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Claude Akins, the Hollywood Stonecutter

by Cliff Robinson (with a big assist from IHSBHS member Larry Flinn, of Lawrence Co.)

I had occasion several months ago to look at the 1944 basketball roster for the Bedford Stonecutters.  That roster contained the name of Claude Akins.  Immediately, I wondered if that World War II era ballplayer could possibly be the same ruggedly handsome guy whose name appeared later on theater marquees and in major TV productions for the next several decades.  Turns out that, yes, they were one and the same.  Akins, an all-around athlete but never a shining court star at Bedford, migrated to the world of theater and celluloid several years later to acquire star quality in an entirely different realm of spectator entertainment.

Claude Aubrey Akins was born on May 25, 1926 in the tiny community of Nelson, Georgia, located in the northwest quadrant of the state and approximately 40 miles due north of Atlanta.  The family was reputedly of part Cherokee Indian ancestry.  His parents, Maude and Ernest, were hard-working but financially challenged residents during the early depression years.  By the mid-1930s, low wages and limited working opportunities had become severe.  His father and many of his close relatives and friends were stonecutters by trade in that part of Georgia, so Claude was quite familiar with that term long before playing basketball at Bedford.  The stonecutters were able to eke out a meager living by cutting, fashioning, and engraving tombstones for cemeteries, cutting marble blocks for cornerstones, monuments, and statues, and forming structural supports for engineers and architects in Atlanta and other nearby cities.  In those days, stone quarries were the basic source of much of the business conducted within a 50-mile radius of Nelson and North Holly Springs--another nearby village where yet more residents were connected with the stonecutting trade.  To escape the travails of their Georgia homestead, many of them began seeking other opportunities out of state. 

By the mid-1930s several of the Akins' relatives and neighbors had decided to move north to Bedford, Indiana, where the quarries were larger and the stone of better quality and in greater abundance.  The Akins were persuaded to follow suit and moved up there too.  Before Claude turned ten, they had taken up residence in Bedford, and Ernest was hired by the city as a police patrolman.  He was able to augment that income by moonlighting at his former trade as a stonecutter.  Two jobs kept him extremely busy and he was usually fatigued by the end of every day, but it was a much better life financially than the family had experienced in Georgia.  Their close friends and relatives who had also emigrated from northwest Georgia were able to continue their work full time by cutting and shaping the beautiful and abundant stone from those colossal quarries inside the Lawrence County lines.

Once Claude entered high school, he became active in a number of school activities, notwithstanding an above-average academic development.  One classmate seems to recall Claude receiving "straight A's" throughout high school.  It is definitely on record that Claude was a member of the National Honor Society for two straight years.  One of his favorite teachers was Helen Chandler, who taught Speech and English.  She early on recognized the quality of his deep, vibrant speaking voice and oratorical abilities.  He later contended that Mrs. Chandler had a pronounced effect on his career, once arranging a scholarship for him and at other times providing special training in drama programs at other institutions.  Even at this young age Claude was viewing a good education as the necessary element toward pursuing a career of his own choosing.  He was not enamored with becoming a career stonecutter, as his father and former neighbors had been.  The record is not clear, but Claude probably admired his father for his 21 years of service (1935-56) on Bedford's police force, for he was known in later years to insist on using Ernest’s service revolver in many of his western and other gun-toting film scenes.

For his age, Claude was fairly tall, stout, and sturdy (6-1, 200), so an inclination toward sports seemed pretty natural.  At Bedford High, he participated competitively in basketball and football and became a “Stonecutter” (the athletic program’s chosen nickname) whether he liked that name or not.  He also excelled at golf, and later during his acting career was known to have played in several pro-am tournaments.  A handsome and broad-shouldered teenager, he was also voted "most likely to succeed" by his graduating classmates.  We know now that the vote was extraordinarily prescient.

In basketball, the Bedford junior varsity team excelled.  Claude was a mainstay on that team for two seasons, 1941-42 and 42-43, before he was moved up to the varsity his senior year.  The JV team of 41-42 came away without a loss in nineteen games, the first and only undefeated squad in BHS history, and the 42-43 squad went 14-3—another fine season.  Claude’s time with the varsity, however, became abbreviated.  With his military obligation in mind, he signed up for a part time pre-service training course at the University of Kentucky midway through his senior year.  He was not able to find enough time to play much more ball.

In the fall of 1944, Claude enrolled at nearby Indiana University, undertaking a curriculum that emphasized speech and drama, the activities in which he had taken an especial interest throughout his school years.  However, campus life did not seem compatible with his urge to move ahead with an acting career.  Besides that, he knew that he still had a military obligation.  He left I.U. after just one semester.  At about that same time, U.S. invasions in both theaters of war were in full swing and Claude was still of prime draft age, so he volunteered for duty with the U.S. Signal Corps.  He was shipped off to Burma (now Myanmar) and the Philippine Islands until after the Japanese empire had surrendered.  Upon his military release in 1946, he opted, under the G.I. Bill, to enroll at Northwestern University, again in a drama curriculum.  There, according to sources from Northwestern and Columbia Film Studios, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1949 while being bestowed with a number of honors.

