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Sports Heroes Who Served: Rodeo and Film Star Slim Pickens Also Served in the Army During World War II

May 4, 2021 | BY Dave Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Louis Burton Lindley Jr., born June 29, 1919, in Kingsburg, California, is better known by his stage name Slim Pickens.

He grew up on a dairy farm where there were a lot of daily chores. Pickens grew restless with farm life, and as a teenager, he enjoyed going to the rodeo to ride broncos and rope steers.

A cowboy actor poses for a photo.
Slim Pickens
Slim Pickens, in 1972, on a Hollywood western set.
Photo By: Courtesy of Slim Pickens
VIRIN: 720127-O-XT155-001

His father didn't approve of his rodeo gig and wanted him to concentrate on farming instead.

As a result, Pickens sneaked off to the rodeo, going by the nickname Slim Pickens, to ensure his father wouldn't be able to track his whereabouts.

After high school, Pickens continued in the rodeo as a clown, a bullfighter and as a member of the Cowboy's Turtle Association, the forerunner of the Rodeo Cowboys Association and today's Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. According to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, the organization was named the Cowboys Turtle Association because they were slow to organize, but eventually "stuck their neck out." The organization wanted to ensure fair prize money, equality in judging and honest advertising of the sport. 

As a rodeo clown and bullfighter, he appeared in top venues like The Cow Palace, The Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Pendleton Round-up.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army. When the recruiter asked him his profession, he told him "rodeo." The recruiter, being hard of hearing, thought he said "radio," and assigned him to an Army radio station in the Midwest, where he remained for the duration of the war.

Men dressed as military members talk on a movie set.
Plan R
Actors (from left) Air Force Capt. “Ace” Owens (Shane Rimmer), Air Force 1st Lt. Dietrich (Frank Berry) and Air Force Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) about to open Wing Attack Plan R in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, "Dr. Strangelove."
Photo By: Courtesy of Slim Pickens
VIRIN: 640127-O-XT155-002

The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of cowboy and western films and TV series. Nearly all the actors who played these parts had never been cowboys or even knew how to ride horses, and stuntmen usually doubled for them in difficult riding scenes. But Pickens was different.

Pickens got noticed in Hollywood for his rodeo skills, riding ability, rugged looks and natural cowboy way of speaking and soon got parts in films such as the "Western Rocky Mountain" (1950) starring Errol Flynn; "Old Oklahoma Plains" (1952); "Down Laredo Way" (1953); "Tonka" (1959); "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) with Marlon Brando; "Major Dundee" (1965) with Charlton Heston; "Stagecoach" (1966); "An Eye for an Eye" (1966); "Never a Dull Moment" (1968); "The Cowboys" (1972) with John Wayne; "The Getaway" (1972) with Steve McQueen; "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973); "Ginger in the Morning" (1974); "Blazing Saddles" (1974); "Rancho Deluxe" (1975); "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979); and "Tom Horn" (1980).

The most memorable role for Pickens was in the 1964 dark comedy, "Dr. Strangelove," in which he played a B-52 bomber pilot who rides rodeo-style astride a hydrogen bomb, that is dropped on a Soviet city, starting World War III.

An actor, with a cowboy hat and dressed in a flight suit, rides a bomb.
Riding the Bomb
Slim Pickens as B-52 Bomber pilot Air Force Maj. T. J. "King" Kong, in the 1964 movie "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," a dark comedy satirizing the Cold war and fears of nuclear conflict.
Photo By: Courtesy of Slim Pickens
VIRIN: 640127-O-XT155-001

Pickens also appeared in many TV series, including: "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "The Wide Country," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," "Hee Haw," "The Virginian," "Route 66," "The Lone Ranger," "Maverick," "The Love Boat" and "Kung Fu."

Pickens lived with his wife in Columbia, California, not more than 150 miles from where he was born. He died on Dec. 8, 1983, after surgery for a brain tumor. He was 64.

Pickens' universal appeal and enduring renown in a uniquely American profession — the American cowboy — manifests in the accolades he has received from the many institutions that pay tribute to that heritage. 

Actors talk on a Western set. There is a horse between them.
"Wild Jack" Monroe
Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards and Slim Pickens as "Wild Jack" Monroe, owner of WJM-TV, from the TV series "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," sometime in 1971.
Photo By: Courtesy of Slim Pickens
VIRIN: 710127-O-XT155-002

In 1982, Pickens was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and in 1986, Pickens was further honored by posthumous induction into the Rodeo Historical Society's Rodeo Hall of Fame at the NC&WHM.

In 2005, Pickens was posthumously inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for his work as a rodeo clown, and in 2006, Pickens was inducted into the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame in Pendleton, Oregon.

In 2020, Pickens was posthumously inducted into the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame in Ellensburg,  Washington.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes of all is the lifelong honor that only a younger brother can provide an older sibling:  Samuel, Pickens' younger brother, was also an actor and went by the stage name Easy Pickens.

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