Sheb Wooley, a veteran actor in westerns like “High Noon” who also recorded the pop novelty song “The Purple People Eater,” died yesterday (Sept. 16) in Nashville. He was 82. Wooley had suffered from leukemia since 1996 and was hospitalized Monday at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville.
Wooley had just paid respects to American music legend Johnny Cash on Sunday, according to his wife, Linda. “It was just his time to go,” she said.
On the big screen, Wooley appeared in more than 60 movies, mostly westerns beginning in 1950. His credits included “High Noon” (as a whiskey-drinking killer), “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “The War Wagon,” “Distant Drums,” “Man Without a Star,” “Giant” and “Hoosiers.”
“The Purple People Eater,” about an unidentified flying object, sold 3 million copies in 1958 and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers In Stores chart. The song had people across the country singing: “It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater.”
In a 1982 Associated Press interview, Wooley recalled the era, saying, “The space age was upon us. Everyone was thinking about rockets and wondering if maybe we would find people up there. I still wonder if we will. People [heard the song] and imagined some kind of beings.”
He also was in a movie of that name released in 1988, starring Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters.
Wooley acted in some 50 television shows, and starred as scout Pete Nolan on “Rawhide,” a western that helped launch the career of Clint Eastwood. As recently as 1990, Wooley made a guest appearance on “Murder She Wrote.” Other TV credits included “The Lone Ranger” and “Death Valley Days.”
He recorded a string of hit records from 1958 through the 1960s, mostly country humor songs, including “Don’t Go Near the Eskimos” and “Talk Back Blubbering Lips.” Some were recorded under his alter ego, Ben Colder. He was voted comedian of the year in 1968 by the Country Music Association. He also wrote the theme song of the long-running TV show “Hee Haw.”
Born Shelby F. Wooley in Erick, Okla., he spent his early years on his father’s farm. As a teenager, he did some rodeo riding that helped him find jobs later in movie westerns. A genuine cowboy, he participated in a six-day cattle drive in Montana in 1989.
In high school, he formed a band and later had a network radio show for three years. He signed with MGM Records before making his way into movies.
Funeral services will be at “high noon” Monday (Sept. 22), at his request, at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn.
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