Western actor Harold Norman dies at 99

07/15/2011 7:01 AM

07/15/2011 7:01 AM

Even though he was many a baby boomer’s hero and villain — appearing in episodes of “Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Rawhide,” “Wagon Train,” “The High Chaparral” and “Lassie” — Harold L. Norman Sr. was no fancy-pants cowboy.

He was a Kansan who grew up riding horses.

And somehow along the way, he got into radio and TV, and Hollywood beckoned, and he became a character actor.

“I was kind of popular in school because of who my dad was,” said his son, Harold “Sonny” Norman Jr., a retired Wichita police captain living in San Antonio. “He knew everybody in Wichita back in the 1940s and 1950s.”

Mr. Norman, whose stage name was Hal Jon Norman, died earlier this month in an Andover nursing home at age 99. A private funeral service will be today in Wichita.

He was born Aug. 27, 1911, in Wichita.

When he was 19, he lost his right leg in a train accident. He recovered and learned how to walk with a prosthesis and with no detectable limp.

Just as radio was beginning to be a mainstay in Wichita, Mr. Norman became an announcer and host for many radio shows and acted in radio plays for KFH and KFBI (now KFDI) in Wichita, beginning in the late 1930s.

“He loved working with horses,” Sonny Norman said. “We went to all kinds of activities. He took me and my sisters to rodeos . . . and did trick riding. He was the first commentator to ride a horse and do a live introduction of western movies on television.”

He moved to Hollywood in 1957 and used his stage name Hal Jon Norman until he retired in 1990.

“He didn’t come across as some big-headed superstar,” said Orin Friesen, operations manager at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Benton and a local country radio personality. “He was just your average man on the street who did all this cool stuff in Hollywood.”

Mr. Norman performed and worked with almost all of the Western stars of the 1950s up until the late 1980s.

He played Buffalo Bill and was Chief Koso in “The High Chaparral,” Kimki in “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and Frost in “The Rifleman.”

He worked with Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.

He told agents he could speak with these accents: Continental, German, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, Western, Southern and hillbilly.

And he did.

He was nicknamed “Chief” by some friends because he played an American Indian so many times on film.

“He was one-of-a-kind,” Sonny Norman said. “He was always on stage. He was a man with great character. His voice was beautiful. He stood out in the crowd because he was so articulate.”

He would spend summers in Hollywood and winters in Wichita.

“He quit going to Hollywood in 1995,” Sonny Norman said. “He was never rich. Actors don’t make money unless they are famous. The thousands of supporting actors like my dad never get wealthy. He didn’t have a grand home. But he did what he loved.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Norman is survived by his daughter, Rosalie Ohlson in California, and seven grandchildren.

The Old Mission/Wichita Park Mortuary is handling funeral arrangements.

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