Saturday, April 1, 2017

Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?


In the summer of 1976, I was in an outdoor drama called BY WAY OF THE VALLEY about the early settlers and famous historical figures who lived in Elizabethtown and Hardin County Kentucky. Among my fellow cast members was a tall, handsome, dark skinned man with smiling eyes. He was always helping some of the less experienced actors with their makeup, their costumes, and assisting the director with whatever was needed. Rumor had it that he was a famous TV star and was living in the area because he was married to someone from Elizabethtown at the time. He didn't look familiar to me but he was nice so I liked working with him. I later researched his television career and discovered I had not been paying attention.

Abel Gonzalez Fernandez was born in Los Angeles, California on July 13, 1930. His mother, a Yaqui, died when Abel was born. His father was a Native American from Mexico. Abel attended Belmont High School in Los Angeles until the age of 16 when he enlisted in the United States Army. He became a paratrooper and started boxing. He won the Middleweight Boxing Champ of the Asiatic Forces.

After being discharged from the Army in 1950, he began boxing professionally.  He won the Los Angeles Times Golden Gloves Tournament and was runner-up in the national Golden Gloves event held in Chicago.  He boxed professionally as a light heavyweight until he grew tired of participating in the sport in 1953.  After putting three men in the hospital, he had gotten to the point where he feared hurting opponents so he dropped out of boxing to try acting.  In spite of that, he was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in October 2013.

Abel's acting debut was in a Robert Mitchum film called SECOND CHANCES in 1953.  He had a scene that included a fierce boxing match with the star under the blazing Mexican sun.  Mitchum later wrote that Abel knocked him out three times during the filming.  In the Humphrey Bogart classic boxing movie THE HARDER THEY FALL, he played Chief Firebird a Native American boxer who is hesitant to throw a fight.  His other movie credits include ALASKA SEAS opposite Robert Ryan (1954), FORT YUMA (1955),  MANY RIVERS TO CROSS with Robert Taylor (1955), THE TIJUANA STORY with James Darren (1957), PORK CHOP HILL with Gregory Peck (1959),  APACHE UPRISING (1965), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND (1966), MADIGAN (1968), and QUICKSILVER (1986).

One game I have played ever since I realized just who he really was is trying to spot Abel in one of his many television roles.  It isn't always that easy because he might be covered in warpaint and feathers or he might be playing a totally unexpected part.  If you would like to play along, some of the places to look would be guest roles on old shows like DANIEL BOONE, THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN, BONANZA, TIME TUNNEL, GUNSMOKE, BATMAN, THE VIRGINIAN, TALES OF WELLS FARGO, HAVE GUN -- WILL TRAVEL, or  MARCUS WELBY, M. D.. You might spot him on WAGON TRAIN where I saw him recently.  He played an Indian (nobody said Native American in those days) who stuck both hands into the fire because he had just touched a baby with smallpox.  It is possible that you might remember his role as Airman Abel Featherstone in the NBC series STEVE CANYON a live-action show based on the comic strip.

Abel's most memorable role was that of  Native American federal agent William Youngfellow on  the 1959 - 1963 ABC television series THE UNTOUCHABLES.  Set in the 1930s, Youngfellow was one of the Prohibition agents working with Elliot Ness played by Robert Stack.  The character of Youngfellow was based on Native American Federal Agent William Jennings Gardner, who was a member of the real-life Untouchables squad.   The Desilu Productions show aired 80 episodes some of which you can watch on YouTube.   Click on the video below to watch an outstanding episode featuring Abel as Youngfellow.




Abel spent his later years producing theatrical shows for disadvantaged children.


Abel Fernandez passed away on May 3, 2016 from lung cancer at a hospital in Whittier, California.  He was 85 years old.  I just read a tiny paragraph noting his passing.  No big deal about it like some stars.  Paul Peterson (Jeff Stone on the DONNA REED SHOW) was the only other person I saw mention it.  Paul wrote how the sound stages for the DONNA REED SHOW and THE UNTOUCHABLES were next to each other and he would go over whenever he got a break.  He told about how nice Able was and the sound advice he gave him about his acting career.  I never worked with Abel or even saw him again (except on TV) after that summer but I greatly mourned his passing. I was very happy to know he remained the man Paul and I once knew -- a kind-heart man who was always willing to pass along what he had learned to younger actors.



BY WAY OF THE VALLEY CAST PHOTO 1976

 Abel is the tall guy in the almost center back and I am the woman with all the dark hair right in front of him.