The hidden talents of 15 classic television stars

Which cowboy was a surfing nut? Which detective hung out with chess grandmasters?

Television stars are a talented bunch. Well, before reality television, that is. There's a reason they became beloved celebrities. There are countless TV idols who can sing and dance and writer and direct. This is show business, after all. The number of small screen actors who recorded albums is material for another list.

Instead, we wanted to focus on some surprising skills. In another universe, some cowboys from Gunsmoke and Bonanza might have been athletes instead; Catwoman might have gone into apparel. All of these MeTV stars deserve a Hedy Lamarr Award for Extracurricular Hollywood Genius. (Google her.) That's not a real award, but it should be.


1. Bob Crane, drummer

The Hogan's Heroes headliner kept rhythm for the Connecticut and Norwalk Symphony Orchestras as a youth. He is not the only funky drummer in Hollywood. Chevy Chase played behind the Steely Dan dudes. Fred Astaire, Jenny Jones and Billy Bob Thorton were also percussionists. Oh, and this next fellow…

Image: AP Photo

2. Gary Burghoff, drummer and boat designer

Burghoff played drums behind future Wonder Woman Lynda Carter in a band called the Relatives. We'd love to take a time machine to see that. "Radar" also filed a patent for what he called "Chum Magic," a floating device that fishermen fill with chum to lure fish.

Image: US Patent 5235774

3. Michael Landon, javelin champion

In 1954, Landon tossed a javelin 193′ 4″ — the longest throw by a high schooler that year. With a scholarship to USC, he might have been an Olympian had it not been for a devastating shoulder injury.

4. James Arness, surfer

Surfing: not just for beach bums. The towering Gunsmoke marshal was called to the waves and San Onofre Surf Beach and enjoyed hanging ten. The sport ran in the family. The goofy-foot's son, Rolf, won the 1970 World Surfing Championships. 

Image: AP Photo/Wally Fong

5. Julie Newmar, pantyhose designer

Everyone's favorite Catwoman (well, mostly, judging by your comments) holds a patent on a form-flattering pantyhose that will "delineate the wearer's derriere in cheeky relief."

Image: US Patent 3914799

6. Burt Ward, black belt in Taekwondo

While we're on Batman, we should mention that the Boy Wonder could actually fight. His martial arts skills make that classic fight against Bruce Lee seem more reasonable.

Image: AP Photo

7. Peter Falk, chess ace

Columbo once cracked a case in the world of chess, and that was no coincidence. Peter Falk was a student, lover and advocate of the game. The actor took lessons and attended tournaments. He even appeared on the cover of the December 1983 issue of Chess Life, studying with grandmaster Yasser Seirawan.

8. Steve McQueen, race car driver and bucket seat inventor

In the 1950s, McQueen raced motorcycles at the Long Island City Raceway, and continued to compete on a bike throughout his career. He was the first choice to star in Grand Prix, but lost the role to James Garner. The racing aficionado even designed a bucket seat, filing a patent in 1970.

Image: AP Photo

9. Fred Gwynne, cartoonist

Before starring in Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, the Harvard graduate was a cartoonist for the Lampoon. While working on Car 54, he continued to write and illustrate children's books.

Image: AP Photo / David F. Smith

10. Chuck Connors, three sport professional athlete

How's this for manly? The Rifleman played for the Boston Celtics, where he became the first NBA player credited with shattering a backboard, and the Chicago Cubs. Here he is attempting to pick off Willie Mays as a first basemen. Oh, and the skilled football player was drafted by the Chicago Bears, too.

Image: AP Photo

11. Betty White, forest ranger

White's first career dream was to be a forest ranger. However, women were not allowed to become forest rangers at the time, so the animal lover went into show business. No worries, the U.S. Forest Service made her a ranger in 2010.

Image: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

12. Frances Bavier, Studebaker aficionado

Aunt Bee's Studebaker was no prop. The actress supplied her own ride, a 1966 Daytona, on Mayberry R.F.D. A member of the Studebaker Drivers Club, she kept the car in prime condition throughout her life.

13. Loretta Swit, needlepoint artist

The M*A*S*H nurse had nifty needle skills (not of the medical variety). Hot Lips published her instructional book, A Needlepoint Scrapbook, in 1986.

14. William Shatner, horse breeder and equestrian

Shatner provided his own horse for the film Star Trek: Generations, and gave Patrick Stewart riding tips (wearing nylons reduces chafing on rookie riders). Kirk raised American Saddlebreds on his farm in Kentucky. 

Image: AP Photo/Doug Pizak

15. Marilu Henner, hyperthymesia memory

Does this sound like a blessing or a curse to you: The Taxi star has the rare talent of hyperthymesia, which means she has complete autobiographical memory — she can recall every moment of her life. That would make for one very long memoir.

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Greg 10 months ago
Hard to imagine 6'7' James Arness surfing. Burt may have been a Black belt but I don't think he would've lasted 10 seconds against Bruce Lee
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