Born Norman Rambo to a California farm family in 1941, he was a twin. Brother Orman (Jesus… Orman and Norman? Really?) and he were handsome, hard-working young men of incredible closeness. Though they had certain aspirations for escaping their lives and making a success in show business, they were 21 before anything came to fruition.
Loretta Young, once a tremendously successful movie star, but by the late 50s a significant TV personality, had ended her highly popular anthology series The Loretta Young Show (the most prominent feature of which was her darting into a room at the start and swirling her latest clothing confection as she introduced that night's story) and was now preparing The New Loretta Young Show. (Where do they get these astonishingly creative titles?) She picked Orman and Norman (newly christened Dirk and Dack, and they were called that on the program as well) Rambo to play her twin sons. Their primary distinction was a prominent mole on Dack’s lower left cheek.
The twins were briefly represented by notorious agent Henry Willson who chose their new names as part of a plan to make them the next singing sensation (a la Jan and Dean), but the relationship quickly soured and they turned to acting strictly rather than singing at all. Do we think this issue of Screen Life magazine is up my alley or what?! Dack, Stella Stevens and Faye Dunaway all on the cover! I was born too late.
The New Loretta Young Show only ran one season, but it was a big step for the young men, Dirk was quoted as saying that he came off the cotton fields right into a Hollywood acting career. Following the cancellation, it took a little while longer for the guys to land more work, but eventually Dirk won parts on The Virginian and Dragnet while Dack was placed with multi-Oscar-winning actor Walter Brennan in the series The Guns of Will Sonnett.
Brennan was one of the all-time scene-stealing character actors, but rather than run roughshod over young Dirk, he taught the young actor a lot, especially regarding camera angles and the use of eyes. Rambo’s newfound success on the series was tempered by news so tragic that Dack never really got over it. His brother Dirk, his self-confessed other half, was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 25.
Rambo discussed his brother and himself as being so close that there was hardly the need to speak to each other apart from only the most superficial of topics. They were that commensurate with each other.
In the wake of Will Sonnett, Rambo was selected to work in Jerry Lewis’s latest comedic film, a goof on WWII called Which Way to the Front?, that featured Lewis as a would-be Hitler assassin. Panned by critics and mostly ignored by audiences, the movie died a quick death and marked the end of Lewis in the cinema for a time. That’s Dack in the middle with an uncharacteristically goateed Lewis on the right.
Soon after, Dack guest-starred on the highly popular western series Gunsmoke. His appearance was well thought of enough to warrant him being brought back as a different character for a two-part episode that would serve as the pilot for another series. He played a delinquent, but good-hearted, punk who is tamed by an irascible, scraggly old woman played by Jeanette Nolan (who looks in this shot as if she took her teeth out!) The very brief series that followed was named for her character Dirty Sally.
In Rambo’s career, he starred in a large number of pilots, very few of which were picked up as series. In 1971, he did River of Gold with Roger Davis which concerned treasure seeking divers. Davis, for those who don’t know, was married to Jaclyn Smith before her Charlie’s Angels days. The pilot movie also featured Suzanne Pleshette and Oscar-winner Ray Milland, though Milland thought little of the male leads and said so! To be fair, Rambo said of himself that at the start of his career he was driven and arrogant, so perhaps Milland had grounds to be disgruntled.
Other TV followed until Dack was cast in a moody revenge flick called Nightmare Honeymoon to be directed by Nicholas Roeg. This was a step up for him in terms of the caliber of people he was working for, but, sadly, Roeg departed the film after only five days of shooting. The result was therefore far less creatively satisfying than he had anticipated it would be.
All about a newly married couple who witness a mafia crime and then are subjected to violence upon themselves, he got the chance to play the lead in a feature film at least, though there would be very few of those in his future. TV would continue to be his bread and butter.
Popular shows such as Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Marcus Welby, M.D. and The Rookies made use of his looks and talent. Also, Yvette Mimieux utilized him in a TV movie she had written for herself. Hit Lady gave her a meaty role, but put the hunky Rambo in a sort of “girlfriend’ role. At least there was a scene in which she snuggled up to him from behind and his (ungodly tight) jeans were open, showing off his cute, white underwear!
Another of his failed pilots was Good Against Evil, which would have had him and his sidekick fighting off the Devil every week. In 1977, he played the part of Andros on The New Adventures of Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter. His beauteous eyes and wavy hair made him the sort of alien that anyone would gladly be probed by, though his uniform stressed body coverage more than sexiness. Incidentally, this same character had been portrayed the season before by the far older, white-haired actor Tim O’Connor!
One of Dack’s pilots A Double Life was finally picked up as a series. The series went by the name Soldier of Fortune and concerned a millionaire who is wrongly convicted of extortion and imprisoned. While there, he develops all sorts of skills that help him later when he’s released and goes about righting various wrongs, always leaving a signature playing card at the scene.
