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Famous and Not Forgotten: Montana Actor Ian MacDonald

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Perhaps Ian MacDonald is best remembered as Frank Miller, the antagonist arriving in Hadleyville, New Mexico to exact revenge on a young, handsome sheriff played by Gary Cooper in Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952). While the uber-famous Cooper’s Montana roots have been oft-commemorated, MacDonald’s, as it happens, ran deeper and spread wider.

From Helena to High Noon

MacDonald was born Ulva William Pippy on June 28, 1914, in Great Falls, Montana. The name Ulva is an ancient Norse derivative loosely translating to “island of the wolf.” His father, William Pippy, was a Methodist minister who homesteaded in the Havre area. His mother was born in Canada as Sara Ann MacDonald.

Born in Newfoundland, Reverend Pippy came to Montana in 1910. He held pastorates in the Montana conference at Chester and Shelby before World War I. In 1916, Reverend Pippy served as chaplain in Company C of the 163rd Montana Infantry Regiment, 41st Division, on the Montana border.

At the outbreak of World War I, Pippy was appointed chaplain of the noted Montana regiment by Governor Samuel V. Stewart. From 1917 to 1919, he was in France with headquarters at Mont Richard and St. Aignan.

Reverend Pippy came to Helena in 1925 to become chaplain at Fort William Henry Harrison, where he served for twenty-five years. He also occupied pulpits in churches at Clancy, Marysville and Wolf Creek during his many years in the ministry. One of Reverend Pippy’s sons, MacDonald, steered his attention to a bevy of other activities. (Though born Ulva Pippy, we will refer to him by his notable stage name.)

During his school years, according to a later movie brochure biography, “Young MacDonald was athletic, playing high school football and basketball, yet still expressing an early interest in drama.” He graduated from the parochial Intermountain Union College of Helena, which was damaged by the Helena Earthquake of 1935 and later closed.

At Intermountain Union College, MacDonald served as president of the drama club, and it was there that he started his theatrical career with the Helena Little Theater. The May 9, 1934 edition of the River Press finds an advertisement for the religious play “The Rock,” presented at the church auditorium on May 12, 1934 by members of the dramatic club of Intermountain Union College, under the direction of the dramatic department. The cast included “Ulva Pippy,” who was noted as a member of a national dramatic society.

While attending college, MacDonald also worked at various jobs: clerk in a bank, on a highway construction crew and as a schoolteacher in the once-bustling mining town of Marysville, where he was superintendent, repairman and taught comprehensive high school classes. In the 1930 U.S. Census, MacDonald lived at 400 Harrison in Helena with his family of seven.

After moving to California, he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Ian MacDonald” entered films as a desperado in a pair of Hopalong Cassidy films in 1941, and might have appeared in several tiny roles under the name Ladd Pippy. MacDonald struggled to do better than a number of tiny, uncredited roles for the next several years.

MacDonald served in the armed forces during World War II; Army enlistment records cite his enlistment date as January 14, 1942. He returned to marginal work in Hollywood in 1946.

The world premiere of the Warner Bros. movie “Montana” provided Helena movie fans a chance to see home talent when MacDonald, aka Pippy, arrived in the capital city to see the premiere on January 10, 1950. He played the role of the villain Slim Reeves in the picture. The film featured the appearance of genuine Hollywood stars including Aussie Errol Flynn, Alan Hale and Alexis Smith. “Montana” depicted the war between foreign sheepmen and powerful local cattlemen during the early period of Montana’s history.

MacDonald eventually found his signature role by besting a number of actors for the key part of vicious outlaw Frank Miller in “High Noon” (1952). Fellow Montanan and Helena native Gary Cooper, his nemesis in the film, won an Oscar for his role as ex-marshal Will Kane.

After this success, MacDonald was one of the featured players in the 1955 film “Timberjack,” based on a story by Dan Cushman of Great Falls. It was filmed in western Montana and Glacier National Park. Director Joseph Kane and Republic Pictures made Missoula, Montana the crew’s headquarters for location shooting. According to the film’s media kit, “The Company’s workday started at 4:00 a.m., when cast and crew were transported some 130 miles. Some of the most breathtaking shots were made around St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. The selected sites ranged from Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s camp in the Poison Lake area to isolated mountain forests, made accessible by bulldozing roads through the wilderness.”

In addition to acting, MacDonald also worked as a writer, producer, and associate producer in a number of movies in the 1950s, all while he continued to vacation in Helena and visit friends and relatives, often making personal appearances at Montana locales such as the Old Brewery Theater.

By the mid-1950s, Parkinson’s disease had begun to have an effect on MacDonald’s gait and appearance. He lacked mobility in his right arm and nursed it in various scenes. But the actorcontinued to work until 1959-60, when he and his wife, Shirley Kannegaard Pippy, returned to their Montana roots.

The July 23, 1964 edition of the Helena Independent Record previewed the “High Noon” reenactment and the city’s celebration of its founding one hundred years before. MacDonald was a special guest at the reenactment, “which kicked off at midday with the sounds of gunshots,” the paper noted.

Ian MacDonald was living in Bozeman when he died on April 11, 1978, of cardiac arrest and the late stages of Parkinson’s disease. He is buried at Wilsall Cemetery in Wilsall, Montana.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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