Fans of old-time westerns (a diminishing group these days) sustained a major loss earlier this year (May 29, 2019) when we lost Peggy Stewart, one of the perkiest leading ladies ever to grace the silver screen. She never seemed to lose her enthusiasm for those pictures, as evidenced by her appearances at western film festivals over the years.
She outlived all of her leading men, who included almost every one of the B-westerners named in the Statler Brothers’ popular song, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”, and many more.
She had a great sense of humor. Once when asked during a rush encounter at a film festival if she might autograph a photo or was too busy at the moment, she smiled and replied, “Both.” And then stopped to sign it.
You could name any B-western star, and Peggy would have a story to tell about him. “Wild Bill” Elliott? He’d told her to keep records of her work, but she didn’t take the advice. When the left Republic Pictures, she was told that she owed them money. “Didn’t keep your records, did you, kid?” Elliott said. But he and she had so many scenes together that he was able to pretty much reconstruct a record of her work. It turned out Republic owed her.
Sunset Carson was “my favorite gunsel”…and something of “a bull in a China shop.” Lash LaRue had a wonderful sense of humor that was hidden beneath his serious screen demeanor. “And Lash kids on the square.” On and on. Whip Wilson? “I don’t believe I made any movies with Whip.” She did, though: “Montana Incident,” where she played the bad sister to Noel Neill’s good one. She starred with so many that she literally couldn’t remember them all.
Usually she was the movie’s heroine, but wasn’t adverse to playing a baddie once in a while. It was a change from having someone delivering a message along the lines of, “Hey, Ella, your ranch is on fire!” she said. More often she was the feisty leading lady, one who generally didn’t need to be rescued by the hero, and sometimes rescued him instead.
Born in Florida as Peggy O’Rourke, later adopting her stepfather’s last name of Stewart, she got fascinated by acting while attending classes during a visit to Los Angeles. She stayed on there with her grandmother, and got her first role (appropriately, in a western) as Joel McCrea’s daughter in “Wells Fargo.”
Peggy appeared in nearly 170 movies and television shows (including lots of TV westerns), her last being in 2014. She made some 30 pictures just at Republic before moving to other studios. They included several serials, which she didn’t particularly like because, she said, you stayed with the same costume and hairdo for weeks, whereas in a western you got a new wardrobe and maybe some new curls each time. She finally declined to be in another chapter-play, which was when she moved on. She landed first at Columbia–which promptly co-starred her in two more serials!
One serial she remembered was “Son of Zorro,” which had a chapter ending with her supposedly tied up and dropped into a well. She recalled holding her breath, not wanting to ruin the shot, but finally, when nobody signaled her to surface, she swam up–only to find the camera crew had casually moved across the street to set up for another scene.
She appeared in some of the best “Red Ryder” movies–some with Elliott in the role, some with Allan Lane, both at Republic, and even a couple in color with Jim Bannon at a different studio. The only Red Ryder with whom she didn’t co-star was Don Barry, the first actor to bring the comic-strip character to the screen, in a serial–but she was married to him, albeit briefly. She had a lasting marriage and two children with actor Buck Young. Incidentally, she was also the younger sister of Patricia O’Rourke, married to Wayne Morris–the actor who starred in the last B-westerns to be released theatrically, before they gave way to TV.
She was the only woman on a special “Tomorrow Show” panel with Tom Snyder, along with former husband Barry, Rod Cameron and Chill Wills, doing an entire segment on westerns. In 1984, she was honored with a Golden Boot Award, given to those who helped create the western movie genre. Every year from 1993 until her death, she was a special guest at the Lone Pine Film Festival held annually at one of the more popular western movie shooting locations.
Peggy Stewart was probably the best ambassador for vintage westerns who ever lived.