Clu Gulager as Emmett Ryker

Clu-GulagerThe enigmatic Clu Gulager played Sheriff Emmett Ryker on The Virginian from 1964-1968 but is best known to modern audiences for his role in the cult horror movie The Return of the Living Dead (1985).

Clu Gulager was a temperamental actor during his time with Universal but like may actors with an edge was also one of their best. He always expressed a desire to direct and found acting in television creatively unsatisfying. He got his wish to direct but still continued with his acting career and became a cult favorite of horror fans later in his career.

Fans of The Virginian will always remember him as Ryker. He was one of my favorite characters and his departure in 1968 marked a turning point for the series. He was impossible to replace.

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61 thoughts on “Clu Gulager as Emmett Ryker”

  1. I was a major fan of Clu Gulager’s portrayal of Ryker in The Virginian. He offered a contrast to the Shiloh folk and his edgy acting always delighted me. His most acclaimed artistic performance was in The Last Picture Show. He met Peter Bogdanovitz on The Virginian set, I believe. I agree with you, Paul, that the series was never the same after his departure. His exit was a sad loss to the series. Thanks very much for adding this section to your blog. Where is the top photo from? I’ve never seen it before.

    Regards and best wishes, Tony

  2. The top right photo is from the FAB 208 Annual 1973 Tony. If my memory is correct this photo was also used in a FAB 208 magazine interview with Clu Gulager.

  3. I found this bit of information/trivia on Clu, that I thought was very interesting:

    Gulager was born William Martin Gulager in Holdenville, Oklahoma, the son of John Gulager, a cowboy entertainer. His first cousin was Will Rogers (through his paternal grandmother). Gulager served in the United States Marine Corps from 1946 to 1948. He has Cherokee Native American ancestry. His nickname was given to him by his father for the clu-clu birds who were nesting at the Gulager home at the time Clu was born.

  4. Yes I mention this in my book Diane. Unfortunately Clu Gulager didn’t return requests for an interview but I did manage to obtain feedback on his personality from fellow actors and producers. He had a reputation of being somewhat difficult at times. :))

  5. I’ve just watched Star Crossed from Season 6 and think that this is one of Clu’s best Virginian performances.

    He might have grown cynical of the part he played but I always felt that he gave value for money in his portrayal of Emmett Ryker.

    I would have loved to know what Doug McClure thought of Clu. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that they were friends but I could be mistaken’

    Your website is becoming a veritable treasure trove of Virginian interest, Paul. Well Done.

    Best Regards, Tony

  6. Thanks Tony. Yes Clu mentioned he was a good friend of Doug. As you know from my book he also socialized with executive producer Frank Price.
    A difficult man to many – Bradford Dillman mentions Clu was “a rather eccentric man” in an interview from a few years ago featured on the Cinema Retro website.

  7. You might enjoy visiting Clu’s official web-site so you can see how he looks today – nice photos.

    He has a fan club and the web-site it’s accepting all material on Clu, so if either of you have anything you might want to contribute you can contact them – they give the e-mail address on the web-site.

    I think I’ll always remember him as Billy the Kid and when I got a chance to visit Billy the Kid’s hide-out years after I watched the television version, I kept seeing Clu’s image, rather than the actual image of Billy (which you can also find on the web).

    Here’s the link to Clu’s site:

    http://www.clugulager.com/

  8. Thanks Diane. Yes the real Billy the Kid wasn’t a pretty sight. Of all the actors who’ve portrayed him Val Kilmer’s performance is my favorite.

  9. Oh, you’ve touched upon a great name in my book! Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in TOMBSTONE – no one has ever played him better. I love anything Val Kilmer does!!!!

    My favorite old ‘legends’ were of course the Earp brothers; Billy the Kid, and Jesse James. I’ve been reading up on Jesse; I found a good web-site dedicated to him that you might want to also check out.

    http://www.ericjames.org/Meet_Phil_Stewart.html/

    Another fascinating character ‘of old’ is William Randolph Hearst – I’ve been to the castle he built; the story of his life is also ‘legend’.

    I’d love to see a movie made about his life; can’t think of who I’d get to play the part, but if we had the likes of Lee J. Cobb around, I say he’d be a good candidate.

  10. PS: Both Jesse James and Billy the Kid were of Irish descent; got to hand it to those Irish – they were a handful indeed (and still are).

    When they’re good, they’re very very good; when they’re bad, they’re still very very good at being bad.

    Never met an Irishperson I didn’t like……….

