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Scott Wilson’s up-and-down road from ‘In Cold Blood’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ (an appreciation)

October 13, 2018

Scott Wilson’s up-and-down road from ‘In Cold Blood’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ (an appreciation)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Every actor who has spent time on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has remarked on the brutal summer heat that accompanies much of the filming in Georgia. For Scott Wilson, who played the wise, paternal and ultimately optimistic Hershel Greene on the wildly popular horror series, that heat represented something pretty cool.

He was working. He was playing a sensational role in a high-profile series. He was being given the chance, week after week, to show how many subtle levels he could bring to this powerful portrayal of a good man trying to keep faith and hope alive under the most desperate of circumstances.

Wilson, who died Oct. 6 of leukemia at 76, never took any of that for granted. The role of Hershel was a gift, and he was deeply grateful for it, which he made abundantly clear during an interview with The Plain Dealer in 2016.

“It revitalized my career,” Wilson told me during that lengthy phone chat. “I’m able to work. I’ve been around for a long time and been in some wonderful films and worked with some wonderful people, so to be in something that well-received at that point in my life was a blessing. And Hershel was a lot of fun to play. ‘The Walking Dead’ is just good – not good horror, just good.”

The Georgia heat felt terrific, therefore, and, even more, it felt like home. Indeed, Wilson grew up in the Peach State, in Thomasville, near the Florida border.

“I hitchhiked to Hollywood from Thomasville many moons ago,” he said. “It has been quite a ride ever since.”

Yes, it was quite a ride. His breakthrough role, at 25, was Richard Hickock, one of the two murderers in director Richard Brooks’ 1967 film version of Truman Capote’s true-crime classic “In Cold Blood.” He was so good, typecasting became an immediate battle.

“There was a long period of time where the people in the industry had a problem seeing me in a wide range of roles,” Wilson said during that interview. “Those kinds of roles are a blessing and a curse at the same time. You play them well, and you become identified with them.

“After ‘In Cold Blood,’ I did a film for Robert Aldrich called ‘The Grissom Gang,’ and I played a psychopathic and mentally impaired gang leader, just to show I could play a different kind of killer.”

Given the chance, he could play almost any kind of role. His goal always was to be a working actor, and, if any degree of stardom followed, well, that would be a byproduct.

He not only achieved this goal, he did it in a way that won the respect, admiration and affection of his co-stars – dozens of whom have been sharing warm memories of Wilson over the past week.

Still it certainly was an up-and-down road to “The Walking Dead.” There were roles in such films as “The Great Gatsby” (1974), “The Right Stuff” (1983), “Blue City” (1986), “Dead Man Walking” (1995) and “Pearl Harbor” (2001). And there were times when the phone just didn’t ring.

“Not many people survive a long period of time as actors,” Wilson said. “I’ve been fortunate to have a long career and play a variety of roles. I’ve had my down periods. I went four years without work. You have stretches where it feels like starting over. But a lot of people never even get the first break. You’re incredibly fortunate if you get that.”

Then came the great fortune of playing Hershel, introduced during the second season of “The Walking Dead.” He first came across as a gruff farmer and veterinarian, but, gradually, he was embraced as one of the show’s most loved characters. He somewhat took over for Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dale Hovarth as the zombie drama’s voice of conscience.

“That’s the interesting thing about television, as opposed to a film or a play,” Wilson said. “In a film or a play, you see the entire arc of your character over two hours. With television, it plays out over a long stretch. You don’t know where the characters are going to go, and that’s tremendous fun to play as an actor. You get to plant seeds and watch those changes blossom over many episodes.”

Hershel made his exit in the middle of the fourth season. Wilson’s character was famously beheaded by the evil Governor. He was greatly missed. 

But he kept working, accepting roles in such series as Amazon’s “Bosch,” Netflix’s “The OA” and A&E’s “Damien” (inspired by director Richard Donner’s 1976 horror film “The Omen”).

“David Warner, who also was in the original film, is an old friend,” Wilson said. “He was wonderful in that film until his character got his head cut off. So we have something in common. We both have lost our heads for a role.”

The news of Wilson’s death came soon after the current showrunner of “The Walking Dead,” executive producer Angela Kang, confirmed that the actor had filmed scenes as Hershel for the ninth season, which began last Sunday, Oct. 7. Speculation is that Hershel will show up in a flashback, dream sequence or vision.

No getting around it. There are a fair amount of horror titles on Wilson’s resume. In addition to “The Walking Dead” and “Damien,” he was in such fright films as “The Exorcist III” (1990) and “The Host” (2006).

“Good material is good material, whatever the genre,” he said. “I prefer to think in terms of role instead of genre.”

But he never distanced himself from horror, especially when discussing his time on “The Walking Dead.”

“Horror cuts through a lot of issues,” Wilson said. “It gets right to the point. It gets right to the heart of it. ‘The Walking Dead’ never would have become the hit that it is without the human factor. It always has been a metaphor for what we deal with as individuals and a society.”

The immense talent was a gift. The persistence to go on in a tough profession was a gift. The towering roles, from Richard Hickock to Hershel Greene, were gifts.

And what must be recognized is how generously and superbly Wilson not only embraced these gifts but shared them – how sublimely the receiver of the gifts became the magnificent gift-giver.

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