“Breathing and Bleeding”

Author/actor/horseman Alex Cord finds new rein for his passions in WNC. Photo by Tim Robison

Author/actor/horseman Alex Cord finds new rein for his passions in WNC. Photo by Tim Robison

Alex Cord has had a wild ride. During his 83 years, he’s been close friends with, and acted opposite, Kirk Douglas; starred in a successful network television series; played polo with Prince Charles; dined with John Steinbeck; tippled with Laurence Olivier; and published three novels. And there were always horses, which he has ridden in every conceivable discipline, from rodeo to dressage to foxhunting.

“I started at two years old, when my parents put me on a pony and I never wanted to get off,” Cord says from his new home in Polk County, where he and his wife Susannah recently moved from their ranch in Texas. “She’s a gifted dressage trainer,” he says, “and we have a good friend and trainer who is here in Tryon.”

They visited. And like so many others, they were inspired to relocate to what he calls “this beautiful area.”

Born Alexander Viespi into an Italian family on suburban Long Island, he says, “my first desire was to be a jockey” — a career choice that seemed unlikely as he started to grow into an eventual six-foot frame. The Saturday-afternoon Westerns at the local movie theater showed him an alternative choice. “If I couldn’t be a jockey, I’d be a cowboy,” he continues. Fate helped things along when a 12-year-old Alex was taken west by his parents as part of his recovery after being stricken with polio. On a Wyoming ranch, where horses helped him regain his strength and balance, he was exposed to the lifestyle that became his cultural calling card. “I saw no limits in my mind or heart, and let it all run free,” he says. He also credits his parents: “[They] never dampened my spirits.”

Alex Cord starred as the Ringo Kid in the Academy Award-winning remake of the classic Western Stagecoach, opposite ’60s bombshell Ann-Margret.

Alex Cord starred as the Ringo Kid in the Academy Award-winning remake of the classic Western Stagecoach, opposite ’60s bombshell Ann-Margret.

The cowboy spirit was so strong that Cord even dropped out of high school for a time to ride bulls and bareback horses on the rodeo circuit, until a disastrous fall during a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden sent him to the hospital for a long recovery, then back to high school and on to New York University as a literature major, where another turn in his fortunes awaited. A classmate (“she was much like Grace Kelly”) had been cast in a play being produced by the college’s drama department. A small part remained to be filled, and so it was that Cord added acting to his résumé. By the early 1960s, he’d been cast in NBC’s Western series Laramie — like the network’s Bonanza, a family saga (he played the younger son of the Sanford clan). His first movie appearance came with a small part in 1962’s The Chapman Report, directed by George Cukor, quickly followed by two major film roles — in 1965’s Synanon and as the Ringo Kid in the 1966 remake of the classic Western Stagecoach, playing opposite Ann-Margret, Bing Crosby, and Van Heflin.

Equally distinguished was Cord’s nomination in 1962 by the London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award as Best Actor for his appearance in Doris Lessing’s Play with a Tiger. “One night after a performance,” he recalls, “my agent knocked on my dressing-room door and said, ‘I have someone here who’d like to say hello.’” It was Laurence Olivier, whom Alex had revered since his college days, after a viewing of Olivier’s film adaptation of Richard III. “I had a bottle of single-malt scotch,” Cord says of that dressing-room encounter. “I leave the rest to your imagination.”

Poster of Alex Cord as the Ringo Kid by Norman Rockwell.

Poster of Alex Cord as the Ringo Kid by Norman Rockwell.

The actor is perhaps best known for co-starring in Martin Ritt’s fratricidal Mafia tale,1968’s The Brotherhood, playing Kirk Douglas’ younger brother. Winning the role provided another life lesson, Cord says — never trust what one hears about someone from another person. He’d been warned of Douglas’ volatile temper, and admits, “a flock of butterflies were loose in me as I was led into his office … but he leaped up and embraced me with the warmest hug and called me ‘my brother.’ That was the beginning of a friendship that’s flourished for all my life.”

Later in life, when tragedy struck with the death from heroin addiction of his 26-six-year-old son, Cord turned to the written word for comfort. “Time does not heal all wounds. All during the writing of A Feather in the Rain, I felt that Damien was standing behind me knowing exactly what I was up to,” he says. The autobiographical novel tells the story of a rodeo circuit rider dealing with an identical loss.

“I think that one can, to some extent, choose how to feel about grief. It’s a matter of acceptance. It is what it is. I am now a man who has lost a son. It’s another layer on the cake that is me.”

A new novel, High Moon, recently published as the first in a planned Western series, concerns a retired Texas Ranger who frees a Mexican village from the clutches of a sadistic dictator. “I do love creating characters, and once they’re alive and well, breathing and bleeding, I let them lead me where they will,” says Cord. A memoir is in the works, too, finished except for some final polishing. “It’s called From Wheelbarrow to Ferrari and Back Again,” he reveals. “I’ve had such an extraordinary life that I’d find it hard to believe if there wasn’t so much proof.”

Follow Alex Cord’s adventures at his official blog, alexcordnews.wordpress.com. His complete filmography can be viewed at IMDB.com. His books are available from all major online booksellers and at alexcord.net.

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