  11. I loved Clu Gulager’s role as Emmett Ryker. Now in watching the series on the western channel, my husband and I refer to him as “The Bloodhound.” Whenever he came nosing around, you could be sure he was on to something. Loved all the characters except Morgan Starr–thank you for seasons five…..without him.

    1. I agree Sandra. Clu Gulager was excellent as Emmett Ryker. But I also enjoyed Ross Elliott as Sheriff Mark Abbott. One of the few cast members to survive all nine seasons.

  12. I liked Clu Gulager’s performance as the moody, edgy Emmett Ryker. It gave “The Virginian” somewhat of an earthy appeal, presenting the image of a deputy sheriff at times in conflict with himself, questioning his overall worth and whether or not he was making a substantial positive impact on the concept of law and order in the 1880s West. The character, though he maintained a calm composure, at least once let out his fury and frustrations in the episode (I can’t recall the title) featuring Leslie Nielsen as a wandering bum who committed murder and was subject to a lynching. Encore Westerns have just begun airing year five episodes; was Gulager in any of that season’s stories? I’ve noted he’s no longer listed in the opening credits.

    1. Hi Will: Clu Gulager is missing for the first half of the season but returns in “Sue Ann” (5:16) and continues until the end of the season.

  13. I too liked Clu as Sheriff Ryker. I thought his best episode was that when Mark (then-sheriff) was murdered. I missed an episode or two sometime later only to find out that Sheriff Ryker was no longer around and Mark had been resurrected from the dead. I do not know how this came about.

    1. Hi Jeff: Continuity wasn’t always a strong point of The Virginian – especially when producers changed between seasons. Unlike shows today with their continuing story arcs most of The Virginian episodes were stand alone stories. There are exceptions where a guest star character appears in more than one episode.

      So some of the continuity of the first half of season one didn’t carry through when Roy Huggins took control for example. Timelines changed without explanation.

      My book covers this aspect of The Virginian in greater detail and executive producer Frank Price explains the reasoning behind it.

  14. Actually, it was Sheriff John Brannan (played by Harlan Warde) who was murdered in the episode ‘The Laramie Road’. He indeed was gone forever after that. It’s easy to make that mistake because he and Sheriff Mark Abbott (Ross Elliott) were similar in appearance.

    However, Sheriff Abbott WAS the sheriff BEFORE Brannan and then after Ryker left (briefly), Sheriff Abbott was suddenly back in office again. And then later on in the first ‘Men From Shiloh’ episode, there was yet a DIFFERENT sheriff (played by John Larch) before Abbott returned to office again! Whew! We need a chart to keep track of all the different sheriffs and their terms of office. LOL!

    1. Medicine Bow had a lot of sheriffs! Before Abbot, there was Stan Evans , played by Russell Thorsen, who also played Sheriff Tybee in Duel at Shiloh and Russ Whiteman played the sheriff in Man From The Sea. John Larch was the first sheriff we saw in The Executioners.

  15. So does anyone know why Clu wasn’t in that first half of S5? Was it a contract dispute or something? Or did he not intend to return but was lured back for half a season?

    1. Executive Producer Frank Price talks about this in detail in my book Marcia. Clu Gulager was always looking to get into “serious” acting and directing at this stage in his career.

  16. Thanks for the response, though it’s a bit vague. I guess I can’t blame you for wanting to sell your book, though.

  17. Have read your book and have it on my Kindle for reference on the various episodes. Was a tremendous Virginian fan in Scotland, so much so that the Best Man at my wedding said “We’re lucky to have Marion here tonight as The Virginian in on the TV.” I am thoroughly enjoying the series on Encore and waiting for the Season Three to be issued on DVD.

    Your book mentions that Season 7 saw the departure of Emmett Ryker (my favourite character) and Don Quine. In the episode guide I only see Emmett mentioned once in Star Crossed, is he a regular/semi regular during Season Six?

    Thank you for all your research.

    Marion

    1. Hi Marion: You’ll be glad to know Emmett Ryker appears regularly in episodes throughout season six. When compiling the episode guide my publisher told me to write concise synopses of each episode – thus I concentrate on the central characters of individual storylines.

      Glad to see you using my book for reference on your Kindle. :)

  18. When I got the e-mail reply by Marion Cleverly, I thought how great it must be to have the last name ‘Cleverly’. Do you realize everything Marion says will be ‘cleverly’ said…..

    ….or Marion Cleverly did… Set my mind to thinking what a unique name and with a positive meaning as well as being an adjective or an adverb! I imagine Marion has fond memories of the times that name has served him well.

