Monday, August 5, 2013

Head 'em Up; Move 'em Out!

The 1950s and '60s were the salad years for the television Western. The tube was ripe with shows that utilized both America's wild and woolly past for story ideas and the convenient use of studio back lots to film those stories. I was introduced to many of these shows via reruns on local television channels since the age of the TV Western was nearing its end by the time I came along and while it wasn't my favorite genre, I have a particular fondness for several shows. So, since I published Trouble, my humorous science fiction novel with western overtones, I thought I'd write up a list of my Top Five TV Westerns beginning with Number Five:

5) Bonanza

For most people, when they think Western, they think "Bonanza." Even the theme song is iconic. Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) owns the Ponderosa: The biggest spread in Nevada. On it, he's raised three sons, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon). The interesting thing about the boys was that they all had different mothers (all of Ben's wives died prematurely. The Cartwight boys never had good look when it came to wives), hence the reason they all seemed so different in looks and temperament. They all shared a few things however: Their love for their pa and their love for the Ponderosa, a ranch that spread out for about 600,000 acres (and it's curious how rarely the viewer saw anyone on the ranch except Ben and his three boys). 

"Bonanza" was a show about a family that had fought for what they had and were willing to fight to keep it. Often times neighboring farm-and-town-folk resented their power ("Darn Cartwights think they're better than everybody!") and this was a richly mined plot device for the show. Generally though, the Cartwrights were well respected in the area and were responsible for helping to settle that part of the Nevada territory. 

"Bonanza" was as big and brash as the Ponderosa itself. From the writing, to the acting to the music. The drama was melo-, the humor often slapstick. And yet somehow it all worked, perhaps thanks to the four leads. The show was on from 1959-73, which is a considerable amount of storytelling for one television show but they had four big characters to invent stories for. And for the show, the theme song says everything.

4) F-Troop
Yes, "F-Troop." I'm not sure if you could call this your typical Western, but it was set in the Old West where Indian fights are colorful sights and nobody takes a licking/where pale-face and red-skin both turn chicken. 

Okay, I lifted that from the theme song. But while the show may be at its heart a comedy, it is set in the Old West and has fun with the the trappings of that time, blending the two genres nicely. Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), a well meaning but accident prone officer is sent to Fort Courage guarded by F-Troop, a truly rag tag bunch of recruits featuring Private First Class Hannibal Dobbs (James Hampton), the bugler who couldn't bugle, Private Vanderbilt (Joe Brooks), the near-and-far-sighted lookout, and Private Hoffenmueller (John Mitchum), the translator who could speak three languages, none of them English. Also at the fort were Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch), president and vice president, respectively, of O'Rourke Enterprises, the business the pair ran on the side with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova) and Crazy Cat (Don Diamond) of the local Hekawi tribe.

Some might find the local Indian tribe, the Hekawi, an insult to Native Americans. I think this is too simplistic. The show was never really insulting Native Americans. They set up from the beginning that the Hekawi, were the exception, not the norm. They were as much rejects among their people as the men of Fort Courage were among theirs (probably one reason they got into business with O'Rourke Enterprises). And unlike many portrayals of Native Americans at the time, Chief Wild Eagle and Crazy Cat had the savvy to deal with shifty "white-eyes" like O'Rourke and Agarn. So draw your own conclusions

At any rate, "F-Troop" ran from 1965-67 with respectable ratings but the new owners of Warner Brothers, the studio producing the show, decided that it was too expensive to keep a back lot open to film one half hour comedy, so they canceled the show. 

3) The Wild Wild West
This is another hybrid, this time Western and science fiction (a bit like my novel Trouble). It's also one of the cleverest shows that ran in either genre. "The Wild Wild West" starred Robert Conrad as James West and Ross Martin as Artemis Gordon, two secret service agents on special assignment for President Ulysses S. Grant. The concept was an attempt to tap into the "secret agent" genre that was becoming popular in the mid-to-late sixties. The two characters traveled the U.S. in a special (and very tricked out) private train car, solving crimes, saving the day and just being cool. 

