Monday, March 31, 2014

Livin’ the Dream: Ticonderoga Native Whitney Armstrong

01WhArmstrongmoviedebutIf you’re just a regular Joe or Jane, you’ve probably at some point—say, while lying back in an office chair, or doing the dishes, perhaps mowing the grass—entertained a number of Walter Mitty-like fantasies. You know … stuff like, “What’s it like to be that guy or girl?” For men, that guy could be anything. What’s it like to be the smartest kid in school? The star center on a school basketball team? The ace pitcher on the baseball team? A great running back in football? Better yet, how about doing all that in college? Wow … BMOC, plenty of attention from the girls, the coolest among the guys. Might as well toss in a professional baseball contract … what sports-loving boy doesn’t dream of that?

If you’ve never been considered “chick bait,” daydreams might find you 6 foot 4 with a muscular build, and a face that others besides a mother could love. In place of your everyday job, reverie might find you a TV actor, or in movies. That would be cool—fraternizing and working with show-biz superstars. And hey, why not marry the world’s most famous model? She’ll need a great place to live … maybe the Hollywood Hills? And we’ll chum around with a top music superstar of the past century.

I’m going out on a limb, but here’s my guess: for the rest of our lives, most of us would relish having any one thing from that list. But all of them?

Meet Ticonderoga native Whitney Armstrong, a.k.a. Michael Witney. Born there in 1931, he was raised and schooled in the community of Chilson and attended Ticonderoga High School, graduating at 15, well ahead of the average student. Due to his young age, he remained in school for two years for what was termed post-graduate study.

Friends noted that Whitney played guitar and was an excellent singer, but that was just the beginning. His athletic prowess soon proved the equal of his classroom abilities. Armstrong became the center and leading scorer on the school’s basketball team, the ace of the pitching staff, and a football star as well. In area athletics, few were his equal.

Among his contemporaries was Johnny Podres of Witherbee—not only a star pitcher himself (and destined for greatness), but widely known for his abilities on the basketball court. In 1949, Whitney was a unanimous choice for the All-League Basketball Squad, with Podres joining him on the starting five.

Whatever he played, Whitney’s efforts earned superlatives from sportswriters: “… Armstrong dominates from the pivot … hurling magnificent ball for the Chilson team … a 23-yard pass to Whitney Armstrong, who made a magnificent diving catch in the end zone.” By all accounts he was truly gifted.

He attended Cortland State and once again became a three-sport star. Thirty years later, Coach Larry Martin, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, said, “I still consider him the best athlete to come out of Cortland.” His former coach, Pete Corey, recalled Whitney as a brilliant student aspiring to a career in medicine. “We designed a special curriculum for him with the most difficult anatomy and science courses.” Turning to sports, Corey added, “He was one of the greatest athletes the school has ever had. He was a real all-American boy.”

In 1953, when Johnny Podres broke into the big leagues with Brooklyn, Whitney was signed by those same Dodgers, joining their Class D team in Hornell, New York. And for you sports lovers out there, get this: in the off-season, both men came home and played as teammates on the local semi-pro basketball team, the Port Henry Hawks, proving that there once was a time when sports wasn’t just about the money. (Whitney, by the way, was a big guy, listed by the Hawks as 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds.)

After one season of baseball at Hornell, he joined the military and was stationed at Fort Hood, where he again excelled in sports, particularly football. In 1956, after discharge from the service, Armstrong played for the Dodgers’ Montana affiliate, the Great Falls Electrics, but arm trouble eventually ended his dream of making the big time.

In November of that year, he married Donna Bailey in Helena and settled down in Great Falls. Whitney later worked as a chemist in East Helena and played in the region’s semi-pro league, where he turned in several outstanding performances.

Around 1960, they moved to San Diego, California, where Armstrong worked as a chemist for Lederle Pharmaceuticals and began partaking in the local theater scene. A visiting director invited him to audition for the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse. There he won a part in Under the Yum-Yum Tree. Twelve weeks of continuous sellout performances led to other acting gigs. Among those taking notice was an agent, inviting him to give movies a try.

