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Joe Don Baker Biography


Home > Actors > B > Baker, Joe Don > Biography


Birth Name: Joe Don Baker
Born: 02/12/1936
Birth Place: Groesback, Texas, USA


Born Feb. 12, 1936 in Groesbeck, TX, he became interested in acting while a student at North State Texas College, later known as the University of North Texas. A role in a student play convinced him that he could make a living as an actor, so after completing a stint in the U.S. Army, he headed for New York City to study at the famed Actors Studio. In 1963, he made his Broadway debut in "Marathon '33," a play written and directed by actress June Havoc about her experiences with the infamous dance marathons that took place during the Great Depression. The following year, Baker was directed by Burgess Meredith in "Blues for Mr. Charlie," a drama about the murder of Emmett Till, then lit out for Los Angeles for a production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" for director Henry Fonda at the Ahmanson Theatre.

While in Hollywood, Baker took guest roles in television series, beginning in 1965 with "Honey West" (ABC, 1965-66). His first feature film appearance was an uncredited turn in "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Powerfully built and sporting an authentic Texas drawl and a grin that could curl into a slit-eyed sneer, Baker was frequently cast during this period as Southern heels, most notably as the maimed, bile-spewing Confederate sharpshooter who joined George Kennedy's mercenaries in "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" (1969). Less frequent, but no less capably played, were sympathetic roles, like his power company worker who befriends Michael Douglas' rootless college professor while struggling to endure his dead-end life in "Adam at 6 A.M." (1970).

Baker's career began to gain traction in the early 1970s; he and Tom Skerritt played the competitive sons of rancher Karl Malden, who seek to gain his approval by bringing in bank robbers Ryan O'Neal and William Holden in "The Wild Rovers" (1971), and though billed under Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, his steely professional killer was the real star of the gritty TV movie "Mongo's Back in Town" (CBS, 1971). His big break came a year later with Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner" (1972) as faded rodeo star Steven McQueen's business-minded brother, who creates a rift between them by bulldozing the family home to make way for property development. Attention-garnering appearances like these paved the way for Baker's career-defining role in "Walking Tall."

As real-life Southern sheriff Buford Pusser, who fought against crime in his small town through unorthodox means - namely, a large wooden stick - Baker's ability to play both the physical side of the role as well as its emotional requirements lent a degree of verisimilitude to the film's ultra-violent, B-movie plotline. Savvy marketing by its distributor as a stand-up-and-cheer story of American justice made the low-budget film a $23 million hit with moviegoers, which in turn placed Baker in the spotlight for the first time in his near-decade-long career. Like many character actors who suddenly find themselves thrust into leading man status, he found it difficult to land parts that fit his particular talents.

Baker opted out of reprising the role of Buford Pusser in the two "Walking Tall" sequels: "Walking Tall, Part 2" (1975) and "Walking Tall: The Final Chapter" (1977), both of which made a star out of another unlikely lead, Bo Svenson. He then returned to supporting roles in his next two pictures. In "Charley Varrick" (1973), he essayed one of his most memorable characters, the sadistic Mob hitman Molly, in Don Siegel's extraordinary post-noir thriller "Charley Varrick" (1973) then lent his muscle to Robert Duvall's revenge-seeking ex-con in "The Outfit" (1973). He next settled into lead status for a string of misfires, beginning with 1975's "Framed," which reunited him with "Walking Tall" director Phil Karlson and screenwriter Mort Briskin. The violent revenge drama did not find the same audience as its predecessor, and set the tone for most of Baker's subsequent output for the decade. Action pictures like "Golden Needles" (1974) and "Speedtrap" (1977) and oddball efforts like the supernatural Civil War thriller "The Shadow of Chikara" (1977) or "The Pack" (1977), with Baker as a biologist pitted against wild dogs, vanished without a trace.

The enduring popularity of "Walking Tall" made sure that Baker was still receiving offers for starring roles in the late '70s and early 1980s. The 1978 miniseries "To Kill a Cop" (NBC), which cast him as a tough Southern sheriff transplanted to New York, led to the weekly series "Eischied" (NBC, 1979-1980), and he enjoyed one of his best roles of the decade in "Power" (NBC, 1980), a historical drama about a labor leader based loosely on Jimmy Hoffa. But by the midpoint of the decade, the fifty-something Baker settled back into character parts; unsurprisingly, he enjoyed something of a career rebound as a result.

Barry Levinson cast him as the Babe Ruth-esque "Whammer," who suffers the indignity of three strikeouts from Robert Redford's hero in the making in "The Natural" (1984), then enjoyed one of his best roles in the 1986 U.K. thriller "Edge of Darkness" (BBC2, 1985) as an eccentric CIA operative who aids a police officer (Bob Peck) in uncovering a government plot that led to the death of his daughter. Baker was reportedly so pleased with the script that he lowered his standard rate to play the role, which earned him a 1986 BAFTA nomination.

In 1987, Baker was the chief villain in "The Living Daylights," which marked Timothy Dalton's debut as James Bond. Baker's Brad Whitaker was a failed American general who turns to arms dealing in an attempt to mark his own place in military history. After its release, he appeared in two subsequent Bond films - 1995's "GoldenEye," which was Pierce Brosnan's first turn as 007 and "Edge of Darkness" director Martin Campbell's debut as a Bond director, and "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997). In both films, he played a completely separate character than Whitaker - he was Jack Wade, Bond's CIA contact. The three films made Baker only one of two actors - the other being British thesp Charles Gray - who played different non-recurring roles in more than one Bond movie.

Between assignments with James Bond, Baker remained remarkably busy in features and television. He briefly replaced Carroll O'Connor as the chief of police on "In the Heat of the Night" (NBC/CBS, 1988-1995) when the actor underwent bypass surgery, then reteamed with "Edge of Darkness" director Martin Campbell for the thriller "Criminal Law" (1988) with Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon. He was a tough detective hired by Nick Nolte to defend his family against an unstoppable Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" (1991) and took a lighter tack as Winona Ryder's businessman father in Ben Stiller's "Reality Bites" (1994) and as Lukas Haas' trailer park paterfamilias in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" (1996). The following year, he earned CableACE and Satellite Award nominations as the sympathetic Alabama Governor "Big Jim" Folsom, who was defeated by his firebrand protégé, George Wallace, in John Frankenheimer's biopic "Wallace" (TNT, 1997).

Baker's output appeared to slow down at the end of the 1990s. There were small but showy roles in "Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke" (CBS, 1999) as the billionairess' father and tobacco industrialist, Buck Duke, and in the comedies "Joe Dirt" (2001) and "The Dukes of Hazzard" (2005) as aging good old boys. Of more interest were stories passed along by third parties about Baker; "Hazzard" director Jay Chandrasekhar said that the outtakes of Baker's scenes with Jessica Simpson were funnier than anything in the film itself, while the creators of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (Comedy Central/The Sci-Fi Channel, 1988-1999) reported that Baker had threatened them with physical violence after hearing that the show had lampooned his films "Mitchell" (1975) and "Final Justice" (1995).