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Nell O'Day

Real name:
Mildred Nell Roach
Nell Mildred Roach

1909 - 1989

(From Old Corral image collection)
Nell O'Day, circa 1941

The November 9, 1929 issue of Universal Weekly carried the above photo of Nell and the Tommy Atkins Sextet. In addition to the photo, there was an article on Universal signing them for the 1930 Paul Whiteman KING OF JAZZ film. Quote from that article:

"Miss O'Day and her act, which has been seen for the past year or so over the Publix and other circuits, now is appearing in the big houses of the Stanley Circuit in Philadelphia. The act originally came from California. It was signed by Universal through the William Morris office."

Above - Nell O'Day (as a blonde) and Helen Foster in a screen capture from the exploitation flick THE ROAD TO RUIN (Willis Kent, 1934). Nell was billed second in this.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above is a pressbook ad for FIGHTING BILL FARGO (Universal, 1941), one of thirteen Johnny Mack Brown oaters which featured Nell O'Day.
Best remembered by western film fans as the spunky and hard riding heroine to Johnny Mack Brown during his Universal series of the early 1940s, Nell was born in Prairie Hill, Texas in 1909. The family moved to California and she attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles (other notable Fairfax students included Carole Lombard and Sally Eilers).

In the late 1920s, Nell Roach had become "Nell O'Day" and was touring with a singing and dancing act featuring herself and the Tommy Atkins Sextet. Newspapers as well as Variety and other tradezines have them playing Chicago, New York, Omaha, St. Louis, Detroit, Dallas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut, many other locales. Nell and the sextet were among the novelty acts included in the musical extravaganza KING OF JAZZ (Universal, 1930) which featured Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

The 1930s had to be a busy and chaotic period for Nell who alternated between east coast stage plays and west coast movie jobs. Circa 1930-1931, she had a principal role in the play "Fine and Dandy" which enjoyed a lengthy run in New York City and starred Joe Cook and featured tap dancer Eleanor Powell. She was under (brief) contracts with Fox (early 1930s) and Warners (mid 1930s). While a Fox contractee, Nell did her first western, the George O'Brien SMOKE LIGHTNING (Fox, 1933). She was with Educational Pictures for a few Harry Langdon comedy shorts released in 1933. She was also with Shemp Howard in the Warners Vitaphone short SERVES YOU RIGHT (Warners, 1935). And we can't forget the dreadful Poverty Row exploitation/morality film THE ROAD TO RUIN (Willis Kent, 1934) with blonde Nell billed second after star Helen Foster.

She was under contract at Universal from about mid 1940 through early 1942. During that period, she appeared in thirteen Johnny Mack Brown westerns, billed third behind JMB and sidekick Fuzzy Knight. While Knight and some musical groups provided most of the tunes in these oaters, Nell did sing in a few. A listing of Nell's Johnny Mack Brown oaters is further down on this webpage. Since she was picking up a regular paycheck from Universal, they used her in some non-westerns. Examples: she was the sister of exotic Maria Montez in THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (Universal, 1942) and had a minor, unbilled role in the W. C. Fields NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (Universal, 1941).

A change in the formula of the Brown westerns occurred in late 1941 - early 1942. Tex Ritter came on board to assist JMB. Fuzzy Knight remained. But Nell O'Day was out. Taking over the heroine/leading lady duties in the Brown/Ritter series was Jennifer Holt, Tim Holt's sister.

Nell hit the trail and free lanced. She had the female lead in the cliffhanger PERILS OF THE ROYAL MOUNTED (Columbia, 1942) which starred Robert Stevens (Robert Kellard). And there were a few B westerns with Tim Holt at RKO, Republic's Three Mesquiteers, and Monogram's Range Busters. Her movie career ended with two of the Texas Rangers trio westerns at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) which were released in late 1943.

O'Day went back to New York, employed in the cast of the Broadway comedy "Many Happy Returns". The star was Tinseltown leading lady Mary Astor who was making her New York stage debut. The play opened in January, 1945 and closed on the second night, a colossal flop.

She then changed her career, concentrating on writing screenplays, TV scripts and stage plays. And in the 1950s, she did some industrial films (information and instructional films for companies).

She was married twice, and both pairings ended in divorce:

Her first was to Ted Fetter and they tied the knot in New York City in 1935. At the time, he was acting in both films and plays. In later years, Theodore Henry Fetter became more well known as a television producer and song lyricist - his most famous tune was "Taking a Chance on Love"; TV producer credits include "Your Hit Parade" and Jack Paar; in 1956, he left CBS-TV to became Director of Programming at ABC-TV and a couple years later, was promoted to Vice President. Unsure of when they split, but Fetter was divorced when he enlisted in the Army in May, 1941.

