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April 17, 2014

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She cried when Old Yeller died

Henderson actress who starred in heart-breaker has a new book 45 years in the making

Image

Steve Marcus

Actress Beverly Washburn poses with her pets, Harriet, top left, Howard and Cookie, a standard poodle, at her home in Henderson on Friday. Washburn, one of the most recognizable child stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, starred in “Old Yeller.” Her book, “Reel Tears,” is now available in bookstores.

Beyond the Sun

My vote for the most tearful movie of all time goes to “Old Yeller,” the 1957 film about a stray dog that adopts a family and in the end contracts rabies and must be shot.

One of the stars in the movie was Beverly Washburn, 13 years old and possessing the ability to cry on cue.

She cried when Old Yeller was put down in the movie, and everyone in the theater cried along with her.

“Crying has always come easy to me,” says the 65-year-old resident of Sun City Anthem in Henderson. “I’m very emotional. I just put myself in that moment of what I was supposed to be crying about and it would bring tears. When (Tommy Kirk) had to shoot Old Yeller, I pretended he was really shot and I cried. I immersed myself in the moment of whatever I was supposed to be crying about.”

She still can shed a tear on demand.

“I cry way too easy anyway,” she says. “I cry over something sad, or happy or sweet. I can cry at a song. My brother teased me, ‘You cry at supermarket openings.’ ”

Washburn has written about those tears and other subjects in her autobiography, “Reel Tears,” now available in bookstores and online. The book — co-authored by Donald Vaughan — is 125 pages of stories, anecdotes and photos that give readers a peek at one of the busiest young stars of the ’50s and ’60s.

Since its release two months ago, it has proved to be such a hit that the publisher, BearManor Media, has asked Washburn for a revised edition — longer, with more photos and stories.

During her youth Washburn worked with some of the biggest stars in the business. Her favorite was Jack Benny.

“I was 8 when I did a skit on his show back in the days of live TV,” Washburn says. “He just took to me and I worked with him most of my life. I toured with him in ’71. We performed in Vegas and Tahoe. He was instrumental in my life. Though he played a tightwad he was the most generous man I ever knew. When my dad was dying Jack sent his personal physician over to care for him, at no charge.”

She also was close to Loretta Young.

“I worked with her many times. I stayed in touch with her and Jack until they died,” Washburn says.

One of her fondest memories is making “Old Yeller.”

“It was wonderful,” she says. “We were like a big family. There were only seven people in the movie, no supporting players or background people, just the seven us.

“It was supposed to take place in Texas, but they built a set for it on the Disney lot. Old Yeller was a rescue dog named Spike they found at an animal shelter. He did everything, unlike Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, who were several dogs that looked alike and each did different tricks.”

During filming Washburn attended school on the Disney lot, in Mickey Mouse Club trailers.

Her life story is an encyclopedia of Hollywood.

Born in Los Angeles, her tears opened the doors to acting when she was 7 in an uncredited role in the 1950 film “The Killer That Stalked New York.”

The next year she appeared in the motion picture “Superman and the Mole-Men,” which was later split into the first two episodes of the TV series starring George Reeves.

She appeared in dozens of movies, including “Shane” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and countless TV series, including “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Star Trek,” “Wagon Train,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “General Electric Theater,” “Father Knows Best,” “Four Star Playhouse,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Dragnet.”

She remains active, making commercials and an occasional film. Next year one of those projects — a low-budget horror film, “Demon Heart” — will be released, she says.

Her most recent film was 2007’s “Hard Four,” whose cast included Ed Asner, Paula Prentice, Dabney Coleman and Ed Begley Jr.

During her early days in films, Washburn became close friends with other child actors, including Tony Dow (Wally in “Leave it to Beaver”), Paul Petersen (Jeff in “The Donna Reed Show) and Lauren Chapin (Kathy in “Father Knows Best”).

She explains what happened to her friends: Dow went on to became a successful writer, director and sculptor; Petersen became an activist against children working in films and television; and Chapin became a drug addict and prostitute who turned her life around and became an evangelist.

“She had a horrible childhood,” Washburn says. “She wrote a book about it, a devastating life.”

Washburn’s own book isn’t anything like Chapin’s.

“It’s just my life story, growing up as a child in the movie business,” she says. “My intention was to make it a book that was touching and sensitive. There are points that make you laugh and some that make you cry. It was a rocky, bumpy road for me but I try to keep it upbeat.”

Washburn had strong family support and was well grounded, she says, which kept her from falling into the trap many young performers get caught in.

“There are horror stories in Hollywood, but I was blessed,” she says. “It has a lot to do with my upbringing, and I touch on that in the book. They taught me right from wrong and to keep my head on straight. I had a wonderful family.”

The roots of Washburn’s book go back to her mother, who started writing a book about being the mother of children in the movie business. Several years after she died Washburn and her sister, Audrey, found the unfinished manuscript and Washburn’s sister began working on it. But breast cancer claimed her life before she could finish it.

Meanwhile, Washburn’s husband, Michael Radell, was transferred to Las Vegas by the Hilton corporation. He died four years ago.

She began rewriting the book that had been sitting on the shelf for 45 years — until last year when she met Donald Vaughan, a professional writer who liked the idea and found a publisher.

Lately she’s been busy traveling the country promoting the book. When she isn’t doing that she sometimes attends autograph-signing events in addition to her occasional film and television work. In her spare time she’s an advocate for animals.

“I give a percentage of what I make at autograph signings to animal charities,” she said. “I’m fostering a dog right now trying to find a home for.”

Soon she will begin revising the autobiography.

“I’ve had a few hardships along the way,” she says. “By the time I lost both parents, both of my sisters died of cancer, my two brothers died, my nephew drowned, my husband died from cancer,” she says.

“There were times when I worked nonstop as a child and times when I couldn’t find work. A lot of my peers, kids from the ’60s, fell by the wayside because of drugs and alcohol. I’m fortunate that I never ended up like that. I’m pretty normal. I keep a positive outlook — this is not a religious book by any stretch but I feel I’m spiritual and God is looking over me. I have learned to thank God for all that I have and trust in God for all that I need. That’s kind of what my book is about.”

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