This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, being co-hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club as a month-long salute to the Academy Awards.
Each week has a different theme: THE ACTORS! (February 6), OSCAR SNUBS! (February 13), THE CRAFTS! (February 20), and THE MOTION PICTURES and THE DIRECTORS! (February 27). (My blog entry, which follows, is related to OSCAR SNUBS.) Click on the above banner for a terrific variety of blogs related to the history of Oscars!
If you were a movie actor, what would you do to try to win an Oscar? Chill Wills did nothing less than invoke God Almighty.
Theodore Childress “Chill” Wills (1902-1978) was a performer from early childhood, forming and leading the Avalon Boys singing group before disbanding them in 1938 to pursue a solo acting career.
(Laurel & Hardy fans are well familiar with Wills and the Avalon Boys. They provide the back-up singing for the famous softshoe number “At the Ball, That’s All” in the L&H comedy Way Out West. Wills can be seen as the yodeler in the group.)
For two decades, Wills’ film work ranged from the serious (Uncle Bawley in the James Dean movie Giant) to the ridiculous (he was the uncredited voice of Francis the Talking Mule in Universal’s long-running comedy series). But for reasons we’ll explain, Wills’ most notorious role was probably “Beekeeper,” the alcoholic sidekick to Davy Crockett (John Wayne), in the Wayne-produced-and-directed Western The Alamo (1960).
The Alamo, based of course on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, was a pet project of Wayne’s. He wanted so much to get the movie made that he put up $1.5 million of his own money for the budget, and he starred in the movie when he would have preferred a supporting role or no role at all (other backers refused to help fund the movie without Wayne’s star power as insurance). Despite Wayne’s fondness for the subject matter, historians and critics complained loudly about the movie’s lack of factual accuracy.
And as it turned out, Wayne’s love of a good Western story was nothing compared to Chill Wills’ passion for a golden statuette.
Despite the movie’s mixed notices, Wills’ performance got him rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At age 58, Wills was not about to let his only shot at an Academy Award slip through his leathery fingers.
Wills enlisted the aid of veteran press agent W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz to mount an Oscar bid for him. While Wills took the heat for this self-serving campaign, Bow-Wow later admitted that Wills knew nothing about it and that it was entirely his doing. And Bow-Wow certainly earned his salary.
The campaign’s first ad read, “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at The Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar. Cousin Chill’s acting was great. [Signed,] Your Alamo cousins.”
The straw that broke the Academy’s back was the ad with Wills declaring, “Win, lose, or draw, you’re still my cousins and I love you all.” It was Wills’ hard luck that Hollywood’s master of sarcasm, Groucho Marx, was one of the Academy’s Oscar voters. Noting that Sal Mineo was also up for a Supporting Actor Oscar (for the movie Exodus), Groucho posted his own ad that read, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.”
The back-and-forth did not end there. John Wayne was quite eager to distance himself and Batjac, his production company, from Wills’ campaign. Wayne ran an ad in Variety which stated: “No one in Batjac or in the Russell Birdwell office [Wayne’s publicist] had been a party to [Wills’] trade paper advertising. I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his intentions are not as bad as his taste.”
Groucho Marx couldn’t resist taking a crack at Wayne’s sanctimoniousness either, remarking publicly, “For John Wayne to impugn Chill Wills’ taste is tantamount to Jayne Mansfield criticizing Sabrina for too much exposure.”
And that was about the last that The Alamo heard about any Oscars. The Best Supporting Actor award went to neither Wills nor Mineo, but to Peter Ustinov for Spartacus. Despite a total of seven nominations (including Best Picture), the only Oscar garnered by The Alamo was for Best Sound. Wayne himself would win his only Oscar, not for directing his prized project, but for his lead acting role in True Grit nearly a decade later.
Wills’ elaborate Oscar adventure is proof that money and publicity alone are not enough to nab someone an Academy Award. But as we’ve seen in the 55 years since The Alamo, that doesn’t stop plenty of wanna-bes from trying.
Emmanuel Levy Cinema 24/7. “Oscar Scandals: Wills, Chill (The Alamo).” Dec. 31, 2005. http://emanuellevy.com/oscar/oscar-scandals-chill-wills-9/
Los Angeles Times. “‘The Alamo’ Mission.” Jan. 6, 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/06/news/la-en-archives6-2010jan06
The Oscar Buzz. “Failed Oscar Campaigns: ‘The Alamo’ (1960).” http://theoscarbuzz.blogspot.com/2014/12/failed-oscar-campaigns-alamo-1960.html
Wikipedia. “‘The Alamo’ (1960 film).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Alamo_(1960_film)
Wikipedia. “Chill Wills.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chill_Wills