Favorite Hollywood cowboy of the 1950s through the 70s; perhaps best known as the B-52 pilot who, at the end of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "rides" a hydrogen bomb to destruction, Slim Pickens was a hoarse-voiced veteran of the rodeo circuit -- in fact he was said to have gotten his name when a sidebuster looked at him and said, "Slim pickins -- that's all you'll get in this rodeo". He was 13 when he joined the rodeo and he spent years as a rodeo clown and performer before he migrated to Hollywood in 1950. Pickens made his feature film debut in 1950 in an Errol Flynn western at Warner Bros., "Rocky Mountain". He was only a sidekick, but Pickens' exuberance shone through. He always seemed to be having a good time. He was serious about entertaining and a "pro," to be sure, but the audience took to his joie de vivre. John Ford saw it and cast Pickens in "The Sun Shines Bright" (1953), which Ford later said was his favorite film. The story of a kindly judge, Pickens played a role called "Mink Sterling" which may sound like a burlesque queen, but Pickens carried it off all-man and all smiles. He played dozens of sidekicks, scouts, and sometimes varmints chewing and spitting tobacco (or worse) in films of the 50s and 60s, among them "Old Overland Trail" (1953), "The Boy From Oklahoma" (1954), "Major Dundee" (1965) and the remake of "Stagecoach" (1966). His work as Major T.J. (King) Kong in "Dr. Strangelove" had been written for Peter Sellers, but after Pickens played in what would become a cult favorite of the intelligentsia, his critical acceptability rose, although he was never elevated to "prestige films". Still, Mel Brooks chose him to play Taggart, the prickly third lead of "Blazing Saddles" (1974). Whether a comically vicious outlaw in "The Apple Dumpling Gang" (1975), or Tex, the calculating survivor of the rotten "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979), Pickens seemed untouched by weak material, being one of those old-time performers who came to do their job.
He was also much on TV, beginning in 1956 with episodic work and on the Disney limited series "The Saga of Andy Burnett" (1957). Pickens was "the town character" on "The Outlaws" (NBC, 1961-1962), and returned to his rodeo roots with appearances on "The Wide Country" (NBC, 1962-1963). He was army scout to "Custer" on the 1967 ABC series about the famed western general's early years. After more than a decade away from regular series work, Pickens played the corrupt Sgt. Wiley on the first season of "B.J. and the Bear" (NBC, 1979).
He then returned to his country comedy roots doing two seasons on the syndicated "Hee Haw" from 1981-1983, simultaneously appearing on "The Nashville Palace" for NBC from 1981-1982. On the 1982 CBS sitcom "Filthy Rich," Pickens was seen on videotape, the dead patriarch of a unscrupulous gaggle of southerners. Each week (for the first episodes of the show) the tape was played and Pickens announced one more term of his will. Besides the regular series work, Pickens was a frequent guest star on other programs. He is memorable in a 1971 episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS), in which he was the eccentric, faux bronco-riding former movie cowboy star owner of WJM. Pickens also appeared in numerous TV movies, beginning with "Sam Hill: Who Killed the Mysterious Mr. Foster" (NBC, 1971), and running through "The House Possessed" for ABC in 1981.