Bridges: Gail Davis went from Texas to life as 'perfect western actress'
In the days when westerns dominated the new invention of television, one Texas actress charmed audiences across the nation with her colorful portrayals. Gail Davis, once called by longtime friend Gene Autry “the perfect western actress,” was a familiar face on television and film in the 1950s.
Born Betty Jeane Grayson in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1925 to a physician. She spent several years living in McGehee, a small town to the south, where her father helped build a hospital before moving to Little Rock for the remainder of her childhood. As a youngster, she loved performing in front of audiences and was a gifted singer. The future star was also very athletic, taking up swimming and tennis and became an expert horse rider. She competed in a number of rodeos, including becoming a trick shot expert. She would graduate from Little Rock High School and went on to the University of Texas at Austin where she studied dance and drama.
She enrolled at UT during World War II. She was very active in the drama clubs. She and other students would perform for troops at shows at nearby bases across Central Texas. It was at one of these shows where she happened to meet Gene Autry, already a popular western singer and actor, who was serving in the Army Air Force at the time. Autry was impressed and encouraged her to come to California to make a try at performing. It was also at UT that she met and married her first husband, Bob Davis, and eventually had a daughter. After her graduation in 1946, the three went to California where she earned a contract with MGM studios. Davis recounted that the studio could not have another “Betty Davis” as an actress with the studio, and a stage hand suggested the name Gail.
She soon made a few appearances in westerns, including The Far Frontier with Roy Rogers in 1948. She reconnected with Gene Autry, and he took her under his wing. Davis would appear with him in Sons of New Mexico in 1949. Ultimately, she would appear in 15 movies with Autry and acted in more than 30 movies altogether.
In 1950, she made guest appearances on the popular programs The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. She continued to appear in films and made numerous appearances on The Gene Autry Show with her mentor.
In 1954, Davis was set to star in the television series Annie Oakley. In the process, she became the first woman to portray the lead character in a television western. Her career in westerns and real-life expertise with a gun made Davis a natural match. The real Annie Oakley, famous for her sharpshooting skills, performed for 17 years as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and died in 1926. The television version, however, fictionalized her life, portraying the heroine as a crime-solver and a one-woman force for justice in the Old West. The show, produced by Gene Autry and co-starring Brad Johnson, ran from 1954 to 1957.
Davis was proud of her portrayal of Oakley and how the character doled out her own justice without killing. She remarked years later, “Annie Oakley had to deal with the same ruthless characters -- rustlers and killers -- that the cowboys dealt with. And she did it without ever killing a one of them.”
In 1960, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Davis would marry three times, divorcing twice. One of her later appearances included a 1961 episode of The Andy Griffith Show, but by the 1960s, her career had begun winding down. By the 1970s, she retired from acting completely.
Gail Davis died in 1997, but left behind many fans. In 2004, she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.