Wills, Theodore Childress [Chill] (1902–1978)

By: Frank Jackson

Type: Biography

Published: April 30, 2021

Updated: April 30, 2021


Theodore Childress “Chill” Wills, Western character actor and singer, was born on July 18, 1902, in Seagoville, Texas, to Robert Bruce Wills, a farmer, and Frances “Fanny” Elizabeth (Rublee) Wills. Wills was the youngest of six children and only five years old when his father died. The family relocated to Dallas after his mother married John Dunaway in 1910. A performer from childhood, Wills sang at First Baptist Church in Dallas. His subsequent efforts in show business were more secular and involved tent shows, stock companies, vaudeville, and burlesque.

The nickname “Chill” served him well, though its origin is in dispute. The most likely explanation is that it derived from Childress, his middle name. Another is that he was named after the doctor (Chillin or Childress) who delivered him. Yet another explanation holds that he was born on the hottest day of the year in 1902 and therefore given an ironic nickname. Wills never liked his given name of Theodore and apparently did not think much of Ted either. (For the record, his gravestone reads “Chill T. Wills.”) In 1928 Wills, while performing in a vaudeville act in Kansas City, married Hattie Elizabeth “Bettie” Chappelle, a former ballet dancer. They had two children who, like their father, had rhyming names: Jill was born in 1939 and Will in 1942.

Wills helped establish the Avalon Boys (also known as Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys), a popular Western quartet in the 1930s (See COUNTRY MUSIC). This association proved to mark a turning point in his career. While singing with the group and performing a monologue at the famed Trocadero night club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Wills was spotted by a studio executive and given a screen test. With silent movies obsolete and talkies all the rage, his distinctive voice and musical talent gave him an advantage. Also in his favor were the singing cowboy Westerns popular at the time.

Wills and the Avalon Boys made their debut in It’s a Gift, a W. C. Fields feature, in 1934. A series of Hopalong Cassidy Westerns followed, starting with Bar 20 Rides Again in 1935.  Particularly memorable was their appearance in Way Out West, a Laurel and Hardy feature, in 1937. Wills also lent his bass voice for comic effect in a voiceover. The following year he did the same for Block-Heads, another Laurel and Hardy feature.

After the breakup of the Avalon Boys in 1938, Wills found work as a character actor. He played Whopper Hatch, George O’Brien’s sidekick, in a series of B Westerns. The nickname was based on his character’s penchant for prevarication, a trait which often resurfaced in subsequent Wills roles and even in real life. His big break came in Boom Town, a 1940 tale of Wichita County wildcatters, based on “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett,” a short story by James Edward Grant, who went on to write screenplays for John Wayne movies (including The Alamo [1960] and McLintock! [1963] which also featured Wills). In Boom Town, Wills had the supporting role of Deputy Harmony Jones, which put him on par with co-stars Frank Morgan and Lionel Atwill, both established character actors.

Boom Town, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr, did outstanding at the box office and was easily the most prestigious picture Wills had appeared in to date. During the next decade, he was a familiar face in A movies and B movies, Westerns and non-Westerns, and was directed by both hacks and A-list directors, including William Wyler, The Westerner (1940); Fritz Lang, Western Union (1941); Vincente Minnelli, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); and John Ford, Rio Grande (1950).

Wills’s distinctive voice caught the attention of director Arthur Lubin, who had made a name for himself with Abbott and Costello features. Lubin hired Wills to provide the voice for Francis the Talking Mule, released in 1950. Based on a 1946 novel by David Stern, the film was a surprise hit, spawning a sequel each year through 1956. Wills’s voice can be heard in Francis Goes to the Races (1951), Francis Goes to West Point (1952), Francis Covers the Big Town (1953), Francis Joins the WACs (1954), and Francis in the Navy (1955). (Voice artist Paul Frees did Francis in the Haunted House, the last entry in the series, in 1956). Wills worked uncredited in all of these movies save for Francis Joins the WACS, in which he also appeared on camera in the role of Gen. Benjamin Kaye. Francis in the Navy attained a modicum of retro fame as one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest film appearances.

