Actor Henry Darrow, best known for his four-year starring turn on two venerable western series – The High Chaparral and the Family Channel's revival of Zorro in the early '90s – is disarmingly honest charting his long and often rocky boulevard to success in an extensive interview with this column.
As a young boy coming of age in World War II-era New York, Darrow relished spending time in his family's combination inn and restaurant. Movie icons including Humphrey Bogart and Tallulah Bankhead regularly rubbed shoulders. The business was inexplicably closed with little fanfare after a scant three years.
The Puerto Rican family was ultimately forced to return to their native country, where Darrow's dream of becoming an actor could have easily faded into the ether. Fortunately, fate had other plans. Darrow found himself drawn to a neighborhood movie theater after school. Watching his favorite cowboy heroes ride off into the sunset became a tempting allure.
Stick around for the amusing tale of a punk kid who refused to follow a stern nun's warning in Catholic school. Soon thereafter, a return to American with an apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse put the wheels in motion for a valuable lesson regarding overacting for the "Spanish Barrymore". You'll never guess who the famous comedienne in his graduating class was.
The scoop behind the fortuitous moment when producer David Dortort attended an evening theater performance and gave Darrow his big break nearly 10 years after graduating from the Pasadena Playhouse, his parents' reaction to their son's newfound celebrity, and what happened when the Delgados visited Universal Studios during the height of High Chaparral mania will certainly keep you on the edge of your seat.
Darrow doesn't shy away from admitting what it was like to appear in the first western sporting topless Indian maidens, Revenge of the Virgins, written by the terrible but somehow endearing cult B-movie director Ed Wood. The actor's clever sense of humor is still very much on full display. Incidentally, he celebrates an important milestone on Sept. 15 when he becomes an octogenarian.
Autographed copies of Lightning in the Bottle, Darrow's 2012 autobiography, are available on his official website. Or, simply visit Amazon, where you can read the impressive five-star reviews. Last but not least, the gentle thespian's co-author, Jan Pippins, perfectly encapsulates her favorite subject's persona in her own words at the end of the conversation. You can connect with fellow fans and send questions to the man himself – via Pippins – on Darrow's official Facebook fan page. Without further adieu, the gifted actor's humble rise to fame and fortune begins now.
The Henry Darrow Interview, Part One
Growing up, who were some of your favorite cowboys?
Westerns have always been my favorite film genre. I used to go after school with my little brother to the theater. On Mondays we would walk two blocks to see black and white westerns. Because we came late, we always had to sit in the front or second front row. I got used to seeing black and white real up close [laughs], but I always enjoyed it. People like Johnny Mack Brown, Lash LaRue, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Don "Red" Barry, and Charles “Durango Kid” Starrett. And all of a sudden, Bam, there I am in a western series.
What do you remember about your childhood?
We used to keep moving uptown in New York. We'd move from 156th Street to 161st, 168th to 171st, and so on. The reason why: because they were coming into our neighborhoods and my mother would insist upon moving. And they were us [i.e. Puerto Ricans]. It was like, ‘Oh God, here they come’ [laughs].
Dad finally left New York City and established the Bedford Inn in Bedford Village, upstate New York. It was a combination three-story old inn and restaurant situated on thirty three and a third acres. It was wonderful growing up there, especially during the summer. We had a little lake in the back part surrounded by forest. There were pheasant, grouse, deer and all kinds of wildlife.
There was a genuine family atmosphere – my grandmother worked there, and Pop served as the bartender. Pop was a fine cook. He liked to introduce a little bit of Puerto Rican rice and beans or regular rice and chicken to the pot.
It was also a place where movie stars and well-to-do folks used to visit, including the heads of U.S. Steel. I remember meeting Humphrey Bogart and Tallulah Bankhead there, etcetera, etcetera. Little did I know that meeting all those different people would pay off down the road. I soon made my stage debut in grade school, playing a woodsman.
Unfortunately, Pop went broke after three years. He didn't know that he could have kept the business open during the winter, since there was skiing close by. The Bedford Inn was a white elephant at the time. Our family returned to New York City and lived with one of my mother's sisters until shortly after my 13th birthday.
When your parents made the difficult decision to return to Puerto Rico, how did that affect you?
Of course, I was upset to leave my friends but everything worked out for the best. My father returned to the restaurant business. I goofed up because I went to a school that taught in Spanish. I had to translate from Spanish to English and then English to Spanish.
Consequently, I'd never finish a test. I failed my first year of high school. I wound up going to a Catholic school named the Academy of Perpetual Help for four years. This time the school taught in English, which helped a lot.
When I was younger, I had been in a class at George Washington High where I saw a teacher hit a guy on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. He broke the ruler. I was pretty impressed. Later when I was going to the Academy of Perpetual Help, some nun smacked me across the hand with a wooden ruler.
I took the ruler and cracked it. I was just some punk kid. From then on I became the hero [laughs]. I was the guy my schoolmates always took to different parties – ‘Yeah, let’s take Henry. He's tough.’ Anyway, somehow I finished high school.