While he had all the makings of an appealing series lead including looks, agility and some seriously sensual lips, the show only limped along for ten episodes before it was canned. While I am always happy to watch Dack do just about anything, it would take just about anything I ever desired to get me to tolerate the two freakish looking actors he was paired with for this unfortunate show! When just the publicity stills are annoying, you know you’re in trouble.
He continued to work on other series (notably a half dozen eps of Fantasy Island) and TV movies and pilots (with a teensy, uncredited part in George Cukor’s last feature film, Rich and Famous) until taking a role on the daytime serial All My Children. That stint came to an end when he was put to use in another TV show, the glossy nighttime soap Paper Dolls.
In 1984, I was a naïve (yes!) 17 year-old and, to me, Dack Rambo epitomized the all the seductive, carnal charms that a man could offer. I recall watching agape as Rambo would canoodle in the hot tub that was situated in the OFFICE of Morgan Fairchild’s character, a modeling agent hilariously named Racine. The pair would frequently discuss plans and machinations as they bubbled and bobbed around in there.
Rambo maintained that, as a former farm boy, he never felt comfortable in a suit, but he nonetheless wore expensive clothes beautifully and seemed to exude an inherent sense of up to the second style. Now, of course, I would likely look back at his and Morgan’s hot tub exploits and scream with laughter, but at the time, he was beyond hot.
Paper Dolls was not meant to be and folded up after thirteen episodes. Its demise happened to coincide somewhat closely with that of one of primetime soaps’ most beloved characters, Bobby Ewing of Dallas. Star Patrick Duffy decided to leave the still popular show and was killed in a bloody murder by car.
To fill the void he was leaving, the producers of Dallas brought in Dack to play long-lost cousin Jack Ewing (in an almost science-fiction level piece of casting, they also hired big-mouthed Jennilee Harrison as Rambo’s sister! Right…) Things went swimmingly at first and Rambo gave J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) some cause for concern. He also had a tendency to lounge about poolside wearing a Speedo. Dack’s tightly packed Speedos always seemed as if they had to have been made out of some special substance, lest they burst apart at the first twitch.
Unfortunately, after one season, Duffy decided he wasn’t going to get the big movie career he’d hoped for and came back, rendering the entire season Rambo was on into nothing but an extended dream!! Still under contract, Rambo’s character had to be written in AGAIN, as if he had never been there and since Duffy was back, there was precious little for him to even do. He sported blonde highlights for his second season there in order to emphasize a rebirth on the show, but instead he was underused and, according to him, discriminated against because of his sexual lifestyle. The good ol’ boys behind the scenes of the show (and some in front of the camera) allegedly made him the brunt of various derogatory remarks and actions. When they wrote him out, he was glad to go, but sad at how it had ended.
Rambo later identified himself as a (tres chic?) bisexual, though he unquestionably was associating more with men than women when it came to sex and he lived a wild, indulgent life. To me (and, one assumes, to the countless viewers who watched him on TV for so many, many hours), he never came off as particularly effeminate or readily, identifiably gay, but there’s no denying that in this shot of him at an airport in the 80s, he could make JM J Bullock seem like Paul Bunyan! I include it, though, because it is one of the rare pictures that demonstrate the otherworldly bulge that he carried in his jeans. As usual, you can click on it to, er, make it bigger. Surprisingly, in the bulk of his acting projects, this was not typically exploited very much, though perhaps the on-set censors made it clear that Dack Jr. was not gonna see any airtime!
Aaron Spelling shows, such as The Love Boat (that's Barbi Benton with him above) and Hotel, along with Murder, She Wrote, gave Dack enough work to keep his face out there, but in time he was back on daytime TV, this time on Another World. And he was quite successful there, for a while. In 1991, he was diagnosed with AIDS and willingly retired from the program. By now, his wavy hair snow white, he did a complete 180 and never acted again. Instead, he spoke candidly all over the nation, trying to spread information about the disease and sharing some of his own story. Less positive, at least from my point of view, was his association with televangelists, with whom he proclaimed a love of God and a dedication to the work of TV preachers. He did not, however, apologize for the approach he had taken to life.
It was all pretty short-lived, though. Dack died from complications of the disease in March of 1994. He was 52. In those days, especially in the prior decade, AIDS was a near-certain death sentence and people fled from it in fear. He is to be admired, at least, for trying to spend his last days educating anyone he could about it.
More than one friend of his has suggested that the sudden, numbing death of his beloved twin set Dack on a course of hedonism and lack of personal accountability that was going to lead to a downfall of some sort eventually no matter what. However, there was no way that Dack could know that his sexual activity was going to lead to his death. I tend to think that while, yes, he was wounded to the core by Dirk’s passing, he was also a very desirable man who had the benefit of fame to draw practically anyone he wanted to him. God knows had he looked at me with those eyes I’d have shoved my grandmother down a San Francisco street in a wheelchair just to hold his hand!
Dack Rambo leaves behind precious little cinematic legacy, but for those who like to watch classic TV shows and TV movies, his prolific contributions there live on. As far as I’m concerned, no still photo does him justice. He has to be watched in action and listened to (his warm voice had just a hint of twang to it) in order for his charm to be fully appreciated.