For as long as there have been alien beings bent on taking over or destroying the planet in the movies, there have been plucky Earthlings who manage to stop them. In The Day the Earth Stood Still Helen Benson prevented Armageddon with the words “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” David Levinson and Steven Hiller used a downloadable computer virus in Independence Day. And Richie Norris found that a little Slim Whitman would blow the minds–literally–of the big-domed invaders of Mars Attacks! But for airline pilot and concerned husband Jeff Trent, all it took was one good backhand punch to set in motion the downfall of would-be conquerors Eros and Tana in Ed Wood’s beloved 1959 sci-fi saga, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Last week the man who played Jeff Trent, veteran actor Gregory Walcott, passed away at his Los Angeles home at the age of 87. He was the last surviving leading cast member of the movie once dubbed “the worst film ever made” (a title bestowed, one must recall, years before the release of Ishtar, Gigli or anything starring Adam Sandler). Beyond that infamous career choice, however, Walcott enjoyed a four-decade Hollywood tenure that saw him work for the likes of Raoul Walsh, John Ford and Steven Spielberg and share the screen with Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Tony Curtis, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Sally Field.
Born Bernard Mattox in Wendell, North Carolina in January of 1928, he was raised in the nearby town of Wilson (home of another screen notable, Ava Gardner). He joined the Army shortly after the end of World War II. After leaving the service, and with $100 in his pocket, he thumbed his way out West and began trying to make a name for himself (after crafting his new professional moniker) in Hollywood as an actor. An uncredited debut in the Richard Widmark western Red Skies of Montana (1952) was followed with other minor roles. Walcott’s soldiering experience served him well in 1955, when he was cast as a drill instructor in Raoul Walsh’s WWII drama Battle Cry, which helped him land a contract with Warner Bros., and then played a Shore Patrol officer opposite Henry Fonda in the film version of Mister Roberts.
Over the remainder of the ’50s Walcott would spend most of his time in front of the camera in either military uniforms or frontier garb, with appearances in Strange Lady in Town with Greer Garson and Texas Lady with Claudette Colbert (both ’55); the 1956 comedy The Lieutenant Wore Skirts and the 1958 Korean War thriller Jet Attack; as Bat Masterson alongside Buster Crabbe’s Wyatt Earp and George Montgomery’s Pat Garrett in Badman’s Country (also’58); and on such TV series as The Rifleman, Maverick and Perry Mason.
He also, courtesy of church colleague and would-be producer Ed Reynolds, was introduced to filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., who offered Gregory the role of the leading man in Plan 9. “I read the script and thought it was gibberish,” he later recounted, but took the part as a favor to Reynolds, who was financially backing the cross-dressing auteur’s interplanetary opus. Throughout Plan 9’s goofy goings on and stilted dialogue, Walcott’s Jeff Trent manages to keep a stiff upper lip, until a crack from alien visitor Eros (Dudley Manlove) about Earthlings’ “stupid minds” leads him to deliver a solid right to the jaw. “I honestly thought it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no one would ever see it,” he confessed, never dreaming how such a minor picture could come back “from the dead” to haunt him decades later.
As the 1960s began Gregory was back to playing a D.I. who whips Native American UMSC enlistee Ira Hayes (Tony Curtis) into shape in the true-life war drama The Outsider (1961) and was a colonel that same war in a Danny Kaye comedy, On the Double. 1961 also saw Walcott land his first co-starring TV series gig, as detective Roger Havilland in the short-lived NBC drama 87th Precinct, based on the Ed McCain crime novels and also featuring Robert Lansing, Norman Fell and Gena Rowlands.
The actor was reunited with Curtis for 1963’s Captain Newman, M.D., also starring Gregory Peck. In 1967 he co-produced and played the title role in Bill Wallace of China, an independent religious film sharing the true story of a Baptist medical missionary who served in post-WWII China, was arrested following the communist takeover on trumped-up charges, and died in captivity. His ’60s TV credits included Bonanza, Laramie, The Mod Sqaud and Rawhide, where he struck up a friendship with series star Clint Eastwood.
Thanks to the above-mentioned friendship with Eastwood, Walcott landed the role of Sheriff Mitchell in Clint’s 1971 western Joe Kidd. The two would work together three more times in the ’70s: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). Gregory also had key roles as slaughterhouse operator Gene Hackman’s mentally unstable brother in the offbeat actioner Prime Cut (1972); as a state patrolman in Steven Spielberg’s big-screen directorial debut, The Sugarland Express (1974); as an Army captain (hey, it’s a few steps up from drill instructor) in the WWII saga Midway (1976); and as the police chief taking a defiant Sally Field out of the factory in Norma Rae (1979).
The late ’70s and ’80s found Walcott focusing on TV work, with guest turns on The Six Million Dollar Man, Dallas, Simon & Simon and Murder, She Wrote, as well as a 1976 daytime stint on The Young and the Restless, as Jeanne Cooper’s lover, that brought him to the attention of soap fans. Gregory’s final screen role came, fittingly, in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, where he was seen as an understandably wary businessman that Wood (Johnny Depp) was hoping would invest in his grade-Z projects.
Following that appearance, Walcott settled into retirement in Southern California, writing his autobography and speaking at film festivals and seminars. He and second wife Barbara, introduced to one another by none other than “Queen of the Cowgirls” Dale Evans, were married from 1954 until her death in 2010. The couple had three children together, with son Todd Mattox keeping up the family’s sci-fi tradition by working as a puppeteer in the first two Men in Black films.
Regarding his slice of cinematic immortality as a result of Plan 9’s unlikely cult popularity, Walcott learned to live with it. “I didn’t want to be remembered for that,” he said in a 2000 L.A. Times interview, “but it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing, don’t you think?” We agree, Gregory, and we want to thank you for your service, your years before the camera, and saving mankind from the menace of “grave robbers from outer space.”