The 1938 motion picture "Jesse James," filmed in McDonald County, proved the first episode in the long film and television career of Anderson native "Dabbs" Greer.
Born R. William Greer in 1917 to Randall and Bernice Greer in Fairview, Missouri, he and his parents moved to Anderson when he was a year old. His father was a druggist, and his mother taught speech. His first acting experience was at 8 years old in a children's theater production.
He graduated from Anderson High School and attended Drury College in Springfield, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree. From 1940 to 1943, he taught speech at Mountain Grove High School for $90 a month. In 1943, he moved to Pasadena, California, where he worked for seven years at the Pasadena Playhouse and School of Theatre teaching acting. He left that to pursue acting.
The 1938 20th Century Fox production of "Jesse James" gave Greer and many other McDonald County residents the opportunity to work in a professional movie environment. Tyrone Power starred as Jesse James, while Greer was selected as an extra at $5 per day for a bar scene and as a bandsman in the Confederate Army.
He said in a 1977 Globe interview: "It was a Cinderella thing for a movie to be made in this area." He noted that people from around McDonald County, and from as far away as Texas, thronged to the location not just to see the cast, but also to watch how the movie was made.
After an agent contacted him in 1948 about acting in films, Greer appeared in "The Black Book," which also starred Joplin actor Bob Cummings. It marked the start of a career that spanned 55 years in 312 credited appearances, according to IMDb.
One of his claims to fame was that he was the first person rescued by Superman in the 1950 television series. He was Jonas the storekeeper for the first seven seasons of "Gunsmoke." And he was a regular in science fiction films of the 1950s, such as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "It — The Terror from Beyond Space," "The Giant Claw" and "The Vampire."
Television roles provided some of his most memorable roles. He was a familiar face seen on many television shows, including "The Fugitive," "Mannix," "Perry Mason," "Lassie," "Peyton Place," "Wagon Train," "Bonanza," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Rawhide," "The Rockford Files," "The Mod Squad" and "The Brady Bunch."
He was often cast as a minister. Many will fondly remember him as the Rev. Robert Alden in "Little House on the Prairie," a role he made his own over 76 episodes. While he could be everyone's trusted friend, he could also surprise fans, such as when "The Outer Limits" cast him as a malevolent alien masquerading as a minister.
Greer maintained the family home in Anderson, to which he returned yearly. As he told a Globe reporter in 1990: "Once you've lived here, you kind of have a feeling for the land."
In 1977, he was honored by his hometown with the first JESSE Award in connection with the Jesse James Days celebration. He was the only local extra of that film to make movies his career. In 1993, he closed the family home, making Pasadena his permanent residence.
In the 1990s, he continued in television with some single appearances and three more series: "Picket Fences" (as another minister), "Diagnosis: Murder" and "Maybe It's Me." His last significant role was at age 82 in "The Green Mile," where he portrayed the 108-year-old version of the character played by Tom Hanks.
Throughout his career, he made the point: "My life has been one of indirection. I didn't pick acting as a career, just ended up there. I wanted to be a doctor, taught school, went to Pasadena to work in the live theater and ended up in movies and TV."
Greer died in 2007 at age 90 from kidney and heart disease in Pasadena. He was buried in Peace Valley Cemetery in his hometown of Anderson.
Bill Caldwell is the librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7245.