TV Westerns

“BIRTH OF A LEGEND.” First episode of the first and only season of the TV series Legion, United Paramount Network (UPN), two hrs., 18 April 1995. Richard Dean Anderson (Ernest Pratt), John de Lancie (Janos Bartok), Mark Adair-Rios (Huitzilopochtli Ramos), Jarrad Paul (Skeeter). Guest cast: Bob Balaban, Stephanie Beacham, Katherine Moffat, Jon Pennell. Creators: Michael Piller & Bill Dial. Director: Charles Correll.

   Teaming up Richard Dean Anderson, who had just finished a long gig as MacGyver, with John de Lancie, not nearly as well known except to Star Trek fans as the omnipotent and very charismatic alien being Q, was a felicitous idea that should have worked. But success or not in the annals of network TV is a chancy thing, especially when it comes to small fledgling networks, and as fate would have it, the series lasted only twelve episodes before fading away forever.

   The basic concept is hardly a new one. Sometime in the 1860s, Anderson plays a dime novelist named Ernest Pratt who gets mistaken by the townspeople of Sheridan, Colorado, for the fictional and very popular hero of his long series of books, Nicholas Legend. Far from being a hero himself, Pratt spends his days gambling and drinking in the saloons of San Francisco, but he has only himself to blame for the mixup: his stories are written in the first person and images of his face are prominently featured on all the covers.

   Learning from a good-looking female attorney (Katherine Moffat) that a warrant has been issued for his arrest in Colorado, it takes some effort, but he is finally convinced to take a trip there in order to clear his name. Causing the local townsfolk to believe that he was their savior by means of one of his many inventions is eccentric scientist Janos Bartok (de Lancie), but the deed has also severely disrupted the plans of wealthy landowner Vera Slaughter (Stephanie Beacham), who caused the charges against Legend to be drawn up.

   I doubt that I am the first to call this show a combination of Wild Wild West and Maverick, but I think the connection fits. The show is played for laughs as much as anything else, but since we’re in on the gag from scene one, I don’t believe that that was one of the primary causes of the series’ early demise. I do think, though, that Anderson may have portrayed his role a little too broadly. (He isn’t that funny.)

   This is the only episode I’ve watched so far from the set of DVDs just recently released, so I can’t tell you what kind of adventures that Legend and Bartok will have from here. This may also be one of those concepts that just has no place to go. This is a series that depended on both charisma and wacky 19th century inventions. There may not have been enough wacky inventions to go around.


THE WILD WILD WEST. “Night of the Inferno.” CBS, 17 September 1965. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Robert Conrad (James T. West), Ross Martin (Artemus Gordon). Guest Cast: Suzanne Pleshette, Victor Buono, Nehemiah Persoff, James Gregory (as President Ulysses S. Grant). Written by Gilbert Ralston and Michael Garrison (creator). Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, “Night of the Inferno” was the pilot episode for The Wild Wild West, the genre bending spy-Western series that aired on CBS from 1965-1969. The series starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as Secret Service agents tasked with foiling plots against the U.S. government after the Civil War. Conrad portrayed the series’ hero, Jim West, while Martin portrayed his memorably named partner/sidekick, Artemus Gordon.

   In “Night of the Inferno,” the audience meets Jim West and Artemus for the first time. The two Secret Service agents set out from Washington to the New Mexico Territory in order to hunt down a warlord by the name of Juan Manolo. Along the way, West encounters a seductive woman from his past and also has to face off against a Mexican general, Gen. Andreas Cassinello (portrayed by the prolific character actor, Nehemiah Persoff, who appeared in numerous television series during his long career and was the voice actor for the animated character Papa Mousekewitz in the An American Tail film franchise).

   Altogether, this pilot episode works quite well in both introducing the two main characters as well as the gadgetry that Jim West would make extensive use of while fighting to save the Union from various super villains and their devious plots. An interesting tidbit: when the series was in the works, the title was going to be The Wild West. Perhaps it sounded just a little too basic, hence the additional of the second “Wild” when the episodes began to air.


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

“The Gladiators.” An episode of Have Gun – Will Travel, 19 March 1960. (Season 3, Episode 27.) Richard Boone. Guest Stars: Paul Cavanaugh, Dolores Donlon and James Coburn as Bill Sledge. Teleplay: Robert C. Dennis. Series created by Herb Maddow and Sam Rolfe. Directed by Alvin Ganzer.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was seldom just an ordinary western, and on occasion barely a western at all, as in this episode which opens in San Francisco at our hero Paladin’s (Richard Boone) rooms in the Carleton Hotel where he is receiving an attractive young lady, Miss Alison Windrom (Dolores Donlon) of New Orleans, with seduction on his mind, as evidenced by the champagne that accompanies her to the room and his lounging jacket.