After matriculation, and with no concrete acting offers yet received, Claude returned temporarily to Bedford where his father had lined him up with a sales job selling limestone products.  The president of the limestone company, William G. Riley, had learned about Claude’s capabilities as an actor, speaker, and singer.  Being a theater buff himself, he decided to arrange a sponsored tour for Claude and members of the Bedford American Legion Chorus to put on shows in several cities.  The programs included theater performances, short comedy skits, singing engagements, and other kinds of entertainment shows.  The tour was a financial and popular success.  Several of the Chorus’ performers, including Claude, were noticed by theater agents.  One engagement found the group in the state of Virginia.  It was there that Claude received his first contractual theater offer. In an ironic yet positive twist, Mr. Riley and the limestone industry had closed the door to Claude while literally “setting the stage” for his real ambition to materialize.

Not much has been written or is known about Claude’s personal life between 1949 and 1952.  It is known, however, that after several stints on Broadway including "The Rose Tattoo," he moved to the Los Angeles area seeking to advance his acting aspirations with film roles.  His first role in 1951 was on TV in Dragnet, which starred Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday of the L.A. police.  In 1952, Akins married pretty Therese (Pie) Fairfield, a student nurse he had previously dated at Northwestern.  They eventually had one son, Claude Marion, and two daughters, Michele and Wendy.  It can also be assumed that, like many aspiring young actors, Akins worked at various jobs to make ends meet while trying to gain status in the movie industry.  There is one indication that he was paid for doing some commercial advertisements on early TV.  Although his name did not appear in any known film credits during that time, it may be safe to say that he routinely considered bit parts or helped as an extra from time to time.

In 1953, his first official role came in the film "From Here To Eternity," starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra.  Akins played the minor part of a rough-edged sergeant named "Baldy" Dhom (get the nickname pun?--a screenplay joke attuned to his ultra-short G.I. haircut in the film.  He had to lose all his black wavy hair to play that role).  After this rather inconspicuous beginning, fortunately in an Oscar-winning production, studio casting directors began to consider the possibility of similar tough guy roles for this "newly discovered" actor.  The casting opportunities quickly became plentiful and Akins, from that time forward, never experienced a lull in acting assignments until he retired in 1992 at age 65.  His forced retirement was brought about by a recurring battle with stomach cancer.  During most of his film years, audiences never saw a shirtless Akins on camera, because of a highly visible scar across his torso from surgery intended to halt the advance of that same cancer diagnosed in his earlier years.  It caught up with him again in 1992 and eventually, owing partially to latent surgery complications, it led to his death two years later.

Akins' acting career spanned nearly 40 years.  During that time, his fame and recognition as a great character actor grew with nearly every film in which he appeared. Possibly his best roles were as two-fisted tough guys or nefarious villains, but he never experienced being typecast as such because he could also very effectively play a highly masculine yet kind-hearted hero, a bumbling ne'er-do-well, or perhaps just an everyday down-to-earth, blue collar Joe. This diversity of character became evident in films such as Rio Bravo, Battle Stations, Onionhead, Inherit the Wind, Merrill's Marauders, and The Defiant Ones.  Altogether, Akins was cast in nearly 100 feature films.  His face is familiar to anyone who watches movie re-runs on TV.

His reputation as an actor in television was even more profound.  In the series "Movin' On," produced in 1974-76, he probably hit the apex of his viewer popularity.  As Sonny Pruitt, a self-employed long-distance truck driver, he was able to bring together nearly all the components of a personality having strong individuality, honesty, toughness (yet modified by a kind and gentle disposition), and above all a selfless empathy for those he would routinely encounter who were experiencing unfortunate situations.  That role came naturally for a man who actually possessed all those traits in real life.  Other TV series that helped maintain his popularity were the comedic "Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo," "B.J. and the Bear," and “Nashville 99,” along with “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” weekly television productions in which he frequently appeared as guest star.  His overall guest appearances on television shows numbered well into the hundreds.

Today, if you were to drive north on State Highway 53 to the outskirts of Nelson, Georgia, you would see a signpost at the edge of town which reads "Home of Claude Akins."  The old wood frame house where Claude was born in 1926 is still standing and, at the time of this writing, is occupied.  In Bedford, Indiana, an annual golf tournament held at Otis Park in the late summer commemorates Akins' early life there as a high school student.  The entry fees, gate receipts, and donations are deposited to a scholarship fund in his name.  Most of the proceeds are awarded for financial assistance to a specified graduating senior at Bedford North Lawrence High School who intends to enroll in college.  Other portions of the fund are allotted for repairs and improvements to Otis Park and its facilities.  The memory of Claude Akins has apparently not faded away in either of the two widely separated communities, nor has it departed the minds of those of us who continue to appreciate the fine art of acting, while recognizing all the down-to-earth qualities of this kind and gentle man who provided it for us.  FINIS

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