Chill Wills was born in 1902 in Seagoville, Dallas County, Texas. He was a performer from early childhood, forming and leading the Avalon Boys singing group in the 1930s. After appearing in a few westerns, he disbanded the group in 1938 and struck out on a solo acting career. One of his more memorable roles was that of the distinctive voice of Francis the Mule in a series of popular films. Wills’ deep, rough voice and Western twang were matched to the personality of the cynical, sardonic mule. As was customary at the time, Wills was given no billing for his vocal work, though he was featured prominently on-screen as blustery General Ben Kaye in the fourth entry, Francis Joins the WACS. He provided the deep voice for Stan Laurel’s performance of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in Way Out West (1937), in which the Avalon Boys Quartet appeared. Chill Wills was cast in numerous serious film roles, including that of Uncle Bawley in Giant (1956), which also features Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Wills was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1960 for his role as Davy Crockett’s companion “Beekeeper” in the film The Alamo. However, his aggressive campaign for the award was considered tasteless by many, including the film’s star/director/producer, John Wayne, who publicly apologized for Wills. Wills’ publicity agent, W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz, accepted blame for the ill-advised effort, claiming that Wills had known nothing about it. The Oscar was instead won by Peter Ustinov for his role as Lentulus Batiatus in Spartacus.
Chill Wills was a poker player and a close friend of Benny Binion, the founder of the World Series of Poker and former owner of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Wills participated in the first World Series, held in 1970, and is seated in the center of the famous picture with a number of legendary players. In 1960, Wills appeared on Rory Calhoun’s CBS western series, The Texan in the lead in the episode entitled “The Eyes of Captain Wylie”. Lane Bradford was cast as Spike Taylor. From 1961 to 1962, Wills starred in the short-run series Frontier Circus which aired for only one season on CBS. In 1966, Wills was cast in the role of a shady Texas rancher, Jim Ed Love, in the short-lived ABC comedy/western series The Rounders (reprising his role in the 1965 film The Rounders), with co-stars Ron Hayes, Patrick Wayne and Walker Edmiston. In 1963-64, Chill Wills joined William Lundigan, Walter Brennan and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., in making appearances on behalf of U.S. Senator Barry M. Goldwater, the Republican nominee in the campaign against U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1968 Chill Wills refused to support Richard M. Nixon for the presidency and served as master of ceremonies for George C. Wallace, former governor of Alabama, for the California campaign stops in Wallace’s presidential campaign. With Walter Brennan, Wills was among the few Hollywood celebrities to endorse Wallace’s bid against Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey. In 1968, he starred in Gunsmoke episode “A Noose for Dobie Price”, where he played Elihu Gorman, a former outlaw who joins forces with Marshal Matt Dillon, played by James Arness, to track down a member of his former gang who has escaped jail. His last role was in 1978 as a janitor in Stubby Pringle’s Christmas. Chill Wills died in 1978 of cancer in Encino, California, aged 76. He is interred in the Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale.
- July, 18, 1902
- Seagoville, Texas
- December, 15, 1978
- Encino, Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- Grand View Memorial Park
- Glendale, California