Gail Davis (1925–1997)
aka: Betty Jeanne Grayson
Gail Davis was an Arkansas-born actress who starred as the legendary sharpshooter in the groundbreaking TV Western series Annie Oakley, which ran from 1954 through 1956. She appeared in thirty-two feature films, was guest on a number of TV shows, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and was a role model for young women.
Gail Davis was born Betty Jeanne Grayson on October 5, 1925. Her mother was a homemaker and her father, W. B. Grayson, was a physician in McGehee (Desha County), which did not have a hospital, so her birth took place in Little Rock (Pulaski County). When her father became the state health officer, the family moved from McGehee to Little Rock, where Grayson attended Little Rock Senior High School. Grayson rode horses and was a tomboy growing up. Grayson also held various beauty titles in high school and college, and she sang and danced in local shows from the time she was eight.
While studying dramatics at the University of Texas in Austin, she married Robert Davis in 1945, with whom she had a daughter, Terrie (the couple divorced in 1952). After World War II, they moved to Hollywood, where she worked as a hatcheck girl until being discovered by an agent who obtained an MGM screen test for her. She was signed to a contract, with her first appearance in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge, starring Van Johnson.
She worked steadily in movies, including fourteen films with Gene Autry in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was impressed with her, changed her name to Gail Davis, and cast her as the star of the Annie Oakley TV show, which he produced through his company, Flying A Productions. The show ran for eighty-one episodes from 1954 through 1956.
At just over five feet tall and under 100 pounds, Davis was a charming heroine on Annie Oakley who wore pigtails and stopped criminals by outsmarting them or shooting the guns out of their hands. She rode horses and did many of her own stunts. She was the first woman to star in a TV western. Many young women later said they were influenced by watching Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, a female character in a traditionally male role. In the show, Gail took care of her younger brother, Tagg, in the fictional town of Diablo and solved crimes with handsome deputy sheriff Lofty Craig.
More young women probably saw her on TV than in her thirty-two movies, which included In Room 303 (1947), Merton of the Movies (1947), The Far Frontier (1948), Law of the Golden West (1949), West of Wyoming (1950), Texans Never Cry (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Old West (1952), and Winning of the West (1953). After her TV series ended, she appeared as Annie Oakley in the 1959 film Alias Jesse James starring Bob Hope. In that film, she appears in an uncredited role along with such other stars, also uncredited, as Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner (as Bret Maverick), and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett).
Her television appearances include guest roles on The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, The Cisco Kid, and Death Valley Days, as well as a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show (Episode 37, “The Perfect Female”), her final appearance as a performer and in which she demonstrated her trademark sharpshooting.
Gail toured with Gene Autry’s Wild West show and made appearances as herself on TV programs such as Wide, Wide World: “The Western” (1958) with fellow Arkansan Ben Piazza. For her work in television, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6385 Hollywood Boulevard, and in 2004, she was inducted posthumously into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
In the latter part of her life, Davis married auto dealer Carl Guerriero, who died in 1982. She retired to California’s San Fernando Valley but still participated in film festivals, such as 1989’s Knoxville Film Festival and certain collector shows. Her last public acceptance of an award came in 1994, when she received the Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture and Television Fund for positive portrayals in the Western tradition.
Gail Davis died of cancer in Los Angeles on March 15, 1997, and is buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery. According to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Gene Autry called her “the perfect Western actress.”
For additional information:
Classic TV Western Shows. http://www.fiftiesweb.com/tv/annie-oakley.htm (accessed May 22, 2014).
“Gail Davis.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0204625 (accessed May 22, 2014).
Gail Davis: Riders into the Sunset. http://www.wildestwesterns.com/gail_davis.htm (accessed May 22, 2014).
Arkansas State University
Last Updated: 05/22/2014