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A painting in a Cave Creek living room shows four movie cowboys: John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Johnny Moats. If you’re over age 40 or so, you probably know the first three, as they were some of the biggest stars of Hollywood Westerns. The fourth was in a dozen or so movies and 25 to 30 TV shows, though if you blinked or sneezed while watching you might have missed him.
Johnny Moats was a stuntman and extra, getting to know the big stars not so much from working alongside them, but more from behind-the-scenes work and serving them drinks as a Hollywood and Vegas bartender.
The painting is priceless to Johnny, as it literally frames his heroes and his life. “When I was a kid, my hero was Gene Autry,” Moats says, in a soft spoken cowboy drawl. “I wanted to walk like him, talk like him, ride horses like him. John Wayne becomes everyone’s hero when you get older. The way you walk, the way you talk, what it’s like to be a real man.”
Women certainly seemed to think Johnny Moats was a real man. At 77, his days of riding horses, slinging drinks and playing the field have softly faded out, credits rolling. But in his younger days, his life was a Wild West action-romance flick, as Johnny talked the talk and walked the walk. The talk was often, “Will you marry me?” and the walk was down the aisle.
“I was married 13 times,” he says, with a wide grin. “But only to 11 different women. I married two women twice.” The cowboy insists he’s telling it like it is. “I just couldn’t stay away from the ladies.” Most were short runs that cancelled after a season or two, but one was a long-running hit for Johnny. “My last one was my favorite. We were married eight years. She died of MS (multiple sclerosis) and leukemia in 2000. So it’s been 13 years now. And I haven’t really hardly even dated since then.” He knew Donna 20 years before marrying her, unlike many of his Vegas flings where first dates were quickly followed by wedding bells. “I don’t keep in touch with (ex-’s). But if I’d run into any one of them tomorrow, we’d still be friends. A couple of them divorced me because I couldn’t give them kids. They were about 20 years younger.”
Moats did father a son and daughter after his first trip on the marriage-go-round. Another weird story, there: “My first wife, she’s with my brother now,” he said, letting loose a laugh at the thought of it. “Whatever turns them on, it tickles me to death!”
The story of how he became a bit movie cowboy and bartender-to-the-stars starts, more or less, with his first wife. Long before he met her, when he was a farm kid in Ohio, Johnny Moats jumped off horses and tried to emulate the fancy riding and shooting of Autry and other big-screen Western stars. “I was always cowboy crazy.” After dropping out of high school, his first job was in the movies, though it was hardly glamorous; he was a janitor at the local movie house, graduating to ticket seller before taking a long detour in the U.S. Navy.
“When I got out of the Navy, I got married and had a couple kids, and I was driving a truck,” Johnny Moats says, his eyes dancing. “One day, I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to drive a truck the rest of my life, I want to go west. I want the cowboy life.’ She wouldn’t come with me. So I said, ‘You got the house, the car, the bills and the kids. I’m going.’”
Tough love, cowboy style.
Leaving the reluctant wife and kids behind, Johnny Moats didn’t quite make it to Hollywood, hitchhiking from Florida to Nevada in a week. “A trucker dropped me off at the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas. I went in there to get a sandwich, and they fired a busboy. I asked for the job and they hired me, I got right to work.” From there, he got hired at the Dunes Hotel as a bar back, then worked his way up to bartender. Hustling up drinks wasn’t his original plan, but it indirectly led him to the movies.
“In ’66, I finally went down to Hollywood,” Moats related, in his laid-back, campfire storytelling style. “I got me an apartment for me and my wife, and went looking for a job on a Friday morning. The first place I went was Iron Horse Restaurant in Studio City. I got the job. The boss said, ‘You have to start tomorrow.’ I had to be there at 10 o’clock and open the bar at 11. So I get there the next morning, I’m setting up the bar, and this little guy came in wearing a white cowboy hat. He said, ‘Give me a vodka on the rocks in a water glass.’ I turned around and it was Gene Autry. I was speechless.”
Though he was too star-struck to say a peep that first morning, Moats soon learned that Autry, a part-owner of the restaurant, was quite friendly. “There was a stunt man school that Gene got me into, and I learned how to do it the right way. Gene got me to doing a few things, he got me a few jobs. I did walk-ons, I didn’t care if it was just as an extra or stunts or working as stage hand.”
Moats ended up working steadily off screen as a stage hand, working on shows by TV legends Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters and Red Skelton. “I worked two years,” he says. “You work all the time as a stage hand. All the time. That was before cell phones, so you had to stay home by the phone. If you missed a call they would punish you. They wouldn’t get you work for a while.”
As a typical straight-shooter, Johnny Moats calls it like he saw it. “I worked on the ‘Glenn Campbell Good Time Hour,’ and Campbell was a jerk, I’ll be honest with you. And the Smothers Brothers, those two guys were idiots. I didn’t like working on their show, but you had to work.” Moats grew tired of the Hollywood stage hand scene, and went back to Las Vegas bartending. Ironically enough, that’s where he continued his show business cowboy work. “I got a job at the Silver Dollar as a bartender and bouncer. Then I joined the ‘Wild West Show’ for a while, we put on shows at hotels in Vegas, doing stunt fights.”
Movie Westerns back then were using Nevada for riding scenes, and Moats got work on the likes of “The Professionals,” with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster. “We were doing stunt riding through a canyon, up at the Valley of Fire outside of Las Vegas. I did some riding, dressed as a Mexican bandit.”
Fittingly, Johnny Moats played a bartender in that famous Elvis Presley picture, “Viva Las Vegas.” “They were doing that at the Flamingo Hotel, and I just happened to be working there.” He also appeared a few times on “Vega$,” the Robert Urich show, adding to an on-screen resume of TV shows including “Gunsmoke,” “The Virginian” and “Big Valley” – what could be called the Holy Trinity of TV Westerns.
What brought the movie cowboy to the Phoenix area?
“I had two sisters that lived here, and I’ve always liked Arizona. When my wife died, I went drinking and gambling and blew what I had. I sold the house, and I went on a runner.”
Broke and hungover, Moats ended up looking up his old friend who had a saddle shop in Cave Creek. “We got out the local paper and we found a job in there for somebody who knew how to take care of dogs and horses.”
Eight years later, Moats is still working at the same little ranch, taking care of a few horses and dogs. It might not sound like much work for someone used to living the fast life, but it’s about all he can handle, as Johnny is fighting off prostate and skin cancer. “They gave me radiation, but I quit taking the pills. So now I’m just taking Advil and vodka.”
Wild West medicine, you could call that.
At 77, Johnny Moats may not be ready to get married again, but he sure as spurs isn’t about to give up the cowboy life.