Unapologetic desperado Michael Dante first set foot in front of a motion picture camera for the 1956 boxing classic Somebody Up There Likes Me in a blink and you'll miss it bit part as one of Paul Newman's street thug pals opposite another then-unknown actor—Steve McQueen. By the early '60s the former professional baseball player had risen up the ranks supporting Monty Clift and Liz Taylor [Raintree County], James Garner [Maverick], Randolph Scott [Westbound], and Elvis Presley [Kid Galahad] when he struck up a friendship with highly decorated To Hell and Back infantryman Audie Murphy. Dante costarred in two back-to-back westerns directed by Tarantino's top action maestro William Witney—Apache Rifles and Arizona Raiders—and intended to reunite with Murphy in 1971 if destiny had not come calling in The Perfect Target, overhauled extensively into the Don Knotts Disney vehicle Hot Lead and Cold Feet. One of the No Name on the Bullet star's few surviving Hollywood contemporaries, the nonagenarian exclusively summons his respect for Texas' favorite son starting now.
The Michael Dante Interview
What was Audie Murphy really like?
Audie was the only human being in the world, let alone actor, that I can define in one word — feline. We’d be on location and talking with each other. A member of the crew would come ask me something. I’d turn my head and seconds later — where was Audie? He never abruptly walked away and was so light on his feet. Audie was a quiet, soft-spoken guy whose cat-like traits helped him survive in World War II.
When I was a guest of honor at Audie Murphy Days in Greenville, Texas, in 2012, we spent some time in the Audie Murphy / American Cotton Museum. One half of the room was all of his memorabilia from his war days, while his western movie memorabilia was on the other side. A mannequin depicted the nearly 30 medals Audie earned, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and awards bestowed by our allied nations. The medals were pinned on both sides of the mannequin's jacket, down to his waist. Every conceivable space was filled. It was amazing what Audie accomplished and how many close calls with death he experienced in the European Theater. And then to get killed in a private plane crash [on Memorial Day Weekend 1971 at age 45]. I understood, because it was the only time he was not in charge of his destiny.
Did Audie keep you at arm’s length before he felt comfortable letting you in?
Audie was very private, sensitive, and subtle, but I could adapt to anyone who I worked with. Audie knew how much I respected him. I didn’t like to talk much on the set. Neither did Audie. When I was working, I always went into my dressing room to take a nap, rest, or work on the script. Audie didn’t like a stranger to abruptly come up to him and act as if they had known him for 20 years, especially if it was some idiot that wanted to talk about how good Audie was with a rifle or how many Germans he had heroically killed. That was his privilege.
What's a funny story about working with Audie?
Audie had a great sense of humor, which tends to get lost due to his heroic war record. Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe [e.g. the star of a trio of timeless ‘30s serials — Tarzan the Fearless, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers] was in Arizona Raiders with us. The cast [also featuring Ben Cooper, Gloria Talbott, Ray Stricklyn, and George Keymas] was assembled in an Old Tucson hotel [for approximately two weeks in December 1964]. I was in one room, and Audie was in the adjacent one. The first floor, where we were staying, was right by the swimming pool. The desert was really hot in the daytime and rather cool at night. So I liked to sleep with my window open, and Audie did the same thing.
After the first day of shooting, Audie suggested that we have breakfast together the next morning at 6 since we had to be on the set by 7. Around 5:30 I heard a splash in the pool. My ear was near the window and not far from the fresh air coming in. Suddenly awake, I looked out. There was Buster doing strokes in the pool. When I went to have breakfast with Audie, I wanted to know, “Did you see and hear what I saw and heard?” “Yeah. Was that Buster swimming back and forth? Isn’t he something? He’s like a fish in the water.”
Both of us shared our compliments with Buster when we arrived on the set. He said, “No matter where I’m working or if I’m at home, I do my exercises and swim every day.” I told him, “God, it was a joy to watch you. You’ll be our wake-up call every morning at 6.” “Yes, I will.” Audie and I laughed. Arizona Raiders turned into a fun shoot.
Tinseltown pretty much turned its back on Audie following 1967's 40 Guns to Apache Pass, his third and final collaboration with Witney.
Hollywood didn’t realize how talented Audie was. He never got the credit. Believe me, he was a much better actor than they thought. He was highly professional. Never any temperament, never any problems, always on time, and always knew his dialogue. He was a total gentleman and couldn't have been nicer. He was excellent in The Unforgiven [1960; playing totally against type as an unsympathetic, mustachioed rancher who drinks too much and virulently hates Native Americans, even his own sister], working with a top-notch director [John Huston, who had hand-picked Murphy a decade before to ironically tackle the cowardly Union soldier in The Red Badge of Courage] and cast [Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Lillian Gish, Charles Bickford, Doug McClure, and John Saxon]. Audie could have done a lot more work than he did, but he didn't court Hollywood power players. He preferred to hang out with the stuntmen and crew.