Denver Pyle played patriarchs of two very different television families as Briscoe Darling Jr. on The Andy Griffith Show and Uncle Jesse Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard. Those gigs alone would've made the Bethune, Col. native a legend, yet they barely scratch the surface of a lengthy career that also included multiple appearances on Gunsmoke and in John Wayne movies.
Head of the Darling Clan
Denver Dell Pyle, a World War II veteran (United States Marines), began his acting career in the early '50s on such television series as The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman. Yet it's another classic series that first defined Pyle. In 1963, he debuted on The Andy Griffith Show as the elder statesmen of a "hillbilly" family that also included characters played by bluegrass band The Dillards and another talent with experience in a family singing group, Maggie Peterson.
Though they appeared in just six episodes between 1963 and 1966, the Darlings became fan favorites. The family, minus the character "Dud" (played by both Hoke Howell and Gilligan himself, Bob Denver), appear in NBC's 1986 TV movie Return to Mayberry.
A lesser-known Pyle role in the Andy Griffith multiverse came in an episode of Gomer Pyle USMC in which Pyle played a different character than Darling.
Other noteworthy gigs from the '50s and '60s include TV series The Millionaire, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (primarily as the character Ben Thompson), Tammy (as Grandpa Tarleton) and The Doris Day Show (as Buck Webb). He also appeared in Perry Mason, Bonanza, The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone and Have Gun-- Will Travel.
Pyle's talents as a character actor translated to the silver screen in such classic films as Bonnie and Clyde, in which he played vengeful Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. Other highlights of Pyle's filmography include Train to Alcatraz (as Hutch Hutchins), The Guilt of Janet Ames, Johnny Guitar, Ten Wanted Men, The Left Handed Gun, Good Day for a Hanging, Cheyenne Autumn, Shenandoah, Geronimo, 5 Card Stud, The Rounders, The Great Race, Gunpoint, To Hell and Back, Bandolero! and the John Wayne westerns The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, Cahill US Marshall and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Duke Boys' Father Figure
In the '70s, Pyle remained a small-screen regular through roles on The Waltons and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. In the latter, he played mountain man Mad Jack alongside his co-star from the film Adventures of Frontier Fremont, Dan Haggerty.
Pyle also appeared in Disney's 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain.
Although he was making more in Texas and Oklahoma off oil speculation by the late '70s and '80s than he made as an actor in California, Pyle took a second television role of a lifetime when he became the head of the Duke family for CBS' The Dukes of Hazzard.
From 1979 to 1985, Uncle Jesse served as the father figure and moral compass of Bo, Luke and Daisy Duke. The show and 1997 TV movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion need no introduction, in part because of Pyle's masterful portrayal of a character who always let faith and goodness guide his path.
Pyle died in Burbank, Cal. on Christmas Day 1997 following a bout with lung cancer. He was survived by first wife Marilee Carpenter (the mother of Pyle's sons David and Tony) and second wife Tippie Johnston.
His final film role came in the 1994 remake of Maverick.
Nowadays, Pyle's got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles and a place in the heart of Andy Griffith and Dukes of Hazzard fans all over the globe.
This story originally ran on Nov. 10, 2020.
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