William Douglas Lansford: A True Hollywood Pioneer and American Cultural Treasure

BillLansfordFINALBy Bel Hernandez

IN MEMORIAM:

When you talk about Hollywood pioneers you cannot get any better than William Douglas Lansford – or Bill as he was known to all.  He passed away at his home in Playa del Rey, Los Angeles overlooking the Pacific Coast on May 22, 2013 at 8:50AM.

Bill Lansford, whose mother came to the United States from Juarez, Mexico, was born July 13, 1922 and grew up in Latino neighborhoods in East Los Angeles. His father was Irish-Anglo and a Los Angeles policeman.  Bill spoke little English until age 14 when he had more contact with his dad. In his heart and soul, Bill was always puro Mexicano and his work reflected how much he honored his mother’s heritage as he set out to tell the many stories he heard his mother Rosalina Melendez tell. In fact, his mother introduced him to film and television because she was was a Spanish language performer on Broadway Street in Los Angeles where during the early 1900’s which was home to some of the most beautiful and prestigious Spanish language theaters. His mother’s influence would lead Bill, later in life, to write the book Pancho Villa which was adapted into Paramount’s 1968 hit film, Villa Rides, starring Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Robert Mitchum.

VillaRidesBill wrote books, films, television episodes, and longform movies. But before he became a writer he was a war hero.  He’s a full-fledged member of what we now refer to in American history as “The Greatest Generation”, fighting many battles during his military career.  He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps. during War World II in which time he was awarded numerous medals, including a Purple Heart.  He returned to military life as a war correspondent in the Army during the Korean Conflict.  His military experience would be a constant topic for many of his writings.

It was after he left the army that his writing career took off, writing over 300 short stories and articles for publications including Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Argosy, True, Leatherneck, and Stars and Stripes, among others.  His writing caught the attention of Hollywood and soon he was back in his hometown writing for film and TV.

Most TV-loving persons know Lansford’s work, as his stories were told on some of TV’s most iconic shows: BonanzaHigh Chaparral, IronsideCHIPs and into the 60’s on groundbreaking shows like Star Trek: The Next GenerationFantasy Island, and Starsky & Hutch just to name a few.  No doubt, Bill is one of the first Latino writers in Hollywood of our generation.  He worked with Hollywood’s finest — superstars like Anthony QuinnGilbert RolandRicardo MontalbanYul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Robert Mitchum, Freddie Fender, Raymond Burr, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorne Greene, Vikki Carr, Vera Miles, Lou Gossett, Kurt Russell, Dan Blocker, Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Elizabeth Montgomery, Leonard Nimoy,  William Shatner, Mike Landon, Lana Turner, Celeste Holm, Erik Estrada, George Montgomery, Betty White, Lloyd Bridges, John Forsythe, Sam Jaffe, Ed Begley, Parnell Roberts, Alfonso Arau and Patrick Stewart.  Bill received a Nosotros Golden Eagle Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Writing” during this time.

Ned Beatty and Richard Yniguez in the role of Ramiro Martinez
Ned Beatty and Richard Yniguez in the role of Ramiro Martinez

There is no doubt that William Lansford was a gifted writer and storyteller.  Working in Hollywood having an Anglo sounding name like Lansford made him fit right in, except when it came to writing Latinos lead roles, he was always sure to push the boundaries. In Hollywood, Bill took on the battle to write more roles for persons of color, especially Latinos.  He often told of the many memorable battles with television executives when they tried to change his Latino roles to fit the Hollywood stereotype or give them to other than Latinos. He tells how these Hollywood execs would often justifiy changing lead roles from Latino to Anglo by saying “Spics can’t act.” However, Bill was not a writer to sit back and take any Hollywood biases, he fought back and continued to write those roles.  He was successful in having some of those roles cast with actors like Richard Yniguez, who played the heroic police officer in the 1975 NBC/​MGM TV movie The Deadly Tower and for a young A Martinez who in 1969 was cast in an episode of Ironside, “The Machismo Bag” as an empowered student.

Adios EastLosWell into his 70’s Bill became the oldest first-time film directors when he wrote/produced and directed Adios East Los (El Dorado Entertainment) with characters insipired by the swashbuckling, Errol Flynn feature Captian Blood and set in East Los Angeles.  The three film leads were Latino, on of them a young Douglas Spain (Mission Park, Star Maps) who is now producing his own films as well. Adios East Los went on to win many awards in the category of “best film” as it made its way through the festival circuit.

At the time of his death Bill was spearheading the work of the   Eugene A. Obregon Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization he founded in 1993 to raise funds to erect of the Eugene EugeneMonumentObregon Memorial Monument in the heart of Los Angeles.  The foundation has completed the first phase of the memorial —  a wall dedicated to all U.S. Medal of Honor recipients   The second phase, the monument itself dedicated to the Latino recipients is currently underway. However, the foundation needs to raise the $500,000 to complete this second phase.  (To donate CLICK HERE.)  Bill made it his life’s mission that no war veteran would be forgotten — in this case specifically Latinos.

On his website, Bill Lansford comments on his military and subsequent writings: “I’ve recorded some  of that history for those of you who came along a little later or who had a father, a mother, a favorite uncle, maybe a grandfather (if you’re that young) who experienced some of that history along with me. Those were wild, dangerous times, I’ll tell you, and I’ve put down what I saw because one couldn’t be there and not want to document it for those who followed – or just to reread it later and ask yourself: “God! Did that really happen?” But war’s not the only thing I’ve written. I’ve written about my dad, who grew up a real cowboy and later became a tough L.A. cop. I’ve written about the real Wild West he knew as a kid growing up in Texas, New Mexico and early Los Angeles, and about the lawmen and gunfighters – good or bad – and the adventurous Soldiers of Fortune who fought in wars all over the world, then rode south to join Pancho Villa’s revolution… And about old Pancho, himself. Now, there was a character! I think that researching and writing my book, PANCHO VILLA, was just about the most fun I’ve ever had.

One article is not enough to capture the complete picture of the life of William Douglas Lansford. Latin Heat will be writing more articles on this Hollywood treasure. For today, we mourn his passing and honor his many, many contributions that helped pave the road for many Latinos working in film and television today.

We are fortunate to have recorded Bill Lansford’s last TV interview on HOLA! LA in commemoration of Memorial Day.  This episode will air on May 25th at 6PM on KCAL9 and on May 26th at 4:30 on CBS 2 (both Los Angeles local stations).

For more on William Douglas Lansford’s incredible life, visit his website: http://www.williamdouglaslansford.com/

William Douglas Lansford is survived by his wife of over 50 year, Ruth Lansford, his two sons Matthew and William Lansford and one grandchild.