Stronger Than Ever
Former Actor & Radio Personality Ron Chilton Reflects on His Career, Talks Participating in Senior Olympics
Ron Chilton has led a life many of us would be envious of. He’s been a radio man, a singer, a musician, an actor and a several times over Senior Olympics gold medalist. He’s a pioneer of Louisville radio, appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, stood nose to nose with Elizabeth Taylor and learned first hand that Steven Seagal is not the most congenial of human beings.
From the army to his days as a legendary DJ to an actor, it all began in Danville, Ky, Chilton says, the place he considers his hometown. But after high school, when most of his friends began attending Centre College, Chilton felt the pull of the larger world beckoning.
“Right away I had been drawn to the theater,” he says.
To pursue this calling Chilton first enrolled at Transylvania, later transferring to the University of Miami before finished his bachelor’s at the University of Kentucky where he starred in several plays and operas.
“But my acting career actually took off at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville,” Chilton says. “Along the way, I was in a play with some up and comers of the time. I was in a play with Lee Majors called Seven Husbands. Soon thereafter he was the Six-Million Dollar Man. I was in another play there with a young actor named John Travolta. Obviously, he became a major star.”
Indeed, Chilton continued to chase his dream doggedly.
“I always wanted to be an actor and I remember telling my parents that I wanted to be a movie star,” he says. “My dad said, ‘Listen, Ron, you don’t want to say that because that sounds pretentious, tell them you want to be an actor.’”
Chilton laughs heartily at the memory. In one story he recalls his first Hollywood role, in 1956, in the MGM produced film “Raintree County” starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, which was filmed in Danville.
“I was selected to be Montgomery Clift’s stand-in and I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor,” he says. “They put an X on your toes as a stand-in showing you exactly where to stand and her double was up against me. They tapped her on the shoulder and she moved out and then Elizabeth Taylor moved in and I was standing nose-to-nose with her, the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen in my life. That was the most exciting time that I ever had.”
His mainstream movie appearances didn’t end there. Over the years, Chilton has landed small roles in 13 major motion pictures filmed in various regions of Kentucky. Armed with an agent he’d secured from his time in radio and television, Chilton has appeared in the films 8 Men Out, Fire Down Below, Stripes, Seabiscuit and Elizabethtown, to name a few. But, just in case you don’t believe him, Chilton has proof.
“I always try and get my picture with the stars of the movie so I can prove I met them,” he says. “My parts didn’t always allow me to be up front. I remember asking Bill Murray if he’d take a picture with me and he said ‘sure, c’mon.’ We kind of put our arms around each other and right before the picture was taken he put me in a headlock and gave me a noogie and said ‘there’s your picture!’ The toughest was Steven Seagal. They said, ‘don’t mess with that guy, don’t even make eye contact.’ But I caught him off guard. I sidled up to him and had a friend take a picture real quick.”
But acting has always been only one of the many hats Chilton has worn. It’s always been his voice, he says, that got him to where he wanted to go. Radio was one of the first places his voice found a home. He started his radio career in Danville, fresh from his stint in the military, in 1960. He’d spend the next four decades involved in radio to one degree or another, moving from Danville to Lexington to Louisville’s WAKY station by the early 70s. One of the major highlights of Chilton’s time in the radio industry was his time at the University of Louisville’s WUOL station, created in1976.
“And you know, there were 350 people trying out for that one job and I got it,” he says. “As an announcer and first manager of WUOL. And I still can’t believe that it happened to me. I look back and I think, ‘how in the hell did I just fall into that?’ I stayed there from 1976 to 1978 but left to get back into commercial radio where I spent the last 20 years of my career.”
GOING FOR THE GOLD
When Chilton retired 20 years ago he, as so many retirees do, found himself with an abundance of free time. Seeing as how he was not one to “sit idly on the front porch and rust out,” Chilton needed something slightly more challenging than your average post-retirement gigs. Never an orthodox man to begin with, he found his answer in an unorthodox place — the Senior Olympics.
“I’d heard about the Senior Olympics and that’s when I started participating in them, in 1998,” Chilton says. “I do the 50, the 100, the 200, the 400, all sprints. In the field, I do the discus, shot put, javelin, hammer throw, long jump, triple jump. I do 10 events in my category of 80-84. I compete against those who are my age.”
The events take place yearly in Kentucky and bi-annually on the national level. Chilton, whose won countless gold medals in his categories, works hard to stay competitive. At 82, he’s more active now than many people a fourth his age.
“I run a mile every morning,” he adds. “I go to the gym and workout with weights every morning. I have a trainer. Some people look at me and when I tell them I’m 82-years-old they say, ‘no way, you can’t be!’ And I say ‘yeah!’ As long as I have good health, I feel good, my joints are in good shape, I’m going to continue as long as I can. I know there might be a time when I won’t be able, but hell, I’ve seen some people in their 90s approaching 100 that are still out there. I say, keep going till you can’t.”
“I was talking to a guy the other day and he said, ‘how the hell do you do it? I’m 61 and I can hardly do anything,’” Chilton says. “And I said, ‘well, there’s two things. Make sure that you have a proper diet — I’m the same weight I was in high school — and that you exercise.’ That is the elixir of life, exercise. Also, have good genes.”
Behind his larger-than-life persona, Chilton is not much different than the rest of the general population. He lives simply and has resided in the same Jeffersontown area house for the past 40 years. He’s been married to his wife, Mary Lee, for 50 years. There’s the two grown children — a son and daughter — and the two teenage grandchildren. To top it off, he still works part-time at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Chilton hasn’t quite given up the acting bug either. He recently starred in a film from this year’s 48-Hour Film Festival called “The Will,” which won the award for “audience choice” after its screening at the Village 8 Theaters where the competition is held every year.
“I was very pleased with that,” he says, grinning, obviously proud that he can still bring his acting skills to the table when needed.
Chilton says there are things about his life, in retrospect, that he found the most extraordinary. Even from a very young age, he knew exactly what he was going to do with this life and what he was going to use to get there. But to live the kind of life Chilton has you almost have to realize what metal you’re working with early on so that you can have the proper amount of time to temper it into the shape you want.
“I was 12 when I realized my voice had changed,” he says. “It was getting lower and lower. I knew right away that my voice was going to be my career. I just knew it. Whether I was going to be an actor, radio announcer, on television or a commentator, I knew it. You know, it’s strange when you look back, as a 12-year-old boy that I knew exactly what was going to be my livelihood. Some guys want to be a doctor, a firefighter, a lawyer, whatever but I knew I was going to be in radio or an actor. By golly, I went out, I had that confidence, and I knew.”