The Elusive Billy Hughes

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Other links:

IMDb page    wikipedia page      in memoriam page      riflemanconnors.com page

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!

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31 Comments

Filed under Actors, Movies, Television

31 responses to “The Elusive Billy Hughes

  1. duchess_mccain

    ‘Heller’ is such a good episode, I hope you see it soon! I got to see it when you could find all of the Rifleman episodes on youtube. Sadly, the user had to remove them. (I made it into season 2 before he took them down) Now all I can watch are the ones on hulu. I want so badly to see ‘Long Gun from Tucson’! I ❤ the Rifleman; and I ❤ your blog!

    • Heller is on MeTV tomorrow night, which is great because those versions are rarely edited for ad breaks. As I said, I know I will feel a little sad when I’ve seen every episode. I’m so pleased that you enjoy my blog!

  2. duchess_mccain

    I just about died when the Rifleman went off youtube. I was trying to watch them all. I don’t have cable, so like I said hulu is my only option. But hey! at least someone else is able to reach my goal. 😀 Of the episodes I have watched I really like the Second Witness and the Sheridan Story.
    Oh, and I thought your post about different celebs that you’ve met was great! I collect signatures, so that post was right up my alley!

    • My favorite episodes are The Schoolmaster, Ordeal, The Pet, The Vaqueros, Eight Hours to Die, and The Vision. Wow, can you tell I like Mark McCain?! I hope you eventually get to see them all.

      I’m worried about reaching the point where I’ve told all my celebrity encounter stories. I guess I’ll have to get out and meet some more.

  3. MarvinJudson

    Excellent tribute to Billy Hughes, ‘Ugly Bug’! He was such a great talent and is so sadly overlooked today. His natural talent and charisma makes most of the child/youth actors on TV shows today look like amatuers. It’s a shame his family (his Dad, mostly) took him out of acting. That was his true calling in life.
    I have one of the Lassie episodes he’s in: “Yochim’s Christmas” (1961). Have you seen that one? They have it on You Tube.

  4. jimmo531

    I was very saddened to read of the death of actor Billy Hughes. He was a fine young actor, who I first saw in the first two of the three episodes of “Lassie” on which he appeared, as “Billy Joe Yochim,” as well that great episode of “The Rifleman,” “The Sidewinder,” in which Billy was the featured guest star. Billy really held his own (at just 15 years old) with a Colt revolver, in that shooting match scene with series star Chuck Connors.

    It is a shame Billy didn’t have the chance of more acting roles, which, from what I read, was his passion. Unlike some child actors who are exploited for their youth, apparently some of Billy’s family made decisions to limit his acting career, something Billy genuinely wanted for himself. Then, by the time of attaining adulthood, like so many others in the acting profession, Billy’s past credentials were forgotten or ignored by some who should have known better.

    He may not have been as well-known a young actor as Billy Gray, Jerry Mathers, Jon Provost, Paul Petersen, and Johnny Crawford. Yet Billy worked with nearly all those once-young actors and others, and deserved to have his star shine just as brightly. Those of us who do remember Billy’s work will never forget him.

    Billy was just 57 years old at the time of his death, not a young man anymore, but still way too young to have left us. Wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood honored this “forever young” actor with one of those stars on its “Walk Of Fame,” an honor bestowed upon some with even less memorable work to their credit than Billy. By doing so, at least Billy would get to have some of that recognition denied him in life.

    The honor of Billy Hughes receiving his posthumous star on Hollywood’s fabled “Walk Of Fame” would not only give Billy’s son and grandchildren something else wonderful by which to remember Billy, it might also help generate a revived interest in Billy’s work, including the DVD releases of some titles (mentioned here) long unavailable.

    You are to be commended, “UgBug,” for your on-line tribute here to one of Hollywood’s finest and under-appreciated talents.

    R.I.P. Billy E. Hughes, Jr. (1948-2005).

  5. Darlene

    Hi,
    I was glad to come across your blog post about this actor. I’m been on the long Search for the movie Ole Rex. You see the Dog in the movie Belong to my Grandfathers Uncle Red Bray. He even had a small role in the movie it was filmed on their ranch in Texas and my grandfather who at the time was Billy Hughes age played with him in-between takes.
    We have been trying to locate any form of the movie to watch since we heard so much about it growing up.
    We have the memorabilia posters but if you know how or where we can locate the film it would be so appreciated!! Thank you 🙂

    • Sorry for the delayed reply. I’ve never been able to find the movie, but if I ever do, I’ll let you know! It’s wonderful to connect with people who have connections with Billy Hughes.

  6. John Davenport

    I was much impressed by young Billy Hughes Jr. when I saw him in “The Sidewinder” episode of the “Rifleman” (one of my favorite ’50s-’60s television programs). What a great natural talent! It’s sad that he wasn’t able to do more acting. I certainly agree that a “Walk of Fame” Star would be a fitting tribute.

