Joel McCrea was a cowboy who owned a working ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
He also frequently played one on the silver screen.
"After he appeared in 'The Virginian' in 1946, he decided that he only wanted to do westerns," said Wyatt McCrea, grandson of the famous actor. "He liked to play roles he could see himself doing in real life."
One of those westerns was "Ramrod," a gritty, electrifying film that was voted Utah's Centennial Film by the state legislature and was shot on location in Grafton and Zion National Park. The movie was recently shown as part of the BYU Motion Picture Archive Film Series, and Wyatt was a special guest, there to talk about his grandfather.
Cowboy or actor — Joel McCrea was pretty much the same either way, said Wyatt: genuine, warm, affectionate with kids, a man who worked hard on the set and on the ranch. In fact, Wyatt said, "I was 10 before I realized that he was more than a rancher. I was in the fourth grade, and one day my teacher said, 'I saw your grandfather on TV last night.' I thought, why was he on TV? I went home and asked my dad (Wyatt's father, David, was the middle son of Joel and his wife, Frances). That was the first time I realized what my grandfather did."
What Joel did was make more than 90 movies over the course of a 50-year career. "He always joked that he only acted so he could afford to ranch," Wyatt said. "That was what he really loved to do. That was what he always listed as his occupation on his tax returns. Of course, he was so famous that everyone knew what he did, and one year the IRS came to check on him. He held out his hands and said 'I didn't get these calluses on the movie set.' They never bothered him again."
Wyatt and his wife, Lisa, currently live on the "old farm," which they are in the process of turning into a park/museum. There are 280 acres left of the original 2,400, which the family has donated to the California Park Service. "All the buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and we're in the middle of building a visitors center," Wyatt said. There's a two-fold purpose: to honor his grandfather, but also to preserve "a little California history." The rustic architecture, the Western ranching lifestyle of the 1930s and '40s; these are all significant, no matter whose they were, he said.
Wyatt was 29 when his grandfather died, "so I knew him well. My dad ran the ranch when I was young, and my grandfather and grandmother were around all the time. They'd come to visit, to babysit. We had a lot of fun together."
Joel actually grew up in California, born, as an early Warner Bros. Studio biography noted, "practically in the shadows of the film industry and remained to become one of cinemaland's most heralded assets." He attended Hollywood High School and went on to Pomona College, but spent his summers back home, working as a extra in films. That gradually grew into a career.
In 1930, he played "the unimportant hero" in a Will Rogers' film, and a long-lasting friendship developed between the two. "Will was like a second father to my grandfather," Wyatt said. It was Will who advised him to buy the ranch early on. "He was going to wait until he had more money, but Will told him that if he waited, he'd end up with a big house, big cars and no ranch. Grandfather had located the property he wanted. Will gave him his card, with the name of a banker on the back. He went to see the banker and got the loan, with no collateral, on the strength of Will's name on the front."
In the course of his career, Joel McCrea made five films that were shot in Utah. "He loved to come to Utah; it was one of his favorite locations," Wyatt said. "He loved the people of Utah. He really felt at home here."
One time, when Joel was working on a set a few miles outside of Kanab, "he and my grandmother would go into town in the evening, and just walk around. Six or eight kids started following him, and he stopped and bought them all ice cream. That caught on, and the next time, more kids came. He still bought them all ice cream." When Wyatt was in Kanab recently for a Western Legends Round-up, one of those kids, now an older man, told him that story.
"That was so like him," Wyatt said. "He loved kids. A lot of his philanthropic efforts went in that direction."
It was never about fame and glory for Joel McCrea. "Being the best actor in the world was not that important to him," Wyatt said. "He wanted to be a good person. He wanted to be good to his family. His main goal was to make a contribution to society."
Joel had pioneer ancestors on both sides of the family, some who came to California with the '49ers. He enjoyed westerns because he wanted to preserve that legacy, Wyatt said. "That was important to him."
Lisa McCrea did not know Joel personally, but she can attest to the values he instilled in his family. "This family has the right idea how to live life. What Joel did was timeless."
Lisa and Wyatt still make a lot of appearances around the country; there's a lot of interest in old cowboys and cowboy movie stars, they say.
"Joel McCrea was definitely a great actor," says James D'Arc, curator of BYU's Motion Picture Archive. "And Wyatt puts truth to the old adage, 'a chip off the old block.' Joel was the person you saw on the screen, and Wyatt is like him in all the best ways."
It's a great legacy, says Lisa. "It's a thrill to know that so many people are still excited about who he was, what he did."