Richard Norris, 70, director, writer of television Westerns

June 13, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Richard Norris, who directed, produced and wrote numerous movie and television Westerns under the name of Richard Bartlett during a 33-year Hollywood career, died of complications apparently related to diabetes at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace on Saturday. He was 70 years old.

His films received scant attention, but his television credits included such blockbusters as "Bonanza," "Wagon Train" and "77 Sunset Strip."

The Aberdeen resident directed many of the leading stars of the 1950s and 1960s, including Eddie Albert, Bette Davis, David Jannsen, and Ronald Reagan.

He also directed Burt Reynolds in the TV show "Riverboat." Mr. Reynolds used to drop by the director's home every Sunday to discuss acting in those days, and the pair remained friends throughout the director's life.

"Richard wrote, produced and directed more than 185 radio and television scripts, plays and movies," said longtime friend, Courttland Dawson.

Two of his films -- "Joe Dakota" (1957) and "Money, Women and Guns" (1958) -- are listed in Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Video Guide.

Reviewer Maltin gave "Joe Dakota" 2 1/2 out of a possible four stars, calling the film "a folksy oater" in which star Jock Mahoney helps a town rediscover its pride. "Money, Women and Guns" earned two stars. It also features Jock Mahoney and was described as a Western about a lawman sent to hunt down killers and find heirs to the victim's will.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Norris grew up in nearby Norristown, where he attended public schools prior to enlisting in the Army in World War II.

The day he was to be shipped out to Italy for combat duty, he called home -- one of the few people able to do so, said sister Jean Warsing -- and the family went to New York to see him off. "After that, it was all secret," she said.

When he returned home after the war, he went to acting school for two years.

He passed a screen test and left for Hollywood, taking bit parts in some early war films.

Although he had "a certain charisma all his own," he was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, his sister said.

Mr. Dawson, who co-wrote a film with Mr. Norris in 1970, remembered the director as "a very likable person who wouldn't stand inefficiency."

That insistence on efficiency did not lead to outbursts, however, Mr. Dawson said. "I never saw him chew anybody out. If he had something to say, he said it in private. But he could straighten them out."

Mr. Norris put his talents for precision to good use in the "Wagon Train" series, Mr. Dawson said. The show had been on the air about eight weeks, but was over budget, behind schedule and in danger of being yanked from the air, he said.

Mr. Norris "was really considered a young genius who could get a picture out on time, and was hired to handle the whole thing" on the "Wagon Train" series, Mr. Dawson said. "He never did a picture that didn't make money. The network recovered and [the "Wagon Train" series] ran six or seven years. It was never over budget, and he never missed a time element."

The director also wrote many of the "Wagon Train" episodes, Mr. Dawson said. "Things were different in those days. They had only about two [future episodes] in the can, so they had to dream up something on Saturday or Sunday -- sometimes as late as Monday" when filming would begin.

In addition to television, Mr. Norris was also the owner of two California theaters -- the Actors' Colony in Beverly Hills and Beachcombers in Santa Monica, Mr. Dawson said.

In the 1960s, Mr. Norris left Hollywood after 33 years to attend to his dying mother in Pennsylvania. While in Norristown, he met Mr. Dawson, and the two began collaborating on films as independent producers.

They produced a film called "Cycad" in 1970 which they distributed privately. They worked together again in 1978 on a film shot in Bel Air. It was about the Pennsylvania Amish and was called "Gentle People."

After his mother died, Mr. Norris went to work for the U.S. Army as a film producer and director. He retired seven years ago and with his wife of 15 years, Catherine, moved to Aberdeen.

At the Aberdeen Moose Lodge, where he used to play cards, "no one knew anything about him" for a long time, Mr. Dawson said. "But once they found out, they couldn't stop talking [to him about film making]. He was a pretty capable guy."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

He is survived by his wife, the former Catherine Solomon of Aberdeen; a son, Richard Norris of Cherry Hill, N.J.; a stepson, Dennis Keyes of Aberdeen; a stepdaughter, Delores Nunn of Camarillo, Calif., a daughter, Nona Swerling of Caladasas, Calif.; a sister, Jean Warsing of Philadelphia; and a brother, Roland Norris of Ben Salem, Pa.

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