The Hudkins family was good at violence, both real and imaginary.
Ace, Clyde, John, Dick, Acey. Born in Lincoln or about 30 miles north in the town of Valparaiso. They got their start as high school athletes, became professional pugilists, stuntmen, entrepreneurs, outlaws. Pretended to get hurt for a living or really got hurt for a living. They're all dead now, but not one of them died in a boxing ring or on a movie set. (Though they came close a few times.)
You had tough-as-nails boxer Ace Hudkins (aka "the Nebraska Wildcat"), who won the vast majority of his 200 career fights, never being knocked out. He came close to a world middleweight title twice.
You had Acey Hudkins, Ace's nephew. He almost died after he dove off the side of a fake submarine in a "Batman" movie. And you had John "Bear" Hudkins, another of Ace's stuntman nephews. Bear broke his back on the set of a Western. He was riding a horse alongside John Wayne and Henry Fonda (another Nebraskan) when the animal stumbled, toppled and landed on Bear. Bear had to have his spine fused, but was back to work within a year.
The Hudkins gang wrecked wagons and felled horses for countless Westerns. They stunt-doubled for John Wayne and Lee Marvin, George C. Scott and Spencer Tracy. They taught Bette Davis and James Cagney how to ride a horse. They taught horses how to be ridden by Bette Davis and James Cagney.
Hudkins Bros. Stables was among Hollywood's largest horse suppliers in the Western's heyday. Right next to the Warner Bros. studio, the stables at one point provided as much as 70 percent of the horses and livestock used by Hollywood. Roy Rogers' Trigger came from the Hudkins stables. So did the Lone Ranger's Silver.
The fact is, if you saw a man fall off a horse on the big screen in the middle decades of the 20th century, there's a decent chance a Hudkins had something to do with it.
"They worked with the major studios," said Kristine Sader, great-niece of the elder Ace Hudkins. "Pretty much anybody at Warner Bros. in the '30s and '40s, they worked with. Anyone who needed horses."
Sader, who lives in Nevada, wrote a book about her family: "Ace Hudkins: Boxing With the Nebraska Wildcat."
Now she's working on a follow-up that covers the Hudkins family's movie careers. She wanted to put it all in one book — the boxing, the horses, themovies. But she had to split it up. Just one book would have been too long.
This family had too much of a story to tell.
THE NEBRASKA WILDCAT
Ace Hudkins (born in 1905 in Valparaiso) was arguably Nebraska's second-best professional boxer of all time, behind Terence Crawford.
He started boxing when he was a kid, picking up fights throughout the state. Before long, he left to box in Los Angeles, where he would prove himself a formidable fighter and a major draw in a boxing-crazed town.
He never won a world title, but he came close. He fought middleweight champ Mickey Walker twice, losing both times by decision. In 1995, long after his death, Ace was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.
Ace had a face like a boxer — mushed, misshapen, ready for more. Sports writer Paul Gallico said of Ace: "He was tough, hard, mean, cantankerous, combative, fast, courageous and filled at all times with bitter and flaming lust for battle."
That lust tended to get Ace in trouble outside the ring.
Ace fractured a man's skull with his bare fists in a street fight and was arrested on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Another time, after he'd given up boxing, Ace went into a Hollywood cafe looking for a fight and pulled a gun on the bartender. The bartender, who had his own gun, shot Ace twice in the chest. Ace almost died, but pulled through after multiple blood transfusions.
Ace's trouble stemmed from the bottle. He was arrested and fined many times for intoxication and disturbing the peace — in L.A., Omaha and elsewhere. He was banned from the Ak-Sar-Ben race track after he used it as the arena for one of his drunken brawls.
Throughout the '30s, headlines read:
"Ace Hudkins, Fighter, Is Arrested For Drunkenness"
"Ace Hudkins Is In Trouble" "Ace Hudkins Is Arrested Again" "Ex-Pug Fined, Ordered to Join AA" But in time, the Nebraska Wildcat settled down with his wife, Mildred, and adopted son, BobHerron (who grew up to become a professional stuntman). After a life of fighting, Ace found new purpose in the worlds of horse training and moviemaking.
A 1958 newspaper feature showed a very different Ace Hudkins, middle-aged and mellowed-out. The article described him as quiet, subdued and great with animals:
"His natural easy, calm manner is fine for a spooked nag, and he can quiet down an excited horse with a pat and a word."
HUDKINS BROS. STABLES
Shortly after Ace Hudkins' fighting career ended in the early '30s, he got a job offer from an old Nebraska friend.
The friend was Wahoo native Darryl F. Zanuck, then working at Warner Bros. Zanuck was the Oscar-winning producer of more than 200 films, including "All About Eve" and "The Grapes of Wrath." He was one of the giants of old Hollywood, and the longest-surviving of the major studio bosses.
Zanuck's offer to Hudkins was a job horse-wrangling for the movies. Given the popularity of the Western at the time, it was a pretty good gig. Ace later parlayed the job into starting his own horse ranch with his older brother Clyde, also born in Valparaiso.
The Hudkins Bros. Stables set up shop across seven acres in north Hollywood, and over the next few decades, the stables would rent out thousands of horses to the major studios. The Hudkins brothers were among the most popular equine suppliers in, as it was billed at the time, "the horsiest town" in the world.
Hudkins horses galloped and cantered through countless TV shows and movies, including the "Lawman" and "Cheyenne" series. The brothers provided most of the 500 horses used in the Gary Cooper Western "Springfield Rifle." They taught Edward G. Robinson how to ride a horse and Al Jolson how to mount a mule.
