By Rusty Kern

Our home was rocked by the 1-2 punch of news of the death of a dear friend, Don Durant, who starred in the television series Johnny Ringo. He had been battling cancer and lost during one final, quiet assault in his sleep around midnight, Tuesday March 15th 2005. He was 72.

Don was at the center of a controversy in the late 50’s. In the titular role of the rough and tumble – but fair – gunfighter-turned sheriff in Johnny Ringo, he seemed to have a rocketing career. He had a hit song on radio, and his TV show was climbing in the ratings. He had already appeared in a slew of movies. According to some, Johnny Ringo was in the top 20 when the show was mysteriously cancelled.
Don told me he believed it was because his sponsor, Johnson & Johnson, was afraid there were too many Westerns on television at the time. And in those days, it was the sponsor who paid for the program and, often, its air time. When the sponsor speaks he is heard, and this one believed his products weren’t standing out enough on Johnny Ringo. They switched their support to the June Allison Show instead.

Far from a defeat, however, Don had already turned his movie dollars into California real estate in markets that, today, made him a millionaire many times over. Still, he was an upbeat and witty host to our cameras when we came to visit him for the opening of the mint playset produced by Marx and based on his show. He had paid in excess of $9000 for it on eBay in a bidding war to top all bidding wars, each new bid bringing the set to breathless new highs. We reported the story shot by shot in Playset Magazine (PM5, Sept/Oct 2002). The bidding was handled by a woman who started out as perhaps his biggest fan, and over time became a special friend to both Don and his beautiful film-star wife, Trudy.

Jackie responded to our inquiries regarding the record-breaking auction. Soon after, Don called. He had a strong, friendly Western voice and, after several talks about his career and his playset, offered to wait for our arrival to open his new playset. The day we arrived at the Durant mansion, Don was decked out in boots and white hat, ready to open his playset.

I should note at this time, because the famous character figure appeared so large in the eBay photos, and was so expensive (collectors have paid between $1000 - $1500 for this one single figure), Don said he expected this piece to be in the area of two feet tall. He was sorely disappointed but took it with a great laugh, as if the joke hade been played on him personally by the Marx makers many years before.   
Because, you see, Don had come close to owning this set for free. He attended Toy Fair during the playset's debut, and Frank Rice, the set’s designer, recalls Don visited the Marx offices at that time. Don recalls he was “this close” to a stack of playsets on occasions but “there was so much of that stuff, I never took one,” even though he had his choice, all for free. After some time had passed, he began looking for it in earnest, assisted by the family’s good friend Jackie. 
  Forty-four years later he was ready to open it, and it was a day I will never forget. I never saw a guy have so much fun. We were videotaping the set opening for the Atomic Home Videos series, first, because a complete Johnny Ringo playset had never been documented, and second, because it was Johnny Ringo himself who was doing the opening! Don was cracking jokes and unusually playful during the opening process, playing with the Indians, marveling at the detail of the wagons and horses, and rather (heck – it was scary!) recklessly assembling the wagons. He was just having a ball, the way it should be.

That is the way I will remember him. Singin’ cowboy songs, cracking cowboy jokes, being gallant, and generous of time and spirit. As Jackie said in her note of his passing, “he brushed aside sympathy” -- and concentrated instead on living.
.And live he did, almost constantly traveling the world in search of a song and a laugh with his bride of 47 years. Long live Don Durant, Long live Johnny Ringo.
Thank you for the memories.