Of all the villains, outlaws, blackhats, varmints, owlhoots, and rannies who caused trouble on the big-screen Wild West of Hollywood’s Golden Age, no one was meaner, more conniving, or more likely to end up on the receiving end of a frontier film hero’s punches than Roy Barcroft. Johnny Mack Brown, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers were just a few of the Saturday matinee idols who had to foil Roy’s villainous shenanigans and bring him to justice in a film and TV career that lasted over 30 years and included a 10-year exclusive contract with Republic Pictures from 1943 to 1953.
Born Howard Harold Ravenscroft in rural southeastern Nebraska in 1902, he lied about his age so he could join the Army when he was 15 and was wounded in action while serving in France during World War I. Upon his return home, he’d spend the next decade or so in a wide array of jobs: cook and dishwasher, working on railroad construction and oil wells, sailing on tramp steamers, and even re-enlisting–with his right age–in the Army, where Roy learned to play clarinet and sax. By the early 1930s he and his second wife were living in Southern California, where he worked as a salesman and was an unbilled extra in Greta Garbo’s Mata Hari (1931) and A Woman Commands with Pola Negri (1932).
It was when Roy took a public speaking class to improve his sales skills that a friend suggested he try his hand at acting. Roles in local stage productions led to more uncredited screen appearances in serials (Flash Gordon with Buster Crabbe in 1936, S.O.S. Coast Guard as one of Bela Lugosi’s henchmen the following year) and the occasional “A” feature (1937’s Rosalie with Nelson Eddy). It also led to a professional name change. “I thought I’d like to be up there fairly high, which is the B’s,” he once said in an interview, “and I thought I’d choose a name no one else had in the business, but kind of similar to an actor who is established, like George Bancroft…so I came up with Roy Barcroft. It sounds like a heavy.”
The newly rechristened Barcroft’s first turn as a frontier baddie came in a 1937 Johnny Mack Brown serial for Universal, Flaming Frontiers, but first he had to “stretch the truth” about his riding expertise before the producer would hire him. Regarding his equestrian prowess, Roy would later recall, “I thought I could handle a horse…but one thing was certain; If I intended to remain in western pictures, and all in one piece, I was going to have to learn how to really ride. I sneaked away and practiced riding and falling by myself time and time again until I was accepted by the others.”
Throughout the late 1930s and early ’40s Roy found steady saddle work at Universal, RKO, Monogram, Columbia and other studios. He didn’t always get on-screen credit–and often, when he did, his character was known simply as “Henchman” so-and-so–but his mustache, burly build and distinctive speaking voice (which he said he patterned after fellow film heavy Harry Woods) made him popular with audiences. Along with Brown, some of the other gun-slinglin’ good guys he made look even better during this time were Gene Autry (Mexicali Rose), Tex Ritter (The Man from Texas), Tim Holt (Pirates of the Prairie), The Rough Riders (Below the Border), and even pro football star Sammy Baugh (King of the Texas Rangers). He was hogtied by Hopalong Cassidy in Hoppy Serves a Writ, roughed up by Roy Rogers in Jesse James at Bay, and bested by Buck Jones in the sagebrush great’s final film before his death in a 1942 Boston nightclub fire, Dawn on the Great Divide. Remembering Jones and the movie, Roy later told interviewer Leonard Maltin, “In it there was a scene where Buck stands over an open grave and sings ‘Rock of Ages.’ In the final few frames he turns to the audience, waves goodbye, and rides off into the sunset. Well, when we saw that picture there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I know mine weren’t.”
Barcroft’s screen appearances at this time weren’t limited to “B” westerns. He also had small roles in the William Powell/Myrna Loy whodunit Another Thin Man (1939) and Errol Flynn actioners Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941); he went back into outer space as one of Ming the Merciless’ underlings in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940); and he was one of John Wayne’s fighting Seabees in, naturally, The Fighting Seabees (1944). And, like Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On and Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail, Roy got his chance to play George Armstrong Custer in another Universal chapterplay with Brown, 1939’s The Oregon Trail.
Villainy–particularly of the frontier kind–was Roy’s forte, however, and Republic Pictures had such faith in the actor’s ability that they lock up his talents for the next decade with a “Term Player” contract in 1943. One would be hard-pressed to find an “A” western, “B” western, or serial with the company’s familiar eagle logo that didn’t have Barcroft appear in it at some point. Two very different roles from two very different Republic serials offered Roy a chance to shine. He was a criminal who used an experimental machine to transform himself into an exact “molecular double” of his ancestor, an infamous 18th-century buccaneer known as Captain Mephisto, in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945), while Radar Men from the Moon (1952) Roy in some not-very-flattering robes as lunar emperor Retik, who was training his “atomic ray” on Earth to pave the way for an invasion. Luckily for humanity, rocket-suited hero Commander Cody (George Wallace) was on hand to swoop in and foil the malevolent moon men’s plot. Seven years earlier, Barcroft had also played an unfriendly alien visitor–this time from Mars–in another sci-fi serial, The Purple Monster Strikes.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Roy was up to his usual Wild West chicanery, larceny and double-crosses, making life miserable for the likes of Eddie Dew in Raiders of Sunset Pass (1943), Roy Rogers (again!) in Bells of Rosarita (1945) and My Pal Trigger (1946), future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore in the serial Jesse James Rides Again (1947), and a pair of Red Ryders–“Wild Bill” Elliott and Allan “Rocky” Lane–in Sun Valley Cyclone (1946) and Marshal of Cripple Creek (1947), among dozens of other films. Every once in a while, though, audiences got a chance to root for Roy instead of boo him, like when he played Sunset Carson’s rancher pa in 1945’s The Cherokee Flash. And then there were the more unusual efforts such as Republic’s 1948 serial G-Men Never Forget, which cast Barcroft in the dual role of a police commissioner and his look-alike (thanks to plastic surgery) criminal counterpart and gave the actor the rare chance to have an on-screen gunfight…with himself!
By the time Barcroft’s Republic contract expired in 1953, the “B” westerns were on their way out at movie theaters, and television was where many of the genre’s players–including Roy–were finding work. Even as his old films were airing in living rooms across America, Roy guest starred on such popular series as The Adventures of Kit Carson, Annie Oakley, The Lone Ranger, Have Gun–Will Travel, Bonanza, Rawhide, and Gunsmoke. He even was a good guy, Triple-R Ranch owner Col. Jim Logan, on Walt Disney’s The Adventures of Spin and Marty. There were also occasional big-screen appearances, with some films (Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas, the marshal in Oklahoma!) more memorable than others (The Kettles on Old Macdonald’s Farm, the sheriff in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula). Weight gain and other health concerns took their toll on the actor, with Roy’s final role–of over 370, according to the Internet Movie Database–coming as a saloonkeeper in the 1970 western Monte Walsh, starring Lee Marvin. It was, sadly, a posthumous performance, as Barcroft had passed away from cancer in November of 1969.
Despite his menacing demeanor in front of the camera, fellow actors and co-workers all said that Roy was the total opposite in real life. Rex Allen called him “the biggest, nicest old Saint Bernard you could ever want to be around,” while Sunset Carson remembered him “always telling jokes and pulling tricks on somebody.” And the King of the Cowboys himself, Roy Rogers, said Barcroft was “one of the nicest guys I ever worked with.” That he was able to make moviegoers fear and jeer him through so many films is a testament to the man beneath the black hat.