Thursday, June 18, 2015

Birthday Tribute: Wesley Lau

So today is the great Wesley Lau’s birthday. I watched The Hateful Hero to celebrate, at least for openers, and I’ve been pondering on what sort of original topic I could bring to the post today. I went over all the entries tagged with his name, and to my surprise, I don’t even see any mention of his Virginian characters. He guest-starred on the show three times, twice playing very unusual law enforcement agents.

Wesley’s law enforcement characters are very often similar to Andy, at least on the surface. They are generally very smooth and businesslike in demeanor, but each one is unique in his own way, such as the visionary Captain Gottleib on The Magician.

On The Virginian, Wesley’s first law enforcement character is Sheriff Ben Morris in the season 5 episode Vengeance Trail. He comes across as a not entirely upright fellow, who sanctions and even participates in actions such as burning the surrounding grasslands to force people driving cattle to pass through his town and pay a toll for doing so. Apparently the town is in dire straits and badly needs the toll money.

I don’t remember too much about the episode beyond that, except that for some reason, he and his cohorts were not going to be reported for their actions and were going to keep their jobs. I do seem to recall that towards the end, he either did something upright or else refused to let his comrades take things what he deemed too far. When all is said and done, Morris is honestly trying to do what he feels is best for his town, even if in actuality it isn’t the best thing for either the town or his integrity. But he seems, in some way, to redeem himself by the end. It’s an interesting look at poor Old West towns and what they sometimes resorted to in order to survive.

I remember his character from the season 6 episode The Gentle Tamers far better. He starts out as a mysterious ranch hand who has recently joined the Shiloh crew, just in time to witness a very experimental procedure: three convicts are going to be tried out as ranch hands on the new probation program. If it works out, it could mean important long-term effects for prisoners everywhere.

Wesley’s character, Hoyt, doesn’t seem to like the convicts very much. He’s often mysterious and quiet, and when he does speak, it’s usually in an unfriendly tone of voice, such as seemingly mocking when he accidentally upsets a horse one of them is working with.

Throughout a good portion of the episode, his intentions are not clear. He shadows the convicts when they go into town and eventually ends up in trouble with one of them over a card game back at Shiloh Ranch.

Finally he reveals the full truth about himself: he’s a law enforcement agent undercover to see how the probation idea is coming along. He is deeply against the concept of probation in general, and in a bitterly hurt speech, he reveals why. He used to work at a prison and he saw all kinds of people come through. He never saw anyone that he felt might be worthy of a second chance, except one. But when he tried to give that one the chance, he was betrayed in return. Removing his shirt, he displays the horrific scars of a brutal attack.

Despite how very personal any probation-related case is to him because of that, he is still overall a fair and decent human being. During the climax, the cattle spook and stampede and the convicts have to help round them up. The nastiest one, who had planned to steal the cattle and run, is trampled and killed when he finally tries to do the right thing. The other two, also rounding up the cattle and trying to protect the people, make it through alive. Neither of them had wanted to participate in the other’s unseemly plan. At the end of the episode, Hoyt leaves to report to his superiors. Impressed by the men’s actions, he promises he’ll make a fair report.

Wesley had such an amazing talent throughout his life. He brought characters such as Andy, Sheriff Morris, and Hoyt to life beautifully and made them seem three-dimensional and real. Hoyt, with his gruff exterior, saddening backstory, and honestly good soul, reminds me of a lot of Simon Oakland’s characters. While very different from Andy in a lot of ways, Hoyt’s core fairness and goodness is the same.

Wesley was often asked to play law enforcement characters throughout his career, no doubt because they knew he could deliver. Always excellent, Wesley added a great deal to any show he was cast in, whether that was as a law enforcement agent, military, a common citizen, or a villain. I’m happy to use this day to remember him, although of course, I remember him on every day.

Happy Birthday, Wesley. You are still fondly remembered and loved.

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