Robert Horton began his career in the early 1950s with several undistinguished parts in minor Hollywood movies. He ended his career in a somewhat similar vein, coupled with the so-so "Man Called Shenandoah" show and a modest attempt to veer onto stage in such musical comedies as "110 in the Shade." In between, for five seasons running from fall of 1957 to spring of 1962, he achieved success and national fame as frontier scout Flint McCullough on "Wagon Train," one of the dominant shows during the Golden Age of TV Westerns. Aside from Sam Elliott, it's hard to think of any other actor who would have been so right for this, one of the great roles in television history.
One curious aspect of Horton's career, however, has been rarely mentioned -- his tendency to wind up in scenes playing a victim of torture. This began in one of his early movies, the 1952 "Pony Soldier," in which he plays one of his rare villains: a fugitive killer who's captured by Indians anxious to execute him for his crimes. The Indians tie his left leg with a long rope to one horse and his right leg to another. The two horsemen then plan to ride hell-bent in opposite directions so that Horton will be snapped in two like a Thanksgiving wishbone. Ouch!
Fortunately or unfortunately, Tyrone Power rescues Horton by promising the Indians that he'll suffer white man's justice at the end of a noose. Before the movie's over, however, Horton's shot dead while making an escape attempt.
Violence against Horton continued in MGM's 1954 movie, "Prisoner of War." Playing an American GI inside a North Korean POW camp, Horton endures various torments and indignities which culminate in him being tied to a wooden framework, crucifixion style, and left to suffer through days of slow torment. Horton plays this scene stripped to his military-style undershorts, thus showing off his surprisingly-hairy chest and his 42-31-40 physique which, at age 29, was in its prime.
Horton's torments continued in the "Wagon Train" series. In the 1-15-58 episode, he's staked out by a vengeful Indian, spreadeagle style, and left to roast, bare-chested, under a scorching sun. Horton's hairy torso, gleaming with sweat, remains one of the most memorable images from 1950s television.
In the 12-30-59 episode of "Wagon Train" those pesky Indians again had Horton in their clutches and, once more, he plays a "beefcake bondage" scene rich in sado-masochistic and homo-erotic undertones. This time he hangs by the wrists, shirtless, from a horizontal pole, his feet dangling above the ground. Once more his chest hair glistens with sweat and this time viewers had an unapologetic look directly into Horton's furry armpits.
Finally, in the 12-13-61 episode, Horton -- once again stripped to the waist -- found himself tied to the side of a wagon so that he can take 20 lashes from a bullwhip across his bare back. Horton was nearly 37 years old when he filmed this scene yet his physique retained much of its youthful muscularity and his chest, unlike that of many actors, remained defiantly unshaven.
Just why Horton had to endure all these tortures during his acting career may be due to a variety of factors, but the fact remains that he suffered through them all in convincing style, prompting the affectionate thought: Long may he writhe!