Whitney continued appearing in stage productions, including a high-profile stint in San Diego at the Globe Theater’s Shakespeare Festival, where he gained wide notice for performances in King Henry IVPart Two, Othello, and Taming of the Shrew.

Following up on the movie idea, he went to Los Angeles in late 1962. In less than a week, he tested for and won the role of Buck Coulter in a new TV series, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, with Kurt Russell among the cast members. After 14 episodes, Whitney was replaced by Charles Bronson.

By this time, his bulky name (Whitney Michael Moore Armstrong) was remade for Hollywood purposes. After jumbling it and dropping the “h” from Whitney, they arrived at Michael Witney.

02MWitneyTyreeStarTrekA review of his IMDB page reveals that Michael appeared on many of the most popular television shows of the 1960s and 70s. Among them were several I followed religiously (of course, with only 3 channels available to us back then, the choices were limited).

Rawhide, Bonanza, The Fugitive, Perry Mason … the list goes on, but the role of his that I still recall today is that of Tyree on Star Trek.

When the opportunity was presented, Armstrong began performing in feature films. First was The Way West, also the feature-movie debut of Sally Field; they shared the screen with Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark. He did other movies as well, including Darling Lili in 1970, with Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson.

One project he worked on was the 1974 movie W, which flopped, but among his co-stars was a young British woman named Lesley Hornby: some of you older folks might know her better as Twiggy. A fashion sensation in the 1960s, she had taken the world by storm, becoming what many consider to be the first super-model.

While working on W, Twiggy’s charms conquered the heart of Michael Witney, nearly 20 years her senior. They moved in together, finally marrying in 1977, shortly after Michael obtained a divorce from his first wife.

In 1978, daughter Carly was born, and life was good. To maintain a family atmosphere, they purchased a home in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Both parents continued pursuing show-business careers and were a very popular couple. As Twiggy herself confirmed in 1979, “Michael and I count Linda and Paul McCartney among our closest friends. We visit them often.”

It seemed an ideal life, but as so often happens, appearances suffer in the face of reality. Michael reportedly had a drinking problem, and within a few years, Twiggy (with Carly) moved out. The Hollywood couple’s description was now saddled with the term “estranged.”

Until then, it appeared Michael had led a charmed life. Who among us wouldn’t savor even one of his life’s highlights? Hell, being a sports “star” for one day is enough for most people. But three sports? In high school, college, and beyond? A TV career? A movie career? A super-model wife? A Beatle as a best buddy?

03MWitneyTwiggySurely a man so blessed could reassess his life and pull things together. He may have tried, but it wasn’t to be. Some say Witney joined AA in hopes of turning things around, but after about three years apart from Twiggy, there was still no reconciliation. And then time ran out.

In November 1983, he took Carly to a New York City McDonald’s to celebrate her fifth birthday. During their meal, Michael suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. He had turned 52 just ten days earlier.

Friends and family were uniform in their reaction: stunned. Such a big, strong, man possessing for so many years a remarkable level of athletic prowess … how could this be?

Twiggy came north to Schroon Lake for the funeral, shadowed constantly by the media, but managing to avoid them for the most part. She was escorted by Michael’s best and lifelong friend, Ticonderoga schoolteacher H. Gordon Burleigh, who helped with the funeral arrangements. One comment was attributed to Twiggy regarding Michael’s death: “He was a lovely man, but he had a major problem and it ended up killing him.”

Several years later, she married Leigh Lawson, who adopted Carly. Her surname, like Twiggy’s, is now Lawson, severing any obvious connection to Michael Witney or Whitney Armstrong. He’s a member of Ticonderoga High School’s Hall of Fame, but little else is left in memory of a local star who, like a supernova, burned so brightly before flaming out so abruptly.

Photos: Witney’s first movie, The Way West (promo photo); as Tyree in Star Trek, 1967 (promo photo); Witney and Twiggy (promo photo)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. James neddo says:

    So Sad that alcohol takes a lot of the stars !! Like to know who his parents were.

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