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Dale Robertson, 89; actor turned love of horses into movie stardom

After “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” he starred in the short-lived ‘‘J.J. Starbuck.’’

NBC

After “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” he starred in the short-lived ‘‘J.J. Starbuck.’’

NEW YORK — Dale Robertson, who parlayed an easy drawl and a way with horses that he acquired as a boy in Oklahoma to become a popular and strong-minded star of westerns on television and in the movies for three decades, died Wednesday in San Diego at 89.

The cause was complications of lung cancer and pneumonia, said his wife, Susan

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Mr. Robertson was a skilled rider at 10 and was training polo ponies by the time he was a teenager. He often said the only reason he acted professionally was to save money to start his own horse farm in Oklahoma, which he eventually did.

In between, he appeared in more than 60 films and 430 television episodes. In the movies he was a ruggedly handsome counterpart to such leading ladies as Betty Grable and Mitzi Gaynor. On television he had starring roles in such westerns as ‘‘Tales of Wells Fargo,’’ which appeared from 1957 to 1962; ‘‘Iron Horse,’’ from 1966 to 1968; and ‘‘Death Valley Days,’’ which he hosted from 1968 to 1972.

In 1981 he played an oil wildcatter in early episodes of ‘‘Dynasty.’’ The next year he had a recurring role in another glitzy nighttime soap opera, ‘‘Dallas,’’ and later in the decade he starred in the short-lived ‘‘J.J. Starbuck.’’

L.J. Willinger/Getty Images/file 1960

Dale Robertson starred in “Tales of Wells Fargo” from 1957 to 1962, but he refused to call himself an actor.

Mr. Robertson refused to call himself an actor. Rather, he said, he was a personality with a distinctive style, not unlike that of the actor he most admired, John Wayne.

‘‘An actor can change himself to fit a part, whereas a personality has to change the part to fit himself,’’ he said in an interview in 1988. He added, ‘‘The personality has to say it his own way.’’

Acting or not, he failed to impress some critics, who found his performances understated to the point of woodenness. But others saw him as an embodiment of the stoic frontier virtues that made westerns one of America’s most popular genres for decades.

He was born Dayle Lymoine Robertson in Harrah, Okla., about 30 miles east of Oklahoma City, to Melvin and Varval Robertson. He starred in sports in high school, boxed professionally as a young man and attended the Oklahoma Military Academy. In World War II, he served in the Army in Africa and Europe, was wounded twice and won bronze and silver stars.

Before being sent overseas, Mr. Robertson, then stationed in California, wanted to give a portrait of himself to his mother. He and some buddies went to Hollywood and picked a photographer at random. The photographer liked his picture of Mr. Robertson so much, he blew it up and put in his window. Talent agents started calling.

Mr. Robertson’s first movie role, an uncredited one, was in ‘‘The Boy With Green Hair’’ (1948). His first significant role was that of Jesse James in ‘‘Fighting Man of the Plains’’ (1949). He figured that about 70 percent of his films were westerns and said he did his own stunts.

Among the other westerns he starred in were ‘‘Devils Canyon’’ and ‘‘City of Bad Men,’’ both in 1953; ‘‘Sitting Bull’’ (1954); ‘‘Dakota Incident’’ (1956); and ‘‘Hell Canyon Outlaws,’’ which was released in 1957.

That was the year he gravitated to television, liking its faster pace of production. He developed, owned, and starred in the ‘‘Wells Fargo’’ series, playing Jim Hardie, a troubleshooter for the stagecoach company. To make the character distinctive, he had the right-handed Hardie draw his gun and shoot left-handed.

“Wells Fargo’’ was originally shown in black and white and in half-hour episodes. In 1961, however, the producers wanted to turn it into a full-hour show, broadcast it in color and expand the ensemble of characters. Mr. Robertson refused and sold the show to them.

Mr. Robertson was married four times. In addition to his wife, the former Susan Robbins, whom he married in 1980, he is survived by his daughters, Rochelle Robertson and Rebel Lee, and a granddaughter.

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