Tue 4 Apr 2017
FRONTIER CIRCUS. “Depths of Fear.” CBS-TV; 5 October 1961. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Chill Wills, John Derek, Richard Jaeckel. Guest Cast: Aldo Ray, James Gregory, Bethel Leslie. Creator: Samuel A. Peeples. Director: William Witney.
The concept of this series is both twofold and obvious from the title. It’s a western series with the setting and trappings of circus-related stories. Either that, or it’s a circus series taking place in the Old West. On the basis of watching only this one episode, I’m inclined to go with the latter. Just as in Wagon Train, to use the example that comes to mind almost immediately, it’s the people and their stories that make for the conflicts and the drama, not so much the setting.
Chill Wills (as Colonel Casey Thompson) is a partner in the T and T Circus with John Derek (Ben Travis), with Richard Jaeckel as their traveling scout and assistant. And every week for 26 weeks, a whole flock of middle- to high-level guest stars came on to have their fictional stories told. Among them: Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Montgomery, Gilbert Roland, Irene Dunne, Don “Red” Barry, Dan Duryea, Vera Miles, Stella Stevens, Rip Torn, Claude Akins and many more.
The conflict in this first episode is a three-way one, between James Gregory, a martinet of a lion tamer as well as a wife-abuser; his wife, Bethel Leslie, who would leave him if she dared; and Aldo Ray, a drunken bum picked up the circus who was once also a lion tamer, but one who has lost his nerve because of a past incident in his life.
The story is fairly predictable one, but between the script and Wiliam Witney’s direction, the 50 minutes or so of running time go by very quickly, and the continuing members of the cast are sharp on their toes to jump right in whenever needed in support.
It’s an unusual combination of genres, and but with a good cast and guest stars, it’s no wonder that the series lasted a full year. In a way, though, it’s also no surprise that it wasn’t picked up for a second season. The confines of a circus just wouldn’t seem to allow for such a wide range of stories as was possible on the much longer-running (and aforementioned) Wagon Train series.