By Scott Dyke
Behind the scenes of movie making, there is this culture that exists.
They move around a lot, taking whatever is offered. It is a nomadic lifestyle, and the industry would not flourish without them. They are stand-ins, doubles, extras, bit players and generally all-around handy and versatile folks.
Steve “Bunker” de France was a regular; his specialty was westerns.
Born in New Mexico in 1940, he grew up in Ruidoso, a place whose economy depended greatly on the Texas summer crowd. His roots were solid Southwest, as his grandmother, Texas-born, served as a jailer.
“My mom and stepdad ran a bar,” Bunker recalled. “We had horses. Most were quarter horses that we raced. That’s how I learned to ride. In the winter we cut firewood to make ends meet.”
Often he took a shot at bull riding.
“We got paid in groceries,” he said with a laugh.
After Bunker completed a four-year stint with the Navy, he joined his dad in Tucson.
“I was looking for work and there was an audition advertised for a movie company. I waltzed past a long line and plopped down in front of a casting director and announced that I was an actor. He told me they didn’t need actors, they needed horsemen. That’s how I started in the movie business.”
With Newman, Marvin
“The Outrage,” a Paul Newman movie, provided a paycheck. Working as a stand-in, Bunker toiled for a shoot near the current Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He also worked on shoots in Sabino Canyon and the Romero Ranch. He and a buddy, Neal Summers, were hooked.
For 10 years, de France hit the circuit that included New Mexico and Arizona. Often he would return to Ruidoso to work the race track.
By 1978, westerns had lost popularity so Bunker headed to California. There they were unsuccessful gaining work. But luck shone down when they were walking out of a rejection and saw an old comrade who had moved up the movie-business food chain.
“He asked us what we were doing. When he learned we needed work, he hired us.” A casting director objected, but the old friend prevailed, ‘I need them.’
“Mostly, we played hearts,” Bunker remembered. “He took us good!”
He worked on several Paul Newman westerns: “The Outrage,” “Hombre,” which was partially filmed in the Helvetia area, “Judge Roy Bean,” and “Pocket Money,” which also starred Lee Marvin.
“Newman did not mix with us. I did not start out well with him. I was standing in for him and he got in my field of vision as the director was giving instructions. Newman announced, ‘I am Paul Newman.’ I said, ‘of course you are.’ Marvin, on the other hand, was a real regular guy.”
His employment on the TV hit “The High Chaparral” lasted for several seasons. Bunker played several roles, mostly Indians.
“My best stunt was the talking fast dismount that Ben Johnson did so well,” he recalls.
His most memorable effort was in a “Gunsmoke” episode. It was titled “Matt’s Love Story.” It was the most viewed show in the history of TV’s greatest western.
He has a lifetime of memories from the movie industry and television. He also often modeled for ads. One was featured in the “Westerners,” where he posed “cowboy” for the Acme Boot Company.
Retired now, Bunker serves on the Empire Ranch Board and also co-hosts the popular “Voices of the West,” succeeding the late Emil Franzi.
One last question: where did the name come from?
“There was this comic strip. It was popular when I was born. A baby in the comic was named Bunker. I looked like the baby.”
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western lecturer, writer and researcher. He can be reached at email@example.com. Article originally published in the Green Valley News and is republished here with the permission of the author.
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