July 20th, 1884 — February 2nd, 1964
Short, stocky, and weather-beaten, with a squinty smile and a twangy voice, Bud Osborne lent picturesquely rugged and rascally support to innumerable chapterplay villains (and a few chapterplay heroes) during a career that lasted through the entire sound-serial era; he was particularly at home in Western cliffhangers, but brightened many other types of serial as well. Some of his serial henchmen were bravos, some sneaks, some bumblers, but all of them were colorful–and were often quite likable, too; Osborne could gloat and bully to very convincing effect, but there was always an undercurrent of tough, wry humor in his characterizations that made it impossible to ever entirely despise any of his heavies.
Bud Osborne (his real first name has been given as both Miles and Leonard) was born in rural Texas, but appears to have spent most of his early life in Oklahoma–then simply known as Indian Territory–where he worked as a cowboy and Wild West show performer for the enormous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. In 1912 he helped deliver a shipment of Miller horses and cattle to Thomas Ince’s California movie studio, and subsequently decided to stay in Hollywood. His early movie work was as a bit player, wrangler, and stunt double (he was particularly adept at driving wagons and stagecoaches), but by 1914 he had started playing credited roles in Western shorts for the Victor Film Company. He stepped up his acting appearances as the 1910s continued, playing sheriffs, outlaws, and other supporting characters in the Westerns of Victor, Universal, and other outfits; one of his few non-Western assignments during this period was a henchman role in the Pathé serial The Tiger’s Trail, the first of his many chapterplays. Osborne kept working steadily in both Westerns and serials (White Eagle, The Ghost City, The Way of a Man, The Danger Rider, The Mystery Rider) throughout the 1920s, chiefly at Pathé and Universal; most of these parts were villainous, although he did play one starring role in the self-produced Western feature The Prairie Mystery.
Osborne’s pronounced drawl proved a perfect fit for his Western-badman persona when the talkies arrived; one of his earliest sound-era performances was in The Indians Are Coming (Universal, 1930), the first all-talking serial ever made. He was cast as principal action heavy Bull McGee, the henchman of the slimy and nominally respectable Rance Carter (Wilbur McGaugh), and led Carter’s other followers in their ongoing pursuit of a valuable gold claim. One of Osborne’s biggest and best sound-serial parts, the role of the outspoken and hard-bitten McGee allowed him to be both sneeringly nasty and almost admirably tough; his character stood up to danger (from hero Tim McCoy and from hostile Indians) much more hardily than the craven Carter did, and even angrily rebuked his boss when the latter’s cringing became too appallingly abject. Osborne–unlike some of the other players in Indians–also steered largely clear of the typical early-talkie overacting that marked some of the serial’s performances; he only went over the top in his final scene, when a wounded McGee was required to indulge in a feverish, hallucinatory rant that didn’t mesh convincingly with Osborne’s resolutely down-to-earth performance in the bulk of the serial.
During the first half of the 1930s, Osborne played heavy roles of varying size in an enormous number of B-westerns for Universal, Columbia, and many independent producers; he also took a few bits in A-features, and appeared on a regular basis in Universal’s serials. His second 1930s chapterplay was Heroes of the Flames (Universal, 1931), which is unfortunately one of the handful of “lost” sound serials; he played a henchman in this outing, but it’s not possible to learn anything further about his characterization. His next serial was Battling With Buffalo Bill (also Universal, 1931), in which he played a sly and energetic outlaw named Joe Tampas, one of the accomplices of the land-grabbing Jim Rodney (Francis Ford) and one of the antagonists of Buffalo Bill Cody (Tom Tyler). Osborne (who, incidentally, had worked with the real Bill Cody during his Wild West Show days) was the secondary action heavy here, but had about as much screen time as primary action heavy George Regas did; he participated in many plotting sessions and action scenes, chuckling cagily during the former and glaring irritably during the latter.
