Noble Henry Willingham Jr. was a much sought after character actor who appeared in film and television from 1970 until the year before his death in 2004. Usually cast as an insightful "good old boy," his characters often blended a disarming homespun demeanor with a strong dose of common sense. Many of his roles revealed the mixture of his East Texas roots and the colorful professional background that preceded his entry into show business.
Noble Willingham was born in Mineola, Texas, on August 31, 1931, the son of Noble Henry and Ladelle (Speights) Willingham. He graduated from North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, Texas, in 1953 and worked in the Texas oil fields. In 1954 he married Doris Jewel Humphrey and they had a daughter. Willingham later returned to academics and received a master's degree in educational psychology from Baylor University in Waco. In the late 1960s he was teaching government and economics at Sam Houston High School in Houston when a drama teacher urged him to try out for a role in Lamont Johnson's My Sweet Charlie, filming at Point Bolivar on the Texas coast. The television movie was released in 1970 starring Patty Duke, with Willingham in a small part. In like manner he caught the eye of Peter Bogdonavich and secured a role in The Last Picture Show (1971), also set in Texas, after which he continued to work on television and in films for the remainder of his life.
Willingham appeared in more than thirty feature films and had roles on many television series. After The Last Picture Show Bogdonavich promised him a part in Paper Moon (1973), from which he went on to establish his credentials as a journeyman character actor. He had memorable appearances in movies like Chinatown (1974), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and City Slickers (1991), and worked in television in the likes of "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "The Rockford Files." He even appeared on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and was featured as a regular on "Home Improvement" and more recently as C. D. Parker on "Walker, Texas Ranger."
Willingham considered himself a fiscal conservative and left that series in 2000 to have a run at politics. He decided to enter the race for the United States House of Representatives in Texas' First District as a Republican, running against the incumbent Democrat Max Sandlin of Marshall. Willingham was defeated, receiving 43 percent of the vote. Afterward he took some time off and returned for one more episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger." He later made a movie with Val Kilmer, Blind Horizon in 2003, which was his last role.
Although a conservative on monetary issues, Willingham considered the flamboyant liberal California Democrat Willie Brown one of his best friends. He was a champion of civil rights and formed the Noble Willingham Foundation, which directed most of his residuals to the African-American Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas. He was described by "Walker, Texas Ranger" regular Sheree J. Wilson as "a classic example of what growing up in the South means. He's friendly and welcoming and loves to talk to people." She told the Dallas Morning News in 2000, "What he teaches is the great art of being present, of being in the moment and responding. He's the classic example of living the part."
Noble Willingham died of natural causes in Palm Springs, California, on January 17, 2004. He was seventy-two. He was survived by his daughter Nicole Stori, a grandson, and his second wife Patti. He was buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.