Red Barry: From B Movies to “Back Roads”

Tribute today to the great star Red Barry (1912-80). That opening sentence is plainer than a lot of others might have made it, but I find myself unwilling to pigeonhole this actor. You might call him a “western” star — except for the fact that, though the lion’s share of his movies were westerns, he’s also associated with gangster films and war films. You might call him a “B movie actor”, although he was quite successful in making it into mainstream films. And he was a frequent presence in film and TV through the end of his life.

You can’t even pin him down to one name. Born Milton Poimboeuf he was also known as Donald Barry de Acosta, and billed sometimes as Don Barry, Donald Barry, or Donald M. Barry. “Red” comes from the fact that he great success in starring in Republic Studio’s 1940 serial Adventures of Red Ryder, an adaptation of the popular comic strip (the same one the gave the world the branded BB gun fondly referenced in A Christmas Story). To confuse matters, other actors later played Red Ryder, and to confused matters further there was also a comic strip about gangsters called Red Barry that Republic Studios turned into a serial in 1938 starring Buster Crabbe. Why, it’s enough to make you see “Red”!

Like John Wayne, Texas native Barry had played college football. It was Wayne who got Barry work at Republic and other studios. He started out in bit roles as early as 1933. You can see him in some suprising films, such as Dead End, and the Joe E. Brown comedy When’s Your Birthday?, both in 1937. The title role in Days of Jesse James (1939) opposite Roy Rogers, was one of the first to raise his profile. After success as Red Ryder, he played a large number of “Kids”: The Tuska Kid (1940), The Apache Kid (1941), The Cyclone Kid (1942), The Sombrero Kid (1942), and The Sundown Kid (1942). In gangster films he was The West Side Kid (1943) and The Chicago Kid (1945). He was also The Kansas Cyclone (1941) and The Carson City Cyclone (1943) as well as the title characters in Wyoming Wildcat, The Phantom Cowboy, Two Gun Sheriff, Desert Bandit and A Missouri Outlaw (all 1941), Jesse James Jr (1943) and California Joe (1945). In the post-war period things slowed down somewhat, though you could still see him as the title characters in such things as Slippy McGee (1948) and I Shot Billy the Kid (1950).

During the television age, B movies went the way of the dodo, but Barry must have had a good agent, because he managed to get good roles in major mainstream films. He’s in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) with Susan Hayward, the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott western Seven Men from Now (1957), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and lots and lots of TV, with repeated appearances on such shows as Colt .45, Maverick, Lawman, Surfside 6, 77 Sunset Strip, Dragnet, Batman, Adam-12, and Ironside. He had a really good stretch in the late 60s and early 70s, with roles in well-known movies like Alvarez Kelly (1966), Bandolero (1968), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970), Dirty Dingus McGee (1970), Rio Lobo (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972). As the 70s wore on, his film work got schlockier including such things as Blazing Stewardesses (1975), Orca (1977) and Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978), but on TV he went great guns, with recurring roles on Police Woman and Little House on the Prairie, and parts on hit shows like Charlie’s Angels, and ChiPs. The Martin Ritt rom-com Back Roads (1981) with Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones was his last film.

Barry’s first wife (1940-44) was B movie star Peggy Stewart (always significant to me because that was mom’s name!) He was estranged from his third wife Barbara Patin at the time of his suicide, by gunshot, in 1980. The New York Times wrote about the unfortunate episode here.

He who lives by the sword must die by the sword? “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”