Family & Companions
Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, parlayed his celebrity, boyish good looks and natural manner into a successful Hollywood career that encompassed 44 feature films, mostly Westerns and war movies. He also enjoyed success as a composer of country music and as the author of To Hell and Back, a 1949 memoir of his wartime experiences that was filmed in 1955 with Murphy playing himself. World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin summed up his appeal: "In him, we all recognized the straight, raw stuff, uncut and fiery as the day it left the still." Murphy, always comfortable in action scenes, learned the craft of film acting as he went along and eventually became a skilled actor, especially in the role of anti-hero. His quiet, understated style and coiled manner may be seen as a forerunner to the "cool" later displayed by Steve McQueen and others.
Audie Leon Murphy (1924-1971) was born in Kingston, Texas, to sharecroppers of Irish descent. He was the sixth of 12 children, two of whom did not survive to adulthood. His father abandoned the family while Audie was still in grade school, and the young Audie dropped out of fifth grade to help support his family by doing farm work. He became a crack shot with his rifle, bringing home squirrels, rabbits and birds to help feed the family. He was said to have remarked to a friend, "If I don't hit what I shoot at my family won't eat today." While still a youngster he worked at a garage and a radio repair shop.
After the death of his mother in 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor later that year, Murphy attempted to enlist in the military but was rejected because he was underage. In June of 1942, claiming to be 18 rather than 17, he succeeded in joining the U.S. Army after being turned down by the Marines and the Navy for being too short (five feet, five-and-a-half inches) and slight of build. In agreement with an older sister, he had arranged for his three youngest siblings to be placed in an orphanage; they would be reclaimed at the end of the war.
Murphy saw his first combat during the 1943 invasion of Sicily and distinguished himself in battle on many occasions in Italy, France, Germany and North Africa. In France, after his best friend was killed by a German soldier, an enraged Murphy single-handedly wiped out a German machine gun crew and used its weapons and grenades to destroy other enemy positions. For these actions he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He eventually was given a battlefield commission to lieutenant. After more displays of daring heroism he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award for valor, along with the Legion of Merit and more than 30 other U.S. and foreign medals and citations including five from France -- among them that country's highest award, the Legion of Honor. Overall he was credited with destroying six tanks in addition to killing more than 240 German soldiers and wounding and capturing many others.
In early June 1945, after Germany's surrender, Murphy returned to Texas and was greeted with a hero's welcome. He was discharged from active duty in September 1945. His appearance on the cover of Life magazine on July 16, 1945, had caught the attention of film star James Cagney, who sensed Murphy's star potential and invited him to Hollywood. Cagney and his brother Bill, with whom he operated a production company, stated that they saw "poise and assurance, with spiritual overtones," in Murphy's face.
Despite the support of the Cagneys, Murphy's movie career was slow to take off. He finally landed small supporting roles in two 1948 films, Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, starring Guy Madison; and Beyond Glory, starring Alan Ladd. His first lead came in Bad Boy (1949), produced by Variety Clubs International to promote that organization's work with troubled children. His work in that film landed him a contract with Universal Studios, where he would star in a series of successful low and medium-budget Westerns, usually cast as unassuming heroes or baby-faced outlaws.
The first of these was The Kid from Texas (1950), in which Murphy was cast as Billy the Kid. Others to follow included Sierra (1950), The Cimarron Kid (1952), The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Drums Across the River (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), Destry (1954) and Ride a Crooked Trail (1958). He showed his dark side as deadly gunslingers in Night Passage (1957), in which he plays James Stewart's bad-sheep brother; and No Name on the Bullet (1959), in which his mere presence terrorizes an entire town.
Along the way, Murphy landed other roles that brought him recognition as an actor, including the innocent young Union soldier in John Huston's film version of Stephen Crane's Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and, of course, To Hell and Back (1955). A modest Murphy had suggested that Tony Curtis play him in the latter film, but he delivers a solid performance as himself, and the movie proved a smash at the box office, becoming one of Universal's biggest earners to date. During this period Murphy was considered one of the studio's "Big Four" male stars, along with Curtis, Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler.
Murphy's most accomplished performance may have come in The Quiet American (1958), in which he takes the title role in the company of top-rank talent. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed this screen version of the Graham Greene novel set in pre-war Indochina, and Michael Redgrave costars as the cynical British journalist whose vision for the Vietnamese people is at odds with Murphy's seemingly naive intentions. Another prestigious project was John Huston's Western The Unforgiven (1960), with Murphy as the intolerant, hot-headed brother in an unlikely family that also includes Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish, and Audrey Hepburn as an adopted Indian maiden. Murphy's final film role was as Jesse James in Budd Boetticher's A Time for Dying (1969), it was his 33rd Western.
He also acted in episodic television, notably the NBC-TV Western series Whispering Smith (1961), with Murphy in the title role formerly played by Alan Ladd in a 1948 film. Some of the country-Western songs Murphy wrote became quite popular including "Shutters and Boards" and "When the Wind Blows in Chicago." His songs were recorded by such singers as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold and Charley Pride. He also became a successful rancher and raised quarter horses.
Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949, and they made one film together, Sierra. They were divorced by the time the film was released, with Hendrix charging mental cruelty. She would speak later of his struggles with depression and other symptoms of what was then called "Battle Fatigue" and is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Murphy became an advocate for returning veterans who faced mental-health problems. In 1951 he married Pamela Archer, with whom he had two sons. They were still married at the time of his death in a plane crash in 1971, when he was only 46. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, where the only other grave that has been more visited is that of President John F. Kennedy.
by Roger Fristoe