William Martin “Clu” Gulager was born November 16, 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma. He’s the son of a cowboy entertainer who gave him his nickname, for the clu-clu birds (martins) that were nesting at their home when Clu was born . Today he is 89, so happy birthday, Clu!
Clu Gulager is the consummate made-for-TV character actor; from the 1970’s, through the 80’s, & beyond. He began in Hollywood in earnest, as Billy the Kid in The Tall Man, a TV series which ran from 1960–1962. This successful series was suddenly canceled because of his role specifically.
The code Hollywood had acquiesced to under the McCarthyist blacklist, was to not let “bad guy” characters win. This went part & parcel with FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover’s attempts to censor morality, blacklist “communists,” and spy on domestic political dissidents– COINTELPRO.
This directly relates to movies and the deteriorating quality of Hollywood film-making in the !950’s & 1960’s. Many of the enduring classic films from this era, are foreign films from Japan, India & Europe; as McCarthyism had much to say on what Hollywood could produce.
In America, a significant amount of top-talent was blackballed, while mediocre-hack writers, directors & actors were given starring roles in Hollywood productions. No-talent directors such as Ed Wood, Francis Coleman, Roger Corman, Sandy Frank, and any other bizarro with a conformist ideology & a camera, were allowed (encouraged) to make an endless parade of B-movies, which filled the screens of drive-ins across post-war America. This is the “vast wasteland” our parents were raised in, and it filtered through to the MTV generation in no clearer form than Clu Gulager.
With Gulager, there is more to the picture than meets the eye. His fans have a Clu, but it’s not easy to get to. This is a Hollywood character actor, with depth– a rare combination. Clu Gulager is a name that most film fans don’t know, yet probably most have seen him in the movies or TV shows they’ve watched over the decades.
From ~1970 onwards, whenever a made-for-TV series or movie needed a hard-boiled, cowboy bureaucrat– enter Clu Gulager. Plus he’s got great hair. Hollywood needed that a lot in the 1970’s & 80’s, so Clu always found work. Here’s his resume from Wikipedia :
TV and filmography
Playhouse 90 (TV series) (1959)
Have Gun – Will Travel (TV series) (1959)
Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (TV series) (1959)
Laramie (TV series) (1959)
The Untouchables (TV series) (1959)
Wanted: Dead or Alive (TV series) episode “Crossroads” (1959)
The Rebel (TV series) as Virgil Taber in “Paint a House with Scarlet” (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV series) (1959–1960)
The Tall Man (TV series) (1960–1962)
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962)
Kraft Suspense Theatre (TV series) (1964)
Dr. Kildare (TV series) (1964)
Wagon Train (TV series) (1959–1964)
The Killers (1964) (director Don Siegel)
The Virginian (1968) 3×20 Lost Yesterday as Emmett Ryker
San Francisco International Airport (1970) as Bob Hatten
The Last Picture Show (1971, director Peter Bogdanovich) as Abilene
The F.B.I. (1971) as Lyle Chernik
Bonanza (1972) as Billy Brenner
Mod Squad (TV series) (1972) as Dustin Ellis
Molly and Lawless John (1972) as Deputy Tom Clements
The Glass House (ABC TV film) (1972)
Kung Fu (1973) as Sheriff Rutledge
Call To Danger (CBS TV film) (1973) as Emmet Jergens
Ironside (1968–1973) as Frank Clinton / D.W. Donnelly / Jack Brody
McQ (1974) as Toms
Shaft (1974) as Richard Quayle
Hit Lady (1974) as Roarke
Gangsterfilmen (1974) as Glenn Mortenson
McCloud (1975) as Johnny Monahan
Cannon (1971–1975) 1×06 Country Blues as B.J. Long, 2×09 Child Of Fear as Burdick, 4×22 Vengeance as Jonathan Quill
The Streets of San Francisco (TV series) (1975) as Inspector George Turner
Police Story (TV series) (1974–1975) as Officer Williams / Tim Keegan
Ellery Queen (TV series) (1976) as Father Terrence Devlin / Captain Thomas G. Horton
Barnaby Jones (TV series) (1973–1976) as Sheriff Mack Hollister / Mark Landy
Hawaii Five-O (TV series) (1972–1976) as Arthur Lambert / Jack Gulley
The Other Side of Midnight (1977) as Bill Fraser
The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove (TV series) (1979) as Cuda Weber
A Force of One (1979) as Dunne
Kenny Rogers as The Gambler (TV film) (1980) as Rufe Bennett
Falcon Crest (TV series) (1981)
Quincy M.E. (TV series) (1982)
CHiPs (TV series) (1982)
Living Proof: The Hank Williams Jr. Story (1983)
The Master (TV series) (1984)
The Initiation (Film) (1984)
Knight Rider (TV series) (1985)
Into the Night (1985)
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) as Mr. Walsh
Bridge Across Time (1985)
Airwolf (TV series) (1986)
Magnum P.I. (TV series) (1986)
The Fall Guy (TV series) (1982–1986)
Simon & Simon (TV series) (1986)
Hunter’s Blood (1986)
From a Whisper to a Scream (originally titled The Offspring, 1987)
Murder She Wrote (TV series) (1985–1987)
The Hidden (1987)
Hunter’s Blood (1987)
MacGyver (TV series) (1988)
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)
Eddie Presley (1992)
Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1994)
Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (TV Series) (1995)
Beavis and Butt-Head (TV Series) (1995)
Walker Texas Ranger (1995)
Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1996)
Feast (2005) as Bartender
Vic (2006) (short film) as Vic Reeves
Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds (2008) as Bartender
Feast III: The Happy Finish (2009) as Bartender
Piranha 3DD (2012) as Mo
Tangerine (2015) as The Cherokee
Blue Jay (2016) as Waynie
Clu has a dark side, which he plays with well, in this recent video he directed & produced with his son.
