July 5, 1904 — June 12, 1980
Square-faced and sturdy-looking, with a robust Kansas-accented speaking voice and an acting style that was at once understated and forceful, Milburn Stone did his best-remembered screen work as the cantankerous but benevolent Doc Adams on the long-running Gunsmoke television show. Most of his pre-Gunsmoke roles were character parts of one kind or another, but he also was given the opportunity to serve as a slightly offbeat but very effective hero in a pair of Universal serials from the studio’s World War 2 period. Lacking the classic comic-book looks of the more standard serial star, he nevertheless gave his characters an archetypally American quality perfectly suited to his wartime chapterplays, conveying a combination of gruff straightforwardness, earnest determination, brisk cheerfulness, and down-to-earth courage. Stone figured in three other serials as well, all but one for Universal; in two of these he roughened his already blunt screen personality to an extent that allowed him to play villains as effectively as he portrayed heroes in his other chapterplay outings.
Hugh Milburn Stone was born in Burrton, Kansas. He was active in both athletics and theatrics during his school years; a broken arm, sustained in a high school football game, led to his relinquishing a prospective appointment to the US Naval Academy. Instead, he pursued an acting career shortly after completing high school, joining a repertory company called the Art Names Players and touring in Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado during the early 1920s. After the Players broke up, Stone toured in Midwestern vaudeville as a song-and-dance man and comedian for most of the remainder of the 1920s. He made a brief foray to Broadway in 1929 which was torpedoed by the advent of the Great Depression, then returned to the Midwest to tour with another repertory company and manage a few traveling shows of his own. The last of these shows, a vaudeville act with J.O. Strain, made it all the way to California in 1932; the act folded and left Stone working temporarily at a gas station, but he soon established his acting credentials on the West Coast after landing a major supporting role in the Pasadena Playhouse’s stage version of The Virginian, starring Victory Jory. His success in Pasadena led to another brief stint on Broadway in 1934; by 1935, he was back in California, and had begun his motion picture career.
One of Stone’s earliest screen appearances was in The Fighting Marines, the last serial released by Mascot Pictures. Stone was uncredited here as Red, one of the many thugs following the orders of the master criminal known as the Tiger Shark. Although surrounded by seasoned serial heavies such as Tom London, Stanley Blystone, and Ted Adams, Stone more than held his own as a member of the henchman pack, snapping out his scattered lines with brusque confidence and rushing into criminal activities with hustling aggressiveness.
Stone’s briskly self-confident screen personality found him steady movie work during the remainder of the 1930s, playing many uncredited and some credited parts as reporters, cops, sailors, soldiers, racketeers, radiomen, attorneys, mechanics, and other assertive types. He played mostly bit parts at larger studios like Paramount and Fox, during this time, but began receiving bigger roles–usually major supporting parts, but also a couple of leads–in B-films for smaller outfits like Universal and especially Monogram (including that studio’s Tailspin Tommy movies) during the later years of the decade. He continued this career pattern into the 1940s, playing major roles (usually as heavies) in several B-westerns and B-crime films for Republic and Monogram, and taking small roles at the major studios. He became a Universal contract player in 1942, and worked regularly there until the end of 1946–playing a wide variety of supporting roles, from character parts to surprise villains to romantic leads, in the studio’s musicals, comedies, mysteries, and horror films, among them a Sherlock Holmes film and several Inner Sanctum features.
As abovementioned, Stone also starred in two chapterplays during his time under contract at Universal, beginning with The Great Alaskan Mystery (Universal, 1944). One of the last chapterplays turned out by Universal’s long-time serial producer Henry MacRae, this hybrid of Western-style action, science fiction, and wartime espionage starred Stone as Jim Hudson, a courageous Marine who helped his Alaskan mine-owner father (Joseph Crehan) and an eminent scientist (Ralph Morgan), fight off a gang of Axis spies who were threatening a ray machine called the Peratron as well as the quartz mine that provided its power source. Alaskan Mystery was a deliberately paced but entertaining serial with good location work and a wide array of strong characterizations–including Stone’s. His air of down-to-earth rural ruggedness made him seem eminently convincing as a born-and-bred Alaskan, far more so than many more polished serial stars would have been, and he maintained an excellent and convincing rapport with his similarly down-to-earth screen father, Joseph Crehan. He also conveyed dogged determination as his character labored to protect the mine and the ray, and snapped out orders at other characters with properly soldierly abruptness–while at the same time managing to be boisterous, wryly cheerful, and even comically exasperated when the occasion called for it.
