LAMPASAS — When Lampasas resident Randall Oliver went to California and landed a starring role in a national television series, he thought he was on his way to fame and fortune in the fickle and often-cutthroat world of Hollywood.
“It was called ‘Wild West Showdown,’ a spinoff from ‘American Gladiators,’” Oliver said. “Right after (the movie) ‘City Slickers’ (starring Billy Crystal) first came out, somebody wrote the pilot for a TV series where all these outlaws live in one town called Broken Neck, and we competed with three contestants every week in fighting, shooting and everything else.
“I played a character called Dogbreath. We did 13 episodes, and it was in 80 percent of the country on Fox.
“We hung out and did all the personal appearances with the Gladiators. Each one of the Gladiators was making about $200-250,000 a year off of residuals, just from foreign countries — that didn’t count the United States. We just had the standard first-year deal, but the producers were saying, ‘Randall, you’re going to wind up on the cover of People magazine.’ All the Gladiators were saying, ‘You made it, buddy. Samuel Goldwyn has never had a series canceled. You’ll be making a quarter-million a year in residuals.’
“So I was looking at (getting) 40 acres in Butte, Montana, and trying to get my pilot’s license. I was going to live in Montana, and fly back and forth to L.A.
“Then, I got a phone call one day …”
Oliver, 58, was born in Bloomington, Illinois, to a military family who moved from place to place during his early years. When he was in second grade, his father was assigned to Fort Hood, and the family lived in Killeen for a while, then Copperas Cove, and finally moved out to Lampasas, where Oliver played football, baseball and basketball, and participated in rodeo and the thespian club.
He graduated from Lampasas High School in 1977 and accepted a baseball scholarship to Huston-Tillotson University in Austin.
Model and actor
His college career was short-lived, however, and he eventually moved to Houston to take a job as an iron worker. During a workout at a health club there, someone approached him about going into modeling. That sounded like a good idea, and led to acting in commercials, and joining a local theater group.
His first stage role was Bo Decker in “Bus Stop,” a 1955 play by William Inge. He later landed a part in the 1986 television movie, “Adam: His Song Continues,” starring Daniel J. Travanti and JoBeth Williams, and worked for a year as a stand-in for Michael Pare in the 1987-1988 TV series, “Houston Knights.”
During a modeling gig at a Houston hotel, Oliver met an Olympic diver from Zimbabwe, fell in love and moved with her to Africa for a year, where he worked in commercials, and taught modeling and acting. After getting a “Dear John” letter from the diver, he joined a Wild West show in England for a while, came back to Houston for six months, then packed up and headed for the bright lights of Los Angeles.
He struggled for about five years, but started finding work in various TV shows and movies, including “Baywatch,” “Designing Women,” “Murphy Brown,” “The Doors,” “RoboCop,” “Dark Angel” and dozens more large and small productions.
Then came his big break. “I starved to death for a while out there, and then I finally got the TV series (in 1994),” Oliver said, referring to “Wild West Showdown.”
“I had a small ranch in Sun Valley at that time, where I was training horses. My pager went off, and it was my agent’s number. So, I walked into the house to call her, and she says, ‘I have some bad news. The series is over. Canceled.’
“You bust your ass your whole life to get a contract like that. You spend four months shooting 13 episodes, then they wine and dine you, put you in limousines, then the show airs — and you don’t hear anything. You wait for the phone call telling you it’s time to go back to work for the next season. Instead, it was a phone call that said it was all over.
“I went from the prospect of Easy Street, getting a little taste of it, back to square one.”
Eventually, Oliver left Los Angeles and spent another 10 years in construction — “I had to get out of there. I needed a break, and I decided I wanted to get married and have children.” — before deciding to take another shot at acting.
Mostly working on low-budget independent films, he scored his first leading role five years ago in the feature film, “Rugaru,” a story centered around a mythological monster that lives in the swamps of Louisiana. He won a best actor award at the Lake Charles Film Festival for that role.
Now, Oliver is back in Lampasas, divorced for a second time, still acting whenever he can, doing odd jobs to help pay the bills. He struggles sometimes to find two nickels to rub together, but said he is happy doing what he loves.
“I’m doing pretty good right now,” he said, relaxing in the 32-foot travel trailer packed with movie memorabilia that he calls home. “It’s actually pretty nice. Not a bad way for a bachelor to live. I’d like to find a piece of land someplace, and put this on the land. Then, a little bit at a time, build my own house.
“It would have been nice if things had been a little easier. But, you know, there’s one thing I learned — there’s no amount of money, or success, or fame that ever made me happy. I can do without — which is pretty much where I am right now — and I can survive just as well this way as I can with a thousand dollars in my pocket.
“I’ve got it pretty good here. It’s not too bad.”