While Clint Eastwood fans might remember him as the leading man of Rawhide, the TV series that gave him his big start in Hollywood, he was most certainly not the main star while the show was on the air. Eric Fleming led the series as the tough-as-nails trail boss Gil Favor for seven seasons and was so popular, the show was canceled after just one season without him. While his co-star became a major movie star, Fleming is still fondly remembered for leading the western series as a rugged character that feels quite similar to his actual life.
Fleming was born in Santa Paula, California, and had a really tragic childhood. After suffering at the hands of his abusive father as a result of having a club foot, he ran away from home at the young age of 8, hopping a train up to Chicago. As a young man, he led a life of crime living on the streets and even got involved with gangsters before building ships for the Navy. He had personally never found himself attractive but after dropping a 200 lb weight on his face, he ended up having to receive extensive plastic surgery. The doctors did a great job on his new face and legitimately gave him movie-star good looks. But Fleming actually only started acting after losing a bet.
While working construction on the Paramount lot following his time in the Navy, Fleming bet $100 that he could do a better job than a professional actor. When he lost that money, he decided to enroll in acting classes which led to him landing a role in the stage production of Happy Birthday and numerous roles in other Broadway productions in Chicago and New York. This led to roles on Queen of Outer Space, Curse of the Undead, Conquest of Space, Major Dell Conway of the Flying Tigers, and numerous TV movies. But obviously, his biggest break that made him a household name came from starring in the CBS television series Rawhide for seven seasons.
Fleming starred on the series as the trail boss Gil Favor, who would typically introduce each episode. The show followed him alongside Eastwood, Sheb Wooley, and Paul Brinegar, as they traveled on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. No one knows the true cause behind Fleming's exit from the series, but it's believed it had something to do with a legal dispute and his high salary. We do know that the show fell apart without him and as the story goes, CBS executives saw just one episode of season 8 without Fleming before pulling the plug.
He went on to appear in a few episodes of NBC's hit western Bonanza as well as land a role in the Doris Day film The Glass Bottom Boat. Fleming signed on to appear in High Jungle, a two-part episode on Off to See the Wizard which was filming in Peru. Sadly, during a scene on the Huallaga River, the boat he was on with co-star Nico Minardos tipped over and they were thrown into the water. While Minardos managed to make it to shore, Fleming drowned in the river, survived by his fiancée Lynne Garber. He was only 41 years old at the time. The actor was undoubtedly taken too soon so who knows what else he could have accomplished in his career, but he'll always be our Gil Favor -- one of the all-time great western characters.