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Cowboy classic

You probably don’t know Kenneth “Blackie” Stephens by name, but if you’re a fan of Western movies or television shows, you’ve seen him many times.

Remember James Arness’ Matt Dillon outdrawing that bad guy in the white shirt in the opening scene of every color “Gunsmoke” episode?

That’s Blackie, whose stage name was “Blackie Storm.”

“I had a heck of a time slowing my draw so Arness could gun me down,” he says.

Blackie was once a real tough guy, in the movies, at least. Even at 5-foot-7, he was a menacing figure, dark-complected, solidly built.

Now at 81, still solid but two inches shorter and suffering from breathing difficulties and congestive heart failure, he’s a hospice patient living with his wife Karen “Calamity” Stephens on a patch of dry farm land north of Spirit Lake.

But Blackie is still every inch a cowboy, his six-shooters, bullwhips and black cowboy hat on a coat rack just inside the door of their single-wide mobile home are testament to his real-life buckaroo past.

He hates to admit that he was born on an Alabama farm, “but I moved to Texas as soon as I could,” he says. “I was 17.”

He worked on a ranch in the southeast portion of the Lone Star State and took up rodeoing, riding saddle broncs and Brahma bulls for pocket money.

After service as a damage control man in the Navy during World War II, Blackie joined the rodeo circuit. He was “discovered” by Robert Mitchum and offered $100 for each bucking bronco and bull that he rode out of the chute for the 1952 movie “Lusty Men.”

“I rode eight,” Blackie remembers. “That was pretty good money, so I decided I’d stick with movie cowboying.”

Stick with it he did, for the next quarter century.

Most of the time he was a bad guy, holding up stagecoaches, mixing it up in saloon brawls, “killing” and “being killed” in countless gunfights. But on occasion he was also cast as the sheriff, and now and then � in distant shots � he was an Indian.

“I remember one time when some of us ‘redskins’ were about to chase a stagecoach. My buddy next to me said, ‘Indians don’t wear wrist watches.’

“It was too late to take it off and, naturally, my breech cloth didn’t have pockets, so I just pushed it up my arm and turned the watch face in. Indians wear arm bands, you know.”

One way you can spot Blackie on the screen is his coal-black horse, Beauty, half Morgan and half quarter horse.

“I rode that gal for 25 years,” he says. “The studios would provide horses, but Beauty and I knew one another, trusted each other. Besides, she was paid $25 a day when I rode her.

“But one thing I wouldn’t do was make her fall. I saw too many good horses badly injured that way.”

In addition to his debut in “Lusty Men,” Blackie’s big screen credits include “El Dorado,” “The Alamo,” “Vegas,” “Hands Across the Border,” “Curse of the Headless Horseman,” and “Boots and Bikinis.”

“There were a lot more,” he says. “I just can’t remember their names.”

His television work brought him onto the sets of series that include “Rin Tin Tin,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Rawhide,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Bat Masterson,” “Wagon Train,” and a lot more.

Cowboying and stunt work have their hazards, he explains. In the course of his career he broke his right leg twice, once when a saddle bronc jammed him into a fence, another time when he fell hard while jumping from a stagecoach.

Three ribs on his right side cracked when he accidentally fell on a rock during a stunt, and two of his left ribs broke when he was knocked into a bar during a movie saloon brawl.

And he almost drowned when a movie gunfight turned into a fistfight and the hero threw him off a cliff into a river.

“I sunk like a rock, but some guy with a rope dragged me out,” he says.

Blackie’s reminiscences are peopled with the men he worked with or knew because they too were a part of the Western showbiz genre. Their names are familiar to those of us of a certain age who grew up watching shoot-‘em-ups � men like Richard Boone, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, John Agar, “Alibi” Terhune, Ward Bond, John Wayne and his good pal, “Crash” Corrigan.

“One night in a saloon, Wayne picked me up and sat me on the bar. ‘When you gonna grow up?’ he asked. Then he bought me and my pal drinks for the night.”

He lived a half-mile from the Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, Calif., where many Westerns were shot, and Corrigan provided him an apartment on the ranch when he was working.

During weekends when the movie sets were dark, Blackie and his cowboy and cowgirl friends put on shows for tourists that included “gunfights,” “brawls” and whip work.

His wife, “Calamity” (a name pinned on her by a Texas sheriff because of her proclivity for dropping coffee pots, trays and falling on her butt when waitressing) was a principal assistant for his whip act.

She held pieces of paper he’d slice with his bullwhip and mouthed cigarettes he’d snip off, also with the whip.

During the ‘60s and ‘80s, Blackie � billed as “King of the Bullwhip” � formed two groups of stuntmen he called “The Storm Riders.” They played county fairs, grand openings and benefits for charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Their shows were similar to those he put on at the Corrigan Ranch.

Blackie and Calamity, now together 31 years, were living in Carson City, Nev., when his health began to decline. His son Lance, a truck driver and electrician, moved them to his North Idaho property. That was two years ago, and they’re pleased with their new home.

“Just look around at the mountains and trees,” he says. “And hardly any people. Why, it looks like it could be a Western movie location.”