MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Man Who Was Easy
Back during the middle 1960s, my newsroom mentor George E. Turner and I became acquainted with the Texas-bred cartoonist Roy Crane (1901–1977), whose daily strip Buz Sawyer – a staple of the local newspaper’s funnies section – had recently landed a Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society. Like some Oscar-anointed filmmaker with a current box-office attraction, Crane was visiting his syndicate’s client-papers, one after another, to help promote this touch of newfound momentum for Sawyer as a circulation-builder.
Now, George and I were admirers of Crane’s storytelling artistry from ’way back, and we were as interested in an earlier example called Wash Tubbs. Crane had shepherded Tubbs during the 1920s from a gag-a-day feature to a full-fledged high-adventure vehicle of sustained force, then entrusted it in 1943 to his boyhood pal and studio assistant, Leslie Turner, when the opportunity came to develop Buz Sawyer.
For a good many readers, the greater attraction of Wash Tubbs lay not so much in its title character – a boyish adventurer with an affinity for trouble – as in Washington Tubbs’ cohort, a man of action known as Captain Easy. Easy seemed to George Turner and me an essence of resourceful heroism, and we had wondered: Who might have been the life-model for the rough-and-ready Southerner? (Wash Tubbs’ origins seemed an easier call – in part, a wish-fulfillment projection of Crane himself.)
So while visiting with Crane, we asked about Easy. One of us set forth the theory that Easy was based upon either Richard Dix or Jack Holt, square-jawed, hawk-nosed figures who were noted for their tough-guy movies at the time Easy had appeared. Crane smiled and changed the subject.
George and I were hardly alone in the wondering. Historian Ron Goulart also had asked; Crane had replied simply that his brother-in-law had suggested that Washington Tubbs needed a strong sidekick, and that he, Roy Crane, had concocted Easy in response to the idea. Goulart had said that Easy seemed reminiscent of Tom Mix, the cowboy star, but Crane had dismissed the idea by saying that he had used his brother-in-law as a model.
But according to separately collected but unanimous opinions from school-days friends of Crane, Mr. William Lee, a.k.a. Captain Easy, was modeled after a college pal. Journalist-turned-novelist Carlton Stowers put us on the track after he had visited with another friend from Crane’s youth.
Roy Crane recalled college days as happy days. As a University of Texas alumnus, sort of, during the 1940s, he spent several days on campus painting a finely wrought mural at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. In 1969, he funded the Roy Crane Award in the Arts at the U of T.
Many souls within his circle wondered why Crane persisted with such loyalty. Crane had been expelled in the middle of his fourth college year for drawing too many pictures and ignoring too many lectures. And because that frat-house mural depicted, amongst other images, a nude woman, the administration later forced the inmates to bury the work under layers of paint.
From the late 1960s into the 1980s, Carlton Stowers, George Turner and I spoke with several prominent Texans whom Crane had mentioned as having been close friends at the University of Texas at Austin. All recalled him with fondness.
“He was a bright sort of fellow,” said Deskin Wells, who had become publisher of the The Ledger at Wellington, Texas. “He was always far more interested in his drawing. Several times, the Dean of Men called him in to tell him he was going to have to get to work or be dismissed from school. The last time they called him in, it was to talk to the president of the college, and from what I heard, Roy pretty well let him know what he thought about having to take a lot of the courses he was required to take.
“We learned that they were going to dismiss him from school, so he was initiated into Phi Kappa Psi in the middle of the night. He left school the next day.” Wells paused for a chuckle, then added: “He came back a few years later for a visit, and he was making more money drawing his cartoons than the president who threw him out.”
And did Wells have any ideas about the real-life Captain Easy?
“George P. Hill, a fraternity brother from Fort Worth, looked a great deal like Captain Easy,” Wells replied. (The accompanying images compare early and late photographs of Hill with a Crane sketch of Easy.)
Another fraternity chum, the Texas rancher Beaumont Stinnett, told us this: “Roy was a smallish, retiring sort of man … more Wash Tubbs than Captain Easy. I’ve always felt that George Hill … was the model for Captain Easy, and of course Buz Sawyer is a more realistically conceived carryover from Easy.”
Three other fraternity buddies from Amarillo, Texas – lawyer Jude Boyce, banker W.S. Smith, and insurance executive Jeff Neeley – also named George Hill as the likeliest prototype of Captain Easy.
Like Easy, Hill was a man of purpose and vigor – qualities that figure in Crane’s work overall. Hill was born in 1898 in the Texas Panhandle near Claude and grew up in Fort Worth, where he became a prominent schoolboy athlete. He lettered in football, basketball, and wrestling as a Crane classmate at the University of Texas, where he completed a degree in mechanical engineering in 1922. His U of T Longhorns football team of 1920 went undefeated and un-tied, an accomplishment that remained unique until the Longhorns’ 1963 season.
Hill returned to Fort Worth after college and developed a career in the oil industry, in partnership with his father, at the start of a drilling boom in 1926. Hill headed Export Petroleum Co. until his death in 1979.
Hill shunned interviews and sought no corporate publicity, preferring to allow his professional endeavors and charitable deeds to speak for themselves. Apparently he was an unwitting model or, perhaps, too modest to have made much of any connection with the Crane feature’s popular acceptance. No such mention appears in his privately published memoir, Seventy Years (1968), which Hill crammed with colorful accounts of athletic contests and oilfield adventures into which Easy would have fit comfortably.
Having unraveled this slight mystery to the extent possible, George Turner and I published the results in 1989 in a volume of a Wash Tubbs reprint shelf from NBM Press’ Flying Buttress Classics Library. I used the material, as well, in a newspaper article for the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth. The story prompted a letter from a West Texas reader – who insisted that a certain small-town personality from Crane’s boyhood must have been the life-model for Wash Tubbs. Some mysteries are more to be appreciated than solved.
Continued subsequently with an interview with Roy Crane…
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.