Osborne took his only major Mascot serial role in The Shadow of the Eagle (1932), in which he and stuntman Yakima Canutt played a formidably tough-looking pair of thugs who carried out the orders of chief henchman Roy D’Arcy and the titular mystery villain throughout the serial, continually bedeviling carnival owner Edward Hearn and stunt-pilot John Wayne. After taking part in many fights, kidnappings, and chase, Osborne’s character, Tim Moore, was captured by the police in the last chapter, and then tricked into incriminating himself through the vocal fakery of carnival ventriloquist James Bradbury Jr.; Osborne’s angry, flustered, and finally disgusted reaction to this maneuver was decidedly amusing.
Osborne returned to Universal’s serial department for The Lost Special (Universal, 1932), in which he made sporadic appearances (and received little dialogue) as an unnamed background henchman. He was more noticeable in The Phantom of the Air (Universal, 1933); as Spike, a member of a band of airborne smugglers, he not only served on the henchman team in several chapters, but led it on a few occasions–most memorably, when he dazedly but doggedly shook off the effects of a car-crash and then urged his equally dazed colleagues back into action.
Osborne’s next serial, Gordon of Ghost City (Universal, 1933) featured him prominently throughout its twelve chapters as a badman named Hank, one of the most vocal members of a band of rustlers led by Walter Miller and Ethan Laidlaw; when he wasn’t clashing with hero Buck Jones or grumbling about Jones’ persistent interference, he could usually be heard grouching about the ineptitude of his co-henchmen (“You shoot like a tenderfoot!”) or making crabbily sarcastic remarks about Laidlaw’s peremptory orders (“What a swell idea that guy’s got!”).
The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934) gave Osborne a memorable one-chapter bit as a shady but humane rum-runner–who, ignoring the cautions of a selfish associate, used his boat to save the hero and heroine (Onslow Stevens and Ada Ince) from drowning (“I ain’t gonna let a guy and a jane croak that way”), then warily but good-humoredly persuaded them to keep mum about his illegal cargo. He played a similarly helpful but less unusual passer-by in his second and last Mascot serial, The Law of the Wild (1934)–popping up just long enough to lend heroine Lucile Browne (seeking help for hero Bob Custer) his horse, after warning her of the animal’s wildness.
In between his cameos in Shadow and Wild, Osborne played another notable recurring character, an outlaw named Kelsey, in The Red Rider (Universal, 1934). As one of the three regular henchmen of rustler/smuggler Walter Miller, he had less villainous screen time than Miller or his bandito partner Richard Cramer did, but got to clash frequently with hero Buck Jones–before ultimately joining with his fellow-heavies in a revolt against the double-crossing Miller. Osborne effectively (and entertainingly) helped to foreshadow this eventual upheaval in the villains’ ranks, by conveying growing skepticism and contempt during his interactions with his untrustworthy boss.
Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934) gave Osborne a scattering of scenes as Pug Nelson, a mechanic at the Three Point airfield who was in league with his employer’s business rival “Tiger” Taggart (John Davidson); he surreptitiously assisted the equally traitorous Three Point pilot Bruce Hoyt (Walter Miller) in sabotage attempts, while maintaining a believably pleasant and easygoing façade. Osborne played a more active and more openly dishonest heavy in The Rustlers of Red Dog (Universal, 1935); as Jake, one of the members of the serial’s very large henchman pack, he provided chief villain Harry Woods with toughly dependable backup until he exited the serial in Chapter Nine–after an unusual and unexpectedly sympathetic death scene, in which Osborne spent his last seconds expressing his concern for the wounded Woods instead of bewailing his own plight.
The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (Universal, 1936) put Osborne in the henchman pack again, as a thug named Gorman. He lasted through the entire serial this time, although his best moment came in Chapter Three, when he impersonated a bus driver as part of a plan to steal an important ring from college-athlete hero Frank Merriwell (Don Briggs)–and was forced to listen to the impromptu singing of his collegiate passengers, answer inconvenient questions from Merriwell, and endure a physical attack by Merriwell’s surly rival (House Peters Jr.). This sequence gave Osborne the chance to gradually move from taciturn furtiveness to tense (and funny) crankiness, as his ordeal became more and more irksome.
Above: The sunglasses-wearing Bud Osborne tries to brush off the questions of his passengers in The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (Universal, 1936). Don Briggs is seated below the window on the left, John King is across the aisle from him, and Sumner Getchell is standing.
