Cowtown Opry to honor Dean Smith, 'the epitome of the Texas cowboy'

Posted Friday, Mar. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Texas Independence Day

Texans should remember the Alamo -- and the rest of our state's rich history. Editorial, 8B

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IVAN -- Dean Smith can't count all the times he died.

During the heyday of western movies, taking a fatal bullet -- or arrow -- was routine for the professional actor and stuntman, just part of his job.

He knew how to expire, on cue, believably, usually in one take.

On those occasions when the director wanted to re-shoot a scene, Smith resurrected himself, climbed back onto his horse, or a stagecoach -- whatever the script called for -- and dutifully died again.

During filming of the 1960 movie The Alamo, the former University of Texas track star and Olympic gold medalist portrayed several uniformed Mexican soldiers and served as double for singer Frankie Avalon's character, one of Davey Crockett's Tennesseans.

The stuntman made more costume changes than a runway fashion model.

"I think I was shootin' at myself half the time," Smith recalled.

"Got killed every time I put something on."

So perhaps no one is happier to count himself among the living than the 81-year-old rancher and cancer survivor, who will be honored Sunday night by the Cowtown Opry at the Texas Independence Day gala in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

The nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving, promoting and performing Texas, Western heritage and Western swing music.

"Dan is all about the Western way of life," said Sonya Howeth, Cowtown Opry's chairwoman of the board. "That's who he is. He's the epitome of the Texas cowboy."

'I'm an old cowhand'

All cowboy, from his good-guy white hat to his singing voice-mail greeting ("I'm an old cowhand, from the Rio Grande ...") Smith has loved western music since he attended a rodeo in Fort Worth in the 1946 and saw Gene Autry gallop into Will Rogers Coliseum.

On the silver screen, Autry personified the straight-shooting hero -- honest, brave and true.

In his rodeo act Autry's horse, Champion, jumped onto a grand piano, its flattened top covered with a rubber mat.

Autry filled the arena with his familiar tenor voice, barbed with a prairie twang.

I'm back in the saddle again

Out where a friend is a friend

Where the longhorn cattle feed

On the lowly jimson weed . . .

Smith was star-struck, mesmerized.

"I want to go to Hollywood -- right now!" the 14-year-old told himself.

He did go, too, but not before achieving his own measure of fame as a world-class sprinter.

'That ain't a brag'

At Graham High School, Smith won the state championship in the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds.

He attended the University of Texas, where he played football and was an All-American in track, winning multiple Southwest Conference titles.

In 1952 he earned a gold medal at the Olympics in Helsinki as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team.

After a brief stint in the NFL, Smith met actor James Garner, who helped him start a career in show business that lasted five decades.

Parlaying his athleticism and horsemanship, Smith appeared in 10 films starring John Wayne and doubled for Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Duvall in True Grit and close friend Dale Robertson in the TV series Tales of Wells Fargo, among others.

"I could run, ride and jump over a horse," Smith said. "I didn't have to take a back seat to anybody. That ain't a brag. Just a fact."

Of all his movie credits, Smith enjoyed working in The Alamo perhaps the most.

As a schoolboy, he learned about the heroism of William Travis, Crockett, Jim Bowie and the other brave souls who fought to the death in the battle that played a critical role in the Texas Revolution. Smith spent four months on the movie, filmed near Brackettville, west of San Antonio.

He worked during an era when stuntmen were in demand and well paid. In McLintock!, another Wayne picture, Smith doubled for the flame-haired leading lady, Maureen O'Hara. Wearing a dress and red wig, Smith broke through a railing and fell backward off a second-floor hotel balcony and landed in a hay wagon.

He loved making Westerns, but by the early 1990s the movie industry had changed. With the type of work Smith wanted to do no longer available, he returned to his home, where his heart is, to the rolling landscape of rural Stephens County, between Graham and Breckenridge.

His Bar Double Diamond Ranch sits on the land that's been in his family since the 1870s.

'They're all gone'

The octogenarian, like others his age, will tell you growing old isn't easy.

Seated in the living room of his small hilltop home, Smith gazed thoughtfully at a gallery of framed photos picturing his heroes and dear friends. Gene Autry. John Wayne. Ben Johnson. Ken Curtis, who played Festus in the popular TV series Gunsmoke.

"They're all gone," Smith said.

Sadly, so is Hollywood, his beloved trick horse and longtime companion.

One winter day, a year ago, a vet looked on as Smith took the old paint horse from his stall and gently led his hobbled friend a short distance to an open grave.

"Hell, yes, it was hard," Smith said, his blue eyes shining.

But life goes on for the living, and Dean Smith never treasured life more than he does now.

He's proud of his autobiography, Cowboy Stuntman, which will be published soon.

He's especially grateful for the time that's been given to him, late in life, to help parent a son.

Each weekday morning, Smith drives 14-year-old Finis Dean Smith II to school in Graham, 20 miles away. Then he picks him up in the afternoon.

Finis plays the guitar and fiddle and, to his dad's delight, competes on his eighth-grade track team.

"He's a good boy. Tall as I am," Smith said. "Other day I got my starting blocks out and taught him how to do some starts. He got out there and outran 'em all. I'd like to have another dozen years to coach him."

Perhaps best of all he has the love and devotion of the woman he married in 1996 in a little white adobe church on the set of The Alamo.

She's been his rock, his steadfast friend, in sickness and in health, and she'll be his partner Sunday night when the swing band strikes up and the boot-scootin' dancing begins.

Smith smiled at his wife, Debby.

And offered her a cowboy's highest praise.

"She's the type of girl," he said, "you want to cross the river with."

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