Saturday, February 19, 2022

Uncle Jesse


Denver Dell Pyle was born in Bethune, Colorado on May 11, 1920.  Not surprisingly, he was born on a farm, but from an early age, he'd set his sights on the big city and a career in show business.

After high school, Pyle briefly attended Colorado State University, but Hollywood was beckoning.  He moved to Los Angeles in 1940 and went to work as a drummer in a band. 

All that changed however, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and America entered World War 2.  Like many of his generation, Pyle joined the military, enlisting in the United States Navy.  He was discharged in 1943, after being wounded at the Battle of Guadalcanal.

After the war, Pyle returned to Hollywood and began his acting career.  His first role, albeit uncredited, was in the 1947 film noir The Guilt of James Ames.  From there, he became a reliable character actor of the 1950s, appearing on many popular programs of the day, including The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show and The Adventures of Superman.

In 1960, Pyle assumed one of the many signature roles of his career, that of Briscoe Darling on The Andy Griffith Show (right), patriarch of a musical family act. From there, he starred on The Doris Day Show, appearing as the title character's father, Buck Webb.  He later had a co-starring role on The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, playing the character Mad Jack. 

Grizzly Adams was canceled in 1978, allowing Pyle to audition for a new series being filmed on location in Georgia.  The Dukes of Hazzard (below), produced by Gy Waldron, was an adaptation of his earlier box-office project Moonrunners, which focused on a family of Georgia moonshiners.  While the film had grit and was intended for older audiences, the new series would have family appeal, as many of Pyle's earlier roles had as well.   

The Dukes of Hazzard was an overnight success for CBS, making household names of its young stars.  It ran for seven seasons and produced a variety of spin-offs, including an animated series for Saturday mornings, simply titled The Dukes.  Pyle provided the voice for his animated counterpart and served as narrator as well.

When the series was canceled in 1985, Pyle continued acting on television, making guest appearances on such series as The Love BoatDallas, and Murder, She Wrote.  He even reprised his Briscoe Darling role, in the 1986 made-for-TV movie, Return to Mayberry.

In 1997, Pyle returned to fictitious Hazzard County for one last spin as Uncle Jesse.  The made-for-TV movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion!, would be his final role.  Fans of the series noticed his frail appearance in the film, as he was now battling lung cancer.  It ultimately took his life on Christmas Day, 1997.

Denver Pyle was buried in his wife's family plot at Forreston Cemetery in Forreston, Texas.  His grave is unmarked.  It's a small cemetery, so just look for the Johnston stone.  You can't miss it.

Rest in peace, Uncle Jesse.

  • Denver Pyle was originally cast as Matt Dillon on the legendary series Gunsmoke.  At the eleventh hour however, producers auditioned actor James Arness, who was given the role instead.  Pyle was unceremoniously shown the door.  Yet another reason why I hate Gunsmoke.

  • After completing his run on The Andy Griffith Show, Pyle began investing in oil, buying older wells thought to be nearly dry.  By 1981, new technologies allowed the remaining oil to be recovered more economically, turning Pyle into a millionaire overnight.  While he no longer needed to act, he continued doing so anyway, stating "I look at it this way.  Acting provides the cash flow I need for oil speculation, and besides that, I like acting. It's fun."

  • Pyle was the younger brother of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was killed in Japan during World War 2. His other brother Willis was an animator at Walt Disney Studios.

  • Pyle was a man of great charity.  In 1988, he founded Uncle Jesse's Fishing Tournament in Lamar County, Texas.  It is still held every year, raising money for local children's charities.  He also appeared in this PSA for the National Kidney Foundation.

  • During filming of The Left Handed Gun in 1958, Pyle became best friends with co-star James Best.  The two would later famously appear together on The Dukes of Hazzard, albeit on opposite sides of the law.  The friendship endured for forty years, until Pyle's passing in 1997.

  • Denver Pyle and Sorrell Booke were the only two cast members to appear in all 147 episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard.

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