So, how did you get from Puerto Rico back to America?
It’s a long story [laughs]. I continued my education at the University of Puerto Rico. I was originally going for a political science major but I always enjoyed acting. I got to work with an English speaking company run by the distinguished Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernández [e.g. John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, and The Reivers starring Steve McQueen].
He was of African American descent and appeared early in his career on radio, including The Shadow. Juano used to have to come into the radio station from the back door because he was black and everything was segregated in those days. His English was so good. Once he moved to Hollywood, he hired me to do readings with actors.
Anyway, I was in my third year on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico when I bumped into a friend who said, "How come you're not competing for acting scholarships?" I hadn't even heard about it. So I competed and after a couple of weeks I wound up lucky enough to win.
I had a choice between the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. When I found out that Pasadena was only 20-odd miles from Hollywood, I said, "I will pick Pasadena” [laughs]. It was my first trip away from the island as an adult. I was only 20 years old when I got to Pasadena in 1954, but I loved every minute of it.
Did you return to Puerto Rico for any films?
I filmed a little-seen movie there in 1979 that had Raul Julia, Miriam Colón, and a bunch of Puerto Rican actors among the cast. A Life of Sin was about a famous madam who owned a prostitution house in Puerto Rico. She had some of the biggest clientele around the country. Upon her death, the Catholic church refused to bury her on their grounds.
Puerto Rico was always good to me because I was one of the few Puerto Ricans who made it, along with José Ferrer, Juano Hernandez, Miriam Colón, and Raul Julia. In recent times there have been a host of others who have continued to climb up the ladder. All in all, I've had a fair career.
What did your two-year apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse teach you?
Well, more than I can probably recall [laughs]. Pop used to work two jobs a week so they could send me a little bit of money during my last year at the playhouse. Fortunately, a scholarship covered my first year.
There were three little theaters at the playhouse – two upstairs and one downstairs. I got to play different characters. I took music, dance, tap, fencing, and phonetic classes. It was a ball. On occasion, the second year students would hire you for what they called a line count. Let's say you're gonna do 700 or 800 lines for the year. You would build on that, and then the parts you got were subtracted. I was always available to play second year shows.
Since I was one of the luckier actors who got better parts, I did my big parts right off, including The Crucible. I graduated in 1956 with actress/comedienne Ruth Buzzi of future Laugh-In fame. She decided to pursue acting in New York City, while I took the quick 20-odd mile commute to Hollywood. I gave myself five years for success. When those five were up, I gave myself another five [laughs].
Do you subscribe to the method or classical theory of acting?
I probably favor the classical Spanish style. I was influenced by the Spanish theater during my college years in Puerto Rico – a little overdone. I remember one of the first things I did after graduating from the Pasadena Playhouse was audition for the original Zorro television series in 1957, produced by Walt Disney and ultimately starring Guy Williams.
I overacted, and I remember the director walking away and then announcing to the rest of the cast and crew, "It looks like we have a Spanish Barrymore on our hands." I thought, ‘Oh boy!’ I wrote my mother and she replied, “Honey, I thought Barrymore was a ham” [laughs]. So, I learned to do less. And then when you get to do TV you do much less. When you do features you get away with a little more.
My first starring role in a film was a black and white western made on a shoe-string budget called Revenge of the Virgins , penned by Ed Wood of Plan 9 from Outer Space infamy. It was one of the first soft-core pornographic westerns. I played one of the bad guys who emptied the hills of gold. All the Indians in the world come and get us. Later, semi-nude, Indian girls (from the waist up) come through with bags of the gold that we had stolen. They throw the gold back into the hills, et cetera et cetera.
I had no idea there was nudity in the picture until it was released, since those scenes was added post-production after I had completed my part. It wasn't the type of movie you could list on your résumé. It was pretty bad and my acting was incredibly terrible, although I had a fun time [laughs]. I had a pretty good imagination, so I just went along for the ride.
What was the significance of Ray Bradbury’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit to your career?
I started doing theater in Los Angeles during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s – those little theater productions that only seat 90 for a play. Little by little I started to develop my reputation. Keep in mind that I was using my real name at the time, Enrique Delgado Jr.
It took about 10 years before I landed a good part in The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. By then I was working on my third set of five year career goals [laughs]. The plot dealt with six Mexican Americans living on a roof in the ‘50s. They each contributed ten bucks for the purchase of a wonderful vanilla ice cream colored suit. Each person could wear it one day a week. On the seventh day, they have it on a stand.
I played the Romeo character. There was also a philosopher, guitarist, and dancer. Incidentally, F. Murray Abraham, who later won an Oscar for Amadeus , portrayed the comic’s tailor who helped make our ice cream suit. He was very good.
David Dortort, who was producing the extremely successful Bonanza western series, saw the play one evening. Something about my performance must have caught his eye. I returned to the Pasadena Playhouse to do a season of repertory after The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit ended its run. That’s when I decided to change my name to Henry Darrow.
Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Dortort had been looking for me under the name “Delgado.” Thankfully, I came back into Hollywood after nine months and met him and the casting people from the studio and NBC. All of a sudden I was in Tucson shooting The High Chaparral for four years. I stuck most of my career out with television.
How would you describe your parents’ reaction to your fame?
Oh God, they were so proud for me. When my mother and father came to the states, I took them to Universal Studios for a special tour. Folks recognized me, and I began signing autographs. Someone got curious and asked my dad, "Who are you?" He pointed towards me and replied, "I'm Manolito’s father."
The gentleman became incredulous as he stammered, “No, you’re not. Frank Silvera is Manolito’s father.” It was funny since the person thought my dad was an imposter. Frank played my dad on the television series.
I wrote my mom several times each month when I was living in Hollywood. She always called me “Manolito.” One time I accompanied her to a store during the height of Chaparral’s popularity. Mom realized that a certain singer was present to sell their record album. She quickly spotted a little cash register microphone and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, Manolito is here and he'll sign autographs with the other singer." That worked out well [laughs].
Mom witnessed my entire career. One time she said, "I just read where Fred Astaire is doing a movie and he needs somebody to play his son. You should audition.” “But Mom, I'm 60 years old.” “They’re doing his life story, and you took tap.” “Mom, I took tap for about nine months when I was nine years old." She never stopped wanting to see me succeed. She died in 2012 at age 96. Mom was the best fan I've ever had.
What would your perfect day be like?
Oh, I'd start the morning having breakfast with Lauren, then coffee and toast while we read the newspaper. Later I would relax along the riverwalk and spend about an hour and a half at the beach (if it’s not too hot). That’s my definition of the perfect day.
How would you describe Henry’s personality?
Jan Pippins: Fun-loving, positive and patient. He's got a marvelous sense of humor which can be very broad (he's a practical joker) or subtle and dry.
He's got a lot of depth – Henry is one of those people who really thinks about what's happening in the world politically and socially. He also has a great deal of insight concerning himself and others. He's exceptionally intelligent.
Henry is also a man who becomes intensely focused on the goal or task at hand. If he's working on a part, he's totally immersed in that. Attempting to talk with him about anything else is futile, but it's that kind of focus that will make someone excel at what they do.
He's much less outgoing than he appears – he's very kind and friendly to everyone no matter who they are. However, he's had to learn to meet and greet in spite of a good bit of social anxiety. Henry is a very gentle man, easygoing, diplomatic and extremely likeable.
What do you remember about your first meeting with Henry?
Jan Pippins: He said something very clever which made me laugh. He looked directly at me – not around the room or over my shoulder like some people do. When you meet Henry, you never get the impression that he's scanning the room for someone more important to talk with. He's always focused on whomever he's meeting right then.
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Don't forget to browse the 10-image slideshow tracing Henry Darrow's life pre-"High Chaparral". Entitled "Just Do What You Do: The Journeyman Years..." the rarely seen images paint a portrait of a determined young actor emulating his heroes including James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marlon Brando. In addition, check out a 12-year-old Darrow posing for his confirmation sacrament, perhaps the earliest known photo of the actor.
Did you know? Kent McCray was personally asked by producer David Dortort to serve as production manager throughout The High Chaparral's run where he soon befriended Henry Darrow. The pals regularly swap war stories at the official Chaparral reunion in Tucson, Ariz. McCray was also Michael Landon's best man and proverbial right hand on three beloved television series – Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. In a wide-ranging conversation commemorating Landon's 76th birthday ["The Brother That He Never Had..."], McCray recalls their memorable first meeting, Landon the practical joker, visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request happened, and what happened when the actor didn't have a driver's license at an L.A.
Further Reading: Bonanza is still going strong some 54 years after its shaky debut as television's first full-hour Western filmed in color. A new article, entitled "50 Years and Counting: Revisiting Bonanza, TV's Second Longest Running Western," gives a detailed synopsis of the show and argues how Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker gained pop culture immortality. In addition, Blocker's tragically short film career is discussed in a feature about his final film, The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County.
Exclusive Interview: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer and Henry Darrow appeared together in "Ride the Savage Land", a Feb. 1968 episode of The High Chaparral. The actors recently met with fans at the long-running Memphis Film Festival. Palmer is best known for his six films with John Wayne, including Big Jake. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Duke's grandson with near deadly results. In a just released two-part interview entitled "The Man Who Killed John Wayne's Dog...", Palmer relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: "The Virginian" is the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. Starring James Drury, the series coincidentally ended its run in 1971, the same year as "The High Chaparral". Incidentally, Drury and Henry Darrow recently joined together for a memorable "Gathering of Guns" at the popular Memphis Film Festival. In a just-released interview, Drury speaks at length about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne as well as his appreciation for his fans, whether he had a role model for his characterization of the Virginian, and the 50th anniversary of his namesake series. Click on either installment link above to begin the enlightening ride.
*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2013. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter or Facebook is sincerely appreciated.