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OUT OF THE VAULT: Pendleton native turned actor dies in fiery crash

Published on August 8, 2015 3:00AM


Archie Twitchell was a local boy who made it to the big time. Born in Pendleton in 1906, Twitchell graduated from Pendleton High School and then made his way to Hollywood, with a goal to act in Western movies as a rider.

In his first attempt to break into the business, a casting director laughed him off the set, but called him back when he saw Twitchell’s Pendleton High School belt and asked if he had ridden in the Pendleton Round-Up. His pride bruised, Twitchell said “Yes” and then walked off the premises.

For the next 10 years Twitchell worked at odd jobs, everything from working a boiler on a steam freighter to butlering for director William Wyler, before landing a job in the film laboratory at Paramount. His fast-talking style earned him bit parts in several pictures, but it took being knocked almost unconscious to set his career on the upswing. In “Souls of the Sea” Twitchell allowed himself to be knocked from a lifeboat and into the water by Gary Cooper, and director Henry Hathaway was impressed with his natural acting ability.

Twitchell worked as an actor in Hollywood from 1937 through the mid-1950s, most notably in “Young Bill Hickock,” “Black Angel” and “The Vanishing Outpost.” He retired from acting in 1955 and put his pilot’s license to work for Douglas Aircraft.

On a clear day over Pacoima, California, on Jan. 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B transport plane on a test flight collided with an Air Force fighter and crashed into the Pacoima Congregational Church. As pilot William Carr struggled to control the plane, Twitchell, the copilot, transmitted the last radio message:

“Uncontrollable, uncontrollable ... midair collision. ... We are going in. ... We’ve had it, boys. I told you we should have had chutes.” A brief silence, then: “Say goodbye to everybody.”

The fighter pilot parachuted to safety. All four crewmembers of the transport plane died in the wreckage. Part of one of the DC-7B’s engines crashed through the roof of the church auditorium, destroying the building. Next door to the church, debris from the crash fell into the schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School, killing three boys.

One of the school’s pupils that avoided the Pacoima crash was ninth-grader Richard Steven Valenzuela, who was attending his grandfather’s funeral that day. Because of the incident at his school, he developed an intense fear of flying. Ironically, Valenzuela (AKA Richie Valens) died just three days after the second anniversary of the Pacoima crash — along with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson — in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.



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