Roy Barcroft (1902-1969), born Howard Ravenscroft, may have provided more western movie entertainment to more people than any one single actor. Modeling his approach on that of another perennial movie villain, Harry Woods, Barcroft appeared in more than 300 movies and TV shows.
He could do the slick boss villain (usually with a mustache) or the crude action villain (as scruffy as possible) equally well. Someone once described B-westerns as a series of movies in which different cowboy heroes took turns shooting or beating up Roy Barcroft.
A World War I veteran (he lied about his age to enlist), he was appearing in plays when someone recognized his talent and got him into pictures. According to another “black hat” actor, Terry Frost, Barcroft had a small role in a play as a man pursuing a woman much too young for him, and that got him the contract.
Marshall Reed, who also shot it out with his share of heroes, said Roy had a thing he would do between pictures—let his whiskers grow, lose all identification, and hang out with bums in Hollywood’s Skid Row to pick up mannerisms and personalities. People who worked with him would insist that, unlike his screen image, Roy was the nicest guy around.
Director William Witney once recalled Barcroft arriving at work and joking that he would have to stop playing villains. When he stopped at a light while walking over, a little kid took one look at him, kicked him in the leg and ran.
Rex Allen, Republic’s last singing cowboy, put it this way: As soon as Roy appeared on the screen, every kid in the audience “knew he was the one who did it. But it took this smart cowboy an hour to figure it out.”
His first credited appearance came in a 1938 serial, Flaming Frontiers; his last, in 1970’s Monte Walsh. He jumped from one studio to another, threatening heroes from Buck Jones to “Hopalong Cassidy” (he shot it out with Buck Jones in Jones’ last picture). In 1943, he signed a 10-year exclusive contract with Republic Pictures where he worked tirelessly playing such characters as “Brick Mason,” “Lefty Lewis,” “Sarsaparilla Cherokee,” “Denver Jack” and “Bull Macons.”
In 1943, in Wagon Wheels Westward, he played an outlaw leader named “Dave McKean” (although his name is never mentioned, only glimpsed on a newspaper page) whose men take over a deserted town and pretend to be town officials to bilk an incoming wagon train led by Red Ryder (William Elliott, playing Fred Harman’s comic-strip character).
And two years later, he repeated the role in another Ryder movie, Vigilantes of Boomtown, only by now the cowboy was being played by Allan Lane. Barcroft’s character is again unnamed (although identified on the Internet Movie DataBase, again, as McKean) and is leading a gang trying to steal money being bet on the 1897 prize fight in Carson City, Nevada, between James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons (the fight actually happened). The new Red Ryder recognizes the old McKean in time to thwart his plans, and—having been tutored by Corbett—ends up boxing McKean all over the prairie.
As far as I can ascertain, it is the only time Barcroft ever repeated a role. By no coincidence, both screenplays were written by Earle Snell.
A year after that, Barcroft had another unusual outing in the 1948 serial, G-Men Never Forget: He played a police commissioner who is kidnapped in chapter one, and the surgically-altered criminal who impersonates him and keeps the crooks a step ahead of federal agent Clayton Moore, TV’s future Lone Ranger. In the last chapter, the commissioner (Barcroft) escapes in time to save the agent’s life by shooting the imposer (Barcroft again), in what has to be a one-of-a-kind climax.
Barcroft probably really did give more entertainment to more western fans than any single actor. And he was always convincing, as indicated by that little kid who kicked and ran.