A protest by The Waltons stars led film extra Jerado Decordovier unexpectedly into the spotlight
After Richard Thomas’ contract ended on The Waltons, Earl Hamner Jr. immediately turned to the directors that he knew he could depend on to help him introduce new dramatic characters that could distract the audience from John-Boy’s absence.
Ralph Senensky was one of those directors always in Hamner’s corner, going to the series creator’s house every morning to mull over new ideas. He said he was up for the challenge when he got pulled in to direct a sixth season episode called "The Warrior."
Reading the script, Senensky was drawn in by Hamner’s story of an elderly, 101-year-old Native American who believes his family’s burial ground is on the Waltons’ land.
He even had who he saw as the perfect actor in mind to play the part, an underutilized dramatic actor that he admired named Eduard Franz. The casting director quickly agreed that Franz fit the part, and before the script was even finalized, Franz had signed a contract to guest.
But then The Waltons stars Ralph Waite and Will Geer got wind of the casting decision, and they staged a protest by declaring they would not appear in the episode unless the role was re-cast to feature a Native American actor instead of Franz.
According to Senensky, Hamner told him to sit tight while the casting director sought to connect with Native American actors in Hollywood. None of the known talents were available, and Hamner and his producer Andy White assumed the protest would blow over once that reality set in, and Eduard Franz would inevitably play the part.
But Waite and Geer did not back down, and Senensky said the only available actor who could feasibly play the 101-year-old character was a 66-year-old film extra named Jerado DeCordovier.
DeCordovier had been acting in the background of films since 1941, playing characters like a taxi driver, sword dancer, waiter, soldier, priest, policeman, prisoner, the whole gamut. He could fit any part, but he didn’t necessarily have the dramatic chops of more seasoned actors.
On TV, DeCordovier appeared in similar bit parts from the Sixties through the Eighties, plugged into a variety of hit shows like Bonanza, Columbo and Family Affair. But 1977 is when The Waltons thrust him into the spotlight.
Senensky directed DeCordovier through the episode, doing everything he could to help the novice rise to the occasion and filming every scene with two cameras so that there were a variety of shots to choose from.
In the end, DeCordovier pulled it off, and Senensky said his favorite scene was one with Kami Cotler. It was the exact moment when the film extra found his footing and delivered a performance exactly the way the director had discussed the character during those early mornings at Hamner’s home.
"Earl had brilliantly brought young Kami Cotler’s Elizabeth into the personal scenes with the Grandfather that John-Boy would have played," Senensky said. "In only one scene between Elizabeth and the old Indian, filmed on the final day of shooting, was the performance as I envisioned it in Earl’s script."