Prolific Western producer Gardner nears 100

For anyone who appreciates movie and TV history — and especially westerns — perusing Arthur Gardner’s filmography is like watching parts of your life flash before your eyes: “The Rifleman.” “The Big Valley.” The John Wayne vehicles “McQ” and “Brannigan.” Burt Lancaster in “The Scalphunters,” Elvis Presley in “Clambake,” Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber.”

A major component of that history, moreover, is still with us. Gardner will turn 100 in June — a milestone his family plans to commemorate by having the producer throw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium. He still goes to the office he shares with his son, Steven, and attends a regular Friday lunch with other showbiz veterans.

Gardner freely admits his memory isn’t what it used to be, labeling himself “an AK,” or alter kocker — basically Yiddish for “old fart.” Not long ago, he finally had to give up driving.

In terms of longevity, though, he’s a reminder — along with fellow nonagenarians like David Dortort (“Bonanza”) and Sherwood Schwartz (“Gilligan’s Island”) — that as professions go, “pioneering TV producer” ranks right up there alongside “Supreme Court justice.”

Personally, Gardner evokes happy memories of untold hours of misspent youth. Teaming with partners Jules Levy and Arthur Laven after World War II (during which they served with Ronald Reagan, among others, in the First Motion Picture Unit) to form Levy-Gardner-Laven Prods., the trio forged a presence in both movies and TV.

Granted, their feature work was mostly of the “B” movie variety, including such wonderful oddities as “The Monster That Challenged the World,” a 1950s pic that popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies, putting the term “classic” to the test, as Gardner himself acknowledged.Brian
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Born Arthur Goldberg, Gardner chose his surname from a side street near Fairfax. Having left Wisconsin for Hollywood with ambitions to become an actor, he saw his given name as an unlikely ticket to stardom.

That part of his career never took off, though he did land several smaller roles — including one in the 1930 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” for which he received $75 a week. “I never thought I was much of an actor anyway,” he said.

Flipping through Gardner’s autobiography, “The Badger Kid,” the first thing that comes to mind is how some of the near misses, “what if’s” and “might-have beens” are nearly as interesting as the projects that actually bear his name.

Gardner discusses being screwed out of buying the script for the 1953 cult classic “Invaders From Mars,” for example, or signing a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg to make his feature directing debut on a movie titled “White Lightning,” before releasing him (graciously, per Gardner’s account) when the fledgling director received a greenlight to direct “Sugarland Express.”

Among the anecdotes that stand out, Gardner recalls identifying Chuck Connors as his eventual “Rifleman” star while watching the lanky actor in “Old Yeller,” firing Lee Majors off “The Big Valley” for mouthing off to Barbara Stanwyck (and quickly hiring him back after an apology), and partner Levy’s impolitic reaction to his first glimpse of Welch in the mid-1960s — not realizing her then-agent, James Welch, was also her then-husband.

Although he insists there was no strategy guiding it, the producers had a habit of casting somewhat older stars, from Stanwyck in TV to their Wayne and Lancaster vehicles. (Agents, by the way, take note: The going rate for star salaries in the late ’60s and ’70s: $750,000 against 10% of the gross.)

Gardner enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Wayne that included sharing office space in the actor’s later years. Regarding his dealings with talent, Gardner says he seldom had problems or witnessed diva-like behavior. “We were lucky,” he said. “And we were always very nice to them.”

Asked what he thinks of TV now, Gardner states politely that he doesn’t watch much anymore. Of his producing philosophy, he said simply, “Our primary focus was quality, and the second was cost.”

Looking back, Gardner claims to harbor no regrets, professing to be “completely satisfied” with what he and his partners accomplished. “Not bad,” he said, “for a Jewish boy from Wisconsin.”

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