|The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.|
(Image courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
(Pressbook cover courtesy of Les Adams)
|Special thanks to Bill Russell for authoring this profile on Lee Roberts.|
While most western fans consider Wayne Morris' TWO GUNS AND A BADGE (Monogram, 1954) as the last B-western released, BLAZING THE OVERLAND TRAIL, released by Columbia two years later was the last serial for theatrical release. Not only was it the final serial produced, it heralded the end of an era, and was the last opportunity for a western actor named Lee Roberts to seek stardom. It also may have been the reason for his mysterious disappearance some three years later.
Statistically, according to historian Les Adams, it was Columbia's 57th serial and the last of the 231 serials made during the sound period. BLAZING THE OVERLAND TRAIL utilized a good deal of Columbia stock footage, especially from the studio's 1939 OVERLAND WITH KIT CARSON with Bill Elliott and Buck Jones's 1941 serial, WHITE EAGLE. Columbia put Roberts in a costume similar to the two stars in order to utilize the stock action scenes.
Roberts, who had been around since the early forties, had mostly played heavies, portraying characters named "Blackie", "Trigger", or "Lefty". There is no information on his early life, except his real name may have been "Robert Allen", as he is listed in his first possible known film, BLAZING GUNS, a Ken Maynard/Hoot Gibson Monogram Trail Blazers entry released in 1943. He may have changed his name so as not to be confused with the other Bob Allen. One could make the case that officially his first appearance as Lee Roberts was that of a pier guard in the Republic serial, THE MASKED MARVEL, starring ace stuntman Tom Steele. Nevertheless, he would continue in uncredited roles until 1946 when he received a billed part in the PRC/Eddie Dean color opus THE WILD WEST, cut and reissued in 1948 in black and white as PRAIRIE OUTLAWS. Roberts would continue to work at PRC for the next two years, appearing in several Lash LaRue films. After that he bounced around from one studio to another, supporting such stars as Johnny Mack Brown, Sunset Carson, Charles Starrett, Gene Autry, and Whip Wilson. He played second-fiddle to Carson in the 1950 Astor film, BATTLING MARSHAL. Roberts became a Monogram "regular" in the early fifties supporting primarily Wilson and Brown. In CANYON AMBUSH (1952), Brown's last starring film, Roberts has a good billing as the local sheriff to whom Brown comes to his aid.
But serials would become Roberts' forte, appearing in numerous cliffhangers during this period. To mention a few would include DESPERADOES OF THE WEST (1950), THE JAMES BROTHERS OF MISSOURI (1950), KING OF THE CONGO (1952), RIDING WITH BUFFALO BILL (1954), and GUNFIGHTERS OF THE NORTHWEST, the next to the last serial (Jock Mahoney), and of course Roberts' 1956 starring role in BLAZING THE OVERLAND TRAIL.
Unfortunately for Roberts, it did not bode well for future stardom. Columbia had spliced in all the action scenes from its successful 1939 and 1941 serials so Roberts was pretty much relegated to talking scenes. Cost-cutting was critical in those days. Also that year, Roberts appeared in another serial, THE PERILS OF THE WILDERNESS, starring Dennis Moore.
After that, Roberts would appear uncredited in a host of pictures, including such classics as the 1957 James Stewart THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, and one of the Clanton boys ("Finn") in the Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas epic, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. In 1959, he appeared in probably the last film of his screen career, in the sci-fi flick, MISSILE TO THE MOON, starring Richard Travis.
Like most screen actors of the day, when motion picture work was scarce and television was on the rise, Roberts sought work in the new industry, appearing in a number of westerns, including THE LONE RANGER, THE ROY ROGERS SHOW, several episodes of the THE CISCO KID, THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN, and COWBOY G-MEN. He also played a detective in a 1958 PERRY MASON episode.
Once married to actress and stuntwoman Evelyn Finley, who appeared with him in the serial, PERILS OF THE WILDERNESS, Roberts has been described as a "closet" alcoholic. Sometime, probably around 1959, he disappeared and his disappearance has been a mystery ever since. He is believed to have hit "skid row" in Los Angeles, probably in despair over his failed movie career. Finley, who reportedly searched for him for a while, said: "One day he left. We have never heard from him again. He was without a doubt one of the finest, most clean-minded men, a gentleman at all times. I can't put my finger on the reason Lee wasn't successful in motion pictures - unless he just didn't care that much about acting." Miss Finley died in 1989, never knowing what happened to Lee Roberts.
Buck Rainey, in his book Sweethearts of the Sage (McFarland, 1992), notes that Roberts and Finley met while working together on the serial PERILS OF THE WILDERNESS (Columbia, 1956), and their marriage lasted about six years.
Pierce Lyden, a popular veteran of countless westerns and serials, said: "I always thought he would get a break and move up. Lee was quiet, steady and a real nice guy. When (Sam) Katzman gave him a chance in the serial (BLAZING THE OVERLAND TRAIL), he looked great and it could have led to something big. It didn't."
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Lee Roberts: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0731340/
You may want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral and then to the California Death Records database. If we assume that Lee Roberts was his real name, run a search and you'll find over a hundred male "Lee Roberts" on the list. Not much help there.
Jack Tillmany had a copy of the 1960 Academy Players Directory which includes a mention of Roberts. He's listed as "Lee J. Roberts" and there are two photos and a notation that he was represented by the Jerry Rosen Agency.
(Image courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
|Left is actress, stunt woman and great rider Evelyn Finley (1916 - 1989).|
Finley was married and divorced from Lee Roberts. In her later years, she searched but was unable to locate her ex husband.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are Lee Roberts, Black Jack O'Shea and Matty Roubert in a lobby card from the Lash LaRue LAW OF THE LASH (PRC, 1947). This was Lash's first starring role on his own after working in the Eddie Dean oaters. O'Shea is the brains heavy in this one.
(Image courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Above - an older Johnny Mack Brown has the drop on Lee Roberts (center) and Terry Frost (on the right) in this unidentified scene still. This is probably from TEXAS LAWMEN (Monogram, 1951).