  19. LOL That’s true Diane. I have to admit when I first read Marion’s surname it reminded me of a seaside resort near Blackpool in England – Cleveleys.

  20. Firstly I am female. The name is Scottish and not the same origin as John Wayne seemingly. The main thing about my surname is that I married an adverb and until that time I never really understood what an adverb was.

    As for the place near Blackpool, you would be amazed how many different spelling and even more different pronunciation that folk come up with. Yes Diane everything I do I do “Cleverly” and just to add to the effect my middle name is Winning so how can I lose?

  21. Hi, Marion,

    I’m a fellow Clu Gulager fan (as Paul well knows!!!) and as a teenager in England in the late Sixties I was mesmerised by his performances as Ryker. As has been said before, he brought with him something different to the show- an intensity that I admired. However, his humorous scenes with Shiloh regulars were well done, especially his regular exchanges with James Drury.

    Marion, in Season 6, Clu is something of a semi regular. After Star Crossed he has few major episodes (The Masquerade and To Bear Witness are possible exceptions to this). My view is that both the producers and the actor himself were preparing for his departure by reducing his appearances. His final appearance is a cameo in the Gentle Tamers episode, after which he remains on the ride-in, is very occasionally mentioned by name but the law becomes embodied by Sheriff Abbott once again.

    I do think his performance in Star Crossed is one of Clu’s best. Once he left the series, I’m afraid the show lost some of its magic for me although I dutifully continued to watch it as I worked on the premise that he’d departed once and then magically reappeared so he might return again. Alas! I was wrong.

    Warmest Regards, Tony (Chester UK)

    1. Hi Tony : Good to see you here again. :) I agree that Clu Gulager’s departure after season six (and Don Quine’s exit) marked the end of the classic period of The Virginian. Gulager’s time on The Virginian was frustrating for fans because he was gradually relegated to the background. Season 7 and David Hartman has its fans. But that’s another story… Tim Matheson in Season 8 was a definite improvement.

  22. Hi Tony,

    Chester is a lovely city, very nice and a unique racecourse. I lived in Shawbury for a couple of years.

    Thank for the info on Emmett. It says something that after ALL these years I can still feel sad about him not going to be in many “future” episodes. Daft really but shows the pull the character has and the congrats due to Clu for the way he played him.

    Very glad that there are things such as DVR’s and eventually DVD’s of the relevant seaons.

    I know that the number of guest stars made The Virginian different but I would have liked less guest stars and more interaction between the main characters.

    Regards, Marion now in California

    1. Marion, your comment about less guest stars and more interaction among the regulars is exactly what I mentioned in part in my lengthy post a few minutes ago. One of the things that turns me off about the show is how it was almost a rotating anthology, like Name of the Game, but without actually being one.

      I wanted to see the regulars together, but the way The V evolved, you got one main player with one or two bit players who maybe did two or three scenes to sort of fill things out. Regulars were sent on road trips, away from Shiloh, a lot to accomplish this, and I just don’t like most of those shows.

      Like I said, I think the first few years were the best because of the pal angle that disappeared once Clarke left.

  23. Actually, I hated The Virginian as a kid. This show bored me too death. I’m only just learning to enjoy parts of it, thanks to the Encore reruns. What I’ve discovered is that I liked the first 3 years the best. I think the show changed for the bad when Gary Clarke left or was fired or whatever reason he left.

    In watching these shows for virtually the first time, I was surprised that I liked some of them quite a bit (largely first season shows). Others reminded me of why I didn’t like the show originally, but one of the pluses was that friendship between The V, Trampas, and … oops, lol, out of sight, out of mind. Yikes — what was his name on the slow? Well, Clarke’s character. They were buddies, and that was fun to watch. When he left, The V was Mr. Serious Foreman, and that playfulness was gone.

    I’m not a fan of Lee J. Cobb, but he owned that spot as ranch owner. I like Dehner, but he didn’t fit in my opinion, and Charles Bickford bores me, as do Quine and Lane as his grandkids. What a shame Roberta Shore left. She was fun. I liked Randy Boone early on, too. Since I”m watching these for essentially the first time, I’m eager to see how David Hartman is on the show because I always liked him as an actor.

    As for Clu, I’ve always been fascinated by him. Actually, one side of my family used to have a rumor going that they were related in some distant way (they’re not; no clue how that got started but we’re talking country folk, Oklahomans, from decades back), so that’s why he’s had my attention. I’ve just loved his work that I’ve see (not the horror stuff; that’s so not my style).

