By Jeff Clark
I met a man today who changed my life. Stuntman Dean Smith’s journey includes Olympic gold medals, John Wayne friendships and the love of a beautiful woman. But at his core, it is the man Dean Smith who got my attention.
Dean was born in 1932 at Breckenridge, raised in Eliasville. He went to high school in Graham, the captain of his senior track team, state 100 yard dash champion and All-State half back.
Offers flooded in from many colleges. Dean chose the University of Texas at Austin. Legendary UT coach Clyde Littlefield was a great sprint coach, was later Dean’s Olympic coach. Dean became All Southwest Conference 100 yard dash champ for 1953, 1954 and 1955. He was named All-American in 1952, 1954 and 1955. Dean won the 1952 Olympic 400 meter relay team gold medal in Helsinki, Finland.
I’m hitting about 25 percent of what’s on his resume. He was half back on the Southwest Conference Champion UT football team before playing briefly for the LA Rams. Dean left the Pittsburgh Steelers to enter motion pictures. To be a stuntman. To walk tall in Hollywood, working shoulder to shoulder with most of the greats.
When I arrived at his ranch, one of two he has between Graham and Breckenridge, he was still five minutes from home. Surrounding me in his living room were photos with James Garner, Dale Robertson, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Red Stegall and many others. Dean made ten movies with John Wayne.
Dean’s many films include Auntie Mame, The Alamo, How the West Was Won, True Grit, Three Days of the Condor, The Birds, The Sting and the Cheyenne Social Club. He’s been directed by Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sydney Pollock and Blake Edwards.
Dean’s TV career made stops on Gunsmoke, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Mannix, Simon & Simon, Fantasy Island, Six Million Dollar Man, Ironsides and Walker-Texas Ranger. He’s a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Stuntman’s Hall of Fame, UT Hall of Fame, Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and other awards word counts prevent me from including.
To me, all those victories and that fairy tale life of his were just Dean getting warmed up. Dean was raised on this ranch as a kid. “I didn’t have a bicycle. I used to chase this old yellow mare on foot to keep her from going under that underpass, so I could catch and ride her.”
Dean had a great career in the movies, but came home when the westerns started dying out. He’ll be 80 next January 15. He walked in, shook my hand with gusto. Dean is a weathered, strong strikingly handsome man with two sparkling clear eyes that focus in telling and listening to stories.
“Hollywood’s a different place,” he told me. “The reason I could handle everything out there, I was raised by a wonderful grandmother and grandfather. My mother died when I was two, so I lived with them. I loved my dad, but he had a bad drinking problem. It was a drain on me. Sports were my way out, not that I wanted to get off the farm, but it was my way to make something of myself.”
Dean’s hard wrought youth bred discipline. “I was able to ride, run and jump with anyone in Hollywood.” His father’s alcoholism prevented Dean from having anything to do with liquor. “I was a good competitor. I had a winning spirit, a competitive heart. I had this reputation and every Saturday I had to put it on the line.”
Dean’s voice turns serious. “Alcohol or drugs will never ruin me. This bone marrow cancer has been trying to kill me, but I’ve been beating that. My biggest thing now is to see my little son Finis go through these next six years through high school, then college. I’ve done about everything a man can do.” He looked toward the window. “We sure need a rain.”
I ask about the great men he’s worked with. “I’ve had so many inspirations. Jim Garner, Bob Mathias, John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Dale Robertson. It seemed like I had a whole parcel of guys from Oklahoma. My mother’s buried up there. I’ve always been close to everybody.”
Dean wanted to act more, but his stunt abilities kept him too busy with TV series and movies. “I was more in demand making somebody else look good, than them giving me the chance to run with the ball acting.” He’s had some really good roles. “I believe I will still get some good parts. I can’t run and jump over a six foot fence like I used to, but I might be able to fool you playing some little part.”
I haven’t done the math, least not exactly. That would be impolite between new friends. But the almost 80-year-old force of nature sitting across from me has a gorgeous young wife. Their son together is only 12. I’m impressed. I’m hopeful.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” Dean told me. “I’ve been slapped around pretty good a couple of times. I got out by pulling myself up, getting my butt back in gear.”
Pay attention. Here it comes.
“One thing about running a race, if you’re running a short race, you can’t look around. You look back too long, you’re going to lose. You always look up front, look forward.”
Dean rides and ropes still. He’d like to be able to run more, but his bone marrow cancer creates circulation issues in his legs. “I lifted weights yesterday. I love the running, but I’ll let little Finis do that. He’ll be 13 on December 7. Swell little boy. Debby is the delight of my life, a country girl like I’m a country boy. The Lord works in mysterious ways. As many things as I’ve had go wrong, you just got to keep working through it, like you’re going through a maze. You’ve got to keep looking forward, see where your path is.”
Dean’s not known as an actor. “I came in as a cowboy, a stuntman, doing falls and fights. It’s harder to make one line of dialogue work. The most important thing in acting is listening. If you listen to someone, you know what to do. With stunts, I had to pay attention or I could’ve gotten killed. I did that for 40-something years.” Dean was doing stunts after he was 60.
“I was the kind of guy people thought should be able to run and jump over a horse, that I should be in the same shape as when I was young. They always expect you to be what you were in the beginning. I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape.”
I ask about Finis. I ask about cancer. “If you don’t have discipline and you don’t have a spirit, you’re done. You’ve got to believe in the Lord. The kindred spirit is so important. Debby and little Finis keep me going. I have good doctors there in Ft. Worth. I want to live. I’m not ready to go. Just let me wait a little while, because I don’t have it all in there yet.” He looked toward the back door. “I love this farm.”
Near the end of our time together, he said “I think I’ve pretty well done what I was supposed to have done. I don’t have any weevils in my wheat.”
Dean’s not ready to ride off into the sunset. “I thought I was there a time or two. I’ve had horrible injuries and yet God has let me eke it out. I want to keep this farm in shape and to help Finis. You learn as you go along how to be a good family man. It hasn’t been all autographs and sunglasses.”
Dean’s younger son is much in his thoughts. “I want Finis to live a good life, excel, don’t be lazy, have goals in his life. Just don’t be satisfied with skipping by. Running gave me an inspiration to be somebody. When I thought I was somebody, I could channel that into being anything. I want him to have something like that. Every father wants his child to follow in his footsteps, would like him to win races. You better get a jump ahead and don’t look back. You can’t let somebody get a step on you and expect to win.”
We dig through boxes in his back bedroom looking for photos, cutting up like little kids. How did Dean Smith change my life? He looked at me, an old cardboard box on his lap. We’d talked about important things that aren’t in this story. He looked squarely at me and said, “You know, you don’t win the race worrying about other people, by looking around. You look toward the end, the ribbon. Never take your eyes off that.”