‘Rawhide’: The Tragic Story of Star Eric Fleming’s Death in a Peruvian Jungle

by Clayton Edwards
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All of the current marketing for “Rawhide” features Clint Eastwood. However, he was not the star of the western series. Eric Fleming, who portrayed trail boss Gill Favor was the real star. Fleming was tough as boot leather off-screen as well. His life story sounds like something out of a novel. From running errands for the mob to turning to acting because he lost a bet, Fleming’s life is the stuff of legends. His death deep in the jungles of Peru was a tragic but fitting end to a man whose life had been full of adventure that most people only dream of.

Eric Fleming left “Rawhide,” before the beginning of its eighth season. There is some debate as to why he left the show. However, there is no denying that the tough-as-nails actor made the western what it was. In fact, according to MeTV, the head of CBS canceled the show after seeing the first episode of the eighth season.

Eric Fleming was not done with acting, though. He went on to appear on “Bonanza,” a handful of times. Fleming also starred in the spy comedy “The Glass Bottom Boat,” alongside Doris Day. The “Rawhide,” star was shooting “High Jungle,” a TV movie for ABC when he died.

“Rawhide” Star Dies in Peruvian Jungle

Nico Minardos was Flemings co-star in the film. He was with the “Rawhide” star when he died. Minardos kept a journal during the filming process. It detailed their harrowing experiences in the jungle as well as Eric Fleming’s death.

The Trek Through the Jungle

“High Jungle” was going to be the “Rawhide” star’s return to acting. The studio planned to run the film on television as well as in theaters. They then planned to spin the concept of into a new series starring Fleming and Minardos. This, and the fact that they were breaking cinematic ground by filming on-location in the inhospitable jungles of Peru kept the cast and crew going through their perilous filming process.

After six weeks of constant humidity, clouds of mosquitos, and the threat of venomous snakes, the most dangerous part of filming was still ahead of them. Minardos and the “Rawhide” trail boss were set to shoot the rapids on the Huallaga River in a narrow hand-carved canoe.

They were set to shoot on an incredibly dangerous stretch of river. Fleming and Minardos thought about using stunt doubles. However, the locals that they approached for the job flatly refused. Few men had ever traversed that section of rapids and lived. The most experienced of the local boatmen would not approach that wild water.

They soldiered on, though. It was only days before they would be out of the jungle and on to more hospitable locales. Besides, the “Rawhide” star and his companion were both strong swimmers. They were confident that they could handle the rough water. On top of that, they would have a life’s worth of bragging rights and the footage to prove what they had done.

The Fateful Scene

Minardos planned to steer the canoe from the rear. Fleming was to sit in the front of the boat. Before filming the scene, Minardos, a former racecar driver, walked the bank of the river. He wanted to know his course ahead of time. With a massive Amazonian storm rolling in, they were on a tight schedule. Fleming told his co-star, “Nico, now or never.” Those were his last words.

The “Rawhide” star and Minardos climbed into their narrow craft and were pushed into the river. For the first fifty yards, Minardos noted, things were going smoothly. At the time, he thought that his worries had been unfounded. Then, “with the thunder of a thousand cannons,” Nico’s confidence was washed away by the rushing rapids. The boat slammed into the rapids at the bend in the river and things went downhill quickly. They were taking on water. The hand-carved canoe was not made to handle the angry river.

Many know Fleming as the trail boss on “Rawhide,” but in real life, he was a surfer. It was this time as a surfer that fueled his instincts. He stood up in the canoe and leaped into the water. Minardos assumed that he was hoping to be clear of the boat when it went under. Fear and inexperience with river rapids led Fleming to believe he could swim away from the canoe and get to the bank. This was a fatal miscalculation.

Eric Fleming’s body was found by natives in the area several days after their harrowing ordeal.

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