Theodore Childress “Chill” Wills was born on July 18, 1902 to a family in Seagoville, Texas. His father was a farmer by the name of Robert Bruce Wills and his mother was the former Frances Elizabeth “Fannie” Rublee. Chill was the youngest of six children of this union and his father Robert Bruce died in 1907 when he was only forty-four and Chill was five. Robert Bruce Wills is believed to be buried in Oakland Cemetery in South Dallas. It does not appear that this Wills family is related to the family of country singer/band leader Bob Wills. Fannie Rublee Wills had married John Dunaway by 1910 and the couple were living near downtown Dallas with their family that now consisted of John, Fannie and seven children. What eventually became of John Dunaway is not known at this time. By 1920, Chill was living with his mother a little further out of downtown on Kings Highway and she was married to Allen E. Barse. The census forms say that both Chill and his stepfather Barse worked at a saddlery in Dallas.
There were two basic accounts of how he got his nickname. One was that he was born on the hottest day of the year in 1902. The other was that Chill is simply a contraction of his middle name Childress. A variation of the second was that Chill was named for the doctor who delivered him, a Dr. Childress or Dr. Chillin. Both accounts made good stories and Chill is not known to have discouraged either one of them. He said that he didn’t care for the name Theodore and stopped using it as soon as he could.
Chill is said to have been a good singer and had a tenor voice, early on. In a book by John Farkas about the making of the film “the Alamo,” the author recounts that Chill had joined a vaudeville group when he was a teenager. This led to his forming a singing group called The Avalon Boys. It was with this group that Wills began getting work in films. After a few years of appearing with this band as they sang in westerns, Chill was offered an acting role in “Boom Town,” a film set in Wichita County, Texas about the birth of the North Texas oil business. His distinctive voice also helped him win a role as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule in that series of films.
Wills settled into creating a career of over forty years that included many films such as “The Alamo,” “High Lonesome, “The Sundowners,” “Giant” and “The Rounders.” He often appeared in roles as a craggy, drawling co-star. He also had roles in numerous television series, including “Gunsmoke.” In a 1950s interview by the Hollywood writer Bob Thomas, Wills was asked if he wanted to be a star. He answered “Well, I wouldn’t mind getting some of that money that stars get, but I don’t want any of the fuss and feathers that go with it.”
He was favorably compared with Will Rogers, but he is said to have not favored playing the humorist and actor on film in order not to limit himself by being identified solely with any one role, citing the case of another actor who became associated with portraying the actor/singer Al Jolson. This was also one of the reasons Wills would probably not have been too disappointed when the Francis the Talking Mule series came to a close.
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Wills lived much of his life in California, close to the film business, but was a frequent visitor to Texas. Both of his children settled in Dallas and from time to time, he could be seen around town. Wills also had western style boots made in Lubbock at a shop that had been run by Willie Lusk, Jr. for many years. Lusk had an interesting story of his own, as he was a native Texan and an African American. He began his career as a boot maker by shining shoes after school at a boot shop in his home town of San Angelo. A Czech boot maker saw his interest and took him on as a trainee. When Lusk was still a teenager, he moved to Lubbock, first working as a helper in a local boot shop, but eventually moving up as a boot maker by the 1940s.
Lusk had been working in a boot shop in Lubbock when a regular customer came in. The shop had changed hands but the customer had favored Lusk and his work. During the conversation, the customer asked Lusk why he didn’t open a shop of his own and Lusk replied that it would have taken $2,500 to make the transition. The customer turned out to be Benny Binion, a former Dallasite who had been known to have run gambling operations there before moving his operation to Las Vegas, where more of his activities were legal. Binion bankrolled Lusk’s start in his own boot business in the late 1940s. Lusk operated his shop in Lubbock for about twenty-five years and developed a loyal following of customers far and wide, including a number of celebrities. Wills and many others continued to patronize Lusk until Lusk passed away from cancer in 1976. Wills always liked to have the word “Love” stitched into his boot tops, after his character in “The Rounders” named Jim Ed Love.
Wills was also known to be an avid poker player and had been a long time friend of Binion, dating back to their early days in Dallas. Wills participated in the 1970 debut of the Binion family’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Wills is also said to have created the chili recipe for Binion family’s Horseshoe Casino dish that was served in the casino restaurant.
Wills had married the former Hattie Elizabeth “Betty” Chappelle in 1928 and the couple had two children. They were married for over forty years until Betty died in 1971. In 1973, Wills married Novadeen Googe. Wills died of cancer in 1978 and is interred with Betty at Grand View Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961. The nominees that year were Peter Falk for “Murder, Inc.,” Sal Mineo for “Exodus,” Jack Kruschen for “The Apartment,” Peter Ustinov for “Spartacus” and Wills for his role in “The Alamo.” During the period prior to the award ceremony, there was apparently some type of promotional campaign made on his behalf, which some in the Academy objected to, but it was also a strong field and the Academy voted in favor of Ustinov. Wills was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
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