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SLIM PICKENS

Inducted in 2007

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Slim Pickens (1919-1983)

In the summer of 1934, teenaged California rodeo cowboy Louis Burton Lindley, Jr. had a big problem. “My father was against rodeoing and told me he didn’t want to see my name on the entry lists ever again” Lindley later recounted. Burt’s desire to be a cowboy was so strong, however, that he disobeyed his father. Traveling to a nearby rodeo, he asked the arena director if he could use an alias to enter the competition. Sizing up the young upstart’s chances in that day’s competitions, the director answered, “Son, no matter what name you use, it’ll be slim ‘pickins out there today.” Louis Burton Lindley, Jr., immediately signed up for the rodeo as “Slim Pickens,” a name he used for the next 49 years as a famed rodeo clown and Hollywood movie star.

Slim Pickens (1919-1983) was born to dairy farming parents in Kingsburg, California (near Fresno) on June 29, 1919. Although a native Californian, Slim always spoke with the strong southwestern drawl of his Texas-born father, Burton Sr., and Missouri mother, Sally Mosher Lindley. By age 4, Slim was riding his own horse. At Hanford High School, the witty teenager was active in Future Farmers of America, 4-H horse shows, and what we today call junior rodeo.

Slim started entering professional rodeos at age fifteen and, after graduating high school in 1938, joined the Cowboy Turtles Association (later called the Rodeo Cowboys Association and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). The 6’ 3” cowboy rode broncs and bulls and roped steers with mixed success until one night when a clown failed to show up to work a rodeo where he was competing. Pickens, whose athleticism was complemented by showmanship and a flair for humor, took the clown’s job for $5.00 and never looked back.

During the years before and after World War II, Slim Pickens became the most famous clown in North American rodeo. Bull riding was emerging as a staple rodeo event, and one of Slim’s jobs was to protect thrown cowboys from the fierce animals. Using techniques that he learned during two winters spent in Mexico, Pickens introduced a comic version of Spanish Toreador (also known as Torero) bullfighting style to North American rodeo performances. Dressed in full Spanish matador attire and wielding a red cape, he pioneered the transition of rodeo clowns to the status of professional bullfighters. Today’s rodeo bullfighters do not use the Spanish style, and Pickens remains its most accomplished practitioner in rodeo history.

The advent of World War II temporarily ended rodeo performances and many cowboys joined the Armed Services. When Slim wrote “rodeo” as his civilian occupation on his U.S. Army enlistment form, it was mistaken for “radio” and the talkative cowboy was posted at an Armed Forces Network radio station in the Midwest! At war’s end, professional rodeos resumed and Slim Pickens picked up right where he had left off.

Although he played an untitled role in the 1946 Hollywood Western Smoky, Slim continued to make his living on the rodeo road, working his way up to jobs at the San Francisco Cow Palace, Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days, and other premier North American rodeo venues, including Ellensburg. The Ellensburg Rodeo was the first Pacific Northwest rodeo to recognize Pickens’ talent and hire him to clown and fight bulls.

Slim Pickens worked the Ellensburg Rodeo in 1947, ’48, ’49, and ’50, and he returned in 1955. Fans cheered his Toreador bullfighting and his many arena antics. Slim, who was an animal trainer, brought his mule “Judy” to amuse the crowd. Judy would sit down on her haunches, refusing to move until Slim gave the command. “I remember how funny he looked riding that mule in the rodeo parade,” recently recalled Janet Haworth Bates, who saw Pickens in Ellensburg in 1947. “He was so tall and lanky that his boots nearly touched the ground!”

Pickens made many friends in Ellensburg and developed a devoted following among Northwest rodeo fans. But his 1955 appearance coincided with his transitioning from life on the rodeo road to an acting career. Slim had married Margaret Harmon in 1950 and they had a growing family at home—daughter Margaret, son Thomas, and step-daughter Daryle. Moreover, Slim’s bullfighting was taking a physical toll. During his two-decade rodeo career, he suffered a skull fracture, two broken legs, five broken feet, a broken collarbone, wrist, and hand, and he was gored several times. His final 1955 Ellensburg appearance included an unplanned ambulance ride to the old Ellensburg Hospital on 4t street.

Of course, Slim Pickens went on to Hollywood movie and television stardom. He joined the “Hollywood Posse”–a small, select group of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls who used their rodeo skills to work in Western-genre movies as stuntmen, actors, and actresses. Slim’s big break had been a role alongside Errol Flynn in Rocky Mountain (1950), and in 1954 he played the Sundance Kid in television’s Stories of the Century.  By the late 1950s, Slim Pickens was earning a good living playing rural characters in scores of mid-twentieth century television shows and feature movies.

On TV, he appeared on The Lone Ranger, Maverick, Daniel Boone, The Virginian, Kung Fu, and many other shows. Slim’s movie credits include Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton HestonThe Cowboys (1972, with John Wayne), and Blazing Saddles (1974). Perhaps his most famous role came when he played U. S. Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong in Dr. Strangelove (1964). In an outrageous and unforgettable scene, Pickens’ Major Kong  mounted a hydrogen bomb and rode it like a bucking bronco to its target (and movie history)!

“I plan to retire from the picture business only when they shovel dirt in my face,” Slim once stated. “There’s no use retiring if you like what you’re doing and you’re making money.” Louis Burton Lindley, Jr.—Slim Pickens—died of a brain tumor, on Dec. 8, 1983. In addition to ERHOF, Pickens is an inductee to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (Oklahoma City, OK), the ProRodeo Hall of Fame (Colorado Springs, CO), and the Pendleton Roundup and Hall of Fame (OR).