December 20th, 1924 — July 9th, 2004
Enthusiastic but level-headed, and tough without being hard-bitten, Sammy McKim was one of the most unsentimental child actors of the 1930s. McKim could evoke pathos quite well when necessary, but the youngsters he played always seemed more likely to go gunning for the man who killed their father/uncle/grandfather than to spend time sobbing beside their late relative’s body. McKim’s pioneer-like, self-sufficient manner made him a natural for Western roles, and he spent most of his screen career working in cowboy films for Republic Pictures, making occasional forays into Republic’s (and Columbia’s) movie serials.
Sammy McKim was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. His tubercular father, seeking a sunnier climate, moved himself and his family to Los Angeles in the 1930s. The elder McKim’s contagious condition kept him from working or spending too much time with his family, and Sammy and his siblings were largely raised by their mother and her Welsh father. While visiting a relative who worked as a screen extra, Sammy was spotted by a casting director who recognized the freckle-faced youngster as a good screen “type.” The McKim family being in need of income, the ten-year-old Sammy embarked on an acting career in 1935, under the conscientious tutelage of his grandfather. McKim played bits in several films–RKO’s The Plough and the Stars, MGM’s San Francisco, the Columbia B-western The Cowboy Star— before being signed to a contract by Republic Pictures in 1936. Republic immediately began to build him as a child star, giving him major supporting roles in the 1936 Olsen and Johnson comedy Country Gentlemen and the 1937 Three Mesquiteers B-western Hit the Saddle. The latter film set the tone for most of McKim’s Republic career; he would appear in so many of the Mesquiteer features over the next several years that some B-western buffs would dub him “the fourth Mesquiteer.”
Another of McKim’s early Republic assignments was a role in the 1937 serial The Painted Stallion. This large-scale and well-made Western featured Ray “Crash” Corrigan (one of the stars of the Mesquiteers features) as a wagon train leader battling Indians and outlaws along the trail to Santa Fe. Several historical personages assisted Corrigan throughout–among them a young runaway named Kit Carson, who was played by Sammy McKim. The young Carson, as befit a future Western legend, was written as less of a pesky “kid tagalong” and more of a genuinely helpful junior frontiersman; McKim’s hardiness and quiet spunk suited the role perfectly.
1938 found Sammy appearing in more Three Mesquiteers outings, the Gene Autry feature The Old Barn Dance, and the serial The Lone Ranger. One of Republic’s best, The Lone Ranger pitted the famed title character against a corrupt finance commissioner who was trying to tax the people of Texas dry. McKim, as one of the embattled Texans, first appeared in the fifteen-chapter serial’s eleventh episode. His character (named Sammy) was the grandson of a blacksmith who had been supplying the Lone Ranger with his special silver bullets; when his grandfather was murdered by the villain’s troopers, Sammy joined the Ranger’s small band of rebels. Despite being a latecomer to the story, McKim’s Sammy–as a representative of the people the Ranger was fighting for–definitely added something to the serial; he also functioned as the audience’s representative in scenes where he guessed at the Ranger’s identity–this secret was kept from him and from the kids in the audience until the final chapter.
Later in 1938, Republic loaned McKim to Columbia Pictures for the serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. Like McKim’s earlier outing Painted Stallion, Hickok was a handsomely produced and quasi-historical Western; the serial centered around a Texas cattle drive that was opposed by Kansas profiteers and outlaws and defended by Abilene marshal Bill Hickok (Bill Elliott). Sammy played a youngster called Boots, who formed the kids of Abilene into a sort of junior militia called the “Flaming Arrows;” they gathered information for Hickok and helped rescue him from the outlaws throughout the serial. Hickok’s cast and scope were so large that Sammy had limited screen time, but his presence as the Flaming Arrows’ leader helped to establish the group as truly dependable assistant heroes, not just kids playing cowboys- and-Indians.
McKim was loaned to Columbia again in 1939, for the serial Flying G-Men. This fast-moving chapterplay starred Robert Paige, Richard Fiske, and James Craig as a trio of government agents and flying aces who battled a sabotage ring. Sammy played Billy McKay, the son of a murdered inventor, and led a group called the Junior Air Defenders (reminiscent of Bill Hickock’s Flaming Arrows) in support of the heroes. McKim again made a potentially “pesky” character seem intelligent and dependable, whether he was eagerly receiving aviation information from the heroes or courageously defying a pack of thugs.
Above: Sammy McKim, flanked by Richard Fiske (center left) and James Craig (center right) listens as the seated Robert Paige talks about planes with the Junior Air Defenders in Flying G-Men (Columbia, 1939).
After appearing in about half-a-dozen more B-westerns (the last of which was Don Barry’s Texas Terrors), Sammy left Republic late in 1940. Before doing so, he made a final serial appearance in Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), making a sort of extended “guest appearance” in Chapters 11 and 12 as a boy named Sammy Williams who ran a rural gas station with his bed-ridden grandpa. The gas station bordered on a Western ghost town that was being used as a hideout by international spy Irving Pichel and his band; when Ralph Byrd (as Dick Tracy) came to the area in search of Pichel, Sammy served as the G-man’s guide to the ghost town and wound up saving Tracy’s life into the bargain. Small as it was, the role fit McKim like a glove, and made a good coda to his serial career.
Sammy freelanced for a few years after leaving Republic, playing small roles in Warner Brothers’ Sergeant York, MGM’s Men of Boys’ Town, and other features; upon turning eighteen in 1942, he joined the Army and served in the Pacific during World War 2, finishing as a second lieutenant. After the war’s close, he appeared in a few films but spent most of his time attending college in Los Angeles. He returned to uniform during the Korean War, seing combat action as both an infantry officer and an aerial observer and winning the Distinguished Service Cross. Once returned from Korea, he continued his education, going to art school on the GI Bill. The early 1950s found him definitively abandoning acting for an artistic career; he worked as a studio artist at Twentieth-Century Fox before beginning a long-lasting association with Walt Disney Productions in 1954. Over the next thirty years, McKim worked extensively as a Disney “Imagineer,” sometimes contributing artwork to films but principally working on concepts and designs for Disneyland and (later) Walt Disney World. He retired in the 1980s, but kept in touch with the Disney organization, receiving a “Disney Legend” award in 1996; he also remained in touch with fans of his earlier acting work, until he passed away in Burbank, California in 2004.
While child stars in A-features appealed to grown-up audiences by being “cute,” kids in matinee fare had to win the approval of their fellow kids in the audience by seeming intelligent, helpful, and wise beyond their years. Few kid sidekicks were better at conveying such youthful maturity than Sammy McKim, and his performances–whether as the Fourth Mesquiteer or one of his cliffhanger characters–are still prized by now-grown “matinee kids.”
Acknowledgements: My thanks for much of the information in the preceding article to Don Creacy’s “The McKim Clan,” a 2000 Classic Images article (no longer available online) on Sammy McKim and his family. I’m also indebted to this remembrance of Sammy at the Disney site Mouse Planet.