|Birth: ||Jan. 1, 1906|
|Death: ||Oct. 27, 1976|
Los Angeles County
Born on New Year's Day, 1906, famed horse trainer Les Hilton had apprenticed with Will Rogers. He trained a mule named MOLLY for the leading role in the "Francis the Talking Mule" series of seven major motion pictures. His next famous project was training Flicka, a chestnut Arabian thoroughbred mare born Wahana, to star for 20th Century-Fox in their television series "My Friend Flicka" in 1955. This was the first TV series ever to be filmed in color, as well as Fox's very first TV series. He also trained Flicka's stunt double--a gelding named Goldie with similar markings to Flicka that Fox had bought from a race track down in Mexico.
Back in 1942, Hilton had been the assistant equine supervisor on 20th Century-Fox's original motion picture of "My Friend Flicka." The screenplay was based on the 1941 best-selling novel of the same name by Wyoming resident Mary O'Hara. Later, Hilton was horse trainer for the Howard Duff, Ann Blyth, George Brent film, "Red Canyon" (1949).
Hilton lived on Saticoy Street in North Hollywood from at least the 1940s, where he had his house, stables, and a backyard office where he could keep an eye on his horses. Hilton's barn was a single shed row (one line of stalls with a wide covered aisle, all painted white, with his horse trailers in the yard in front of the barn. Behind the stalls were large corrals, and behind them the arena, which was about half an acre. The arena was where Les did most of his work. He often used the facilities of the Fat Jones Stables on Sherman Way in North Hollywood. Fat's was the most famous stabler of movie horses, and closed in 1963 (all trace of it is gone now, the major portion occupied by a large Public Storage building). He is also said to have used the service of the Hudkins Brothers movie stables (owned by brothers Ace, Art, Clyde and Ode Hudkins). Hilton was pretty much a life-long bachelor, married to his work and his animals, but he was apparently married one time, for a few months, although he seldom seemed to talk about it. His best friend was reportedly actor and World War II hero Audie Murphy, who was often seen at Les's place. Another good friend of his was a fellow named Jesse James (no, really). James owned a cattle ranch at the other end of the San Fernando Valley, and the three of them would often be seen together swapping jokes and stories.
Hilton seldom did any riding instruction, but he spent a great deal of one-on-one time with Johnny Washbrook--riding alongside him day after day and meticulously teaching him how to handle Flicka for the "My Friend Flicka" series. Johnny Washbrook said "Other than sitting on a pony at the age of three while someone walked us around in a little corral, I had no riding experience prior to the series—I was a real ‘city slicker' from Toronto." But under the expert guidance of Les Hilton, he became a very talented rider—especially on Flicka. In 2012, John related, "I remember him [Les] as being quiet, unassuming, humble, and possessing a gentle strength in working with horses.....and people, too, for that matter." Washbrook also said that he "was surprised to learn that Les was friends with Audie Murphy who was my favorite actor at the time I was doing the series. I wish I had known that at the time...He was my boyhood hero!" He did eventually get to meet his hero (and Les's pal) Audie Murphy, when they were both guests at the Sheriff's Rodeo and John rode Flicka in the parade around the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Hilton had was very experienced and well-respected as one of the elite of the horse-training world. Once asked what he looked at in a horse first (teeth, legs, etc.), he replied something to the effect that he always first looked the animal straight in the eyes to see if it showed a reflection of kindness. Hilton was also the trainer of Bamboo Harvester, the saddle-bred palomino stallion used in the TV series "Mr. Ed." It is said that to get Mr. Ed to move his lips to coincide with the voice-overs provided by western actor Allan "Rocky" Lane, Hilton used nylon fishing line (a method that presumably had worked with "Francis." The fishing line was attached to the headstall (which is why you never see Ed speaking without his headstall on) and ran through his mouth. When Mr. Ed was required to speak, Hilton gently pulled the line and Mr. Ed responded by moving his lips—a natural response to something moving in his mouth. Alan Young, human co-star in the series, stated in one interview that after the first season Ed did not need the nylon; that he and Les were out riding one day and Les started laughing, telling Alan to look at Ed, who was moving his lips every time they stopped talking, as if attempting to join in the conversation. This difference is apparently visible when comparing first season episodes to later ones, as it is clear that early on he is working the irritating string out, sometimes working his tongue in the attempt too, and later on he tends to only move his upper lip, and appears to watch Alan Young closely, waiting for him to finish his lines before twitching his lip.
Hilton also taught horses like Flicka how to open and close doors, untie knots, wave a flag and hold items in their mouths for various scenes. It amused Hilton that the horses he trained carried a lot more insurance than he did. When Saticoy Street was rezoned for commercial use, Hilton sold his property and moved to Sparks Street in Burbank Rancho, north of Griffith Park. He trained the horse for the lead in the hit Disney movie "Tonka" (1958) starring Sal Mineo, Philip Carey and Slim Pickens, and the "wild stallion" (real name reportedly Diamond Jet) in "Smokey" (1966), with Fess Parker, Diana Hyland and Katy Jurado. He was also animal trainer for the film "Monte Walsh" (1970), which starred Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau and Jack Palance.
When Les Hilton passed away in Burbank at age 70 on October 27, 1976 from pancreatic cancer, the entertainment industry lost one of filmdom's all-time greatest animal trainers and one of its great animal lovers. Given his entire body of work, Les Hilton probably made more impact on 20th Century American culture than any other Hollywood animal trainer.
Although he has no direct descendants to remember him, we honor the enormous legacy he left through his work in the entertainment industry by giving tribute to him on this site. He is also featured on the comprehensive web site for the "My Friend Flicka" television series, and on the "My Friend Flicka" Facebook page. In addition, he is remembered with great fondness and respect by many of those in the entertainment industry with whom he worked so diligently. He not only helped actors and others work better with the animals he was training, he also helped them to love and appreciate them.
LESTER L. HILTON, Jan. 1, 1906 - Oct. 27, 1976
Note: His headstone, as you can see, is in fine condition. Many thanks to Bob Spalding for taking the photo for us, and to Chris Mills for originally setting up this page.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Covina Hills)
Los Angeles County
Plot: Cherished Memory, Map 10, Lot 2963, Space 1
Maintained by: Gaz
Originally Created by: Chris Mills
Record added: Jul 29, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 94392223