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Slim Pickens

Slim Pickens was a rodeo star turned actor, perhaps most famous for whooping and waving his cowboy hat as he rode a nuclear missile to his death in Dr. Strangelove.

The 1964 film's depiction of what would most assuredly be mutually assured destruction –– Pickens' character didn't know the H-bomb he was riding would trigger a Russian Doomsday device –– had an impact on those who grew up in the Cold War era.

As late as 2012, writer Matthew Honan mused on how the scene had always stuck with him: "I grew up under the shadow of the spectre of nuclear war. In the 1980s, popular culture was rife with the imagery of nuclear annihilation — from The Day After, to Threads, to Smiths songs. But nothing approached Dr. Strangelove."

Pickens was born Louis Burton Lindley Jr. in 1919. He took his new name after dropping out of school at 16 and telling his father he was joining the rodeo circuit.

"My father was against rodeoing and told me he didn't want to see my name on the entry lists ever again," Pickens said, according to his obituary in the New York Times."While I was fretting about what to call myself, some old boy sittin' on a wagon said, 'Why don't you call yourself Slim Pickens, 'cause that's shore what yore prize money'll be.' "

The name was fitting, Pickens said, because he didn't make a lot of money on the rodeo circuit. Still, he spent 20 years as a bronco buster, trick rider and clown. After a director saw his rodeo work and urged Pickens to take a screen test, the cowboy went to Hollywood, going on to appear in more than 80 films and 250 television shows.

Pickens grew up in California, but spoke with a "distinctive Oklahoma-Texas drawl," according to Wikipedia. Still, he was the real deal. He was proud of the fact that he was one of the few Western actors who could actually drive a six-horse stagecoach team.

Pickens had serious roles and comic ones. He could be the sidekick, the villain or, as in Dr Strangelove, a sort of anti-hero. In that, his most famous role, "his character, a wild-eyed, boisterous Texan elated over the prospect of personally dropping the bombs that will help annihilate civilization, was appropriately named Maj. T. J. 'King' Kong," the New York Times said.

The movie set a new course for his career, the Los Angeles Times said in his obituary: "After Dr. Strangelove, my salary jumped five times," he said. "And assistant directors started saying, 'Hey, Slim' instead of, 'Hey, you.'"

Pickens’ other movies included Blazing Saddles, One-Eyed Jacks, The Cowboys, The Apple Dumpling Gang and Major Dundee.

Pickens was 64 when he died from complications following brain surgery. His wife and two daughters were by his side.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."