Marriage number two occurred in 1942. Her hubby was actor and writer Lawrence Williams, and over the next fifteen years or so, they teamed on some plays and scripts. Williams is credited with the story for the low budget THE MONSTER MAKER (PRC, 1944), and scuttlebutt is that Nell collaborated on the story development but got no credit. They were scripting TV shows into the mid 1950s and an example is the 1956 "Can You Coffeepot on Skates?" episode on the short-lived "Star Tonight" series which originated from New York over ABC. They also wrote the play "The Bride of Denmark Hill" which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1952. Unsure of when they divorced, but some sources mention 1958.

Jack O'Brian authored the syndicated column "Voice of Broadway", and in April, 1970 newspapers, he reminisced about a "lovely principal performer in 'Fine and Dandy', one Nell O'Day" and "whatever happened to her". A few months later, he published the answer: "... pondered the disappearance of Nell O'Day from show biz ... and who cleared it up but Nell herself: She's now a Calif. writer and editor of scientific and technical textbooks plus short fiction after living in Europe several years."

Nell was a guest star at the 1981 Charlotte, North Carolina Western Film Fair.

She was hospitalized at Temple Community Hospital, Los Angeles due to gastrointestinal bleeding and diverticulitis. While in the hospital, she suffered a heart attack and passed away on January 5, 1989. No family members were there for Nell and her remains were cremated at the Los Angeles Crematory/Cemetery on January 13, 1989. There's more on Nell's passing further down on this webpage. I found no obituary or funeral notice in Google's Newspaper Archive or the Newspaper Archive.

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on:

     Nell O'Day:
     her first husband, Ted Fetter (1910-1996):
     her second husband, Larry Williams (1913-1983):

The Internet Broadway Database has Nell O'Day in several New York plays during the years 1930-1945:

The New York Times newspaper website has obituaries on Nell's husbands:
Songwriter and television producer Ted Fetter:
Actor, playwright, novelist Lawrence Williams:

You can see the blonde-tressed Nell O'Day in the 65 minute long THE ROAD TO RUIN (Willis Kent, 1934). She was about 25 years old when she did this film:
     Internet Archive:

Jerry England has a website on movie locations and ranches in the Santa Susana Mountains in California (which includes Iversons, Brandeis Ranch, Bell Ranch, Corriganville, more). He has a profile on Nell and her westerns at:

Jerry Murbach's Doctor Macro website has a couple publicity stills of Nell as a blonde and brunette:,%20Nell-Annex.htm

The New York Public Library Digital Collections has a couple photos of Nell from the Billy Rose Theatrical Collection:

Photo of Lash LaRue, Nell O'Day, Ted Reinhart, Peggy Stewart, and Richard 'Chito' Martin at the 1981 Charlotte, North Carolina Western Film Fair - from the Grady Franklin Collection at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana:

The Google Newspaper archive has several dozen articles on Nell O'Day:

The Family Search website (free), (subscription), California Death Index and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) have information on Nell O'Day:

Nell O'Day - her death certificate ... family trees ... and unanswered questions:

I received the death certificate on Nell in late July, 2015.

79 year old Nell O'Day was born September 22, 1909 in Texas, and her residence was 450 Grand View Street, Los Angeles, California. She had been under doctor's care for several months and was hospitalized at Temple Community Hospital, Los Angeles for five days with gastrointestinal bleeding and diverticulitis. While in the hospital, she suffered a heart attack and passed away on January 5, 1989. Funeral director was the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center Mortuary. No one claimed her body and Nell was cremated on January 13, 1989 at the Los Angeles County Crematory/Cemetery.

The informant on her death certificate was "Richard York (COUC), P. O. Box 9064, Pasadena, California". Doubtful if York was a relative or close friend as he was unable to provide any background and family information on Nell for the many information boxes on the death certificate. If he was a relative, he would've known that she had been an actress and her real surname was Roach, not O'Day:

Her Father's name and birthplace are unknown.
Maiden name of her mother and birthplace are unknown.
Nell's marital status, spouse, and highest school grade completed are unknown.
Nell's occupation, business/industry, employer, and years in that occupation are unknown.
Nell's surname of Roach is not mentioned.

