This Wagon Train villain was once wanted for a real ransom
Marshall Thompson got grazed by a sniper's bullet, risking his life filming a movie he dumped his lifetime savings into.
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Marshall Thompson is an actor who is perhaps best known for getting light laughs as the veterinarian and single dad at the center of the 1965 family movie Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion.
After the film — which featured an actual lion, chimpanzee and python — proved popular, a TV show called Daktari gave Thompson a platform to continue his starring role.
But well before all that happened, you might not know that Thompson was on his path to work with animals in the real world.
As a young boy, Thompson was raised in Illinois by his concert singer mother and his dentist father. Later, the family moved out to California, where Thompson was not drawn by the spotlight, but to a cattle ranch.
On his way to become a rancher, Thompson was punching cattle for a couple years in Oregon before he took an acting class in high school and surprised himself by performing so well, they gave him an award.
That inspired the boy to pivot to studying acting in college, where right away he was quickly scouted and signed, first by Universal, then contracted by MGM.
He started appearing in movies in the mid-1940s, mostly depicted as the boy-next-door type, but with character roles getting bigger and more diverse as the 1940s closed.
It was right around then that he also found love, proposing to Barbara Long, a painter who was the sister of The Big Valley actor Richard Long.
"She's a great girl, a gem," Thompson gushed to the Charlotte Observer in 1950.
They got married the previous year, with Thompson so eager to tie the knot that he reportedly rushed from finishing shooting on the Hatfield-McCoy hillbilly feud movie Roseanna McCoy to his wedding, not even changing his long hair and scruffy sideburns before kissing his bride.
"I was afraid Barbara might change her mind," he joked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1965.
A decade later, he and Barbara had a daughter, and Thompson was done with MGM. He started striking out on his own, finding work outside the movie studio, starring in a sitcom called Angel and taking on major guest roles on TV shows like Perry Mason and Wagon Train.
That included a notable episode in 1960 that became the first two-part Wagon Train since its very first year on air.
The episode was called "Trial for Murder," and it opens with a shot of Thompson being shaken awake and hauled off to jail, his character accused of murdering his brother.
Rewatching the two-part arc, you get to watch Thompson stretch his muscles as an actor.
Dramatic parts like this gave Thompson the courage to strike out even further in the next five years, attempting to become a triple-threat director-producer-star who could do much more than family comedies.
In 1965, Thompson took on his most ambitious project ever. He dumped his entire lifetime savings into directing a war movie that was shot in Vietnam.
It was called A Yank in Vietnam, and Thompson knew it was dangerous to film there, because the war was happening around them, and the government had told him the Viet Cong would be watching his crew.
He originally planned to film in the Philippines, but when he arrived, the location was switched to Saigon. There was nothing Thompson felt he could do but accept the new location, because he'd already dumped too much into the production to back out.
"I put $62,000 of my own, just about everything I owned, my lifetime savings, into the project," Thompson told the Post-Gazette.
To keep the crew safe as possible, they changed film locations every 10 days, but what Thompson didn't realize was that the Viet Cong had put a $500 ransom on his head. That drew a sniper to the shoot, and at one point during filming, Thompson felt heat behind his back and realized his ear had just been grazed by a bullet.
"The authorities said we were safe in Saigon, but they couldn't assure our safety outside," Thompson explained. "We were shooting from 5 to 30 miles outside the city."
After returning from filming, Thompson proved somehow so unfazed by all this, he returned to shoot his next movie in Vietnam, too.
By the end of the Sixties, Thompson's series Daktari had wrapped, and he’d come up with a new family animal comedy, a movie and TV series called George about a St. Bernard and his owner.
Now you know the actor behind all these family adventure shows proved utterly fearless in the real world.