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"In the Spotlight"

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In the Spotlight: CHILL WILLS




The tall colorful character actor was born Chill Theodore Wills on July 18, 1903 in Seagoville, Dallas County, Texas.


He was Named "Chill" as an ironic comment on his birth date being the hottest day of 1903.

A musician from his youth, he performed from the age of 12 with tent shows, in vaudeville, and with stock companies.

He formed a musical group, Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys. During an appearance at the Trocadero in Hollywood, they were spotted by an RKO executive, subsequently appearing as a group in several low-budget Westerns.

After a prominent appearance with The Avalon Boys as both himself and the bass-singing voice of Stan Laurel in "Way Out West" (1937), Wills disbanded the group and began a solo career as a usually jovial (but occasionally sinister) character actor, primarily in Westerns.


His varity of films included, "Boom Town", "The Westerner", "Billy the Kid", "Belle Starr", "**** Tonk", "Stand by for Action", "Best Foot Forward", "See Here, Private Hargrove", "Leave Her to Heaven", "The Harvey Girls", "The Yearling" in a touching scene, "The Saxon Charm", "Family Honeymoon", etc.


One of his more memorable roles was that of the distinctive voice of Francis the Mule in a series of popular films. Wills' deep, rough voice and Western twang were perfectly matched to the personality of the cynical, sardonic mule. As was customary at the time, Wills was given no billing for his vocal work, though he was featured prominently on-screen as blustery General Ben Kaye in the fourth entry, "Francis Joins the WACS".


He also co-starred in "Rio Grande", "Small Town Girl", "Tumbleweed" with Audie Murphy, and "Ricochet Romance" with Marjorie Main.

Wills also appeared in numerous serious roles, including that of the organ-playing Uncle Bawley in "Giant", a 1956 film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.

Wills was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1960 for his role as the delightful beekeeper in the film "The Alamo" with John Wayne.


Wills served as master of ceremonies for George Wallace for the California campaign stops in Wallace's 1968 Presidential campaign. He and Walter Brennan were among the few Hollywood celebrities to endorse Wallace's campaign against Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon.


He was married to his wife Betty for 41 years until her death in 1971. The marriage produced two children, daughter Jill Wills born in 1939 and son Will Wills born in 1942 (no kiddin').

He remarried in 1973.


He continued to work in films and television, usually in roguishly lovable good-ol'-boy parts,

and his last role was in 1978 as a janitor in the TV movie "Stubby Pringle's Christmas".

In 1975 Wills also released a first singing album.


Chill Wills died in 1978 of cancer at age 75 and was interred in the Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale with his beloved Betty.


When nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in "The Alamo", Chill's blatant campaign to win the award resulted in scorn and ridicule. Wills took out a series of ads with the declaration "Win, lose or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you."It was signed "Your cousin, Chill Wills". One member of the Academy placed a response ad stating: "Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo. "It was signed, Groucho Marx.


The tall Texan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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I'm enjoying your profile of Chill Wills, an actor whose warmly authentic personality gave credibility to so many lesser, as well as better films. Looking back, I think my enjoyment of the Francis, The Talking Mule movies (which our local tv station used to alternate with Ma & Pa Kettle movies on weekends) was largely due to the voice of the beast!


The jolly cast photo of Darryl Hickman and company from Leave Her to Heaven reminded me that Hickman, who played Cornel Wilde's younger, polio stricken brother in the film, had some rather harshly critical remarks to make about the director John Stahl and Gene Tierney during this somewhat tense production on the dvd commentary of the movie, (providing one more example of why one should think twice before letting a kid work in the movies). Mr. Hickman, who today is a respected acting coach, was emphatic in his enjoyment and respect for one co-worker who brought a reality to his character and helped to ground the fascinating, but melodramatic story. That person was the underrated Chill Wills.

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Thank you Moira. Come to think of it Chill Wills is an unterrated actor.

I remember Darryl Hickman mentioning the John Stahl and Gene Tierney stuff when interviewed by Robert Osborne, though I was not aware that he praised good ole Chill Wills.

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