Spaghetti western star gets his start Riding a hobby horse in Laramie

Although his name may not be familiar to many now, there was a time when Laramie could take pride in having reared a celebrity actor.

 Before he adopted a stage name, he was William Erskin Strange (1929-1992).  His adoptive parents were John and Bernice Strange who moved to Laramie around 1930 and lived at 1319 Park Avenue.  John Strange taught history and mathematics at Laramie High School for around 40 years.  They bought a wooden hobby horse for their son, perhaps giving him his start in the cowboy way of life at an early age.  

 Bill graduated from LHS in 1947. No mention is made in the yearbook of any theatrical activities on his part.  Band was his preferred activity, as well as football and track.  He tried UW for a year, majoring in Pharmacy, but dropped out to join a series of bands that toured around the region. 

 But there was still a draft for young men at that time and the Korean conflict was heating up. He was drafted into the US Army in 1950, trained in artillery and then sent to Korea.  As First Lieutenant Strange, he served until the armistice of 1953 that ended all-out war over invasion of Korea.

 After military service, he returned to Wyoming as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park, and also rode the rodeo circuit. It was in the early 1950’s that he caught the attention of film casting agents.  However, the name William Strange apparently wasn’t thought to be marketable, so he adopted the stage name of Wayde Preston.

 His rugged good looks eventually led to a big break--riding the wave of popular TV westerns.  He played handsome lawman Chris Colt in a series produced by Warner Brothers and aired by ABC.  There were 67 episodes of “Colt 45” which began airing in 1957.  They were all in black and white—this was before the color TV revolution. 

 The series was cancelled in 1960, but Preston quit in 1958 due to disputes with Warner Brothers reportedly over having to do his own stunts in what the studio considered a low-budget series.  Donald May took over the series as a cousin of Chris Colt’s, with Preston occasionally appearing as the original staring character, but this time around he was billed as a supporting actor. 

 One source suggests that Warner Brothers prevented Preston from receiving other acting jobs in Hollywood.  Whatever the reason, he moved to Europe and found work acting in several “Spaghetti Westerns” – the same venue that made Clint Eastwood famous.

 Back home in California in the 1960’s he appeared in about 20 movies and TV shows as a supporting actor, where he seems to have been typecast for roles in westerns.  His final acting role, however, was in 1990 when he was one of the minor characters in the movie “Captain America,” produced by Marvel Entertainment, Inc., and featuring a WWII-era superhero. 

 Preston’s parents both lived long enough to enjoy the success of their adopted son.  In 1975, Bernice Strange, who was a widow by then, gave to the Laramie Plains Museum the artifact from her famous son’s past – his hobby horse.

 The horse was purchased from Montgomery Ward’s store in Laramie sometime in the 1930’s, and with its “coonskin” tail, would have been a favorite mount of young William, who probably also brandished a toy six-shooter, like many young boys who grew up in Laramie in the 1930’s. 

 Preston died of colon cancer in Nevada in 1992.

by Judy Knight

Caption:  Cover from a fan magazine published by Dell, featuring Wayde Preston as “Chris Colt” -- a figure of the mythical West who pretended to be a gun salesman while actually employed by the government to track down outlaws. Before adopting his stage name, Preston was Bill Strange of Laramie.  Perhaps the name “Strange” didn’t seem fitting for a charismatic hero figure; his career took off when he changed it. Image courtesy Comic Books Plus.