Lash LaRue practically had two careers. The first was on the movie screen; the second, until his death in 1996, was being perhaps the most approachable guest star attending western film conventions around the country. He was known as the 'King of the Bullwhip', the title of what was arguably his best movie, but admitted that he did not come by his whip-cracking talent naturally.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana June 14, 1921 (although some records indicate 1917 Michigan). Alfred "Lash" LaRue was of Cajun ancestry. His father was a traveling hotel representative and real estate salesman, and young Alfred he never stayed long in the same school and was raised mostly by his mother. His family finally settled in Los Angeles and he attended St. John's Military Academy and began college at College of the Pacific, intending to study law.
At some point he took an acting class there in an attempt to overcome a speech impediment. After college he followed his father into sales and became a real estate agent. Unsatisfied, he switched to hairdressing before falling into acting.
There does not seem to be a record of how he first got into show business, but, performing as Al or Alfred LaRue, he worked at Universal as a supporting actor and bit player in 1945 in serials like “The Master Key” and feature-length films like “Train”.
Al had appeared in a handful of walk-on roles at Universal, but after realistically gauging his chances at becoming a star at a major studio, he decided it was better to be a bigger fish in a small pond (or, in PRC's case, a mud puddle).
In 1945 he was interviewed by veteran low-budget producer / director Robert Emmett Tansey, who was looking for a bullwhip-cracking anti-hero to co-star in a production at lowly Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). That studio had been around since 1940, rising out of the ashes of Ben Judell's failed dream, and had quickly earned a reputation--entirely justified--of being the worst studio among the denizens of "Poverty Row", that grouping of cheapjack independent producers and ultra-low-budget production companies that composed the bottom rung of the Hollywood food chain, at least since the days of equally shoddy Syndicate Pictures a decade before.
Tansey was considering LaRue for a supporting role in SONG OF OLD WYOMING (1945), the PRC Cinecolor movie which was the first starring vehicle for singer Eddie Dean, the first PRC Western to be shot in color, and which made Dean the first series western star to appear in color.
Cinecolor, was a process favored by low-budget producers because it was much cheaper than the better known (and more garish) Technicolor, even though it was decidedly inferior and gave films shot in it an anemic, washed-out look.
LaRue, with his remarkable resemblance to Bogart looks the part. “if he can act", Tansey said to his secretary, talking about his visitor who was then known as Al LaRue. "I'm probably the best actor that's ever been in your office", LaRue told him. "Well, I had intended to use a guy who could handle a whip." "A bullwhip?" "Yes." "I've been messing around with one since I was a kid", said LaRue, who had never touched one in his life. But he figured he could learn.
"I went out and rented a couple of whips, one 15 foot and one 18 foot, and I practically beat myself to death trying to learn to throw it. I finally gave up altogether and the picture started and I thought, well, as soon as they learn I can't handle a whip, they'll throw me out." After seeing some of the early rushes, Tansey took LaRue aside, complimented him on the job he was doing, and asked if he would like to do three pictures for three times his current salary. "Bob, I have to tell you something", LaRue said. "What is it, Al?" "Well, I can't use that whip." "But you said..". "Now wait a minute. You doubted if I could act, so I acted just a little bit for you. And I'm sorry about lying to you, but I wanted that part." Then LaRue peeled off his shirt and showed Tansey how he'd cut himself up practicing with the whips. He said Tansey burst out laughing. "He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever run into", said LaRue.
The PRC studio hired an expert named Snowy Baker to give lessons on the bullwhip, a rather lavish expense for penny-pinching PRC,and LaRue proved a good pupil.
Although he wasn't the star, and billed as "the Cheyenne Kid," LaRue received a relatively large amount of fan mail and it dawned on the powers-that-be at PRC that they had a potential star on their hands. Not wanting to mess with a good thing, the studio paired the whip-cracking LaRue with the singing Dean two more times before splitting them off into their own pictures.
The pairing of LaRue and Dean seemed to work, and LaRue was again cast to work with Dean in “The Caravan Trail” and “Wild West”, both released in 1946.
He was assigned a sidekick, the hard-drinking, middle-aged Al St. John-- -beginning with Law of the Lash (1947) and the two gradually became good friends.
