Dec 5, 2012

William Smith: the Bodybuilder of Laredo

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the bodybuilder a human face, there were two kinds of roles available for him: Italian sword-and-sandal, and American beach bunny, an object of ridicule, vain, silly, sexless.  How dare he try to transform his body into a work of art! Women's bodies were made to be looked at, men's to be ignored.  So bodybuilders who weren't playing beach narcissists had to keep their physiques under wraps.

William Smith worked to change all that.

Born in 1933, Smith graduated from UCLA magna cum laude, and was teaching Russian (one of several languages he spoke fluently), when he began modeling for Bob Mizner's Athletic Model Guild, which published  many other posing-strap-clad hunks (Gary Conway, Glen Corbett, Randy Jackson) for a mostly-gay male fanbase.  He was also a regular at Henry Willson's infamous gay-and-gay-friendly parties.



He was also acting intermittently, with roles in projects as diverse as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Boy with Green Hair, Wagon Train, and The Nutty Professor.  

When he signed on for Laredo (1965-67), he was already accustomed to presenting his body as an object of male and female desire.  It would not be one of the stereotypic Westerns of the period.





1. Other Western heroes were loners, or had unattractive, sexually unavailable sidekicks, but Laredo, like Alias Smith and Jones a few years later, was about buddy-bonding.  Two hunky Texas rangers, Chad Cooper (Peter Brown) and Joe Riley (William Smith), worked together, played together, and had eyes only for each other, in spite of Chad's occasional dalliance with the feminine.  The actors remained close friends for the rest of their lives.



2. Other Western heroes were often displayed nude or shirtless in movie magazines, but almost never on screen, especially if they were bodybuilders.  But Joe Riley had his shirt ripped off in practically every episode.  Usually when he was captured by the bad guys, to give him some vulnerability, so his massive physique wouldn't scare the audience.







After Laredo, Smith continued to work in Westerns (Daniel Boone, Death Valley Days, The Virginian) until the genre faded away in the 1970s, and then in cop shows and mysteries.  He had big hits in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) as the villainous Falconetti, and in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as Conan's father.












His most recent project, Tiger Cage (2012), comes after nearly 300 movie and tv show appearances over a period of 70 years, not to mention producing, directing, bodybuilding, boxing, and even writing poetry.  But few of his accomplishments can match the simple power of demonstrating to the world that the male body can be a thing of beauty.