MIRACLE AT MIDDLESBORO'
By Flora Rand / TV Radio Mirror 1966
A wonderfully heart-warming story – the kind every editor hope for every month – has recently come to light about Lee Majors, perhaps the hottest young TV star to emerge in recent years. The story begins in Lee’s hometown, Middlesboro, Kentucky – population 14,482 – and shuttles back and forth from the misting green hills and muted speech of the south to the polyglot voices and hustle and bustle of Hollywood. So quietly has this story unfolded that only by great good luck – and some diligent reporting – was TV Radio Mirror able to get it exclusively.
The climax of this big “secret story” about Lee Majors is much too fascinating to hold for a later paragraph. So let us tell it first. While no Hollywood reporter has ever come away from an interview with Lee with this fact, the truth of the matter is that Lee was first “discovered” and helped along to sudden stardom by none other than Rock Hudson!
How such a story could be kept secret must rank as the ninth wonder of the world. Lee has never told it; perhaps he knows that a public “thank you” would embarrass Rock, his friend and mentor. And Rock, of course, would be the last person to try to take even the smallest credit for another’s success. But when you consider that this story had its beginnings over four years ago, you can only marvel that it hasn’t been told before now.
Actually, the chain of circumstances which eventually forged a friendship between the shy youngster from Middlesboro and the No. 1 Box Office Star began much earlier, in 1954. That year, Rock was making a movie, Giant, on location in the Bluegrass Country around Lexington, Kentucky. Rock a native of nearby Illinois, found that he had much in common with the area and its people. He made many close friends that year, friends he has continued to visit frequently, right up to this day.
There are differing statements about how Lee and Rock Hudson finally did meet and become friends. The one most frequently heard sounds suspiciously like Hollywood hyperbole. Or, more accurately – since until this moment Hollywood hasn’t heard this story – like and Upper South version of Lana Turner sitting on a soda-fountain stool. This version goes like this: Handsome, blond Lee, six feet tall and a football star, strolls into a restaurant in Richmond, Kentucky (Lee was studying at Eastern Kentucky State College there, to be a teacher and football coach.) A friend greets Lee. And with the friend is the famous star, Rock Hudson.
A version much easier to believe is that a professor at Eastern State, a mutual friend of both Rock and Lee, introduced them at a party. And Rock, impressed with Lee’s rugged good looks and manner, thought he might be star material and decided to help him.
The time of this first meeting was early 1962. And the stage was being set for Harvey Lee Yeary to become Lee Majors Star, for he had found an influential friend and knowledgeable guide. Someone who saw a quality in him, foreshadowing much of what has already come to pass and much yet to be revealed.
What was Lee like in 1962, when Rock pointed his way to a star? He was 21 years old, married to young Kathy Robinson (she was 16 when they wed the previous June) of Richmond, and in April 1962, Lee became a father when his son, Lee III was born. He had been a football star until a broken back put an end to that. He was a junior in college. He had also played the lead in a college play or two – the first venture into dramatics in his life – and besides being told that he had natural acting talent, he discovered he liked acting. Also, even before meeting Rock Hudson, he had begun to wonder if he might have a greater future as an actor than as a teacher-coach.
This then was the raw material in which Rock saw potential stardom.
It was in June 1962 that Rock made his first visit to Middlesboro to meet Lee’s parents, Mildred and Harvey Lee Yeary Sr., and their friends. The Yeary’s neighbors still speak with a certain awe of Rock’s first trip to to their town. (he has visited on other occasions since), before they got used to having a movie star suddenly emerge from the kitchen or just sit around and chat in the front parlor.
One of the neighbors tells about that balmy June evening, the first time Rock was expected at the Yeary home. “It was very exciting,” she says “My husband and I had been asked by Mr. and Mrs. Yeary to come over and wait for Rock and Harvey Lee (the home town folks still call Lee this) to arrive. Harvey Lee had gone to meet Rock’s plane – in Knoxville, I believe – and bring Rock home.
“I don’t think his mother really believed Harvey was bringing Rock, even though he had said he would. She thought it might be some sort of spoof or gag. But she just had to tell someone and, in case it was true, she felt she needed someone with her to give her confidence – or, she said, she just knew the shock would kill her! So we all sat under the carport, waiting, and soon they drove up in a convertible.
