When Hollywood comes to Fort Bowers, Oklahoma, in 1915 to convince legendary lawmen Bill Tilghman to star in a talking picture show about a bank heist featuring bonafide ruthless outlaws of the period, two very different worlds of Tinseltown and the Old West clash. But when the cast and creators of Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws recently came to Thousand Oaks, California, many from several thousands of miles away, it was to help their friend, Johnny Crawford.
Johnny Crawford has been in show business most of his life, from 1950 to 2018. That’s 68 years of entertaining audiences. In Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws, Johnny played a cameo of silent movie star William S. Hart in what will likely be his last movie role in the soon-to-be-nationally released film. In reality, Johnny’s no longer fighting the bad guys on the big screen. He’s fighting for his life.
We were at the McCrea Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California on the evening of September 7, 2019, along with a stellar community of actors and fans honoring Johnny Crawford with a fundraiser to support his Alzheimer’s care.
In the early 1930’s, legendary film actor Joel McCrea, based on advice from close friend and mentor Will Rogers, established a working ranch about an hour from Hollywood, just in case acting didn’t work out. Joel and his wife of 57 years, actress Frances Dee, built their home here and raised their three boys in this wonderful and unique environment.
Many thanks to Wyatt and Lisa McCrea for donating and hosting this event at the beautiful Joel McCrea Ranch on their big outdoor screen.
Also, a huge shout out to Wayne Shipley and Dan Searles and all involved in the making of Bill Tilghman for donating ALL the proceeds from this event to go directly to Johnny Crawford and his wife of 26 years, Charlotte Samco, to help them battle Johnny’s Alzheimer’s disease. As many fans already know, Johnny is currently living in an assisted living home and requires around-the-clock care.
Just some of the cast members from Bill Tilghman and The Outlaws who attended the Pre-Release party and West Coast Premier: Darby Hinton, Lana Turner, Robert Carradine, Johnny Alonso, Eliza Kelley and High Chaparral‘s Don Collier, who drove from Arizona to be here. Bruce Boxleitner was the very first to tell organizer Darby, “sign me up!”
All the buildings on the McCrea Ranch have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and are being preserved for eventual sharing with the public. The Conejo Recreation and Park District, in conjunction with members of the McCrea family, has completed the construction of a new visitor’s center that is now open during scheduled events and programs.
The special evening included light refreshments of crackers and cheese and wine or beer for the lucky one hundred people who bought limited tickets to support Johnny Crawford’s fundraiser to watch the West Coast premiere under the stars on the giant screen. There was even fresh popcorn to compliment the venue.
A silent auction and raffle took place to support Johnny, much to the delight of the audience.
Items such as movie posters, photos, gift baskets and even a replica Rifleman rifle signed by Johnny Crawford were just some of the items up for bids.
An exciting meet and greet allowed fans to meet Johnny and stars of Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws before the movie began. The cast was warm and engaging, so you instantly felt at ease. The audience included Roy Rogers‘ granddaughter, Julie Fox Pomilia and a direct descendant of Bill Tilghman, Lynn Stewart, along with other notables too numerous to mention.
Guests were “deputized” with star badges for their name tags and received clever little canvas gift bags which looked like vintage bank bags with goodies like gold foil wrapped chocolate dollar coins, a full-size custom Bill Tilghman bandana and a lovely postcard inside to commemorate the special evening. Many thanks to Darby’s wife, Shan, for adding her special touch.
Did you know Johnny Crawford was one of the original Disney Mouseketeers in 1955? At age 12, Johnny was cast as Mark McCain, the son of Lucas McCain played by Chuck Connors in the popular series, The Rifleman, which aired from 1958 to 1963. Unfortunately, like other child stars of his era, Johnny receives no residuals, despite the show’s enduring popularity.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Johnny had wide popularity with American teenagers and a recording career that generated four Billboard Top 40 hits, including the single, “Cindy’s Birthday”, which peaked at number 8, in 1962. His other hits included “Rumors” (number 12, 1962), “Your Nose is Gonna Grow” (number 14, 1962), and “Proud” (number 29, 1963).
While serving in the Army in the late 1960s, Johnny appeared in, and directed a number of military training films in New York City and Texas, remembered by veterans of the times.
A former member of the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and the AJRA (American Junior Rodeo Association), Johnny competed frequently at rodeos throughout the country during the 1960s and early 70s.
Johnny formed his dance orchestra in 1990 and released, “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away” featuring swing music from the 1920s and 30s in 2008.
Anticipation mounted as darkness fell under a canopy of twinkling stars. The falling temperature reminded everyone Autumn was just around the corner. Helpful park staff brought portable heaters to quell the chill. Organizers and cast members gathered on the deck to introduce the movie, then it was finally show time. And what a show it was.
Main characters in the movie included Cole Younger (Darby Hinton), Frank James (Robert Carradine), Bat Masterson (Marc Goodman) and Big Joe (Johnny Alonso). Richard Cutting portrayed a menacing ne’er-do-well named Murphy. Marshal Bill Tilghman was effectively portrayed by Ken Arnold. Kathy Searles played Tilghman’s rambunctious wife, Zoe. Outlaw Ma Darling was played by Lana Turner. Manuel Rodriguez played outlaw Cherokee Watie. And of course, William S. Hart was portrayed by the man of the hour, Johnny Crawford.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia — a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently.
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. The greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. But Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age because it can have a much earlier onset.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years, depending on other factors.
One thing’s for sure. People adore Johnny Crawford. His innocent smile and gentle manner still draws countless fans from previous generations and present. Johnny is genuinely humble and it still shows.
We are honored to support Johnny for this fantastic movie premiere and beyond. It was heartwarming to witness the love and enthusiasm of his cast mates and fans during Johnny’s fundraiser.
Sincere thanks to Rob Word for creating a beautiful tribute to Johnny from the event on YouTube.
We really enjoyed the tale of this wholesome western based on a true story. Our cowboy hats off to a great movie. Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws has everything a good western should have: action, suspense and a few belly laughs. It was truly wonderful watching Johnny on the silver screen once more, surrounded by others who love him so much.
Naturally, we hope it’s not the last work of our favorite trick roping cowboy band leader. Good talent is hard to come by, and we’re happy to say we need him around for a long time to come. Johnny’s enduring legacy of love and tenacity despite the odds will touch your heart and inspire you. Now, maybe you can help Johnny too. His battle is not over. It’s just begun.
Update 2021: Rest in Peace, John Ernest Crawford (March 26, 1946 – April 29, 2021). Rest easy, cowboy. We are proud to have called you our friend.
Update 2023: We found the full length movie Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws on YouTube.