    Anyone remember Houston, We’ve Got a Problem? That was an awesome early made for TV movie that Clu starred in. I love that thing. He had another TV show I always liked; it might have been one of the last things we really saw him in, but oops again, I’ve forgotten the name — Paradise … hmm … he was a bum adopted by a bunch of kids and he ends up taking care of them. I should go check the credits but I have a hunch y’all know what it is.

    Back to The V, I did watch occasional episodes over the years when it first ran, but most I just didn’t like. I probably watched more when it was Men from Shiloh.

    Watch where you’re throwing those tomatoes! :}

    1. Interesting to hear your thoughts Marcia. I agree when Steve (that’s his name – LOL) left the playful relationships changed. The Virginian (James Drury) became more serious and a little weighty – :)) as the seasons progressed – but I did enjoy Trampas who remained essentially the same until The Men From Shiloh compromised his character.
      I think most fans consider the Judge Garth-Betsy years the classic format.

      1. Steve! Yes, that was it. LOL Thank you!

        I’ll be curious to see what my thoughts are on Trampas when the MFS episodes are shown on Encore (I hope they’re on the agenda anyway). I have a soft spot for Doug McClure these days anyway. :}

  24. When watching all those years ago I used to hate the parts Betsy was in. I couldn’t stand her and I far as I was concerned she just got in the way of the action.

    Seems I’ve matured a bit as I have been more tolerant of her this time and really appreciate how much better she was than the other female fill ins. Jennifer was a weakling and pathetic, Elizabeth is a bit better but I get the impression that the screenwriters held her back so as not to show up the various female guest stars.

    Steve Hill was my first favourite but got replaced the minute that Emmett appeared on the screen.

    1. As a kid I found Betsy too upbeat and Disneyesque (if that’s a word! LOL). But like you Marion, as an adult I can see there was some depth to her character and Roberta Shore’s acting.

      Sara Lane was frustrated with her role in later seasons as Jeanette Nolan became more prominent. But you know that from reading her interview in my book. :)

      I have to admit Trampas was my favorite character on the show, followed by the Virginian. I was always disappointed when neither character had a central role in an episode.

  25. As a horse person I always take a close interest in who can actually ride and those who are hanging on for dear life. In a few of the distance shots obviously the stars are not riding but the double they have for James Drury cannot ride half as well as he can.

    The best on screen rider was Ben Johnson and watching his work is marvellous. His ride in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, when going for help he turns and runs straight down the hill is amazing. If you watch you will see the horse trip half way down and the recovery is one that most folk would not have made.

    It sure makes a director’s life easier if the rider can ride.

    1. Yes as you know Marion Doug McClure was also an accomplished rider. It really does make a difference to see a Western actor comfortable on a horse.

  26. We enjoy watching the Virigian. We dudn’t watch it was on in the 1960′s. What happemed to John McTinyire? Did he own Shiloh or did Judge Henry Garth own it first?
    Also I lke thew chaeacters. James Drury, Doug McClure and how come they chaning the third character? I also like Randy Boone and the young lady who plays Beckie.
    I guess This all for now.

    1. Hi Judy: Thanks for posting. Judge Garth owned Shiloh Ranch first.

      All answers to your questions are in my book “A History of Television’s The Virginian 1962-1971″ but I assume by Beckie you mean Elizabeth? :) Yes Sara Lane was perfect for the part.

  27. Hi Judy,

    They had a few owners of the ranch — Garth was the first and McIntyre the last, unless you count Men from Shiloh in which there was yet another owner. No one was as good as Garth, though.

    Being on so long, any show will have cast changes. They had a ton on this one. I don’t know why people came and went — probably contractual issues and some stars wanting to do other things. Roberta Shore left to get married I think. She was a huge loss in my book. The show lost heart and charm after that in some respects.

    I think the early years were the best because they had that charm and real friendship. After a while, that disappeared and they ended up in a format where characters barely interacted (especially true for Men from Shiloh).

    1. The Men From Shiloh was season 9 of The Virginian so you count Stewart Granger (Col. MacKenzie) as the final owner. It really is pathetic how Encore have discarded The Men From Shiloh in their schedules. In syndication the show was retitled The Virginian : The Men From Shiloh. In retrospect it should have been titled this to begin with.
      And I agree the MFS format ruined the camaradarie of the show.

