September 14th, 1914 — December 28th, 1999
Clayton Moore, though best remembered today as television’s Lone Ranger, had a lengthy and distinguished career in serials. Moore was a physically ideal serial lead, but his greatest strengths were his dramatic, quietly intense speaking voice and expressive face. These gifts helped Moore to convey a sincerity that could make the most unbelievable dialogue or situations seem real. The bulk of Moore’s cliffhanger work was done after World War 2, when serials’ shrinking budgets cut back on original action scenes and made the presence of skilled leading players more important than in the serial’s golden age. Moore, with his sincerity and acting skill, was just the type of actor the post-war serials needed.
Clayton Moore was born Jack Carlton Moore in Chicago. He began to train for a career as a circus acrobat at the age of eight, and joined a trapeze act called the Flying Behrs after finishing high school; as a member of the Behrs, Moore would perform for two circuses and at the 1934 World’s Fair. An injury to his left leg around 1935 forced him out of the aerialist business, and after working briefly as a male model in New York he moved to Hollywood in 1937, beginning his film career as a stuntman. He played numerous bit roles in addition to his stunt work for the next three years, among them a miniscule part in his first serial, Zorro’s Fighting Legion (Republic, 1939), as one of the members of the titular group. Edward Small, an independent producer allied with United Artists, cast Moore in his first credited parts in a pair of 1940 films, Kit Carson and The Son of Monte Cristo. The former featured Moore as a heroic young pioneer, the latter as an army officer aiding masked avenger Louis Hayward. Following these two films, Moore began to get credited speaking parts in other pictures. In 1941 he played the romantic lead in Tuxedo Junction, one of Republic Pictures’ “Weaver Brothers and Elviry” comedies, and the next year the studio signed him for his first starring serial, Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942).
Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942) was a vehicle for Republic’s new “Serial Queen,” Kay Aldridge, who played Nyoka Gordon, a girl seeking her missing scientist father in the deserts of North Africa. Moore was the heroic Dr. Larry Grayson, a member of an expedition searching for the “Tablets of Hippocrates,” an ancient list of medical cures sought by Nyoka’s father before he disappeared. Nyoka joined forces with Grayson and his expedition to locate Professor Gordon and the tablets–and to battle Arab ruler Vultura (Lorna Gray) and her band of desert cutthroats, who were after the Tablets and the treasure hidden with them. Perils of Nyoka was a highly exciting serial, with consistently imaginative and varied action sequences, and colorful characters and locales. Although Moore took second billing to Aldridge, his character received as much screen time as hers and his performance was a major part of the serial’s success. Moore, with his intense sincerity, made his nearly superhuman physician character believable; the audience never felt like questioning Dr. Grayson’s ability to perform emergency brain surgery on Nyoka’s amnesiac father in a desert cave, or his amazing powers of riding, wall-scaling, marksmanship, and sword-fighting, far beyond those of the average medical school graduate.
Moore went into the army in 1942, almost immediately after the release of Perils of Nyoka. He served throughout World War Two, and didn’t resume his film career until 1946, when he returned to Republic Pictures to appear in The Crimson Ghost. The impact of his starring turn in Perils of Nyoka was diminished by his long hiatus, and he found himself playing a supporting role in this new serial. He was cast as Ashe, the chief henchman of the mysterious Crimson Ghost, and aided that villain in his attempts to steal a counter-atomic weapon called a “Cyclotrode.” Ashe was ultimately brought to justice, along with his nefarious master, by stars Charles Quigley and Linda Stirling. The Crimson Ghost showed that Moore could play intensely mean villains as well as intensely courageous heroes. His sneering, bullying Ashe came off as thoroughly unpleasant, as he stalked through the serial doing his best to kill off hero and heroine.
