Stewart Petersen won the lead role in “Where the Red Fern Grows” by sheer happenstance. Watch the trailer in the video above. | Photo on left taken from Rotten Tomatoes, Photo on right taken from Wikipedia
IDAHO FALLS – As Stewart Petersen looks back on his time as a child actor, he feels it was part of a Divinely-inspired plan for a season in his life. But nearly 50 years later, he has no regrets about pursuing a different path as an adult.
The 62-year-old Cokeville, Wyoming man was cast as Billy Coleman in the 1974 film, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” based on the novel by Wilson Rawls. He went on to star in half a dozen family-friendly films throughout the decade.
Wilson Rawl’s wrote “Where the Red Fern Grows” in Idaho Falls. This statue in front of the Idaho Falls Public Library pays tribute to the book he wrote. | Courtesy KTVB
Did you know…
Wilson Rawls was living in Idaho Falls when he wrote “Where the Red Fern Grows.”
Rawls moved to eastern Idaho in 1956 to work at the Atomic Energy Commission in Arco, according to a Museum of Idaho exhibit. He wanted to be a writer but had terrible spelling and grammar due to limited education. He burned all his manuscripts out of embarrassment. His fiancee, Sophie Styczinski, later found out and encouraged him to rewrite one of his stories from memory. Three weeks later, “Red Fern” was complete and Styczinski helped him prepare it for publishing.
“Where the Red Fern Grows” was originally published in 1961 for The Saturday Evening Post. It was printed in three installments under the title, “The Hounds of Youth,” KTVB reports. It was released as a novel later that year, but didn’t become popular until it was marketed to teachers and schools.
During a presentation to the Bingham County Historical Society in 2013, Stewart Petersen said putting duct tape on his feet made it bearable to film the barefoot scenes in “Red Fern.”
Petersen made seven films between 1974 and 1979. Three of them were westerns — “Seven Alone,” “Against a Crooked Sky” and “Pony Express Rider.”
“Against a Crooked Sky” was the inspiration for the name of Petersen’s business, Crooked Sky Outfitters.
Petersen’s final film, though shot in 1979, was not released until 1981, according to IMDB. It’s called “Rivals,” and is about a family of sheep farmers from Wyoming who move to Los Angeles. Ironically, Petersen is from Wyoming and was flown to Los Angeles during casting of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” to read for the director.
A life-size bronze statue of Billy and his dogs from “Where the Red Fern Grows” was placed in front of the Idaho Falls Public Library in 1999 as a tribute to Rawls and the time he spent in Idaho Falls.
Today, he’s the co-owner of Crooked Sky Outfitters, a company that provides guided summer pack trips, fishing excursions and big game hunts near Bridger-Teton National Forest. He also owns Frontier Summitt Homes, a construction company that builds and remodels custom homes throughout western Wyoming and eastern Idaho.
In a phone conversation with EastIdahoNews.com, Petersen shared how he got started in films as a 13-year-old boy.
(My uncle) was in the film business … and when he got the rights to do ‘Red Fern,’ he started looking for people to play the part,” Petersen recalls. “At one point, he was headed through Cokeville and an elementary teacher said there was a young man who might fit the part.”
The person she recommended wasn’t him, Petersen says. It was his friend.
Petersen happened to be at his grandparent’s house where his uncle met with his friend. After his friend left, Petersen’s uncle suggested he read for the part.
Though he had “no desire or aspiration” to do it, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. He ended up taking a trip to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah to do a screen test.
Petersen spent his summers on location for the next five years.
“I believe it was something that Heavenly Father (wanted me to experience),” Petersen says. “It was something I never sought for, but when the opportunities came knocking, he always filled my mind with the thought that it would be good for me and maybe for others that would eventually see the movie.”
Petersen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His faith is a defining aspect of his life, and it’s something he referenced repeatedly throughout our conversation.
In 1976, Petersen was cast as Joseph Smith in a short film produced by the LDS Church. Latter-day Saints revere Smith as a prophet and believe he was chosen by God to restore Christ’s church after years of apostasy.
The role of Joseph Smith came about because of Petersen’s involvement in other films.
But whether it was Billy Coleman or Joseph Smith, film roles were never something Petersen sought. He had no interest in that lifestyle, but he still wanted to “influence people in a positive way” while he was doing it.
“I felt there was a responsibility, because of my membership in the church, to try and do good with it,” he says. “I never could understand the people that loved the movie business. It’s very superficial and I just didn’t feel like that’s the way I wanted to earn a reputation.”
Petersen was 18 when he shot his last film in 1979.
Following a two-year mission to the Netherlands, Petersen attended then Ricks College, where he played for the football team.
He also met his wife, Chemene Goodwin, of Blackfoot, at Ricks College. They and their six children have visited eastern Idaho many times over the years.
He was involved in the Cokeville City Council and school board years ago, and helped form the Chamber of Commerce in the 1990s.
Petersen’s outfitter business, which attracts dozens of people throughout the U.S. every year, is now 40 years old. It’s a venture he enjoys and finds rewarding.
Now a grandfather, Petersen is grateful for the “rural values” he was raised with. He wants that lifestyle to continue for his family and remains true to his personal mantra.
“These rural areas … are a stronghold and need to remain strong if we’re going to keep America strong,” he says. “The older I get, the more I recognize that God’s hand is in our lives. Being allowed to live each day is an opportunity to become better and to try and be a positive influence on others.”
Stewart Petersen, left, with his wife, Chemene Goodwin. | Courtesy photo
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