Obituary: Abel Fernández, TV and film actor

Born: 14 July, 1930, in Los Angeles, California. Died: 3 May, 2016, in Whittier, California, aged 85.

Abel Fernández, TV and film actor, star of the original The Untouchables. Picture: Contributed
Abel Fernández, TV and film actor, star of the original The Untouchables. Picture: Contributed

As Cherokee federal agent William Youngfellow, Abel Fernández was the only Native American member of Eliot Ness’s elite team taking on Prohibition-era Chicago’s mobsters in the hit TV series The Untouchables. A hail of machine-gun fire and a screech of tyres would signal their arrival before bringing a ruthless gangster to justice – or dispatching him to the morgue.

Following the 1959 two-part pilot, The Scarface Mob – based on the real-life Ness’s autobiography – Fernández was also the only actor to reprise his role as an agent alongside star Robert Stack, who played the crime boss. At the time, it was a rare example of Native Americans being cast outside Westerns on television.

The series ran until 1963 and was given veracity by the narration of Walter Winchell, a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster who had known members of the mob.

Fernández’s character, a former American football player, was based on William Jennings Gardner, who had Chippewa Indian blood and was one of Ness’s crack outfit tackling Al Capone’s illegal empire between 1929 and 1931, although the actor’s own sport was boxing, in which he excelled – at one time he sparred in training with Rocky Marciano.

Abel Michael Fernández was born in Los Angeles to Abel, who was of Mexican Indian descent, and Guadalupe (née Alvirdez), a Yakaii Indian who died while giving birth to him. He attended Belmont High School, Los Angeles, and loved watching cowboy films.

From the age of 16, he served as a paratrooper in the US Army’s 11th Airborne Division and took to the boxing ring, becoming middleweight champion of Asiatic Forces. Although Fernández turned professional as a heavyweight in 1950, he left the ring behind three years later after clocking up 12 wins, 11 losses and one draw, and winning the Los Angeles Golden Gloves tournament.

“I don’t think I’d be much good as a fighter any more,” he said at the time. “I got to the point where I hated to hit guys. I was afraid I’d hurt them. I sent three boys to the hospital and spent most of my time visiting them. Fighters shouldn’t care who they hit or how or where.”

Switching to acting, Fernández made his screen début in the 1953 gangster drama Second Chance, which was shot in Mexico and saw his character, Rivera, beaten in the boxing ring by Robert Mitchum’s prize-fighter – although the Hollywood star recalled being knocked out by the fledgling actor three times during filming under the blazing sun.

Three years later, Fernández narrowly lost out to professional wrestler “Tarzan Mike” Lane for the leading role of Toro Moreno in the boxing saga The Harder They Fall but played Chief Firebird, a boxer reluctant to throw a fight.

He landed a string of bit parts as Native American warriors in episodes of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-8), The Saga of Andy Burnett (1957-8), Gunsmoke (1956-9), Wagon Train (1957-9), Bonanza (1959), Daniel Boone (1965-9) and other TV series and films.

However, he broke out of this typecasting by playing Sergeant Abel Featherstone, of the US Air Force, in Steve Canyon (1958-9) – a live-action TV adaptation of a popular comic strip – before gaining fame in The Untouchables. He also had a bit part as a Cuban guerrilla fighter in the 1969 Alfred Hitchcock film Topaz.

By the early 1970s, acting roles were drying up, but he found a brief revival the following decade with guest appearances in popular series such as Lou Grant and The Fall Guy (both 1981). Later, Fernández produced films for disadvantaged children.

He is survived by two sons, Patrick and Tony, and two daughters, Delia and Elsa.