A flinty, often imposing presence in features and television for over half a century, character actor R.G. Armstrong played men whose mere presence elevated the tension in such films as "Ride the High Country" (1956), "El Dorado" (1966), "The Great White Hope" (1970), "Predator" (1986) and countless other screen appearances. He was a staple of Sam Peckinpah's features, often playing figures with unyielding religious conviction in "Major Dundee" (1965) and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), while Warren Beatty utilized his formidable screen presence to cut the levity in pictures like "Heaven Can Wait" (1975) and "Dick Tracy" (1991). Offscreen, he was a kind soul whose tireless work ethic contributed to his lengthy career, which culminated in 2001. His body of work, which encompassed films both classic and forgettable, ensured him the warm screen immortality afforded to only the best of Hollywood's character players.
Born Robert Golden Armstrong on April 7, 1917 in Birmingham, AL, he was the son of fundamentalist parents who hoped that their son would become a pastor. His true calling, however, was acting, which he began pursuing while a student at the University of North Carolina. One of his classmates and co-stars during this period was Andy Griffith. After graduation, Armstrong headed north to attend the Actors' Studio, and quickly established himself on the New York theater scene through such acclaimed productions as Calder Willingham's "End as a Man" (1953), which was the first play to transition from off-Broadway to Broadway. The following year, Armstrong made his feature film debut in "Garden of Eden" (1954), a low-budget drama about a war widow who found serenity in a nudist colony. Though still in his thirties, Armstrong was cast as the widow's tyrannical father-in-law, thanks in part to his weathered face and premature baldness, and he would continue to play older men, frequently with a streak of rigidity or casual cruelty, throughout his lengthy career.
The following year, Armstrong returned to Broadway for the original production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955) as Dr. Baugh opposite Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes and Burl Ives. He continued to work on stage for the next few years, appearing in the original Broadway run of Williams' "Orpheus Descending" (1957) while making minor, often uncredited appearances in features like the Williams-penned "Baby Doll" (1956) and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), which made a star of his former classmate, Andy Griffith. In 1958, he invested fully in a screen career, and began his long tenure as a character actor who specialized in flinty Western figures. Armstrong was a staple of TV horse operas for much of the late 1950s and early '60s; his unwavering gaze and intense delivery frequently earned him turns as land barons, cold-blooded killers or officers of the law.
In 1960, he appeared in an episode of "The Westerner" (NBC, 1960-61), an offbeat period drama created by veteran TV director Sam Peckinpah. Armstrong would become one of Peckinpah's repertory players throughout his long and turbulent career in features, beginning in 1962 with the acclaimed "Ride the High Country." Noting Armstrong's own inner conflict between his religious past and his worldly occupation, Peckinpah cast him as a father whose fanatical beliefs estranged him from his own daughter (Mariette Hartley), he would continue to tap Armstrong for similarly conflicted or obsessed figures, most notably in "Major Dundee" (1965) as a minister who joined Charlton Heston's hunt for a renegade Apache warrior (Michael Pate).
While forging his relationship with Peckinpah, Armstrong maintained an astonishing prolific career in other features and television, appearing in up to eight films and TV episodes a year in the mid-'60s. Most were unremarkable fare enlivened by the conviction of Armstrong's performances, though there were also notable features like Howard Hawks' "El Dorado" (1966), which featured Armstrong as the patriarch of a ranching family under the protection of John Wayne's reformed gunslinger. From 1966 to 1967, he co-starred on the cult drama "T.H.E. Cat" (NBC) as a one-handed police captain at odds with Robert Loggia's cat thief-turned-crime fighter.
The 1970s saw Armstrong's profile rise with substantive roles in several major features. He rejoined Peckinpah for two of the director's best films of the decade: the elegiac "Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970) and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), as the self-righteous and sadistic deputy who beat Kris Kristofferson's Billy before receiving his fatal come-uppance. Other notable turns included the grizzled ex-fighter Cap'n Dan in Martin Ritt's "The Great White Hope" (1970), ill-fated outlaw Clell Miller in "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" (1972) and the folksy sheriff who secretly led a backwoods coven of Satanists in Jack Starrett's "Race With the Devil" (1975). In 1978, he appeared in "Heaven Can Wait," the first of several projects with actor-director Warren Beatty.
As Armstrong entered his seventh decade in the 1980s, he showed no signs of reducing his vast number of screen appearances. Though the projects often varied greatly in terms of quality - in 1981 alone, viewers could find him in minor roles in Beatty's "Reds" (1981) and "Raggedy Man" (1981) as well as the low-budget horror film "Evilspeak" (1981) - he continued to remain a believable presence, no matter the subject. Younger audiences also knew him as the general in "Predator" (1986) opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the doomed Lewis Vendredi, whose shop of cursed antiques set in motion the stories in the syndicated "Friday the 13th" (1987-1990) and the grotesque villain Pruneface in Beatty's big-budget "Dick Tracy" (1991). His output began to slow in the 1990s, though he could still be counted on to deliver his signature brand of grit in features like "Payback" (1995) with Mel Gibson, and as an elderly psychic in several episodes of "Millennium" (Fox, 1995-96). Armstrong logged his final screen role in a 2001 direct-to-video horror picture called "The Waking." Afterwards, he largely retired from acting save for appearances in off-Broadway theater until 2004, following the death of his third wife, Mary Craven, and health conditions which reportedly caused him to lose his sight.
By Paul Gaita
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Feature debut, "Garden of Eden"
TV series debut, "West Point" (CBS, ABC)
Made recurring appearance on "Gunsmoke" (CBS)
First of three appearances in Sam Peckinpah directed features, playing a Christian fundamentalist in "Ride the High Country"
Reteamed with director Peckinpah in "Major Dundee"
Appeared in the John Wayne-Robert Mitchum Western "El Dorado"
TV-movie debut, "Hec Ramsey" (NBC)
Cast as a a cruel lawman in in Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid"
First of seven appearances in Steve Carver directed features, "Fast Charlie...The Moonbeam Rider"
First of three appearances in Warren Beatty directed features, "Heaven Can Wait"
Played a government agent in Beatty's "Reds"
Debut in a TV miniseries, "War and Remembrance" (ABC)
Reteamed with director Beatty, playing the villain Pruneface in "Dick Tracy"
Landed recurring role on Chris Carter's mystery drama "Millennium" (Fox)
Final feature appearance, the horror film "The Waking"