   Alas for our tarnished knight, Miss Windrom is concerned for poor Daddy back home (veteran actor Paul Cavanaugh), who has accepted a challenge to a duel:

      “He’s a very proud man, Mr. Paladin, he’d rather die than yield.”

      “Is that a family trait?”

   It is the nineteen-fifties, and we know the seduction is not going to succeed, but the teleplay and Boone’s delivery of the lines makes no bones about what Paladin has in mind. It isn’t surprising audiences were ready for the much more successful James Bond a few years later. All this unfulfilled seduction and innuendo had to end at some point in a bedroom somewhere.

   Of course once he is hired, Paladin is all business. In that he, and most of the gunslingers in Westerns, very much resemble the work ethic of the private eye of pulp fiction, all business, no matter how attractive the distractions. In many ways Paladin is a private eye as much as a hired gun, though he is seldom cast in the role of detective.

   Over the course of the series we learn little of him other than he is an ex-soldier, fast with a gun, would rather talk than fight when possible, has exquisite tastes acquired if not born to, is possessed of a mordant and quick wit, and is cynical but still a romantic despite his jaundiced eye.

   He would like to be wrong about people and is gratified when he finds one of the few who defy is dark assessment of humanity. He is a man out of his time and place who probably would only really fit in San Francisco of that era or as an Elizabethan privateer. He is very much Chandler’s errant knight ‘good enough for any world,’ but his mean streets are most often dusty trails ending in a showdown.

   Miss Windrom is convinced the other party in the duel, the younger Mr. Beckley (George Neise) will step out if Paladin shows up as a proxy for her father. So Paladin gets dragged into it, protesting all the way, and steps into the looking glass with the Southern aristocrats who would rather die than yield, even if it means over the bodies of innocents.

   Or not so innocents, when Beckley hires his own proxy in the person of gunfighter Bill Sledge (James Coburn) from Texas, a man with a reputation with a gun equal to Paladin. The two men know of each other, and they meet on neutral ground with mutual respect for the other’s skill and professionalism. That paean to professionalism is also a throwback to the classic private eye of Hammett who is redeemed more by that trait than his humanity, the Code of the West is ironically largely the Puritan work ethic.

   Paladin considers the duel nonsense, and so does the dark but charming Sledge. Neither particularly wants to kill anyone, certainly not for two arrogant fools battling over some obscure point of honor, and it seems for a moment like the meeting on the field of honor and blood can be avoided if Paladin and Sledge refuse to fight, but Sledge can’t help but wonder which of them would win, and …

      Sledge: I never done much of this kind of fighting in Texas. Hear tell there’s rules.

      Paladin: You pay much attention to rules?

      Sledge: Never done yet.

   This episode is a tight little psychological game, as Paladin finds himself Alice surrounded by White Rabbits and Mad Hatters obsessed by ‘honor’ and inured to death. He finds the price of honor in this case too high, but no one else does, and as the tight little half hour goes on he inevitably will find himself on that field of honor and blood at dawn.

·       Paladin: “How much blood will you settle for?”

   The episode may surprise some who have a certain view of series drama from the Fifties. It is bitter, cynical, downbeat, dark, and unforgiving. That the conclusion is predetermined and unavoidable from the first makes it all the worse. It has the sharp taste of bitters without the gin, a nasty dose of quinine made palatable by watching two outstanding actors, both gifted at playing villain and complex hero, both with charm and cool to spare (had this episode also included those two other masters of small screen cool, Steve McQueen and Robert Culp, it could have frozen and shattered television tubes) in acutely observed and written roles clearly enjoying themselves.

   Coburn displays the vicious charm that worked equally well as dark hero or psychotic villain and would soon lead him to stardom, and Boone, who has the same qualities on screen, seems to enjoy his scenes with him, recognizing an equal. That, and the sharp observation of a world where honor encompasses wagering on death and wasting lives over obscure points make this episode a standout as Paladin learns the savagery of the “savage land” of the series theme song is nothing compared to that of the civilized world.

   Have Gun – Will Travel was always a well-written series, and thanks to Boone, always well-acted, but this one is a standout, a cynical little gem about the cost of violence and cultures that embrace it.

