Gunsmoke's Woody Chambliss performed one of his final roles on The Waltons
The beloved character actor was so magnetic, he found true love the moment he embraced his talent onstage.
It was always a special day on the mountain when the Waltons welcomed an estranged family member back home.
That was the case in "The Remembrance," when Grandpa Zeb's cousin Zadok returns for one last picnic. By the end of the episode, he's handed down a family treasure to Jason: a fiddle carved by the very first Walton to lay claim to the mountain, Rome Walton.
Playing Zadok was an actor whose face is very familiar to Gunsmoke fans, Woody Chambliss.
On Gunsmoke, Chambliss appeared more than 30 times as a storekeeper named Lathrop, one of a few recurring characters added to the show to inject new blood into the stories.
He also took on different guest roles before and after he appeared as Lathrop, such was the strength of his character acting.
Chambliss became such a much-admired character actor after studying at a prominent acting school in England directed by the Oscar-nominated Hitchcock movie star Michael Chekhov.
A serious dramatic actor, Chekhov famously developed his own acting techniques, and among his students, you can count icons like Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood.
Chambliss became one of Chekhov's star pupils, though, and Chekhov once said of Chambliss, he was so good at acting because, "He has the two great attributes necessary for success, willingness to work and a great natural talent."
Chambliss ended up at Chekhov's school only after he tried to pursue what his family viewed as a more sensible career path.
Raised in Texas on a cotton farm where he was one of a dozen kids running around, Chambliss became the first of his siblings to leave the nest when he went off to law school.
However, at Baylor, Chambliss couldn't quit thinking of acting, and he wound up changing his major.
Once he switched to the dramatic arts, he was quickly "discovered" by an acting professor there who deemed young Woody "one of the most sincere and masterful craftsmen I have ever directed."
Encouraged by his success at Baylor, Chambliss applied for a scholarship to join the Chekhov school, and little did he know, not only would he be finding his future as a cherished character actor there, but also his true love.
Erika Chambliss was born in Romania and studied acting in Vienna. When she got to England the same year Woody did, she didn’t speak any English.
By chance, she was introduced to Chekhov, though, who brought her into his classes, too. She was absorbing as much as she could while learning English and Chekhov’s acting techniques simultaneously when Woody caught her eye.
The pair soon fell in love, with each other and with the theater. Then they wed and had two kids, but they didn't let starting a family slow down their dedication to the theater.
During this chaotic time, Woody would work 12-hour days down at the port, then rush home to his family in Ojai, California, where Erika would be waiting with dinner on the table and the kids prepped for a rather unusual bedtime ritual.
"After Woody came home, we would gobble down some supper, make a bed in the back of the car for the children and dash off for the High Valley Theater," Erika told Ventura County Star-Free Press in 1954.
The story goes that their kids would sometimes wake up and wander into the theater in their white nightgowns, looking for mom and dad on stage. Theater security — serving more as babysitters — would spot the white nightgowns and keep the kids from stopping the show.
In his career, Woody Chambliss appeared in movies from the 1940s to the 1980s, including 3:10 to Yuma, Glen and Randa, Gargoyles, and one of his most visible roles, as old Sgt. Pepper in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.
On TV, his other memorable roles include featured parts on The Andy Griffith Show (including playing one of Aunt Bee's beaus!) and Perry Mason, as well as recurring roles on Yancy Derringer and How the West Was Won.
By the time he found his way to Walton's Mountain in 1980, he was taking on fewer roles, slowing down due to illness.
Diagnosed with colon cancer, he died in 1981. At that time, he was still living in Ojai, the town where he and Erika made their home for good after finding there a community that loved the theater as much as they did.