Nell O’Day, one of the first ladies of B-Westerns, was the spunky, hard riding heroine of thirteen Johnny Mack Brown films in the early 1940s. She was an exceptional horsewoman and prided herself on doing all her own stunts in the Westerns she made with the famous college football star turned on-screen cowboy.
Mildred Nell Roach (O’Day) was born in Prairie Hill, Texas on September 22, 1909, to Edward E. Roach and Mildred Livonia McClellan. Nell’s mother descended from Elder John Parker, who was massacred at Fort Parker, Texas. Cynthia Ann Parker, his granddaughter, was captured, raised with the Comanche Indians, and became mother of Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche Indians.
Nell’s family moved to Los Angeles when she was two. By the time she was eight she was performing in local theatrical production that highlighted her talented for dancing and singing.
In the late 1920s, Nell Roach had become “Nell O’Day” and was touring with a singing and dancing act featuring herself and the Tommy Atkins Sextet. Newspapers as well as Variety and other trade papers have them playing Chicago, New York, Omaha, St. Louis, Detroit, Dallas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Connecticut, many other locales. Nell and the sextet were among the novelty acts included in the musical extravaganza King of Jazz (Universal, 1930) which featured Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.
The 1930s were a busy and chaotic period for Nell who alternated between East Coast stage plays and West Coast movie jobs. In 1930-1931, she had a principal role in the play “Fine and Dandy” which enjoyed a lengthy run in New York City and starred Joe Cook and featured tap dancer Eleanor Powell. By this time, Nell was under (brief) contracts with Fox and Warner Brothers. While at Fox, Nell did her first Western entitled Smoked Lightning. She starred opposite George O’Brien.
She was under contract at Universal from about mid 1940 through early 1942. During that period, she starred opposite Johnny Mack Brown in a series of Westerns. She was billed third behind JMB and sidekick Fuzzy Knight. While Knight and some musical groups provided most of the tunes in the films, Nell did sing a few tunes herself.
A change in the formula of the Brown Westerns occurred in late 1941 – early 1942. Tex Ritter came on board to assist JMB. Fuzzy Knight remained. But Nell O’Day was out. Taking over the heroine/leading lady duties in the Brown/Ritter series was Jennifer Holt, Tim Holt’s sister.
Nell hit the trail and free lanced. She had the female lead in the cliffhanger Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942) which starred Robert Stevens. And there were a few B Westerns with Tim Holt at RKO, Republic’s Three Mesquiteers, and Monogram’s Range Busters. Her movie career ended with two of the Texas Rangers trio Westerns at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) which were released in late 1943. She then changed her career, concentrating on writing screenplays, TV scripts and stage plays.
She was married twice, and both pairings ended in divorce:
Her first was to Ted Fetter and they tied the knot on August 30, 1935, in New York City. At the time, he was acting in both films and plays. In later years, Theodore Henry Fetter became more well known as a television producer and song lyricist – his most famous tune was “Taking a Chance on Love.” Nell and Ted divorced in April 1941.
Marriage number two occurred on May 10, 1942, in Los Angeles and her husband was actor and writer Lawrence Shapleigh Williams (Larry Williams). Over the next dozen years or so, they teamed on some plays and scripts. Larry Williams is credited with the story for the low budget The Monster Maker. The rumor was that that Nell collaborated on the story development but got no credit. Nell and Larry were scripting TV shows into the mid-1950s.
When her second marriage ended in early 1960, Nell retired from show business and turned her attention to writing science books. She eventually became the editor of a publishing company that produced scientific and technical textbooks.Nell died of cardiac arrest January 3, 1989, in Los Angeles, California. She was seventy-nine when she passed away.