When Roy Rogers went to the Hudkins stables looking for a horse for his first starring role, he found a Golden Palomino stallion with whom he grew instantly attached. He agreed to pay Ace Hudkins $2,500 for the horse, whom he renamed Trigger. Rogers was making only $75 a week at the time, and it took him several years to pay off his horse. But the investment paid off. Rogers and Trigger would co-star in 80-plus movies and 100 episodes of "The Roy Rogers Show."
To underline horses' contribution to the industry, Clyde Hudkins once noted that the 1954 CinemaScope Western "The Command" involved 41,862 "horse-hours."
"Horses are just like humans," Clyde said in 1941. "Some can act; some can't. There are hero horses, villains and comedians. Once in a while, you'll find some awful hams."
The Hudkins brothers trained their horses for stunts and acting. They taught them how to nod their heads when they heard a whip crack; how not to spook at gunfire; how to fall without hurting themselves.
Right as the Hudkins brothers were getting into the horse-training business, Hollywood was finally starting to treat animals better.
In the old days, movie productions would bring horses to the ground using the "Running W," a savage device that tripped horses mid-gallop, often leading to their deaths. By the '40s, the practice was banned, and the American Humane Association was on set, ensuring that horses (and other animals) weren't being abused. The AHA is still the group that makes sure that "No animals were harmed in the making of this film."
The regulations changed the way movie horses fall. Instead of being tripped, maimed and shot, horses were trained over many years to fall on command onto soft ground. This made the skilled horses at the Hudkins stables quite valuable.
The Hudkins brothers loved their horses. They felt differently about the movie stars.
Clyde liked to claim that his horses were "smarter than the actors that ride on 'em."
Beyond their gifted equines, the Hudkins stables served as one of the chief sources of wagons and carriages for the movies: Conestogas, Victorias, chariots, circus wagons, stagecoaches, whatever old-timey wheels your movie needed. In 1958, the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal claimed that "villains have held up more Hudkins coaches than ever were robbed in all the history of the old West."
Because Hudkins Bros. Stables had so many stunt horses on hand, it became a base of operations for countless stuntmen, a few with the last name Hudkins.
Stunt work is still a dangerous job. Things can go wrong and do go wrong. But now the profession comes with regulations that were nonexistent back in the Hudkinses' heyday.
Omaha-native stunt performer Nick Stanner ("Black Panther," "Venom" and almost 100 other credits) said that one of his favorite things to do on set is listen to stories from the old-timers.
"The stories from the old stunt days, they're just crazy," he said. "Now there are so many regulations and things that have to happen first. But back in the day, it was, 'All right, you ready? Go for it!' "
The Hudkins stuntmen were very much part of this "Go for it!" era.
Ace Hudkins did a little stunt work after his boxing career ended, but it was the next generation who made it the family trade. Ace's nephews John, Dick and Acey worked on scores of movies and TV shows.
John "Bear" Hudkins was by far the family's best-known stuntman. Born in Lincoln in 1918, he was a
OTHER NEBRASKA-BORN STUNTMEN
The state has a weirdly rich history of men who got paid to hurt themselves safely in the name of entertainment.
From: Burchard, Nebraska
Lived: 1893 to 1971
Famous star of the silent film era known for doing his own dangerous stunts, which included hanging from the side of a building and a gag with a prop bomb that lost him a few fingers. Known as "The Third Genius" of silent comedy, after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Highlights: "Safety Last!," "The Freshman," "Speedy."
From: Tecumseh, Nebraska
Lived: 1892 to 1962
The rodeo champ who became one of Hollywood's first stuntmen, then one of its most famous cowboy stars. Of his many accomplishments, Gibson once rode a motorcycle off a 23-foot drawbridge.
Highlights: He starred in hundreds of films, many of which are no longer available to watch. One was 1914's "The Squaw Man," one of Hollywood's first feature-length Westerns. His final role was in
1960's "Ocean's 11."
Born: St. Edward, Nebraska
Lived: 1901 to 1984
The actor and stuntman of hundreds of films who doubled for Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart in their Western roles. Mapes was an advocate for animal safety. When he retired from stunt work, he became an on-set observer for the American Humane Association, making sure the animals were well-treated.
Highlights: "Winchester '73," "Broken Arrow" (1950), "The Far Country."
Born: Alliance, Nebraska
Lived: 1920 to 1998
The son of Nebraska cattle ranchers, Hayward left home to join the rodeo and eventually found work as a horse-wrangler in the movies. After Hayward did stunt work on the 1949 John Wayne Western
"The Fighting Kentuckian," he and the Duke became lifelong friends, working on 23 movies together. Hayward also doubled for such actors as Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.
Highlights: "The Searchers," "McClintock!," just name a John Wayne movie. Hayward did stunts and acted in movies up through the '80s, including "Airplane!" and "The Blues Brothers."
Worth noting: Hayward did stunt work alongside John "Bear" Hudkins in John Wayne's "The Alamo." Then with Bear and Acey Hudkins in Howard Hawks'
"Rio Lobo" (1970). And in an impressive feat of Nebraska synergy, Hayward, Bear Hudkins and Hoot Gibson all played a part in the John Wayne/John Ford movie "The Horse Soldiers" (1959).
From: Nebraska, town unknown
Lived: 1921 to 2008
Longtime stuntman who turned to writing "Bonanza" episodes when, he told a newspaper,
"the ground started to get too hard."
Highlights: "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke,"
"In the Line of Fire," "Dirty Harry."
Lived: 1891 to 1962
A Montana-raised rancher who took a shot at Hollywood stunt work and made a long career of it.
Highlights: "The Ten Commandments" (1923), "Red River" and "Three Godfathers."