I’ve spent the last three months doggedly pursuing my goal of watching all 168 episodes of The Rifleman (1958-1963). With the help of a good friend willing to DVR and send along various episodes, I am down to just one (Heller). I will be sad when there are no new ones left, but at least the episodes are worth watching repeatedly. That’s why the series has been in continuous syndication for over 49 years. I now appreciate the character actors who worked in the classic westerns of the period, and I’m fascinated by several of them. I’m starting here with the youngest.
Billy E. Hughes Jr. (November 28, 1948—December 20, 2005) was a young actor whose father and uncle were both stuntmen in Hollywood. Hughes was a small but sturdy boy who was cast in his first movie partly because he could carry a large dog (Ole Rex, 1961). After a bicycle accident, a broken front tooth made him look like a real kid, so it became part of his distinctive appearance. Hughes was an emotive, natural actor with an interesting blend of vulnerability and grit. He had guest roles in many television series and did a handful of movies, mostly low budget productions involving other members of his family. Hughes appeared in three episodes of The Rifleman in the later seasons: Long Gun from Tucson, Day of Reckoning, and most memorably, The Sidewinder. He was also in three episodes of Gunsmoke: Milly, Reprisal, and Us Haggens, the episode that introduced the character of Festus (Ken Curtis).
Hughes may have found himself in the business because of his family, but he came to believe that he was born to act. After a leading role in My Six Loves (1963) with Debbie Reynolds, many more offers starting coming in, and his career was set to take off. Sadly, his family was going through difficulties, and Hughes was sent to live with his grandmother. She wanted to get her grandson away from everything Hollywood, so she refused jobs on his behalf and threw away the scripts that were sent. By the time Hughes was old enough to make decisions for himself, it was too late. The entertainment business has a very short attention span, and most child actors are unwanted once they grow up. Billy Hughes found satisfaction in his adult life from raising his son, but he acknowledged in his interview in the book Growing Up On The Set that he suffered from depression and a lack of direction. He died in his sleep at the age of 57.
I refer to him as elusive because his work is so hard to find. His three episodes of The Rifleman are not included in the 50 shown on hulu.com, and only a clip from Long Gun from Tucson is currently available on YouTube. Only one of his movies, Stakeout!, is available on DVD, and it has serious quality issues. Ole Rex is almost impossible to find in any form, although lobby cards can be found occasionally for sale on ebay. I have not been able to find any of his other television appearances besides the three Gunsmoke episodes, which are all available on YouTube. When I watch Billy Hughes in what little there is see, I can’t help wondering what he might have achieved if he’d been allowed the chance.
Note: The book Growing Up On The Set by Tom and Jim Goldrup is the invaluable source for the biography and background information used in this post. To avoid confusion, the episode from The Rifleman which is described in the interview with Hughes is identified as Day of Reckoning. It was actually Long Gun from Tucson, directed by Joseph H. Lewis. The scene with Johnny Crawford is shown in two stills in the slideshow above.
Update: Various TV appearances and the movie My Six Loves pop up on YouTube in various forms, often to disappear again because of copyright issues. Keep searching. I’m pleased and a little proud that the comment section here has become such a lovely tribute to Billy Hughes, with comments from both fans and friends. Be sure to read them!