Classic Hollywood Actor Robert Winckler
By William Winckler
My father, Robert “Bobby” Winckler, was one of the most prolific child and teenage actors in the 1930’s and 1940’s during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Often credited as “Winkler,” he worked in over eighty feature films and over two-hundred radio shows, appearing with nearly every major Hollywood star during those years. He also performed in hundreds of theater-vaudeville-live stage productions, as well as provided voices for many popular animated cartoons!
Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Mildred Harris Chaplin, saw my father performing on stage, and was so impressed by him, she wrote a letter of introduction to Hal Roach Studios for him, and that’s how his Hollywood career started. Dad was born in Chicago, and became a huge child star there, working in local radio, doing live-theater performances, vaudeville, and he even sang the National Anthem at the Democratic Convention for the 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt! After that, and with Chaplin’s letter in hand, Dad and his parents moved to Hollywood, and Dad immediately started working.
Of all the film work he did, my father absolutely loved working in classic western movies! Westerns were his favorites! Dad worked with nearly all the major cowboy stars of the time; Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, Johnny Mack Brown, Tim McCoy, Bob Steele, Bob Livingston, Bob Baker, George Houston, George Montgomery, Wayne Morris, Dick Foran, Tom Tyler, Eddie Dean, and others! The “star power” these silver screen cowboys had was many times greater than the “star power” or “fame” of today’s Hollywood celebrities, especially since the only way to have seen motion pictures in those days was in “brick-and-mortar” movie theaters (there was no TV, no DVD or internet!)! These cowboy stars were hugely famous!
Put yourself in my Dad’s shoes . . .or boots . . . at the time. Here you are, playing the main kid character alongside cowboy icons like Gene Autry, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Livingston, and Wild Bill Elliott . . . men you loved and idolized . . .and these super-stars are treating you as if you are their own flesh and blood son! This is how they treated my father! Dad always said “oh what kind, talented men they were!” Dad worked with some of these cowboys multiple times too, as with Johnny Mack Brown (two pictures), Bob Steele (two movies), and Gene Autry (one film, several Melody Ranch radio shows, and even an appearance in the Gene Autry Comic Book / Movie Comic of Blue Montana Skies!).
The cowboy heroes weren’t the only ones who treated my Dad with kindness, their western side-kicks did too! Dad had a ball working with Smiley Burnette, Raymond Hatton, Rufe Davis, Lou Felton, Fuzzy Knight, and the others! In many movies, Dad’s screen time would be split between the cowboy hero and the cowboy’s comedic sidekick! I recall Dad saying how much fun he had playing bratty Wilbur Potter and pestering Smiley Burnette in the Gene Autry western Blue Montana Skies. In that film, Dad’s mischievous character Wilbur has hilarious scenes with Smiley, as he plays all sorts of tricks and practical jokes on him!
We can’t leave out the classic western villains or “heavies” either! Dad told me that many of the villains in his westerns were just as kind and nice to him as the cowboy heroes were! These bad guys, who were actually the nicest men in the world, included heavies like Roy Barcroft, Ed Cobb, Tom London, George Chesebro and Glen Strange! Dad really got a kick out of Ed Cobb . . . he always smiled when remembering him!
In one of his westerns, Dad rode the famous Hollywood movie horse “Silver,” also known as “Silver Chief!” Silver was the Lone Ranger’s horse in the Lone Ranger serials starring Lee Powell and Bob Livingston. Silver was also the horse of the Durango Kid/Charles Starrett, the horse of Sunset Carson, Tom Tyler and Ray “Crash” Corrigan! Yes, Dad even worked with famous horses!
When Dad worked on a western film, it was like being in one big happy family! Dad loved working at beautiful outdoor locations with fresh air, sunshine, blue skies and rocky terrain. . . places like Iverson’s Ranch, the Monogram Ranch and Convict Lake! The highly detailed western town exterior sets were also like a big playground to Dad! Some of the locations required overnight stays, so those films were mini vacations for him! It sure beat working inside dark soundstages all day long!
These movies were directed by talented men responsible for hundreds of classic westerns, and several worked with Dad multiple times because they thought he was a terrific actor. These directors included Lambert Hillyer and Sam Neufield, not to mention Herbert Leeds, B. Reeves Eason, Ray Taylor, Joseph Kane, Lester Orlebeck and Lesley Selander.
Dad also loved working with the wranglers. . . they taught him rope tricks, and the best ways to ride horses. He enjoyed riding horses and got very good at it. He also had fun riding in covered wagons, on buckboards, and driving stagecoaches (yes, as a kid he drove a stagecoach in The Three Mesquiteer’s film Pals of the Pecos). Dad was fascinated watching iconic stuntmen like Yakima Canutt and Dave Sharpe work their magic, and he loved shooting off various fire-arms, including vintage Colt 45’s and old rifles! In a Bob Baker western, Dad’s character actually saves the day when he blows a bad-guy off a rooftop with a shotgun blast (something you will never see in today’s politically correct movies . . . a kid heroically shooting a villain and being praised for doing it!)! It was “Heaven on Earth” for a boy in those days!
(WE WILL HAVE MORE FROM WILLIAM ABOUT HIS WONDERFUL TALENTED FATHER LATER!)
WATCH BOBBY WINCKLER IN THE BOB STEELE MOVIE The Feud Maker. JUST CLICK ON THE PHOTO!