Lash signed a contract with PRC to do a season of 8 B-Westerns, along with Crabbe’s former keystone Kop movie sidekick Mack Sennett, Al 'Fuzzy' St. John. LaRue’s character, LaRue quickly adopted an all-black wardrobe and rode a jet black horse to accentuate his image as a bad guy. The Cheyenne Kid, was not the typical clean-cut cowboy popular at the time, but rather had an anti-hero kind of demeanor, wearing his black outfit and carrying what had now become his trademark bullwhip. Lash and Fuzzy were paired in “Law of the Lash” and “Border Feud”, both released in 1947.
At PRC he became "King of the Bullwhip" and a solid staple of Saturday-afternoon matinées. LaRue remained with the company after it morphed into Eagle-Lion in 1948, usually playing a character named Cheyenne Davis, before adopting the "Lash" moniker he'd been using for years in screen credits.
When Eagle Lion took over PRC they allowed Lash to complete his series, and also cast him in roles in two non-Western films, “Heartaches” (1947) and “The Enchanted Valley” (1948). By the end of 1948 however, Eagle Lion had decided that the days of the B-Western were ending, and declined to renew LaRue’s contract.
Convinced there was still an audience for B-Westerns, Western Adventure Productions, run by producer Ron Ormond, hired the LaRue/St. John team. Beginning with “Dead Man’s Gold” in 1948, LaRue would no longer use the character name of The Cheyenne Kid, but would use his own name in films. Lash LaRue and Fuzzy St. John would make eleven films with Ormond between 1948 and 1952, including “Frontier Revenge” (1948), “Outlaw Country” (1949), and “The Frontier Phantom” (1952).
These B-Western movies were aimed mainly at younger audiences, and Lash LaRue was very popular with the kids. He was known as one of the most accessible stars of his time, appearing at matinee performances at theaters and performing tricks with his whip for the audience. It's interesting to note that although he was never a top-ranked cowboy star during his heyday Lash LaRue was so popular that Fawcett created a comic book featuring his character in 1949, and the comic book stayed in publication until 1961.
He had his own television show in 1953 titled “Lash of the West”, but the show was soon cancelled, although he did appear in some Western television shows of the time in supporting roles.
Lash LaRue would appear in few films after the completion of his series of movies with Ormond. He had a part in “Please Don’t Touch Me” (1963), and he would later have a cameo role in the 1986 television film remake of “Stagecoach”, starring Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. His final film appearance was in "Pair of Aces” in 1990, another made-for-television film starring Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
Lash appeared several times on “The Gabby Hayes Show” on television in the late 1950’s, and also on the television series “26 Men”, featuring true stories of the Arizona Rangers. He appeared in different roles seven times on the television program “Judge Roy Bean”, starring Edgar Buchanan. LaRue also had the role of Sheriff Johnny Behan on “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ” on ABC.
Lash received a Golden Boot Award in 1983
In private life LaRue loved booze, women and flashy--preferably custom-tailored--clothes. He was married so often it was hard to keep track of his wives, but most sources agree that the number ranged from 10 to 12, two of his more notable ones being actresses Reno Browne, a blonde beauty who co-starred in a few of his films, and Barbra Fuller. Aside from a penchant for marrying pretty much anyone he became attracted to, he also acquired an alcohol problem (which he would battle, with varying degrees of success, for the rest of his life) and after his acting career waned in the early '50s he ran into financial problems.
Despite having one of the more recognizable names in B-westerns, he never ranked among the top stars in popularity polls, probably attributable less to his screen persona or acting ability and more to his films' awful scripts and deplorable lack of production values due to PRC's legendary cheapness, a factor that hurt the careers of many of the studio's western stars (had he been signed to a less penurious studio like Republic or Columbia, his career might have risen to far greater heights).
LaRue almost always performed his own stunts--mainly because PRC was loathe to spend money on professional stunt men, who in those days demanded higher pay than the stars they were doubling for--a fact he took pride in and made sure that he "conveniently" lost his hat during action scenes so his audience could see that it was actually him in the fray and not a stunt double.
After retiring from making movies Lash LaRue toured America, putting on shows with his whip, and appeared often at Western conventions and Hollywood memorabilia and western shows where he cheerfully greeted fans, happily signed autographs and gained a reputation of being pleasantly accessible.
Lash LaRue died in Burbank, California on May 21, 1996 at the age of 74.