  7. Brad.

    Have you seen Billy in ‘Leave to Beaver’ episode? He played the hell out of that role ‘The Sidewinder’, on “The Rifleman” t.v. episode. For being only 15 years old he did one hell of an acting job! Too bad he wasn’t chosen to play the part of Mark McCain. Nothing against Johnny Crawford, but Hughes could act circles around him. “The Rifleman” was a great program, but it would have been even better with Billy Hughes, Jr. as Lucas’ son.

  8. mark

    I have just recently learned of Billy Hughes Jr. thru watching the Rifleman. He was a gifted actor, thank you for posting the information you found on him. And I was wondering about that tooth.

  9. Russ

    Chalk me up as another who appreciates the acting talent of Billy Hughes. My first notice of him was in the Rifleman episode ‘The Sidewinder’, which sometimes is badly butchered to fit in some commercials. Watching that episode closely you can see he was living the part; it would have been a bad joke if some other young actors had attempted it but he was great. Note too his gun handling – he was 13 when the episode was shot and with small hands he handled a Colt revolver like a true gunman.

    I made friends with one of his very best friends and through him I acquired a video copy of Ole Rex. It appears to have been copied from a projected movie by a camcorder and the copy I have came indirectly from Hughes himself.

    He made some small appearances in sitcoms (Leave It To Beaver, Dennis the Menace) but one of his important and best roles was in an episode of The Detectives titled ‘The LIttle Witness’. I have yet to see or locate that. He was also in an episode of an early 60’s Western called The Wide Country. I have that on DVD but have not yet had the opportunity to watch it.

    In My Six Loves, Hughes unintentionally caused an enormous blooper that appears throughout the movie. As the oldest of six impoverished children living in a garden shed, having been dumped by relatives, Hughes can be seen in roughly half the movie wearing a very nice gold ring. It’s not hard to spot. I can’t believe that the director or anyone else didn’t notice it, or that even Hughes himself didn’t know better than to not be wearing gold jewelry as a penniless homeless boy. There would have been no easy way to fix that after the movie was completed, and it’s a major goof.

  10. Russ

    A few comments about Ole Rex. I would say it is basically impossible to find. As I was told, the movie was produced and then left to sit for a few years while some of the details were worked out. It was released to theaters but it was only out for a very short period of time, and it was never shown on television. The fact that I managed to get a copy from one of Hughes’ closest friends – indirectly from Hughes himself – tells how nearly non-existent the movie is. It would not be impossible that the film versions have been lost and only the VHS (and I made a DVD copy) versions remain.

    I received my copy only after promising Hughes’ friend that I would never make any copies or share the movie with others who might do so. I have to honor that promise, but I can see possibly putting some clips from it onto YouTube sometime perhaps. To be honest it’s not a great movie. (Stakeout! is actually a much better movie, if that gives you an idea.)

    Hughes’ final movie appearance was in a film titled ‘Smoke In The Wind’. It generally gets a one-star rating but I think it’s somewhat better than that. This movie was also the last film made with Walter Brennan. Hughes’ family produced the movie. They gave him a good supporting role but gave the lead role to someone else! What a slap in the face after having costing him his promising film career years earlier. It’s interesting to see Hughes in his early 20’s on film but his role didn’t offer him a whole lot to work with. It was no Grid Maule Jr. in Sidewinder, that’s for sure. BTW the ending of Sidewinder was a crime; the writers seem to have given up trying given that the Rifleman series was nearing its end.

  11. Echo to all above with praise of Billy Hughes Jr.!

    Like so many of you I first took note of Hughes Jr in the Sidewinder episode of The Rifleman, playing the role of Gridley “Grid” Maule Jr with such conviction and grit for a young kid, and complimenting his acting talent with impressive acrobatics and speed with a pistol – Wow!. At the time it crossed my mind that Hughes Jr would have made a great Mark McCain – taking nothing away from Johnny Crawford who was great and irreplaceable in every way.

    Such a shame for Billy Hughes Jr and the rest of us about his family circumstance that short circuited his acting career, and then his early passing. Let’s raise a toast to him with this quote from Micah:

    “Good cigar Lucas…a little noisy, but a pretty good smoke.”

    —–

    Other favorite quotes The Rifleman episode, “Sidewinder”:

    “Lady…I’ve got a thousand miles of honest sweat and dirt. It don’t smell bad to me!”….. “Look lady…I don’t like to be treated like a kid. You treat me like a grown up and we’ll get along just fine.” — Grid Maule to Lou Mallory

    “You killed my Pa, and now you won’t fight me? I’ve come a thousand miles to get you”….. “You’re scared of someone who will stand up to your rifle! You lousy coward!”…..”You think you’ve seen the last of me, don’t you, McCain? Well you haven’t! I’m gonna make you fight!” — Grid Maule to Lucas McCain

    “I slapped your Pa’s face today, boy. In front of people too. He wouldn’t shoot it out. He’s lily livered boy…..just plain lily livered!”….”Pick it up or I’ll kill ya. Pick it up!”….. “Just like your Pa, ain’t you, boy?” — Grid Maule to Mark McCain