Stone’s second Universal serial was The Master Key (1945). Made towards the end of the war, but set just before the beginning of the war, this well-written espionage adventure was one of the best chapterplays turned out by former screenwriter Morgan Cox, the producer of most of Universal’s serials from 1944 onwards; unlike some of Cox’s other productions, it managed to remain exciting and involving despite a rather heavy reliance on expository dialogue. Stone starred in Master Key as Tom Brant, a G-man battling a Nazi spy ring in order to rescue a missing scientist and retrieve a valuable gold-making invention called the Orotron. As in Great Alaskan Mystery, Stone did a great job of balancing the no-nonsense brusqueness appropriate to the serious business of spy-chasing with a good-humored enthusiasm which made his character seem highly likable as well as admirably dedicated. His energetic, hard-charging performance played especially effectively off of the more stoic personality of supporting hero Dennis Moore and the cool thoughtfulness of heroine Jan Wiley.
Stone’s last major serial role was in The Royal Mounted Rides Again, a quasi-Western set in 1890s Canada. Weaker than his two previous outings, this chapterplay overindulged in dialogue at the expense of action and was somewhat overcrowded with double-dealing villains and quasi-villains. Stone was among the villains; as a mine foreman named Taggart, he murdered a miner to acquire a secret gold vein, but was forced into an unwelcome partnership with an evil saloonkeeper (Robert Armstrong) in order to protect himself from a Mountie investigation. Although he was killed off three chapters before the serial’s finale, Stone’s cold-blooded but impetuous character served as a plotting catalyst for much of Royal Mounted’s running time, as he attempted to outmaneuver his tough but honest boss (Addison Richards), Mountie hero Bill Kennedy, rival villain Armstrong, and many other opponents. Stone’s natural likability made it easy for him to pull off the façade of bluff honesty that his character maintained for much of the serial, while his unwavering, aggressively businesslike attitude towards his evildoing made his character seem quite threatening as a more naturally sinister actor would have.
Stone did one more serial for Universal without actually appearing in it. His voice was heard providing voiceover narration at the beginning of each episode of the Western serial The Scarlet Horseman (1946). His tersely energetic recaps of the serial’s complex plot were enjoyable and effective, but producer Cox unfortunately found it necessary to supplement them with excessive expository character dialogue in the serial itself, rendering Stone’s role in the proceedings somewhat unnecessary.
Following the expiration of his Universal contract, Stone did some freelancing for Republic, Monogram, and various independent outfits during the remaining years of the 1940s. The early-to-mid 1950s found him landing credited character parts in A-features on a more regular basis than he had during the 1930s and 1940s, appearing in numerous bigger-budgeted films for Fox, his old employer Universal, United Artists, Paramount, and Columbia (including Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street and John Ford’s The Long Gray Line). He did a handful of television appearances during this time as well, before Charles Marquis Warren, who’d previously directed Stone in the 1953 A-western Arrowhead, recruited him as a regular for the TV series Gunsmoke, which began in 1955. With the exception of a few other television and feature appearances in 1956 and 1957, Gunsmoke would occupy the rest of Stone’s career; the extraordinarily long-lived show stayed on the air through 1975, and Stone was the only Gunsmoke regular, other than star James Arness, to remain with the series for its entire twenty-season run. Although Stone did some television narration work and made a few TV appearances as himself after Gunsmoke ended, he spent most of his remaining years in retirement in Rancho Santa Fe, a small town near San Diego, where he pursued his hobbies of fishing and furniture-making. Milburn Stone passed away in San Diego County in 1980.
The screen personality with which Milburn Stone impressed multiple generations of television viewers was already very much in evidence during his Universal serial days. Though never as curmudgeonly as his Doc Adams frequently was, his serial heroes shared that character’s pugnacity, curtness, and outspoken authoritativeness; they also shared Doc’s wryly energetic sense of humor, middle-American unpretentiousness, and essential warmth. That authoritativeness made it easy to believe that Stone’s heroes would get their jobs done, whatever the odds, while that warmth and humor made it very easy to root for them as they went about those jobs.
Acknowledgements: My sources for this article were letters from Milburn Stone’s brother and nephew, posted at Gunsmokenet.com, and the book Gunsmoke: An American Institution, by Ben Costello (Book Street Press, 2005).