In 1936, the temporary demotion of Universal’s chapterplay producer Henry MacRae and the resultant breaking-up of his serial stock company sent Osborne over to the new studio Republic Pictures, to appear in a pair of cliffhanger outings. The first of these was The Vigilantes Are Coming, a Western serial in which Osborne played a slow-thinking and bumbling henchman named Harris, who was frequently outwitted and embarrassed by the masked avenger known as the Eagle (Robert Livingston); his sheepish reactions to the rebukes of his more competent villainous superiors, and his gleeful smirking whenever he temporarily managed to get the better of the good guys, lent an understated comedic touch to the proceedings. Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was Osborne’s second 1936 Republic serial; in this outing, he was a background member of the henchman pack, a ship’s-mate named Ellis. Osborne didn’t receive many lines in this outing, but did get to regularly tangle with hero Ray Mala around on both land and sea; he also did some of his usual sardonic grumbling at odd intervals, most noticeably when he berated crooked skipper Bob Kortman on the loss of their boat.
Above: Bud Osborne, Steve Clemente (the swarthy fellow next to Osborne), and other henchmen have caught sidekick Guinn “Big Boy” Williams impersonating a Mexican peddler in The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936).
Above, left to right: Bud Osborne, Bob Kortman, an unidentified player, and F. Herrick Herrick in a lobby card for Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (Republic, 1936). Ray Mala is in the corner of the card.
During the remaining years of the 1930s, Osborne remained a very busy B-western actor–playing outlaws, crooked judges, and a few honest citizens in multiple cowboy films for (among others) Columbia, Republic, Warner Brothers, RKO, Monogram, and Grand National. His serial appearances slacked off considerably, however; he only took two chapterplay roles during the last three years of the decade. He played his last noticeable Universal serial part (his first since MacRae’s overthrow) in Wild West Days (1937); as a henchman-pack member named Walt, he appeared in about half of the serial’s chapters–merely doing sentry duty at the villains’ cave hideout in some of them, but playing a more active part in others; he engaged in a couple of shootouts with hero Johnny Mack Brown and his sidekicks, and pugnaciously challenged the hero to a one-on-one fight after being captured (only to cry quits after taking several blows).
The Lone Ranger (Republic, 1938) was Osborne’s last 1930s serial; he had a one-chapter part as a member of a small outlaw band that was hired by frontier tyrant Jeffries (Stanley Andrews) to track down the mysterious Lone Ranger. The outlaws discovered and killed the blacksmith who made the Ranger’s silver bullets (a cache of which were unearthed by a jubilant Osborne)–but the dead man’s nephew (Hal Taliaferro) then confronted the killers during a saloon poker game, anteing up with three of the special bullets before gunning down Osborne and his associates, with help from the Ranger and Tonto.
Osborne’s career stayed on its established path throughout the 1940s; he appeared regularly in B-westerns for Republic, Columbia, Universal, Monogram, PRC, and RKO, took character bits in occasional B-westerns, and made serial appearances on an increasingly sporadic basis. Although he continued to specialize in henchman roles, by the concluding years of the decade he had started playing sympathetic parts–lawmen, ranchers, and (especially) stagecoach drivers–more frequently, due to advancing age.
Osborne’s first 1940s chapterplay was Winners of the West (Universal, 1940), in which he had a brief bit as an outlaw sentry who was slugged by hero Dick Foran. Deadwood Dick (1940), his first Columbia serial, allowed him to temporarily join the good guys’ side (and demonstrate his talent for handling a team of horses) in the minor but recurring role of an honest stage-driver named Strong. He got to feign dishonesty in Chapter Ten, however, as part of a plan to help hero Don Douglas expose crooked marshal Roy Barcroft; Osborne slyly pretended to blackmail Barcroft in order to drive the villain into the open. Unfortunately, this plan backfired on the good guys; Osborne was shot and killed, and Douglas was framed for his murder.
Osborne was back to villainy in his next serial, playing a crooked garage proprietor named John Lanton, one of the agents of master criminal Abel Bellamy (James Craven), in two chapters of The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940); his character, who used his garage as a front for some of the villains’ activities, became suspected by the police, and was finally liquidated as a security risk when he threatened to talk. Most of Archer was played for laughs by its director James W. Horne, Osborne’s scenes included; his frustrated and forcedly friendly demeanor during a particularly trying sequence (in which he parried police questions while taking a phone call from the impatient Bellamy) was priceless.
