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.

The Everett Collection

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.

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AnnieM 34 months ago
This was a very interesting article. I loved 'Daktari' when I was little. I never really knew Marshall Thompson's name before, as I was so young; I do remember always mixing him up with Glenn Ford, though.
Zip 34 months ago
"Thompson felt heat behind his back and realized his ear had just been grazed by a bullet.

After returning from filming, Thompson proved somehow so unfazed by all this, he returned to shoot his next movie in Vietnam, too."

Not a guy who's scared off easily. I like him already.
Mike 34 months ago
One of Marshall Thompson's later roles was on Lou Grant; he had a recurring part as the father of reporter 'Billie Newman' (played by Linda Kelsey).
Thompson's character was named 'Paul Newman' - and you can fill in the jokes yourself ...
JoeSHill 34 months ago
Marshall Thompson (1925-1992) had an impressive film and Television background, starting with "WORLD OF GIANTS" or WOG, a 1959 TV series that CBS, ZIV, and United Artists Television produced in 1959 with a total of 13 episodes-Thompson played "Mel Hunter", a 6-inch tall secret agent, something that predates Irwin Allen's "LAND OF THE GIANTS" (1968-70). But Marshall Thompson also made some great movies in the 1950s, beginning with "IT- THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE!" that United Artists released in 1958, and "LURE OF THE SWAMP", a 1957 20th Century Fox release from Regal Pictures that also co-starred Joan Vohs, Leo Gordon, and Jack Elam, that was directed by Hubert Cornfield-good movie! He also starred in "FIRST MAN IN SPACE" (1959) and "CULT OF THE COBRA" in 1955 for Universal International-this actor had some amazing credits to his acting history before CBS's "DAKTARI" (1966-1969) made him famous on TV!
Lantern 34 months ago
Back in the 70's I remember seeing him in a 40's film where he rescues an abandoned horse in a jungle during WWII - will have to look that up (don't remember the name).
DethBiz 34 months ago
Marshall Thompson also played a sneaky villain in an episode of Gunsmoke and directed the Sci-fi flic Fiend Without a Face because the original director quit the film. Marshall also starred in the film as well.
Doug 34 months ago
I enjoyed his performance in "Battle Ground" and "To Hell and Back". Thanks for an interesting article!
F5Twitster 34 months ago
“A decade later, he and Barbara had a daughter, and Thompson was done with MGM.”

More accurately, it was MGM that was finished with Thompson, as was every studio with their contract players, who saddled them with too much overhead in a post-1949 Paramount Consent Decree world in which they were also losing theatrical box office to the free programming on television and, therefore, making fewer movies.

Also, the above piece neglects to mention whether Thompson managed to recoup his money from the Vietnam movie.
Oscar 34 months ago
Actress Cheryl Miller in blue jeans.
DethBiz Oscar 34 months ago
I will always remember Cheryl Miller in the movie Doctor Death Seeker of Souls with Barry Coe and one of my all-time favorites John Considine. Doctor Death is a hoot!
DocSavage98 34 months ago
Remember watching Daktari when I was very little. That and growing up on a farm may be what led me to a life long passion for veterinary medicine which I decided at age 11 was my life career. Now at 61, still practicing, despite a few life altering injuries at the hoof of one of my larger patients and a run in with the most evil animal, man...2 goobers in a stolen car plowed into my truck at high speed...result was not pretty, but painful.
Michael DocSavage98 34 months ago
I never saw your movie, Doc, but I'm sure you know it starred everyone's favourite tv Tarzan.
Pacificsun 34 months ago
Wow! Now that was an incredibly obscure story to bring to the attention of readers! Well done! There's no end to the amazing backstories out there. We appreciate all your research and putting the facts together. Thank you!
teire 34 months ago
Daktari was a favorite in our house, especially because we had already seen “Clarence” at the movies and looked forward to seeing more adventures. Very interesting story.
Michael teire 34 months ago
I always wanted to live on the ocean, and wear cut off jeans instead of a bathing suit.
Andybandit 34 months ago
Interesting story, even though I never heard of him.
LoveMETV22 34 months ago
He looks very comfortable with that large cat around his neck. He's like a retro Steve Irwin.
Michael 34 months ago
I think it's Daktari that he's most identified with. I know about Clarence, but never saw it. I didn't really watch George, but I remember it because he had been in Daktari (and because it also had Trudy Young, who was big in Canada).

As was typical with Ivan Tor, Clarence was a movie that bevame Daktari.I

Don't forget, 'Joanie" was in the last season of Daktari, a Happy Days crossover as they like to say.
MrsPhilHarris Michael 34 months ago
I know I watched it was a kid but the only thing I remember is the theme song and Clarence. Did not remember Erin Moran was on he show.
Michael MrsPhilHarris 34 months ago
Neither did I, but Erin is now mentioned as being on the show. It's noteworthy because of her later fame.

Much later, when I saw "Hatari!" I wondered if there was a connection, but other than the African setting, no.
LoveMETV22 MrsPhilHarris 34 months ago
Sad that she passed so young, (relatively speaking). She was in film and tv from 1967-2012.
MrsPhilHarris LoveMETV22 34 months ago
She was briefly in the movie Who’s Minding The Mint?, one of my childhood favourites along with Fitzwilly, The Ghost & Mr. Chicken and many other lame movies I still like watching.
LoveMETV22 MrsPhilHarris 34 months ago
They're not lame. It's what you prefer watching. There's movies and shows for all tastes. I like it when you see an actor/actress from a popular show/movie appearing in another show/movie. Shows their versatility.
harlow1313 MrsPhilHarris 34 months ago
I have seen only one of the films you mention, but I am compelled say, "Atttaboy Luther!" I still enjoy those early Don Knotts movies, where he essentially plays Barney Fife. I love Dirty Abner Peacock.
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