  28. I agree. I was very disappointed not to see the MFS episodes on Encore. It felt very absent of them not to include it. Like you said, there just wasn’t an comraderie in that season though. I doubt The Virginian knew he had a ranch hand named Lee Tate. One show together? Actually, I don’t think so. Majors was always with Granger. That was odd. Anyway, whoever thought of this ‘continuation’ really erred in judgment.

  29. Thought all my birthdays had come at once when I found “The Virginian” was coming out on DVD!I have bought 4 seasons and am eagerly awaiting the rest. I loved the series in the 60′s when I was growing up in England and love it just as much many years later here in New Zealand. Clu Gulager is my favorite actor in this and am impressed by his acting and that of James Drury. This was not just a great western but a serious about the human factor and powerful emotions and these actors were talented enough to convey that. PS one look from Clu Gulager just on screen makes me feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights – mermerised. Thanks Clu, you are magic! Rachael.

    1. Good to hear from a Virginian fan in New Zealand Rachael. Outside of America I think The Virginian made the most impact in the UK in the 1960s. Commercial free, uncut BBC broadcasts were a luxury only the British fans could appreciate at the time. Now everyone can watch commercial free episodes on DVD or if you live in America on Encore Westerns (if you can receive it). My big regret is it’s taken far too long for this to happen and Doug McClure isn’t around to enjoy it with fans..

    2. I loved the VIrginian, watching it while growing up in England, like Rachael. I didn’t know you could get it on DVD but I will. I liked Clu Gulager, and also James Drury of course, but how about Gary Clarke??

      1. What about Gary Clarke Pam? I interviewed him in depth for my book. A funny guy with a gift for storytelling.

  30. I really learned to appreciate Doug after having the chance to meet him at charity tennis events and the like. He was so very nice to me. He said something once that I’ll never forget about not listening to the critics and doing what makes you happy. I miss him.

  31. Just signed the petition Nic. Hope it’s successful for Doug. I’ve heard so many people say what a nice guy Doug was. Good advice regarding critics. :)

  32. Thanks, Paul, but you already signed it 3 weeks ago, not to worry, you weren’t the only one, Louise deleted the extra ones so we would have an accurate figure of those who signed. I just noticed Richard Hatch signed as well as Clint Walker.

  33. I never watched it on TV, however, when I realized Encore was dropping it from their schedule I bought all 7 seasons on DVD. I’m in the middle of season 5 right now. Was very surprised to see Emmett not there and Abbott magically back. But what interests me the most is how identifiable horses are able to appear in different towns with different riders on them. There is one buckskin horse with a bleached spot on a front shoulder that has appeared in Shiloh, also in Medicine bow with yet another rider, and then in some town down in Mexico with yet another rider. I’ve been able to I.D. two separate “Bucks” that Trampas rode, and two different white appys that The V rode. And, like most of the rest of you, I miss the friendly interaction between the main characters.

  34. This is amazing – I live in Australia and am recuperating from surgery so can watch the Virginian during the day instead of recording. Clu became sheriff today – it was a very moving end (I usually cry anyway – you can tell I am a girl!!) I also notice the horses being a horse person myself and having my own – I liked the episode (name?) James Drury and Trampas had to bring six palaminos back to Shiloh and the Virginian got sick and of course “fell in love” – well the pallies they brought back could have been mine – they were beautiful – I also notice one of the Buck’s tails is very white at the top – others aren’t – I guess horsey people notice that stuff!! My favourites were Doug, James and Steve (he was so cute and then he wasn’t there anymore!!)

    1. Hi Pip: My book answers the question about Steve’s sudden departure – straight from Gary Clarke himself. And Jim Drury talks about his beloved Appaloosa Joe plus his new horse on The Men From Shiloh. Happy recuperating watching The Virginian. :)

      1. Thank you very much Paul for your reply – I will attemtp to order your book on-line today – we actually have not had much men from shiloh over here – I don’t think it was as popular.
        cheers Pip

  35. My name is Patsy Davis and I live in Charlotte, N.C. I have started watching “The Virginian” again after all these years. Clu Cullagher, who played “Emmett, the sheriff” on a few of the episodes is outstanding still. He is now in his 80s, but you would never know it. He is still a great actor, etc. I love the entire cast of “The Virginian”. I am glad that the episodes are being reaired. Thank you.

    1. Hi Patsy: Yes Clu Gulager played Emmett Ryker on more than a few episodes. He was on The Virginian from 1965-1968. You have plenty of episodes to look forward to. :)

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