By the mid-1950s, Wills’s behind-the-scenes work on the Francis films was no longer a secret, but if there was any stigma attached to playing second fiddle to a mule, it was not apparent in his career. Indeed, his role of Uncle Bawley in Giant, the iconic modern-day Texas Western released in 1956, is one of his best-known parts. The star power of Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean dominated the movie, but Wills got to deliver arguably the most famous line in the movie when he said to Rock Hudson, regarding the nouveau riche Jett Rink played by James Dean, “Bick, you should have shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill.”

Another iconic Texas film came along four years later when John Wayne, producing and directing The Alamo, cast Wills as Beekeeper, one of Davy Crockett’s Tennessee sidekicks. By this point in Wills’s career, the frontier ruffian was a role he could play in his sleep. Cinema historian Allen Eyles defined Wills’s persona as “usually loquacious, often something of a homespun philosopher, more shrewd than comic.” For his role in The Alamo, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor of 1960. The other nominees were Sal Mineo for Exodus, Jack Kruschen for The Apartment, Peter Falk for Murder, Inc., and Peter Ustinov for Spartacus.

As with any election, the nominees campaigned for votes. Under the aegis of his publicity agent, W. S. “Bow-Wow” Wojeiechowicz, Wills succeeded only in alienating Academy voters, which he referred to as his “cousins.” One advertisement in Variety asserted that the cast of the film was praying harder for Wills to win the award than the Alamo defenders prayed before taking on the Mexican army. In one ad, Wills declared “Win, lose, or draw, you’re still my cousins, and I love you all.” His dubious campaign inspired numerous jokes in the movie industry. Groucho Marx took out his own ad, stating: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo.” Though he had neither authored it nor authorized it, John Wayne eventually bought ad space to apologize for the Wills ad. Peter Ustinov, an actor who was often as garrulous and roguish as Wills, albeit more polished, won the award. As a consolation prize, Wills received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Despite the Academy Awards controversy, Wills continued to work steadily in movies and television. One of his most memorable roles was Turkey in The Deadly Companions, a 1961 film notable as the first feature directed by Sam Peckinpah. Wills also appeared in another Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in 1973. He played Lemuel, a bibulous barkeep given to colorful and often off-color turns of phrase.

Another memorable role was as businessman Jim Ed Love in The Rounders, a modern-day Western with Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda. When the 1965 movie became a television series a year later, Wills reprised his role. He was apparently quite taken with the part, because thereafter, whenever he bought a pair of cowboy boots, he had the word “Love” stitched into them (See LUSK, WILLIE, JR.).

Wills never retired though he did slow down in old age when his two children were living in Dallas; he was often seen in the city. An avid poker player, he was a friend of former Dallas crime boss Benny Binion, founder of the World Series of Poker. Wills participated in the inaugural tournament in 1970.

After his first wife died in 1971, Wills married Novadeen Googe in 1973. By this point he was seen more on TV than in the movies. Chill Wills died of cancer at his home in Encino, California, on December 15, 1978. His final role was as a schoolhouse janitor in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Stubby Pringle’s Christmas (1978). The movie aired on December 17, 1978, two days after his death. After cremation, his remains were buried next to those of his first wife at Grandview Cemetery in Glendale, California. The New York Times obituary headline on December 17, 1978, read “Chill Wills, Actor in Westerns and Voice of Francis the Mule.” There was much more to him than that, but the headline did capture the gist of his career.

Bobby J. Copeland, B-Western Movie Boot Hill (Madison, North Carolina: Empire Publishing, 1999). William K. Everson, The Films of Laurel and Hardy (Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1967). Allen Eyles, The Western (Cranbury, New Jersey: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1975). Harry Haun, The Movie Quote Book (New York: Harper Colophon, 1983). New York Times, December 17, 1978. David Rothel, Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks (Madison, North Carolina, Empire Publishing, 2001). Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

Categories:

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)
  • Stage and Film
  • Performing Arts

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Frank Jackson, “Wills, Theodore Childress [Chill],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wills-theodore-childress-chill.

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April 30, 2021
April 30, 2021

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