With its torrid summers and miles of open prairie dotted with little more than cattle herds and mesquite trees, the Cooke County area may not seem like a fashionable enclave to some. But for a group of veteran movie stars who make their homes here, humble North Texas is the next best thing to Malibu.
Actors Ken Farmer, Alex Cord, Robert Fuller and his wife, Jennifer Savidge live in the area as does professional rodeo hall of fame member Larry Mahan and actress Janine Turner. Former Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw maintains a ranch in nearby Love County, Okla.
Farmer — a graduate of Gainesville’s Newsome Doughtery Memorial High School and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran — may have helped start the Texas trend.
“I left Gainesville in 1959 and wound up in L.A.,” he said. “In 1989, 1990, we were at a pining and I said, ‘I’ve had about all this I can handle....I’m going back to Texas.’”
Long Island native Cord said moving to Texas made sense for him.
From his days as a polo player to his turn as a headliner in western movies, Cord felt drawn to Texas.
“I always wanted to be a Texan,” he said. “ I’ve been riding since I was two, and I always wanted to be a cowboy because, to me, a cowboy was a Texan.”
Like many of his associates from the film and television industry, Farmer isn’t pretending to be a cowboy. He’s the real deal.
He was reportedly running his own ranch when he got a part in a Dairy Queen commercial.
Farmer, Cord and others performed in countless celebrity rodeos in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Bull riding, roping, cutting — we really did that stuff,” he said.
Cord, a lifelong horseman, had already purchased a ranch in Texas when he encouraged his friend, Robert Fuller to give the Lone Star State a try.
“He originally wanted to move to Florida — that’s where he’s from,” Cord said. “I knew about his passion for fishing and I told him Texas has the greatest fresh water lakes. He had to come out and try it.”
Farmer said he and his buddies haven’t retired but their artistic pursuits have changed over the years. Both Farmer and Cord now devote much of their time to writing.
“When we were young and pretty we’d get parts,” Farmer said. “Now we don’t get as many so we write. We’re right-brain types. We have to write and create.”
Farmer’s literary debut was the “Black Eagle Force” series he co-writes with retired United States Air Force fighter pilot Buck Steinke.
Cord wrote “A Feather in the Rain” — while recovering from a personal tragedy.
In addition to writing, Farmer, Cord, Fuller and other stars also make time for western heritage festivals.
The performers disperse stacks of autographed photos and spend time shaking hands, answering questions and meeting people — many of whom are awestruck to meet performers they’ve idolized since childhood.
Farmer said the festivals are more than a chance to meet movie stars.
Festival guests also partake of the mystique of the American cowboy.
“People fly in from all over just to meet these old cowboys,” Farmer said. “There’s something about the cowboy and the American West. Everybody wants to shake your hand.”
The actors’ next major event is “Spirit of the Cowboy” planned for Sept. 21-22 at Chestnut Square in McKinney.
The event will feature music, dancing, and vendors along with stagecoach rides, a chuck wagon circle up, gunfighter exhibitions and vintage western movies.
Also slated to appear at the McKinney event are Fuller of “Laramie,” Wagon Train,” and “Emergency!;” James Hampton of “F-Troop,” “Teen Wolf,” and “Teen Wolf, Too;” Olympic gold medalist and stuntman Dean Smith, Burton Gilliam of “Blazing Saddles,” and Charlie LeSeure an actor, emcee, writer and B western authority.
This is the first year for “Spirit of the Cowboy.
Farmer said festival organizers hope to make the celebration an annual event.
He also said he thinks a similar western festival would be a boon to Cooke County.
“This is a good area to do that kind of thing,” he said, adding Gainesville has a compelling wild west history.
“The population of Gainesville was 35,000 in 1890,” he said. “ The town had 73 saloons (with names such as) the Chickasaw Hotel and the White Elephant Saloon...There’s still bullet holes in the walls of some of these buildings.”
For information on “Spirit of the Cowboy,” visit www.spiritofthe cowboy.net.