White Eagle (Columbia, 1941), another basically comedic Horne-directed serial, gave Osborne his largest 1940s henchman role as Bart, the secondary action heavy; though this badman was one of the top-ranking villains, Horne had Osborne play him (amusingly but unthreateningly) as a comic bumbler; he sniggered with childish exuberance when his evildoing met with success, did exaggerated double-takes when he was confronted by the hero (Buck Jones), and became nervous and flustered whenever he was chewed out by his demanding and often hysterical boss, Dandy Darnell (James Craven).
After playing a one-line bit as a stage-driver in the last chapter of Riders of Death Valley (Universal, 1941), Osborne did one more Columbia serial for James Horne, Perils of the Royal Mounted (1942). As Jake, a member of the serial’s comically inept henchman pack, he delivered a broadly humorous performance, alternating boasting loudly and fumbling clumsily as he tried to stop Mountie hero Robert Kellard from interfering with the schemes of chief villain Kenneth MacDonald.
Above: “Let somebody shoot that can shoot!” A breezily confident Bud Osborne prepares to cut down the off-camera Robert Kellard in Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942). The other heavies are, left to right, Al Ferguson, Harry Tenbrook, and I. Stanford Jolley.
Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943), Osborne’s last Universal serial, gave him a single line as a railroad brakeman, while Batman (Columbia, 1943) gave him a couple of scenes as one of villain J. Carroll Naish’s silent, mind-controlled “zombie” followers. He had more to do in the Western serial Black Arrow (Columbia, 1944), as an alert and blunt-spoken outlaw named Fred; he appeared in three of this outing’s middle chapters, long enough to take part in a safe robbery, a kidnapping, a fistfight, a plotting session, and a jailbreak. This part would be the last of his henchman-pack assignments until the 1950s.
The Monster and the Ape (Columbia, 1945) featured Osborne briefly in multiple episodes as Mason, an honest but rather oblivious zookeeper who never figured out that his fellow-zookeeper Jack Ingram was taking the titular ape out of his cage by night and using him to commit crimes. His next serial, The Vigilante (Columbia, 1947), gave him an extended one-chapter part as a crooked rancher named Waldron, who did some assured lying to throw hero Ralph Byrd off the trail of a group of henchmen, then crustily snapped orders to the same henchmen while sneakily pocketing some valuable red pearls (which he subsequently turned over to his partner in double-dealing, action heavy Jack Ingram, off-camera). He made his last 1940s serial appearance in Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (Republic, 1948)–in which he played a small role as Bat Kelsey, a crooked stage driver who was pitted against the James brothers (Clayton Moore and Steve Darrell) in a stagecoach race, but who lost despite some cheating by the villains that were backing him (in real life, of course, Osborne could probably have beaten both of the serial’s heroes in such a contest, without any underhanded rigging).
Osborne’s graying hair and increasing weight relegated him more and more frequently to sheriff and stage-driver roles–in both B-westerns and early television series like The Gene Autry Show–during the opening years of the 1950s, although he still played a few owlhoot parts on occasion. His first serial of 1950, Republic’s Desperadoes of the West, gave him one of the aforesaid stage-driver roles, in its first and last chapters; he was held up by the villains in the opening episode, and hijacked by them in the concluding one. The next year, he made his final Republic serial appearance in Don Daredevil Rides Again (Republic, 1951), taking a small part as a shifty, eavesdropping bartender who passed on a bit of useful information to the villains.
Son of Geronimo (Columbia, 1952) gave Osborne his only major non-villainous serial role–and his biggest serial role of any kind since 1941’s White Eagle. One of Columbia’s better 1950s chapterplays, this outing starred Clayton Moore as an undercover Army officer assigned to make peace with the Indian leader Porico (Rodd Redwing); Osborne was cast as Moore’s sidekick Tulsa, a grizzled frontiersman who helped the hero battle both Indians and trouble-making outlaws. Osborne managed to make this crusty old Westerner at once a thoroughly competent and colorfully humorous figure–invariably handling himself with cool assurance during gun battles, but rarely missing any chances to engage in comical grumbling or make dryly sarcastic remarks.
