Harold Schafer loved the idea of the “American West,” just as he loved the reality of the West. Schafer (1912-2001) will always be remembered as the Bismarck businessman who made his fortune manufacturing Gold Seal floor-wax and Mr. Bubble bubble-bath. He subsequently invested heavily in restoring historic Medora, making it the state’s supreme tourist attraction. Interestingly, Harold Schafer’s love of the West also got him into a Hollywood film in the 1960s.
Here is how it happened. The year was 1961 when Harold Schafer went to Kodiak Island on an Alaskan bear-hunting trip and let his beard grow long in the wilderness. When he got back, he traveled to Rapid City to visit a relative. While there, Schafer read an advertisement seeking men with beards as extras in “How the West Was Won,” one of the biggest Western movies ever made. On a lark, he decided to try out. The gag was to see if he could secretly get a small role in the movie without letting the filmmakers know his real identity as the famous North Dakota millionaire.
The casting directors chose Schafer as one of 50 extras from amongst a multitude of 500 who applied. He started out at $10 a day as a bearded mule-skinner. Then, because he was tall with a full, black beard, he moved up to $100 per day as a “bearded buffalo hunter.”
For 12 days, Schafer commuted 275 miles to the South Dakota film location, flying in his piloted Cessna 310. Although he tried to be just another cast member, movie director George Marshall said: “He came here trying to be anonymous, hoping he would get no special treatment. We’ve known for 10 days who he was, but we went along with the gag.”
And so, when MGM’s “How the West Was Won” premiered in 1963 in Cinerama wide-screen splendor, Schafer’s “speaking part” lasted only a few seconds, as he asked the question: “The horses ride all right, Jake?”
It was on this date, in 1964, that the blockbuster film finally arrived in the Bismarck/Mandan theaters. Local reviewers remarked that Schafer had played “his buffalo hunter role realistically.”
When asked what he thought about all the publicity and hoopla associated with performing in the film, Harold Schafer commented with effervescent-enthusiasm: “I’m having a ball!”
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department
“At the Movies: Bismarck-Mandan Theaters,” Bismarck Tribune, August 22, 1964, p. 3.
“Bearded Buffalo Hunter Well Known in Bismarck,” Bismarck Tribune, September 6, 1961, p. 1.
Inez Robb, “Florid Beard is Prized Possession,” Arizona Daily Star [Tucson, AZ], February 21, 192, p. C-1.
“Hairloom,” Bismarck Tribune, March 9, 1962, p. 1.
“Local Lens Light,” Bismarck Tribune, March 19, 1963, p. 1.
“Buffalo Chips,” Bismarck Tribune, February 10, 1975, p. 1.
“Schafer Speaks 4 Words,” Bismarck Tribune, September 7 1961, p. 14.
“Deaths: Harold Schafer,” Bismarck Tribune, December 6, 2001, p. 9.
Harold Schafer: From Mr. Bubble to Mr. Medora,” Bismarck Tribune, December 4, 2001, p. 4.