He had a long and varied career comprising about 130 movie and tv credits over a 44-year span. and, yes, he was even paired with Judy Garland in one of her more beguiling outings. (More on this in a minute.)
Some things you should know about today’s subject — Chill Wills.
Wills, who specialized in westerns, appeared with Garland in the underrated MGM musical, 1946’s The Harvey Girls. This movie, among other things, gave us the marvelous rendition of the song, “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” And Wills was there for it all.
He was born in July 18, 1902 in Texas, so he was a true westerner. According to MGM publicity people, it was so hot in Texas at the time of his birth that his parents (ostensibly endowed with a heavy sense of irony) named their newborn “Chill.” Do we believe this? Hmmmm.
Wills made his early career mark as a singer, not an actor. Early on, he formed his own vocal group, Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys, which graced several RKO westerns. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s that Wills de-emphasized singing and concentrated on an acting career.
That is Wills’ bass voice you hear emanating from Oliver Hardy in Way Out West, the 1937 Laurel and Hardy comedy. Wills also was an occasional song writer; he performed his own tune, “The Blue-Eyed Sailor Man,” in MGM’s 1942 feature, Stand By For Action.
Wills was usually cast as the goofy but nice guy in westerns, but occasionally got to play a nasty.
Some of Wills’ best known pictures include: 1946’s The Yearling; 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis; 1956’s Giant; 1950’s Francis, The Talking Mule; and 1953’s The City That Never Sleeps.
The movie that got the most attention for Wills was 1960’s The Alamo in which he plays an amiably bumbling beekeeper. The role earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, which he lost in typically bumbling style.
To promote his chances for winning an Oscar for The Alamo, Wills underwrote his own publicity campaign by taking out trade ads declaring that “win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you.” Signed: “Your cousin, Chill Wills.” This drew the following negative response: “Dear Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.” Signed: Groucho Marx.
(Who did win the best supporting acting Oscar in 1961? Peter Ustinov for Spartacus. Sal Mineo had been nominated for his role in Exodus.)
Wills died at age 76 in December of 1978, the craggy and amiable supporting actor to the end. His first wife, Hattie Chappelle, predeceased him; his second, Novadeen Googe, survived him.