   It is also rare in that Paladin, the man who holds himself above the rest, is as compelled by his own code of honor as the men he condemns to see it out to the end, and in the final scene he is as disgusted with himself as them. This episode comes close to tragedy since no one in it escapes their hubris or pride whether they live or die.

   In the end, Paladin is a victim of his own honor as much as they are and bloodied by it as surely. His slight rebuff of all that has gone before in the final scene, when he throws a glass of champagne to the ground with a bitter comment and stalks off as the screen fades to black, isn’t satisfying for the character or for the viewer, and perhaps all the darker because we as voyeurs wanted to know which man would prevail as well.

   For a half-hour episode of series television from that time period “The Gladiators” bears a great deal of existential despair, especially for a Western. Even for a series as quirky and adult as Have Gun – Will Travel, this episode is savage and dark.

GALLOWAY HOUSE. Pilot: “The Night Rider.” 1962. Johnny Cash (as Johnny Laredo), Dick Jones, Johnny Western, Merle Travis, Gordon Terry, Eddie Dean, Karen Downes. Story and screenplay: Helen Diller. Director: Michael Hinn.

   Two gimmicks are going on at once here. The first gimmick is the title of the proposed series. Galloway House was supposed to be an old-fashioned playhouse theater, complete with drawn red curtains and a emcee in full colorful regalia (straw boater hat, bow tie, suspenders), with one problem as far as I was concerned. The opening introduction was clipped from the version I saw, and the closing curtain and farewell remarks came as a surprise at the end.

   The second gimmick, as I understand it, and I had to hunt for a while online to discover this, was that each episode of the proposed series was to tell the story in songs and words, of a well-known country song. I don’t believe that country singer Johnny Cash was to be the star of each episode, but I haven’t found any online discussion about it, one way or the other.

   In this pilot (and only) episode the song was “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” one of Johnny Cash’s many hit songs. About half the show consists of the characters singing various country standards: around a campfire, at a saloon, and at a funeral. The primary story, of course, is that of a foolish young boy who wants to prove himself a man by taking his guns to town.

   Johnny Cash as the lonesome gunfighter doesn’t have to work hard to act troubled, regretful and sullen, but as effective as he is, truthfully he’s not much of an actor. Some of the other members of the cast were well-known western singers and stars. I’d like to add a special note of recognition to Karen Downes who played the saloon chorus girl, who sings “Skip to the Lou” in suitably sultry fashion. It was her only credit in either TV or the movies.

HUDSON’S BAY. CTV, Canada, 1959-60. “Pilot episode.” Barry Nelson (Jonathan Banner), George Tobias (Pierre Falcone). Guest Cast: Toby Tarnow, Ben Lennick, Jean Caval, Jim Barron, Sean Franck. Director: Alvin Rakoff.

   Quite a few episodes of this series exist and are available either on YouTube or circulating in the collectors’ market. Barry Nelson plays an agent of the famed Hudson’s Bay Company, his bailiwick being essentially all of Canada, and more, or so the opening narration tells us: Labrador to California, Minnesota to Alaska. That’s quite a chunk or territory for two men to cover, but Jonathan Banner and his French-Canadian sidekick Pierre Falcone seem to have done it, for a period of one season, or 39 episodes.

   There was no onscreen title for the episode I watched, and there seems to be some uncertainty about it. The more reliable authority, as far as I have been able to determine, is Classic TV Archives, which does refer to it as the pilot and quite possibly episode one of the series itself. The official title, according to CTVA, is “Battle of Mississippi,” a/k/a “Indian Girl Witness” or “The Celebration.”

   IMDb, on the other hand, has the story listed under the title “Revelry at Red Deer,” which both they and CTVA have listed as Episode #8. The synopsis as given on IMDb matches the story I watched, for whatever worth that may be.

   In this episode, a fight breaks out over a Indian girl at a party held at the end of a hunting and trapping season, and when one of the men who was attracted to her is found murdered, the one who thought he had a prior claim to her is accused.

   Toby Tarnow, a Canadian actress, plays Little Dove (or Little Doe or Little Dory, sources vary) but has little or no dialogue. One telling scene occurs when Banner tries to locate her as a witness by going to the chief of tribe, and the chief says she has no tribe.

   Another longer scene consists of members of two trading companies shooting it out, with lots of dramatic deaths and falls from higher regions of the trading post. This makes sure that the story fills out to its full 25 minutes of so.

