HOLLYWOOD -- Behind the facade of Uncle Jesse, the choleric patriarch of the top-rated 'Dukes of Hazzard' series, lies a wily oil man who co-stars in the series for fun and profit.
Denver Pyle, who looks not unlike a cross between Uncle Sam and Santa Claus, won't say that acting is an avocation but it's certainly not as remunerative as Otis Energy, an oil outfit in which he is a partner.
Twelve years ago, before the oil crunch hit the United States and before OPEC put a stranglehold on the rest of the world, Pyle began buying oil leases on wells that paid $2.15 per barrel. Today he's getting $46.75 a barrel.
Over that span of time, and even earlier, Pyle was acting in a half-dozen TV series -- 'Wyatt Earp,' 'The Andy Griffith Show,' 'Tammy,' 'The Doris Day Show,' 'Grizzly Adams.'
All of his acting income would not begin to match his oil earnings.
'I bought fringe producing wells in Texas and Colorado that were mostly dissipated,' Pyle said in his rumbling baritone. 'And as technology progressed by leaps and bounds, more and more oil was reclaimed.
'So I just kept buying and selling leases and investing in drilling programs. My partner is Otis Johnson who knows a lot about geology. Our headquarters is in Denver and we may be going public soon.
'Right now we have leases in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas with producing wells. Recently we drilled eight wells and hit oil in all eight of them. Not a single dry hole. We've bought our own drilling rigs, too.'
Asked why he continued to work in a weekly TV series instead of devoting all his time to the oil business, Pyle grinned happily.
'I look at it this way, acting provides the cash flow I need for oil speculation,' he said. 'And besides that I like acting. It's fun.
'Uncle Jesse is a variation on a constant theme I've played since I began acting back in 1948. I was 30, playing guys 60 years old. I began in the old Republic Studio's horse operas.
'I guess Jesse's character came to life first on 'The Andy Griffith Show' as Mr. Darling who came to town every once in a while with his four sons and a daughter that he was trying to get married off.
'You gotta like Uncle Jesse. He's God-fearing, honest and irascible. He stands for all the good old virtues.
'Jesse Duke is a variation of the characters Walter Brennan used to play.
'Over the years the character has become easier and easier for me to play and with less and less makeup to age me.
'Jesse is not exactly the same guy as the others I've played. He's a type you can find anywhere -- farmer, businessman, politician, sea captain or cowboy.
'He's an authority figure who gives people a feeling of security. Uncle Jesse is the backbone of what people think America is all about. And I guess there are a lot of men like him around.
'I keep refining and honing him so I can drop into character at a moment's notice. I'm not the same man as he is. I walk and talk differently.
'One good thing about Jesse's type, he fits in a lot of places. He's an anchor for any show. I call Uncle Jesse the 'cut-to' character. Every good series has one of them to keep the flow of the story going.
'In 'Dukes of Hazzard' when the producer wants to get from one car chase to another he cuts to Jesse who explains what's happening in a line or two and then they cut to the next chase.
'He's the catalyst who can advance the plot while the action is going on. I can move the show weeks ahead just by talking into the CB microphone.'
Most TV series stars are touchy when addressed or greeted by their characters' names. It doesn't please them to lose their personal identity to the flamboyant characters they play.
It's not a good idea, for example, to call Carroll O'Connor 'Archie' or Penny Marshall 'Laverne.' You would make no friend of Rob Reiner calling him 'Meathead.'
But Pyle is charmed when he's recognized as Jesse Duke.
'Hell, I'm Uncle Jesse everywhere I go in this country,' he said, laughing. 'Most people don't know my real name. Doesn't bother me at all.
'In three years Jesse's made more impact than all the other characters I've played, if for no other reason than we reach more people on our series. It's great to be the number one show on TV.'
Uncle Jesse has been an asset to Pyle in his oil business. Many an oilman becomes a bigshot in the eyes of his family when he says he's closed a deal with Uncle Jesse.
'Sure it helps,' Pyle said gleefully. 'I walk into the Petroleum Club in Denver and shake a lot of hands. They'd all like to do business with Jesse. It makes them heroes at home.'