Wheeler Dealers, Wildcatters, and the Texas Oilman Stereotype

THE WHEELER DEALERS 1963, Filmways Pictures

1963, Filmways Pictures

I recently watched The Wheeler Dealers (1963 and one of my dad’s favorites), starring James Garner and Lee Remick. The 1963 comedy follows Henry Tyroon (rhymes with “tycoon”), a Texas Wildcatter millionaire, who hits a streak of dry wells and goes to New York to raise money to continue exploration and avoid bankruptcy. Tyroon’s character is a smooth operator with a huge appetite for risk who loves the deal-making game and operates in the grey area of the law profiting from tax loopholes and other maneuvers. Some of his tactics are questionable and/or no longer legal today.

The Texas oilman stereotype appears in several ways. There’s the central role as a charming leading man, who *spoiler alert* turns out to be a Boston-bred, Yale graduate who adopted the Texas persona because that was where the money was. And there is the comedic, bumbling, not-too-bright trio of Texas oilmen named Jay Ray, Ray Jay, and J.R., who profit by investing in Tyroon’s deals. Those comic foils have all the typical props, ranging from cigars, 10-gallon hats, heavy drawls, diets of burnt steaks and a mess of greens to excessive displays of wealth comically portrayed in the form of a private jet complete with a fully decorated poker room and a spa with steamers and a masseuse on board.

The movie isn’t only about the oil business, but it does highlight the risk-taking spirit required to be a wildcatter and provides much comic relief.

Four other energy notes: 1) In the opening scene at an oil rig, a sign on a truck reads: “Bo Bluedog, Ind. Contractor, Oil Exploration, Drilling and Fracturing” – Fracturing, so controversial and often thought to be a new development, has been around a while. 2) While drilling in Massachusetts, Tyroon strikes a diesel pipeline, and they amusingly think they have a gusher. 3) Lee Remick, the leading lady, also plays a supporting role in Wild River (1960), a hydropower movie. 4) Chill Wills, part of the comic trio, shows up in several other oil movies (Tulsa (1949), Boomtown (1940), and Giant (1956)).

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