“Well it was true – and the shock didn’t kill her! But the Yearys were too surprised for words at first. One of the men got up and shook hands with Rock and Harvey Lee, and then we all were introduced and we sat around and couldn’t believe our eyes. But Harvey Lee was just cool and calm, and having fun watching the rest of us. You know it’s like going to a big city and thinking you shouldn’t stare at the tall buildings but doing it anyhow. That’s the way we reacted. But it turned out that Rock was very congenial and talked about everything, and just made us all feel right at home.
Middlesboro is an interesting little town, located in the south eastern Kentucky coal and iron mining region, and there is no question that Rock enjoyed seeing the local sights and appreciated the warm hospitality he found as a guest in the Yeary home on Gloucester Avenue. (The town, he doubtless learned, was founded by English mining interests seventy-seven years ago, and abounds in British street names.)
Rock must have been especially pleased when an outdoor barbecue was given in his honor by a popular local banker, Oscar Robinson, at his estate in nearby Harrogate, Tennessee.
“It was a very nice party,” recalls one guest. “At that time the Limbo was being danced, which made everything lively and fun and Rock participated in everything. Harvey Lee was there with his wife Kathy, a very attractive girl.” Everyone observed how great it was, the way Rock moved around and joined one group after another and took pains to speak to everyone. A friend of Lee’s reported, “Harvey Lee, even though he is rather quiet and sometimes reserved, moved around, too, in different groups. You could see he was getting the biggest kick out of the way people were reacting to Rock just being there.”
The consensus seems to be that Lee likes introducing Rock to his friends in unexpected ways at unexpected times, and that Rock is a good enough sport to go along with it.
The summer of 1962 Lee Majors spent preparing himself for his future career in Hollywood. This may or may not have been at Rock’s urging but Lee plunged wholeheartedly into a season of summer stock at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky, under the experienced tutelage of director Even Hebson.
By April 1963 after graduating from Eastern in mid-term, Lee was ready to tackle Hollywood. If it didn’t work out, he felt, there was always teaching, for he’d received his certificate along with his degree.
Rock was again at Middlesboro that April. He was there, in fact, on the night before Lee, Kathy and their small son set off for the West Coast in a little station wagon Lee had bought. Rock’s role that time may well have been that of morale-booster as Lee was preparing for such a momentous journey.
The wife of one of Lee’s close friends has a vivid recollection of that night. She says that she and her husband were watching TV at home when they got a call from Lee. “He wanted us to come over but wouldn’t say why. So we went to his parent’s home and Harvey Lee was there with his wife Kathy and we just sat and talked for a while and sort of wondered. Then he said he wanted to show us someone and he went out of the room and brought in Rock Hudson. Just like that! We just about fell out of our chairs.” (Lee’s other surprise was that he would be leaving for Hollywood the following morning.)
The incident seems to characterize the heart of their friendship. Almost from the beginning, a sense of ease seemed to exist between them – and a feeling of pride on Lee’s part and, on Rock’s a desire to help.
Rock, of course, did not accompany Lee and his family on their cross country drive to California, but no one believes for a minute that his moral support ceased with waving them goodbye on that April morning. Lee had told one very close friend that he wanted “to go out there and make something of himself and help put his town on the map. And if he didn’t, he would feel he was letting the town and his friends down.” It is pretty much a foregone conclusion that Rock Hudson stood ready, willing and able to help Lee fulfil his ambitions.
How did he help? “Mainly through connections,” says one of Lee’s old pals, suggesting that Rock was able to say the right words in Lee’s behalf to the right people in the right places at the right times.
Supporting the Family
Lee, of course, took what jobs he could find to support his young family. For a time, he was recreation director at a Lions Club park in the San Fernando Valley. It is also said that for a while he worked as a carhop. So, financially, Lee stood firmly on his own two feet.
In other areas Rock could and doubtless did, help. Even the luckiest of blond young Hollywood gods can do with a nudge now and then towards their goal – and someone or something gave Lee some very welcome pushes in the right direction. Without great difficulty, Lee acquired an excellent agent, a well-known one by the name of Dick Clayton, a friend of Rock Hudson’s. (Clayton was agent for James Dean, the young actor whose tragic death turned him into an overnight legend.) Lee also had six months of drama study at MGM and coaching from Estelle Harman, teacher to the stars. The wheels were turning, and it is a reasonable guess that the man who set them in motion and kept them going was Rock Hudson.