   If this series had been filmed in color, I think it might be worth further watching, but in black-and-white and with only a very ordinary episode under my belt, I think I’ll pass. (The first seven minutes are included in the clip below.)

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

“Joaquin Murietta.” An episode of Stories of the Century.   Syndicated / Republic Pictures, 16 April 1954 (Season 1, Episode 13). Jim Davis, Mary Castle, with Rick Jason as Joaquin Murietta. Screenplay: Milton Raison. Director: William Witney.

   In this Stories of the Century episode, Matt Clark, Railroad Detective (Jim Davis) and his female partner, Frankie Adams (Mary Castle) take on legendary/quasi-fictional bandit Joaquin Murietta. Directed by William Witney, this episode plays like an extended serial or a very short B-Western. Unlike many other television Westerns from this era, the hero not only has a female partner, but a strong willed and independent one more than willing to speak her mind.

   The plot is adequate, but some details don’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The characters, such as they are, aren’t all that developed, although it should be noted that Murietta is portrayed as both as a ladies man and as a cruel bandit. Still, there’s action, gun-fighting, allusions to gold treasure a plenty. Most importantly, there’s a Whitneyesque drawn out, bare-knuckles fistfight at the very end. How could there not be?

   You can watch the entire episode on the YouTube videobelow:

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

LARAMIE. NBC-TV, 4 seasons (1959-63), 124 episodes. Regular cast: Seasons 1 through 4: John Smith (Slim Sherman) and Robert Fuller (Jess Harper); Seasons 1 and 2 only: Hoagy Carmichael (Jonesy) and Robert Crawford, Jr. (Andy Sherman); Seasons 3 and 4 only: Spring Byington (Daisy Cooper) and Dennis Holmes (Mike Williams).

   Laramie is a relatively undistinguished but nevertheless very enjoyable series. Most of the plots are predictable, nothing any regular Western movie and TV fan hasn’t already seen a hundred times before.

   Despite that, one of the things that makes Laramie so watchable is the characterizations supplied by the two leads, straight arrow Slim (Smith) and edgy Jess (Fuller, a man with a checkered past) as they improbably try to run a ranch and a stagecoach station while gallivanting all over the West tracking down bad guys and gals (which could well explain why they’re always strapped for cash to keep the ranch going).

   As for the stories, most of them are standard fare (somebody killed somebody’s brother, etc.), with only a few really pushing the envelope of credibility. It must have been in the leads’ contracts that they would either get badly beaten or shot at least once every episode. Jess in particular usually takes a bullet through the left shoulder but hardly slows down — a real wildcat, that Harper, even with a hole the size of the Channel Tunnel in his torso. And on top of that, no one suffers any infections from their wounds — these guys are TOUGH.

   Best of all, Laramie features some of the all-time great Western villain actors: Lyle Bettger, Rod Cameron, Jan Merlin, Gregory Walcott, James Anderson, Harry Lauter, Roy Barcroft, Dennis Patrick, L. Q. Jones, and Robert J. Wilke being just a few. Even the future Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) each takes a turn as a bad guy.

   And then there’s Charles Drake, not your usual idea of a villain. In a Laramie episode titled “The Accusers” (episode 72) he plays a smooth murderer who, like Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, almost gets away with it; if only the finale hadn’t been so badly done.

   It must be an axiom in Hollywood: If you can’t come up with something original, steal. Two outright “lifts” from classic non-Western sources for Laramie plots would have to be:

    ~ “Strange Company” (episode 63) — While some of the locals are desperately trying to rebuild a stage line road, somebody in the crew is systematically killing the workers and Slim doesn’t have a clue as to who or why. If Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or whatever title you might know it by) comes to mind, you’re not alone.

    ~ “The Lost Dutchman” (episode 49) — Slim gets into a scrape when he’s accused of murder and Jess, turning detective, gets involved in the search for a black bird … no, not really, it’s actually a spur which is believed to have an authentic map (aren’t they all?) to the Lost Dutchman’s mine stuffed in the shank. In this variant of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Robert Emhardt assumes the Kasper Gutman part, Karen Steele takes the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role, and Robert Fuller comes across as a creditable Sam Spade.

   So, is Laramie worth your time? It’s a Western, isn’t it? “People love Westerns worldwide. There’s something fantasy-like about an individual fighting the elements. Or even bad guys and the elements. It’s a simpler time.” — Clint Eastwood

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