Moore returned to heroic parts in his next cliffhanger, Jesse James Rides Again (Republic, 1947). The serial’s plot had Jesse, retired from outlawry, forced to go on the run because of new crimes committed in his name. Jesse and his pal Steve (John Compton) wound up in Tennessee, where, under the alias of “Mr. Howard,” Jesse came to the aid of a group of farmers victimized by an outlaw gang called the Black Raiders. The Raiders, secretly bossed by local businessman Jim Clark (Tristram Coffin), were after oil reserves beneath the local farmland, but Mr. Howard ultimately outgunned them. James’ own identity was exposed in the process, but he was allowed to escape arrest by a sympathetic marshal. Jesse James Rides Again was Republic’s best post-war Western serial, thanks in part to the unusual plot device of an ex-badman hero. Moore was able to give Jesse James a dangerous edge that most other serial leads couldn’t have pulled off; his cold, steely-eyed glare when gunning down villains seemed very much in keeping with dialogue references to Jesse’s outlaw past.
G-Men Never Forget (Republic, 1948), Moore’s next serial, cast him as Ted O’Hara, an FBI agent battling a racketeer boss named Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft). O’Hara broke up various protection rackets organized by Murkland, but his efforts were hampered by Murkland’s impersonation of a kidnaped police commissioner (also played by Barcroft). G-Men Never Forget possessed a tough and realistic atmosphere not typical of gang-busting serials, and Moore delivered a grimly determined performance well-fitted to the serial’s mood. Moore’s acting, good supporting performances, skilled direction, and a well-written script made G-Men Never Forget a superior serial, one that could hold its own against earlier gang-busting chapterplays like the Dick Tracy outings.
Moore’s next serial was Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (Republic, 1948), in which he reprised his Jesse James role. Joined this time by Steve Darrell as Frank James, Moore tried to help a former gang member named John Powell (Stanley Andrews) develop a silver mine. Part of the mine’s proceeds were to be used to pay back victims of James Gang robberies, but the plan was derailed by a crooked mining engineer (John Crawford), who discovered the mine contained gold instead of silver and murdered Powell to keep this find secret. Crawford then used every trick in the book to keep Moore, Darrell, and Noel Neill (as Powell’s daughter) from developing the mine, but the James Boys unmasked his treachery by the end. Frank and Jesse James drew heavily on stock footage and plot elements from Republic’s earlier Adventures of Red Ryder, and was thus more predictable than its predecessor, but it was still an entertaining and well-made serial. Moore again made Jesse seem both sympathetic and (when fighting the bad guys) somewhat frightening.
By now, Moore was established as Republic’s premiere serial hero; however, his next cliffhanger would lead to his departure from the studio and change the course of his career. The last in a long line of Republic Zorro serials, Ghost of Zorro (1949) starred Moore as Ken Mason, the original Zorro’s grandson, who donned his ancestor’s mask to help a telegraph company establish a line in the wild West in the face of outlaw sabotage. Moore delivered another strong performance, but for some odd reason Republic chose to have his voice dubbed by another actor in scenes where he was masked as Zorro. This strange production decision did not diminish Moore’s potential as a masked hero in the eyes of a group of television producers who were trying to find an actor to play the Lone Ranger on a soon-to-be-launched TV show; Moore’s turn in Ghost of Zorro landed him the part. Moore debuted as the Ranger in 1949, and played the part for two seasons on TV. During this period, he did make one apparent serial appearance in Flying Disc Man From Mars (Republic, 1950), but all his footage actually came from The Crimson Ghost.
In 1952, Moore was dropped from The Lone Ranger without any explanation from the producers, who apparently feared that Moore was becoming too identified as the Lone Ranger, and that he might become so sure of his position that he’d ask for a bigger salary. John Hart replaced Moore as the Ranger for the show’s third season, and Moore returned to freelance acting. He played numerous small roles in feature films, made multiple guest appearances (usually as a heavy) on TV shows like Range Rider and The Gene Autry Show, and also found time to make four more serials.
The first of these was Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952), which featured Moore as a gangster named Graber, who was working with lunar invaders to bring the Earth under the dominion of Retik, Emperor of the Moon (Roy Barcroft). Scientist “Commando” Cody (George Wallace) opposed the planned conquest with the aid of his flying rocket suit and other handy gadgets. Moore met a fiery demise when his car plummeted off a cliff in the last chapter, and Retik came to a similarly sticky end shortly thereafter. Moore’s characterization in Radar Men from the Moon was reminiscent of his performance as “Ashe;” once again he performed deeds of villainy with swaggering relish.