But any help given by Rock Hudson was strictly behind the scenes. Hollywood didn’t know of their friendship. Even Barbara Stanwyck, star of The Big Valley, in which Lee surged to fame, recently told a reporter from TV Radio Mirror: “Lee interests me because he came to Hollywood with nothing – no friends, no outside help, no contacts.” Would she have found him less interesting if she had known he wasn’t friendless and without contacts? Probably not. Although reserved and almost shy, Lee seems to be a fellow who can be aggressive enough, and determined enough in his own quiet way, to get what he goes after – even if it might take a little longer or be a little harder.
There has been another well-kept secret – until now! In Lee’s official ABC TV biography you will find a line claiming that until The Big Valley Lee had never stepped upon a stage or faced a camera other than a Brownie. This is just not true! If you look back at a movie released in 1964 – Straitjacket, starring Joan Crawford – you will recognize the young husband who became the axe-murderess’ first victim. You will have to look fast, because he only appears in the first three minutes of the film. And if you read the credits you will see that Lee Majors began his Hollywood career under his real name, Lee Yeary. Yes, Lee was sharpening up his talents as an actor in the shadow of yet another of the great ladies on the screen. And the battery of cameras shooting his movie debut included nary a one you would confuse with a Brownie!
After Straitjacket came The Big Valley, making its debut on TV in September 1965. Since that event, Lee has had ample cause to be grateful for any help Rock has been able to render – and to forget all about going back to Kentucky to take up a teaching career.
How are these two alike – the actor who has made it and the actor who today is moving up fast? One could draw some interesting comparisons.
For one thing, each has had the harrowing experience of having a marriage end in divorce. Rock’s marriage and divorce story has been told often in magazines. Lee’s marriage to Kathy resulted in an amicable divorce shortly before The Big Valley went on TV. She worked for a while in a Los Angeles bank but has since returned home to Kentucky with their son. Lee still spends as much time as he can with the boy and made a point of being in Kentucky last April when little Lee celebrated his fourth birthday.
Lee and Rock Hudson are also much alike in personality. Both are essentially shy and both lacking in self-confidence in the beginning. Rock has been described as having “a fierce shyness,” Lee as being introverted and bashful. Both have been described as likeable and modest in manner. Both have also at times been called loners. A schoolmate of Lee’s says that “even in the fourth or fifth grade, he liked to be off by himself a lot.”
Both have always been objects of young girls’ crushes. One of Lee’s hometown friends says about his attraction for the girls even in high school days. “He didn’t have to do anything about it. He just had to be there.”
Rock tried in many ways to get into movies. He hung around studio gates in an effort to be discovered, but his final breakthrough came through an agent. It may be that he didn’t want Lee to have it so hard. At any rate, Lee’s agent also gave him the final push into prominence.
Both have changed names – Majors from a football-playing family that Lee admired, Rock rechristened by his agent. Rock didn’t make a TV appearance until 1959 – his picture contract stood in the way. Lee’s success so far is all in TV – and it is movies that must wait their turn.
Naturally, he has been offered scripts for feature films he could do during vacations from The Big Valley. But he told a radio interviewer last spring, “I don’t want to do a feature film until I get through the with the TV series”
Is Lee Majors, at 26, a harder-headed businessman than his small town background would have you suppose? Or has Rock Hudson been the guiding force in what, so far, has been astute handling of his career? A relative of Lee’s says that, just before the start of The Big Valley, Lee confided, “I’m going to do this series with Barbara Stanwyck and it will be very big. I don’t think the people in Middlesboro realize how big it is going to be.”
Was Rock the prophet who could read the signs? The same Rock Hudson who is said to have helped the newcomer go on and up? Or was it Lee himself, who must have known what he wanted all the time and who divined that at least it was within his reach? Who can say?
But no one can deny that Lee Majors’ luck was running good that day, four years ago in Kentucky when some unnamed friend said “Lee, I’d like you to meet Rock Hudson.