The Los Angeles Crematory and Cemetery cares for deceased individuals whose remains have not been claimed by family members. Periodically, the unclaimed are interred in a common grave. Hoping for additional information on Nell, I called the Los Angeles Crematory/Cemetery on August 5, 2015. Nell's cremains were released on March 22, 1989 to a person whose first name was "George" but his last name was difficult to read. The LA Cemetery representative speculated that his last name might be "Rose" or "Ross".

There are a couple Roach and McClellan family trees on which include Nell. I've been in contact with owners of two family trees, and they've not found any family ties to a Richard York or a George with a last name of Rose, Ross or R-something.

Note the P. O. Box 9064 for Richard York from the death certificate. Family Search has a public record index for Richard York, born April 15, 1902 and one of his addresses is P. O. Box 90064, Pasadena, California:

I am confused with the (COUC) designation for Richard York. Genealogy references indicate the abbreviation "Couc" means "Counsin's child".

Jim Tipton's Find A Grave website has information on:

Nell O'Day - interment location is unknown:

Nell's parents, Edward E. Roach (1872-1918) and Mildred Livonia McClellan Roach (1878-1942), are interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles:

Nell O'Day did westerns with ...
Hero Production Company Quantity Year of Release
George O'Brien Fox 1 1933
Johnny Mack Brown Universal 13 1940-1942
Tim Holt RKO 1 1942
Range Busters Monogram 1 1942
Three Mesquiteers Republic 1 1943
Texas Rangers PRC 2 1943

Nell O'Day with Johnny Mack Brown and Fuzzy Knight at Universal.
Title Leading Lady/Ladies
7/26/40 SON OF ROARING DAN Nell O'Day & Jeanne Kelly (Brooks)
9/20/40 RAGTIME COWBOY JOE Nell O'Day & Marilyn (Lynn) Merrick
11/28/40 LAW AND ORDER Nell O'Day
12/12/40 PONY POST Nell O'Day & Dorothy Short
1/10/41 BOSS OF BULLION CITY Nell O'Day & Maria Montez
3/21/41 BURY ME NOT ON THE LONE PRAIRIE Nell O'Day & Kathryn Adams
6/20/41 LAW OF THE RANGE Nell O'Day & Elaine Morley
7/18/41 RAWHIDE RANGERS Nell O'Day & Kathryn Adams
9/5/41 MAN FROM MONTANA Nell O'Day & Jeanne Kelly (Brooks)
10/24/41 MASKED RIDER, THE Nell O'Day & Virginia Carroll
11/14/41 ARIZONA CYCLONE Nell O'Day & Kathryn Adams
12/19/41 FIGHTING BILL FARGO Nell O'Day & Jeanne Kelly (Brooks)
2/13/42 STAGECOACH BUCKAROO Nell O'Day & Anne Nagel

(Courtesy of Bob Tomko)

Above - Johnny Mack Brown and Nell O'Day take a break during their Universal westerns of the early 1940s. An expert rider, O'Day was Brown's helper in thirteen of his Universal oaters.

(From Old Corral image collection)

Above - the title lobby card from THE MASKED RIDER (Universal, 1941) which starred Johnny Mack Brown and Fuzzy Knight as his sidekick. Note the "and NELL O'DAY" billing. Nell and Fuzzy are pictured in the lower left corner.

(From Old Corral image collection)

John "Dusty" King, a six gun in his right hand and his left arm around pretty Nell O'Day, in the title lobby card for ARIZONA STAGECOACH (Monogram, 1942), one of Monogram's Range Busters film.

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above from L-to-R are Max Terhune, Ray Corrigan, Nell O'Day and John King from ARIZONA STAGECOACH (Monogram, 1942). Terhune's alter ego "Elmer" is relaxing in the chair.

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above from L-to-R are Max Terhune, Nell O'Day, Riley Hill (billed as Roy Harris), Ray Corrigan and John King in another scene from ARIZONA STAGECOACH (Monogram, 1942).

(From Old Corral image collection)

Above is a B&W title lobby card from the 1950 re-release of THUNDERING TRAILS (Republic, 1943). From left to right are Tom Tyler, Jimmie Dodd, and Bob Steele. Nell O'Day is shown in the top right photo inset.

(From Old Corral image collection)

Above is another B&W lobby card from the 1950 re-release of THUNDERING TRAILS (Republic, 1943). From left to right are Jimmie Dodd, Bob Steele, Nell O'Day, Forrest Taylor and Tom Tyler. Below is a crop/blowup showing Nell O'Day and Forrest Taylor.

(From Old Corral image collection)

Above - Texas Rangers member Jim Newill serenades pretty Nell O'Day in THE RETURN OF THE RANGERS (PRC, 1943).

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