Moore’s next serial, Columbia’s Son of Geronimo (1952), was his first non-Republic cliffhanger. He returned to playing a hero in this outing, an undercover cavalry officer named Jim Scott out to quell an Indian uprising led by Rodd Redwing as Porico, son of Geronimo. The uprising was being encouraged by outlaws John Crawford and Marshall Reed to serve their own ends, and Scott and Porico ultimately joined forces to defeat them. Son of Geronimo was one of the few successful later Columbia serials, due to good action scenes and location work, and to a strong cast. Though Redwing and Reed had the serial’s most distinctive roles, and delivered good performances, Moore was never overshadowed by them, as some leading men would have been in his place; characteristically forceful, he easily managed to hold center stage throughout.
Moore’s last Republic serial was Jungle Drums of Africa (1952), in which he played Alan King, an American mining engineer developing a valuable uranium deposit in the African jungles. Moore was assisted by lady doctor Phyllis Coates and fellow engineer Johnny Sands and opposed by a group of Communist spies (Henry Rowland, John Cason) and their witch-doctor accomplice (Roy Glenn). While Drums drew extensively on stock shots of African animals to augment its jungle atmosphere, it relied to an unusually large extent on original footage for its action scenes and chapter endings, and the result was a modestly-budgeted but enjoyable serial that served as a good finish to Moore’s career at Republic.
Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953), Moore’s final serial, cast him as the second lead, a Mountie named Bram Nevin who aided RCMP Sergeant Jock Mahoney in a fight against the “White Horse Rebels.” As the hero’s sidekick, Moore took over a position initially filled by comic Tommy Farrell, who was injured after filming a few scenes and written out of the serial; the dialogue was revised to suit Moore’s new character and his more serious persona, but the removal of the wisecracks intended for Farrell left Moore with comparatively little to do but back up Mahoney in fights and action scenes. Still, he did this well, using his strong presence to give his part as much personality as possible. Though weakly-plotted, Gunfighters, with its nice location photography and good acting, was the last really watchable Columbia serial; it was also Moore’s last serial. In 1954, he returned to the Lone Ranger series, its producers having been forced to realize that Moore was firmly established as the Ranger and that audiences wouldn’t warm up to his substitute John Hart. The fourth and fifth seasons of the show featured Moore in his familiar place as the “daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains.”
After the Lone Ranger series ended in 1956, Moore reprised the role in two big-screen movies and then retired from acting. He remained in the public view, however, making personal appearances throughout the country in his Lone Ranger garb. Publicly and privately, he upheld the ideals that the Lone Ranger–and his serial heroes–had upheld on the screen: courage, charity, and a sense of justice. In 1979, he was barred by court order from making personal appearances as the Lone Ranger because the property’s owners worried that Moore’s close identification with the character would undercut a new Lone Ranger film. Moore nevertheless maintained his status as the “real” Lone Ranger in the eyes of fans, and, after the failure of the new Ranger feature, he was allowed to resume his mask in 1984. Moore died in Los Angeles in 1999, leaving behind several generations of fans that honored him not only for his TV persona, but for the kindess that characterized the off-screen man behind the mask.
Part of Clayton Moore’s success as the Lone Ranger was due to his respectful attitude towards the character. While some actors would have had a hard time taking a masked cowboy from a children’s radio show seriously, Moore’s performance was as heartfelt as if he had been playing a Shakespearian role; he gave the part all the benefit of his considerable acting talent. Moore played his cliffhanger roles, heroic and villainous, with the same respect and the same wholeheartedness. It’s no wonder that serial fans hold him in the same high regard that the Lone Ranger’s fans do.
Acknowledgements: Mary Anderson’s Clayton Moore tribute site provided me with some of the biographical information in this piece.