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- Ranch Hand
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George Montgomery could easily be called a renaissance man. He was a talented actor, director, writer, producer, artist, sculptor, architect, and furniture maker. After a long career as an actor, George made furniture for many of the notables of Hollywood before he began painting and making bronze sculptures. His sculptures were reminiscent of Frederic Remington as his subjects were mostly western themes, but he also made bronze sculptures of many of the stars of the day including Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.
George Letz was the fifteenth child of Russian emigrants. He reports that his birth on August 29th 1916 interrupted his mother while she was milking a cow and that after he appeared and was welcomed into the family she returned to the barn and finished the milking. The family moved several times during George’s childhood but his constant companion was his older brother, Maurice, who taught George to hunt, fish, fight and ride a horse. The brothers had chores to do but found time for fun and mischief as well. Once, they constructed a still under the guidance of a friend from Kentucky. The Feds broke up the project and the kids escaped prison but were left with 90 gallons of 160 proof moonshine. They peddled their moonshine to finance their Saturday afternoon movie habit.
At first, school was difficult for George because, although he knew some English, his native language was Russian. He managed to finish high school and go on the University of Montana intending to major in architecture and interior design but he left college after a year and headed to Hollywood.
Riding was a skill that stood George in good stead when he went to Hollywood. He arrived from his Montana home and was hired two days later for $6.50 a day as one of one hundred horsemen in a Garbo film. Before the first day of filming ended, because of his riding skill, he was rehired as a stunt man for $35.00 a day. So began his career as an actor.
After the stuntman stint in the Garbo film, George worked on a few movies with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and now and then with John Wayne. He was primarily working at Republic Studios until he met Susan Hayward’s agent who took some photos and circulated them to various studios. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox saw the pictures and a set up a screen test. George was offered a contract but Zanuck didn’t like his last name and wanted it changed. Montgomery was George’s middle name, one that he had chosen when he was baptized at age thirteen because of his fond memories of his mother’s Montgomery Ward catalog. And so George Letz became George Montgomery.
While at MGM, Montgomery made numerous “B” movies but Zanuck wanted to introduce him as a new western hero so he was cast in a series of four films of Zane Grey works including Riders of the Purple Sage.
The big break came for George when he was cast in Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers.
George and Ginger dated for several months before he began an affair with Hedy Lamar. He also met a singer named Dinah Shore. George wasn’t considering marriage both because the Army needed his services for the war effort and he had another film to make: Ten Gentlemen from West Point with Maureen O’Hara.
In January 1943, George reported for duty in the Army Air Corps. After basic training, he made several training films about survival in various terrains and some about GI health or relationship issues. In addition to his Army duties, George had something else on his mind: the girl he left behind. While doing a training film in Alaska, he wrote to Dinah proposing marriage. Two days after he returned to California, the two headed for Las Vegas to get married. Hoping to keep it a secret they used the names George Letz and Fanny Rose Shore, their real names, but the ploy didn’t work. By the time they got back to Hollywood the story was out and Hedda Hopper was taking bets on how long the marriage would last. The couple spent their honeymoon in Montana with George working on a crew cutting and baling hay and Dinah serving as the cook with a wood stove and no running water.
George was discharged from the Army mid-1946 and returned to Hollywood to resume his movie career.
His plans did not work out well, though he did make a few more “B” movies. This was the impetus to turn his architecture and woodworking hobbies into a profitable enterprise. It was while furnishing the home he and Dinah bought in Hollywood that George made his first piece of furniture, a Windsor bench which is now in the Palm Springs Desert Museum.
When the Montgomerys moved to Encino, California to wait for the birth of their first child in January 1948, George made furniture for the baby and the new house. He began to receive requests from friends to help design their homes and make furniture for them as well. Montgomery built pieces for Gregory Peck, Van Johnson and Jack Benny. To keep up with the demands, he bought a lot and built a factory which he operated for the next 25 years.
Montgomery continued to make several movies each year but television was an up and coming medium and George decided to try his hand in this new arena. He did guest appearances in numerous shows such as the Ford Theater, Screen Directors Playhouse and General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald Reagan. George turned down roles in Wagon Train and said no to the offer to star in Gunsmoke. He did accept a leading role in Cimarron City. The show was aired opposite Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel. George left the show after 26 episodes because of disagreements with the producers over the direction the show was going. One of his co-stars in Cimarron city was Dan Blocker who played Tiny Buddinger.
After the debacle over Cimarron City, George formed his own production company and began to make his own films with titles such as Black Patch and Steel Claw.
Much of the filming was done in the Philippines and kept George away from his family for months at the time. After one five month stint he came home to find Dinah involved with her tennis coach. The two divorced after a twenty year marriage and she married the tennis coach but she and George remained friends.
After the divorce, George made several movies in Spain and in Africa but shortly after returning to California in 1971, he began to have fainting spells. He visited several doctors and clinics and endured multiple tests. It was found that he suffered from wildly fluctuating blood pressure which sometimes was extremely low and caused the fainting. This caused George Montgomery to end his movie career. At this point in his life George returned to his love of furniture making and art.
Montgomery had been a collector of Western Art since the early years of his marriage to Dinah Shore and after his retirement he decided to try his hand at painting which he called the most frustrating thing he had ever done. By 1974, he had collected a few bronze sculptures and became interested in trying his hand at sculpture. He self-reports that his early efforts were “quite bad,” but he didn’t give up. He came up with the idea of creating bronze sculptures of the Hollywood greats of the time.
John Wayne Clint Eastwood There is a statue of Montgomery with his former wife, Dinah Shore, and their children located near the 18th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club, home of the Dinah Shore Golf Classic.
George Montgomery died in December 2000.
Some of George Montgomery’s sculptures are pictured below. Custer’s Final Moments John Wayne Testimonial Sculpture A sample of George Montgomery’s Furniture below George Montgomery’s star on the Walk of Fame
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