Gordon, a master of disguise, was also an inventor of clever gadgets that often got West out of trouble. Like James Bond, West was equally adept at getting out of trouble using his brains or his fists. In fact the athletic Conrad (a Chicago native) did many of his own stunts, working closely with the stunt team on the show.

But it's the science fiction elements that gives "The Wild Wild West" its uniqueness. The writers tried to be respectful of the time (and what was possible technologically) when they dreamed up the gadgets used in diabolical plots to rule the world. This was, after all, the late 1800s. And it's possible that plots were aided by the show being set in a time when so much of the U.S. was still unsettled. Anything was possible, or so it seemed. 

As with "F-Troop," however, the fate of "The Wild Wild West" was cast not by ratings but by outside forces. It ran from 1965-69 with high ratings, but was canceled as a scapegoat in Congress' attempt to address television violence.

There were two reunion movies in 1979 and '80 and a remake with Will Smith and Kevin Klein was made in 1999. The less said about that movie the better except to say that it should have been better. 

2) The Rifleman
This is a 30 minute show that packed a lot of punch. Dramas can be tough to do well in 30 minutes but there was a great deal of 30 minute productions in the '50s and '60s. Of course, there were less commercials then too, giving plot more time to develop. The quality of the acting is what helps give "The Rifleman" its punch.

The show, which ran from 1958-63, starred Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a mild mannered sod-buster who could wield a pretty mean rifle when needed. In the days of the six-gun-shoot-'em-ups, a guy fast enough to win a showdown with a rifle was pretty impressive. Especially a guy as accurate with the shot as Lucas McCain.

Lucas, a widower, and his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford) lived on a ranch just outside of the town of North Fork. It's the relationship between father and son that makes "The Rifleman" so special. In fact, it was one of the first television shows that featured a man raising a young son after the loss of his wife. The bond between them is strong and often Lucas' actions in a crisis are decided by what is best for Mark's future. Lucas can swagger with the best of him, but his only interest is raising his son and working his land. The themes are complex, often centering on the idea of people being given second chances.

Connors had a sports career going before he went into acting. In fact he was one of only 12 athletes in sports history to play for both major league baseball (one of the teams he played on was the Chicago Cubs in 1951) AND professional basketball. When watching this show, it's easy to see that he chose the right career path. His acting is easy, yet sincere and the chemistry between him and Crawford (who was equally natural) is spot on. It's one of those shows I can watch over and over and not get bored with.


1) Rawhide
This is, for me, the penultimate western. Along with having the best theme song (sung by Frankie Laine), and co-starring Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates, the series, which ran from 1959-66, seemed to have the best grip on the sort of effort it took to make a life in the Old West. The premise was simple. Trail boss Gil Favor, played by Eric Fleming, and his crew of drovers (some regulars, some hired at the beginning of each drive), have to drive a herd of cattle from point A to point B at a time when doing so meant driving them across miles of rough, sometimes hostile country. Threats could come from a lack of watering holes and decent grazing, to unfriendly Native Americans or white settlers unwilling to let them cross their land. There were also rustlers, unreasonable townspeople and even members of the drive itself who, when times got tough, decided they weren't that interested in going through what they had to go through to be paid what they'd be paid. 

Along with quality writing and impressive location shooting, there was quality acting especially by the two leads. Gil Favor, as played by Fleming, was a no-nonsense guy simply trying to get the cattle through and earn a living. Always on his mind was what was best for the men and the cattle. When the needs of the two collided, he tried to deal with it as fairly as he could. Yates, as played by Eastwood, was a guy trying to live up to the standard of his trail boss, yet who was young and often impulsive. (Interestingly, Fleming was originally approached to play in "A Fist Full of Dollars," the Sergio Leone epic, but turned it down, so Eastwood took the chance and shot the film between seasons of Rawhide). They headed up an ensemble of characters, each adding different textures to the show.

Complicated characters, intricate storylines and changing locals helped make this show one of the more gritty and realistic Westerns on television. Which is why I consider "Rawhide" the best Western of all time.

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