He once played a character in a popular television series, but his own life story is at least as remarkable as any fictional character, and more interesting than most.
Dan Thomas McBride, Benton High School Class of ’63, is now a college professor with more than 30 years teaching health science at schools in the Los Angeles area including UCLA, Los Angeles City College and others.
Before that, as he put it in the biographical note he penned in response to an invitation to attend a high school class reunion, “I was hanging out in Hollywood having fun being an actor.”
And before that, he was the only son of a Marshall County bootlegger who grew up in anything but privileged circumstances, yet he still has a fond regard for his roots and his hometown.
At the 50th anniversary gathering of his high school class last year, “I got that feeling again,” McBride said. “I really missed that small-town atmosphere.”
The McBride family was “very, very poor,” McBride said. The house in which they lived had no indoor toilet and no hot water.
“Dad died when I was fairly young,” McBride said. Hard times notwithstanding, he has fond memories. “The town was very kind to me,” he said.
Friends nicknamed McBride “Tarzan,” after the movie character jungle man played by Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. It was akin to calling a bald-headed man “Curly,” as McBride was hardly a muscleman, but rather a small, skinny youngster. But the term was used with affection, not derision.
Those who grew up in Benton as part of the pre-Baby Boomer generation often compare their hometown to the fictional television town of Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.” As an example of that, McBride told of a time when he was a part-time resident of the old county jail, in the basement of the Marshall County Court House.
He was sharing a cell during the daytime with his father, an inmate.
“Dad had gotten arrested [for bootlegging] for the third time,” McBride said. “I was 4, 5, maybe 6 years old. It was summertime, and my mother had to go to work as a waitress at a café across the street from the court house.”
She would drop young Danny off, and the jailer, Prentice Thompson, would let the lad into his dad’s cell.
“I’d spend all day at the jail,” McBride said, and then go home with his mother.
It was a more innocent time, and the inmates were much more akin to town drunk Otis Campbell of Mayberry, who famously let himself into Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Mayberry jail to sleep off a bender, then let himself out the next morning. McBride remembers his dad and other prisoners playing cards in an open area.
Thompson’s wife would make meals for the inmates, and “she’d fix me one, too,” he said. “She made the best Kool-Aid I’ve ever had.”
During his senior year, McBride found out just how kind the town could be. Dr. Harold King summoned the young man to his office and inquired whether McBride planned to attend college.
“I don’t think I had any real comprehension of what college was,” McBride said. But he told the doctor that yes, he would like to attend college.
King picked up his telephone, McBride recalled, and called the Bank of Benton. “I’ve got Danny McBride in my office and he wants to go to college,” King said, McBride remembered. “I’ll fill out an IOU. You put that money in his checking account.”
McBride completed bachelors and masters degrees at Murray State University, courtesy of his benefactor.
“I kept a record of every penny that Dr. King loaned me,” he said. He repaid the debt, he said, but never forgot the doctor’s efforts on his behalf.
“Benton has really been kind to me,” McBride said.
After completing his graduate degree, with teacher’s certification and majors in business, health and physical education and physiology, McBride went to work for the YMCA in Lansing, Mich. He moved from Michigan to California to work with a new start-up YMCA in Burbank.
That position failed to come to fruition, so McBride says he began hanging out at the Warner Bros. movie studio, participating in acting classes in back-lot sound stages.
“Whenever there was a break, occasionally we’d get to stand out there and watch them shoot,” McBride said.
He met “some wonderful teachers,” including Eve McVeigh, who began working as an actress in the 1920. “Any acting talent I may have, I owe it to her,” he said.
Eventually, McBride got a chance to read for a part in a movie and, after an experience with the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” nature of a Hollywood business transaction, found himself on location near Tucson, Ariz., for filming of “Killing Stone.” The made-for-TV film, written and directed by Michael Landon, provided an introduction for McBride to Landon and actors such as Gil Gerrard, J.D. Cannon and venerable character actor Jim Davis, best known as family patriarch Jock Ewing in the “Dallas” dramatic series.
“Jim Davis was a western star that we saw at the Benton Theater,” McBride said. “He was a big-time star to me. I got to know him very well.”
The connection with Landon led McBride to a recurring role in the popular “Little House on the Prairie” series loosely based on the children’s books of Laura Ingalls Wilder about her family’s life on the western frontier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The bit part expanded to a semi-regular character, Henry Riley, who had a farm near the town of Walnut Grove, Minn. He appeared in 12 episodes from 1978 to 1982.
After “Little House” finished its run in 1983, Landon moved on to other projects, including the “Highway to Heaven” series.
Landon called him, McBride said, and told him he intended to take McBride’s character from “Killing Stone” and use it in another series. But before the pilot episode could be produced, Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died July 1, 1991, at age 54.
“Here’s someone who had given me a wonderful opportunity,” McBride said. “And he was known for that.”
It was a turning point for McBride, who moved on to another career as a college professor.
McBride’s mother, Mary Jo, died recently at age 91. He no longer has any family connections in Marshall County, but has relatives in Henry County, Tenn. And he stays in touch with some childhood and high school friends, including Ron Morgan, Johnny Lovett, Dan Frizzell, Ted Kinsey and others.
One of the hundreds of communities that adjoin each other to make up the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Burbank is, McBride said, “kind of like Benton, in its own way. It’s a very nice place to live.”