The best Clu Gulager entry point for the uninitiated is Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). This highly influential cable series ran from 1989-99, the first seven seasons were on the Comedy Channel.
Best Brains, Inc (BBI) was the corporate-named ownership of MST3K, which included: show creator Joel Hodgson (Joel Robinson), Trace Beaulieu (Crow / Dr. F), Kevin Murphy (Servo), Mike Nelson (first a writer, then Joel’s replacement) & Jim Mallon (producer & Gypsy) & Paul Chaplin (writer).
BBI has had a Clu for as long as anyone. Gulager appears in (seemingly) every incarnation of the original 10-season MST3K series, save for season one featuring Josh Weinstein (now J. Elvis Weinstein) as Tom Servo.
Gulager first appears with Joel & the bots in Master Ninja (Episode 322). This “movie” was actually a failed 1984 TV-series, with Lee Van Cleef in the staring role as The Master. Timothy Van Patten is incomprehensible in his dialogue, as the apprentice sidekick, and mercifully this show was canceled after 13 episodes. It was repackaged in 1985 for the home-video market as Master Ninja, and this is what Joel & the bots are riffing in this classic episode.
MST3K writer Paul Chaplin remarks in their authoritative Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, “For the whole show we referred to Clu Gulager as ‘Clu Gallagher.’ We never noticed how wrong we were until show 614…” Chaplin also adds, “I think he [Gulager] is a fine actor, and he provided one of the few bright spots in this show.”
On to MST3K: Episode 614. A note to fans, episodes are numbered by season first, then show in season next; so episode 614 is– season 6, show 14. The number of shows in a season varied– from as many as 24, to as few as 6. Season six had Mike Nelson in Joel Hodgson/Robinson’s jumpsuit, with everyone else from their “classic era” still there. San Francisco International (1970) is the made-for-TV movie they are riffing, and this one is too considered a “Mistie” classic.
Season six was the last with Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank), and after that (S7) Trace Beaulieu left. Beaulieu in particular played an essential role in MST3K, as Dr. Forrester & Crow. He was always on-screen, an it’s his genius that drives the show. He foils perfectly with Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo, and works with Joel/Mike just as brilliantly. In a word: irreplaceable.
The MST3K legend is that producer, Jim Mallon (Gypsy) was the one who got greedy over money and ruined it for everybody. Today it’s Rifftraxx (Mike Nelson & Kevin Murphy); Cinematic Titanic (Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl); while Joel Hodgson has revived the original MST3K concept with new characters, as season 11 was just produced and released on Netflix. The common denominator is that none of the original BBI, work with Jim Mallon anymore.
Of importance to Misties, it’s rumored that Clu Gulager appeared in Touch of Satan (1971)— which was MST3K 908. Mike Nelson puts Crow (now played by Bill Corbett) on “Clu Gulager alert,” after not seeing his name in the opening credits. Crow looks for him quickly, but can’t find him. Gulager never appears in the MST3K episode, and I refuse to watch the original. Without Mike & the bots wisecracking– it’s unwatchable.
MST3K season’s 8-10 are Sci-Fi channel-era, and not favorites for hardcore Misties. As stated already, it’s impossible to replace Trace Beaulieu. Season 7 was only 6 episodes, as BBI ran into internal conflicts, as well as the Hollywood industry machine, when they made MST3K: the Movie (1996). This movie riffed This Island Earth (1955), and was only made after an endless series of creative compromises were forced upon BBI.
Produced by Gramercy Pictures, an art-house division in action, horror and sci-fi for Universal ; MST3K: the Movie got very little distribution, and had a limited run in select theaters. During that same period, Grammercy was heavily promoting Barb Wire (1996), the Pamela Anderson siliconed jigglefest. According to Wikipedia, Barb Wire cost $9M to make, and grossed $3.8M at the box, making it a stiff [!] which quickly went to video.
MST3K: The Movie is cited to have grossed $1M, with no estimate on it’s cost to make. It surely didn’t lose money for the studio, as BBI didn’t get paid. They make this clear in their season 7 sketch of Crow’s “Earth vs. Soup”– Ep. 704: The Incredible Melting Man. The host segments in Ep. 704 acidly paints a picture of the “negotiations & creative discussions” with Hollywood sleazeballs.
In conclusion, Clu Gulager like MST3K— are talents who have faced immense challenges, and deserve a wider appreciation for their artistry. Take the time to appreciate them on their birthday, and any other day.