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Land of Enchantment

Local Characters

You know many of these familiar New Mexicans — even though none is real. So, what do Ethel Mertz of the early "I Love Lucy" television show and the Roswell "aliens" have in common? Fiction. New Mexico style.

by Jeff Berg

 

 

They are among a bevy of make-believe characters who have been created over the years and situated (or crash landed) in New Mexico, or said to have originated from here.

ethel and lucy
Ethel Mertz (left), pal to TV’s “Lucy,” was supposedly from New Mexico. Actress Vivian Vance actually did live in Albuquerque.

Lucy's pal Ethel, whose entire name in the enduring show was Ethel Roberta Louise Mae Mertz, was said to have moved to New York City from New Mexico. She was played by actress Vivian Vance, who actually did live in Albuquerque. A former flapper in the show, she was often the balancing act for star Lucille Ball's many goofy ideas. Married to the slightly dumber Fred, played exquisitely by William Frawley, with whom she had done a vaudeville act, Ethel was also Lucy and Ricky's landlady.

Vance herself was born in Kansas and moved to Albuquerque, of all places, to try to find work as an actress. Later on she became a founding member of the Albuquerque Little Theatre, which still puts on performances to this day.

Vance reappeared in "The Lucy Show" as Vivian Bagley. She has been named by Entertainment Weekly magazine as "one of the greatest sidekicks."

 

A number of other notable characters have appeared in movies or television shows that are said to take place in New Mexico, but have been filmed anywhere but.

Hadleyville, New Mexico, is home to Sheriff Will Kane, played of course by Gary Cooper in the classic 1952 Western High Noon. Not much is available about the character development of the good sheriff, who is about to get married and leave town, if he can just get around the scourge of bad guys who are returning to New Mexico to put him six feet under.

A lesser-known but outstanding western film noir, The Stalking Moon, which stars Gregory Peck, features him as a retired army scout, Sam Varner, who is on his way to his farm in New Mexico. Then fate intervenes in the form of a woman and boy who are being pursued by her Apache husband. Nevada stars as New Mexico in this film.

With a somewhat similar story line, one of John Wayne's better films, Hondo, has him starring as a drifter who ends up helping a "widow woman" and her sprat. It was shot in 3D, which by that time (1953) was waning. Wayne's Hondo Lane character later was used in a short-lived television series in 1967, starring Ralph Taeger as the hero. The original film was shot mostly in old Mexico and Utah, and was in the top-20 grossing films of the year.

A much more famous film, the first version of Stagecoach (1939), found Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, and his fellow travelers, good and bad, stranded on their way to Lordsburg. New Mexico gets short shrift again, however, as the film was shot on location in California, Colorado, and of course in Monument Valley.

How about The Man with No Name, Angel Eyes and Tuco? These unforgettable characters, played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach respectively, traversed New Mexico in search of gold in the Civil War-based epic "spaghetti Western," The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The epic battle scene at the bridge was loosely based on the actual Battle of Glorieta, which took place just north of Santa Fe in March 1862.

 

The current and very successful cable television show "Breaking Bad," which will end after this season, is being shot in our fair state and is set in Albuquerque. It features a bevy of characters who have attracted quite a following, due to the show's popularity. One assumes they will endure in the popular mind after the series ceases production.

Although none of the characters in the 2001 film Rat Race is remembered by anyone, this oddball comedy with a great ensemble cast was the story of a race from Las Vegas, Nev., to Silver City. Characters included Donald Sinclair (played by John Cleese), Vera Baker (Whoopi Goldberg) and Squirrel Lady (a cameo by Oscar winner Kathy Bates).

"WKRP in Cincinnati," one of the best television shows ever, featured Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), a Santa Fe native who had also run a station in Albuquerque, as the program director transplanted to Ohio.

Any number of lesser-known films also had characters relating to New Mexico, but no fame and no connections to the state other than by imagination. Among them are Lloyd Bridges as Colonel Floyd Graham in the incredibly stupid Rocketship X-M (1950), which may or may not have launched from White Sands; all of the mutant characters in the cult film The Hills Have Eyes (1977); and Richard Egan as David Sheppard in the unbelievably brainless Gog (1954). Many of these films and others were connected to our state connections by atomic activity and mishaps.

Final insults are hurled at us by the characters of Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) and Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who were supposedly in Silver City in the 2004 film of the same name, but were actually in Colorado, and by Cole Armin (Randolph Scott) in the dorky Sedona-shot Western, Albuquerque (1948).

 

Literature brings us a bevy of New Mexico characters, including of course Leaphorn and Chee, the reoccurring Dine (Navajo) police officers created by the late great Tony Hillerman. Although not always in New Mexico, they did appear in our fair state in several of the ongoing series of books.

 

 

 

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