The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953) gave Osborne a nice character role in its last two episodes as Hannibal, an idiosyncratic, tobacco-chewing, and quietly cantankerous ferryman who issued blunt and gloomy warnings to the heroes (Richard Crane and David Bruce), annoyed one of the villains (Ray Corrigan) with some stubborn verbal quibbling, and matter-of-factly confiscated the horses of Corrigan and his henchmen in payment of their ferrying debts after they were killed. Gunfighters of the Northwest (also Columbia, 1953) featured him a smaller character bit as a canny but cordial old prospector called Jag, who did a bit of chatting with Mountie hero Jock Mahoney and then loaned him his prospecting outfit for an undercover mission.
By 1954, the B-western–Osborne’s main source of work throughout his career–had entirely died out; however, by that time Osborne was finding new employment on television, making frequent appearances as lawmen, prospectors, and (of course) stage drivers on TV westerns such as The Lone Ranger and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. He played several feature-film bits during the middle years of the 1950s, but by 1957 was working almost exclusively on television. He also made three more serial appearances in the mid-fifties, beginning with Adventures of Captain Africa (Columbia, 1955). This sorry patchwork of footage from early Columbia chapterplays featured Osborne in its first third as an animal trader named Nat Coleman, who helped a UN agent (Rick Vallin) and a jungle-dwelling mystery man (John Hart) battle usurpers and foreign agents in a North African realm. Osborne’s main function here was to exchange expository dialogue with the serial’s other protagonists and provide a visual link to stock footage from Columbia’s first serial, Jungle Menace, which had starred the famous Frank Buck; with his hair dyed black to match Buck’s, he periodically pretended to be facing tigers and other wild beasts in close-ups, before giving way to longer and older shots of Buck. Osborne seemed well aware of the shoddiness of Captain Africa, and didn’t appear to take his “role” very seriously; his easygoing manner and the perpetual twinkle in his eye brought a welcome note of straightforward cheerfulness to the sober and painfully contrived serial that surrounded him.
Osborne did similar stock-matching duty in his last two serials, Perils of the Wilderness and Blazing the Overland Trail (both Columbia, 1956). Like Captain Africa, these chapterplays contained very little new footage and relied chiefly on sequences from earlier outings–including Perils of the Royal Mounted and White Eagle, both of which had featured Osborne; in order to provide an easy transition into scenes from these serials, Osborne was dressed in the outfits he’d worn in them, and pressed into service as a henchman for a handful of new scenes. In Perils, he was a badman named Jake, a member of the main henchman pack, while in Blazing he was an unnamed member of an unaffiliated outlaw band that tangled with both the heroes and the main villains from time to time. Despite hair dye intended to make him resemble his younger self, Osborne really looked too elderly for active outlaw duty by this time–although he still showed flashes of his old toughness and shrewdness in his new scenes. His presence in Blazing the Overland Trail was also highly appropriate, from a historical point of view; the chapterplay would be Hollywood’s final theatrical serial, and it seemed very fitting that Osborne–who’d appeared in the first sound serial, The Indians Are Coming–should also appear in the last one.
Osborne kept up his television work–playing stage drivers on Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, and other Western shows–during the early 1960s, before retired circa 1963. In 1964, he passed away in the Motion Picture Hospital in Los Angeles.
Although he didn’t play nearly as many top-ranking action heavies as some of his contemporaries did, Bud Osborne’s long list of serial credits and (more importantly) his lovably scruffy, roguish, and sturdy screen persona place him snugly among the great henchmen of the chapterplay genre. The rough-hewn little cowpoke lent a touch of authentic frontier color to the many Western serials he appeared in–and lent a quirky spark of personality to all of his chapterplays, Westerns and non-Westerns alike.
Acknowledgements: The Old Corral and Western Clippings pages on Bud Osborne provided me with most of the information in this piece; Ed Hulse also gave me helpful info, about Osborne’s role in Heroes of the Flames. Michael Wallis’ book The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000) was useful as well.