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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 10 2010

Eriksmoen: Fargo news anchor was first a movie star

The man hired to become Fargo’s TV news anchor at KTHI (now KVLY) in 1970 was a movie star.

Robert Ivers starred in the only movie directed by James Cagney; played a major role in the first film Jerry Lewis made without his comedy partner, Dean Martin; and co-starred in the first movie Elvis Presley made after his return from military service in Germany.

Robert LaVern Prestlien was born Dec. 11, 1934, in Ballard, a suburb of Seattle. He moved in 1947 with his family to Ritzville in the western part of the state. While growing up, Robert enjoyed camping, reading, and attending movies, and dreamed of becoming an actor.

In 1950, the Prestliens moved to Tucson, Ariz. Robert took part in all of the major theatrical productions and was elected local president of the National Thespian Society. In his senior year, he won the Frank Kempf Dramatic Arts Award given by the Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper and was granted a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse, a college-accredited school of theater arts that trained many of the best actors in show business.

Robert graduated from high school in 1953 and, after a short stint at Pasadena, accepted a scholarship at the University of Arizona and began appearing in plays during his freshman year. He was also a member of the Tucson Winter Stock Company and performed in their production of “Stalag 17” at the Sartu Theater in Hollywood.

A person who attended one of their productions was Milt Lewis, head talent scout for Paramount Pictures. Lewis urged his studio to hire Robert, but the request was not pursued. During the summer, 20th Century Fox filmed much of the Spencer Tracy Western “Broken Lance” in the Tucson area, and Robert was hired for a small role as a cowboy.

Later that year, the Western movie “Ten Wanted Men” was filmed near Tucson, and Robert was again signed for a small role. In 1955, Lewis attended a production of “The Rainmaker” at the University of Arizona, and Robert had the lead role. Lewis again urged Paramount to sign the actor, but again no action was taken.

In 1956, Robert appeared with Harvey Korman in the TWSC production of “Tea and Sympathy,” which was viewed by Jane Sharples, daughter of Arthur Loew, president of MGM. She recommended Robert to both MGM and Paramount, and this time Paramount Studios executives signed him to a contract.

One of the first recommendations Robert received was to come up with a name that was easier to remember. Because the first name of both his father and grandfather was Iver, he honored both by becoming “Robert Ivers.”

When Ivers arrived in Hollywood, he had no place to stay and very little money. To get by, he slept in the rafters of Paramount Studios. One evening, Ivers was discovered by A.C. Lyles, a producer at the studio. Lyles told Ivers he had a friend who owned a ranch, and he believed his friend would allow him to stay there. His friend, movie star James Cagney, agreed.

During the 1950s, Paramount had one of the hottest comedy teams in the movies with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. In 1956, they decided to go their separate ways, and the first movie for Lewis after the split was “The Delicate Delinquent.” Ivers was given the role of Monk, a gang member who tries to lure Lewis into crime. Ivers and Lewis became lifelong friends. When he received the role, Ivers could afford to rent an apartment near the Paramount Studio with friend Lee Van Cleef.

In 1957, Lyles convinced Cagney they should remake the 1942 movie “This Gun for Hire.” Cagney agreed to direct the movie, which was renamed “Short Cut to Hell,” and both agreed the star would be Ivers.

In August, Ivers had to put his career on hold while he fulfilled his military obligation. His stint in the Army was cut short when he was honorably discharged because of a dislocated hip.

Following his discharge, Ivers spent two years appearing on some popular TV shows. He became a pitchman for Kool cigarettes and was elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild, of which Ronald Reagan was president.

In 1960, Elvis Presley returned from his two-year hitch with the U.S. Army. Ready to cash was a tailor-made movie, “G.I. Blues.” Presley’s co-star, playing the role of Cookie, an Army buddy, was Ivers.

On Feb. 2, 1961, Ivers married Lenore Roberts, a studio actress for Warner Brothers. The marriage was soon annulled. Ivers then began dating Marcia Henderson, who was also a movie star. The two were married on Sept. 7, 1961.

(Next week, we will conclude our series on Ivers as we look at his career as a newscaster, including the years he spent in North Dakota.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.