. "Eric has been living in semi-retirement in Hawaii, and it was the role of the other adventurer that was to mark his comeback in Hollywood," he wrote. "Deadly snakes, hordes of mosquitoes, ants two inches long and around the clock humidity that made it impossible to keep your clothes dry, were a constant menace." The production pushed into "the most inaccessible regions of Peru." The two were filming a scene inside a hand-carved canoe. Gathering rainclouds had the cast and crew scrambling to get the shot. "Nico, now or never!" Fleming said. Those were his last words. Fleming left the small vessel in roaring rapids and drowned.

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Learn how plastic surgery, boots and Bewitched relate to the classic Western show. READ MORE

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BerlinerinToni 23 months ago
I wonder if the photo accompanying item #3 could possibly be a photo of Fleming before his steel weight accident. He looks markedly different, especially in the nose. Of course, he was clearly younger in this photo, and it could be just down to that ... but I do wonder what his "ugly" pre-accident face looked like, and wonder if this could have been it. Does anyone know?
VivienneCox 29 months ago
Eric Fleming was a handsome rugged man with a distinctive voice. He would have had a great career in acting
R.I.P. Eric
lalafrance 35 months ago
No one ever mentions his unique voice and, to me, that is his most outstanding feature.
jaelinsmith40652 41 months ago
That was so literally sad, Eric was so charming like how Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch, Mannix, Roots, The Brady Bunch Hour) was so charming. I don't like how he ran away from home and living in chicago with the gangsters. and the final part after he left rawhide into Peruvian Jungle Film and all of the sudden i was so scared to read about this that he drowned during the last scene What a Good Actor he was until now this week of Saturday afternoon at 2pm i imagine that he's still one of the finest western actor of all time that he wouldn't be appeared into other western shows that i grew up watching with one of my grandparents and my godfamily from their own childhood nostalgia 1940's - 50's tv shows.
Zebo jaelinsmith40652 24 months ago
I wouldn’t compare tough guy like Fleming to Reed, Reed died of aids, Reed was playing for the other team!
DMorrison 49 months ago
I wondered what Eric Fleming did after Rawhide. I love that show and watch it 6 days a week. What a tragedy his death was. He had a rough life and it ended too early. It's so sad
TeeDeeONE 51 months ago
My dad was a Seabee and knew and drank with Eric Fleming DURING WWII. Both were very hard drinkers and lived very rough lives in the USN - Seabees (coming from 'CBs' for 'Construction Battalions') were considered as extremely tough Special Forces - in fact the first SEALS came from the Seabees during WWII to perform underwater demolition - Seabees, also trained as special combat troops, were usually deployed with 'Marine Expeditionary Forces' to forward staging areas to take on very challenging construction assignments under fire in combat zones.
Xsquid TeeDeeONE 39 months ago
First off, I was a seabee. Second, you have some wrong info here.

Seabees were NEVER special special forces or “special combat” troops. That’s ridiculous.

Seabees do typically support the marines, but building airstrips, bridges, buildings, etc. Seabees train to build and respond if attacked, all have a primary construction rating. The “combat” training is far less than marine infantry receive.

The seals formed in the 60’s, the forerunners were different groups that started with army/navy together, then navy including seabees. These groups were always volunteer groups. The seals still are, any sailor can volunteer.

But the point is that seabees, who see ground action unlike most sailors, are not special forces or considered “combat” troops. Fleming worked building in a shipyard, was not in theater.

Here is good reading on the history of the seals.


MickeyTheRat TeeDeeONE 21 months ago
Finally, a post with no facts, none! Laughably wrong, as a matter of fact.
SheilaMalone 55 months ago
I loved him in Rawhide and I often wondered what happened to him. Thank you for finely answering that question. Of course, it is possible I read something about his trip to the jungle back in the '60s but I was not watching a lot of TV after I started college as I was too busy working on getting my Nursing degree to pay much attention. I actually enjoyed watching Rawhide in reruns years later when I had more time to appreciate it.
Dale 55 months ago
Very sad. I loved his role in Rawhide.
Wiseguy 55 months ago
#3: It's spelled SeaBee. My father was a SeaBee.
surveyor 59 months ago
does anyone know what ever happened to the lady mr. fleming was engaged to?
MrsPhilHarris surveyor 45 months ago
She wrote a book about him. She is trying to get funding for it.
Midnight_Rider_1961 59 months ago
I agree the show would not have been the same without Eric Fleming. But the show started going downhill when Sheb Wooley (Pete Nolan) left for good. Both Fleming & Wooley were underappreciated actors and although Clint Eastwood was there until the very end, it just wasn't the same.
Speaking of Clint, I have never seen any interviews or articles on how his relationships were with Fleming & Wooley. They appeared to work well on-screen. But did that also translate to off-screen too? Does anyone have any idea?
Samuel Midnight_Rider_1961 45 months ago
Clint was loyal to some of his RAWHIDE co-stars. Sheb Wooley was in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES with Clint, and Paul Brinegar was in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER with Clint, and it was directed by Ted Post who directed a lot of RAWHIDE episodes. I read that Clint once said of his relationship with Eric Fleming that he (Fleming) was a "prickly" sort of guy. That's the word Clint used. I guess it can be interpreted in several different ways.
Eastwood & Fleming did not get along. Fleming reportedly picked a fist fight with Eastwood on Rawhide set on first day. Also, nobody in Peru attempted any help while piranhas killed Fleming. Also, CBs were not special forces,ever! Seals used to be called UDT underwater demolition team. Changed scope = new name.
NoraGaddis MickeyTheRat 13 months ago
Eric Fleming wasn't killed by Piranhas, Ted Post lied. More story coming out. Eric Fleming was drowned. I love Rawhide, Eric is my favorite. Hollywood didn't understand why Ted didn't hired stunt men or put rope across the river so Nico and Eric will hold on.
Edward 59 months ago
God bless that great actors memory.
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