    “I was eight when they brought my father home. It took me more then a half day to dig the grave. And when I got done, the only thing I could do to keep from bawling all the time was to take his gun and learn to use it. For a year I had to use two hands. And then another year until my thumb got big enough to cock it. I practiced night and day, McCain, for three years more. I can shoot and I can shoot in the dark, and I mean to pay you back for what you did”…..”When he was alive he was good to me. Maybe you don’t understand, McCain, but he was my Pa!” — Grid Maule to Lucas McCain

    “Oh uh…no…apple pie. A double order of apple pie with cheese, -ahem, and coffee. I said coffee! I want it black.” — Grid Maule to Lou Mallory

    —–
    Thanks UgBug for a great effort and tribute.
    And thanks to Margie at riflemanconnors.com and the McCain ranch for having the quotes up on the website – every Rifleman fan is a fan of you too!

  12. Paul

    After reading the info on this page I clicked on the link to Billy’s interview. What a sad, sad, waste of a great talent. Billy’s performance in The Rifleman episode “Sidewinder” is amazing and the chemistry with Patricia Blair was marvelous.

    How sad also to learn that this fine young man after being forgotten by Hollywood was bullied in school and suffered lifelong mental illness.

    R.I.P. Mr. Hughes, your brief time on the screen has made a lasting impact that will long be remembered.

  13. Sue

    I was a 10yrs. old little girl living in Wichita Falls when the movie “Ole Rex” was filmed. My mother’s friend was hired as cast hairdresser and she told us stories as the film was being made of how Billy and Chris played tricks on others. I ended up with his address and we wrote to each other throughout his Rifleman episodes and filming of “My Six Loves”. I still have those letters today. I was a very young girl quite impressed with this 12yrs. old boy that I watched on t.v. and at the movies. And, he wrote to me! Great memories! R.I.P. Billy.S

    • Thank you for sharing your Billy Hughes story! I’m sure there are others like me who’d love to see and read these treasured letters from Billy. If you have a blog or website and you ever decide to scan/photograph one or more of them to share online, please come back and post the link here.

  14. TV Fan

    Check out the Twilight Zone episode “The Incredible World of Horace Ford” (season 4). Near the end of the episode, Horace is threatened by a group of boys….Billy E. Hughes is among that group.

  15. vince

    I just watch the rifleman episode with him in it. Never heard of him but I search him out to see. Very impressive. The scene where he draws his pistol on mark mccain was amazing. He was faster than lightning. This was a person who was probably the best at everything he did.you can tell from this episode he was intense. He and Patricia Blair must of had a blast filming this episode with that slap fest

  16. Tom Goldrup

    My brother and I not only had the opportunity to interview Billy for our book on child actors (Growing Up On The Set) but also became very close friends with Billy for the remainder of his life. A fine man and truly a great acting talent. It was sad to have him go at such a young age and not being able to continue his passion at acting. He, and a friend, were working on a screenplay they hoped to make at the time of his death. We will miss him.

    • How lovely to hear from you! When I wrote this post in 2012, the link to your book took my readers to the full interview with Hughes, so they could see how much of the information used here came from you and your brother. Now the google page has changed. I have updated the post here to make it clear that Growing Up On The Set was crucial source material. How fortunate for us that you and Jim befriended Billy, making sure he knew that there were fans interested in his life and career.

  17. Frank Clark

    Thank you for all your research … I believe Billy Hughes occupies an important part of Hollywood’s history.

  18. Kimberly

    Loved him in my six loves

  19. Mitchell

    Hello, maybe you might be able to help me. I am trying to track down a copy of Ole Rex movie from 1961. We would like a copy for our family. My great uncle (Grandma’s Brother), Bruce Mayberry, of Wichita Falls, TX was the original owner of “Rex”. The dog in the movie. He raised and trained him from a pup. I’ve heard so many stories about how this was the best dog anyone has ever seen. Would love to find a copy of the movie to share this family memory. Thanks.

    • Apparently Ole Rex is as rare as hen’s teeth! One of the other commenters, Russ, says he has a copy, but I don’t know if he’d share. If you reply to his comment, you’ll find out if he’d got notifications set for replies. Otherwise, good luck! It’s wonderful to hear from you and know about your family connection.

  20. Jeffy Ringer

    I have seen Billy in Gunsmoke, Rifleman, and a couple of other TV shows. He seemed kind of high strung compared to other child actors of the time. In Sidewinder, I was one of the kids hoping that Lucas would blow him away. I also wonder why his cause of death is “sleep?” Did he have a heart attack, sleep apnea?? I do not know know too many 57 year old men that die in their sleep of natural causes.

  21. George Leedom

    Watching “The Sidewinder” episode now. Hughes is amazing. I had to Google to find out more. Too bad The Rifleman episode couldn’t have been an hour long. It’s that good.

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. The Rifleman was brilliant at telling concise stories in the short format, but sometimes you can’t help wanting more!

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