The Westerner was one of the most short-lived of the TV Western shows, yet one of the best.
It only lasted for one short season, 13 episodes between September 30 and December 30, 1960, and was not renewed. Partly this was perhaps because of its unattractive Friday evening slot, partly because it was quite adult, even philosophical in tone, and maybe also simply because it was one of twenty-five prime-time TV Westerns then and the market was saturated (and soon to decline). At any rate it did not shine in the ratings.
It was a pity because there was a lot of high quality about the show. Its star, Brian Keith, said, “Only four or five of these were really good. But those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” He must have watched them. Usually, like Robert Mitchum, once a show or movie was wrapped he just moved on and didn’t even see the finished product. He just wasn’t that interested. But he seems to have had another look at The Westerner.
Keith had started Westerns with a memorable part in an otherwise nasty little Charlton Heston film, Arrowhead, had been Barbara Stanwyck’s oily lover in The Violent Men, had done the trashy Run of the Arrow and the B Hell Canyon Outlaws in ’57, was again good as the gun-runner in Fort Dobbs, and then he did two pictures back-to-back in Mexico with ho-hum director James B Clark in ’58, Sierra Baron and Villa!! So he was quite well known (as his dad had been) in oaters, and indeed he was a keen Western buff. Keith evidently hit it off with Peckinpah because the year after The Westerner he was cast in Peckinpah’s first big-screen Western, The Deadly Companions, with (unfortunately) Maureen O’Hara. It is said that Keith insisted that Peckinpah direct that movie. Keith is excellent in The Westerner as the happy-go-lucky and footloose Dave Blassingame, a drifting cowpoke who can’t stick at anything, and is as handy with a gun (and his fists) as he is with the ladies.
Actually, though, the real hero was not Keith but Brown (Spike). Spike had famously been Old Yeller in 1957, so was quite a star. He accompanies Blassingame everywhere (he is in every episode) though interestingly, Dave rarely says Brown is ‘his’ dog. They just travel together. He doesn’t want to commit to anything, not even a dog. Maybe Brown felt the same. Peckinpah would use Spike again in Junior Bonner.
Perhaps the “four or five as good as anything anybody has ever done” were the ones written and directed by Sam Peckinpah.
Peckinpah at this time was moving fast from writing TV shows to making it big as a director. He had done some excellent work on Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, among others. But David Levy, No. 2 at NBC, had an idea for another show based around a gun. ‘Gimmick guns’ were all the rage then, such as Chuck Connors’s trick rifle in The Rifleman, Steve McQueen’s sawn-off Winchester in Wanted: Dead or Alive, Don Durant’s seven-shooter LeMat in Johnny Ringo, and of course Hugh O’Brian’s Buntline Special in The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. Levy agreed to let Peckinpah write and direct an episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (aired in March 1959) which would feature the first scoped Winchester, with a box magazine, the 1895 model with .405 rounds, which Theodore Roosevelt used on African safaris and called his “medicine gun for lions”. Peckinpah said, “They had a title called Winchester. It turned out they didn’t have the title at all – but from that title I wrote the pilot script which later became The Westerner. Dave Levy of NBC liked it and bought it [one suggestion is that Levy bought the show while his boss was away in Europe]. And, thank God, both he and Dick Powell were very explicit in giving me carte blanche.”
|0||Trouble at Tres Cruces||Sam Peckinpah||Sam Peckinpah||March 26, 1959|
The pilot in fact makes fascinating viewing, and is available as an extra on the DVD of the series. After the usual rather flippant intro from Dick Powell, you can see the quality right away, in the writing, in the directing and in the acting. Like all the future series, it was just a 30-minute black & white TV show (25 mins runtime) and it follows many of the classic TV Western conventions, but it is vastly more subtle than many of its rival TV oaters.
Dave is cowpoking up in Wyoming, and is seen first in the bunkhouse smoking – rather poignant as emphysema and lung cancer would (indirectly) eventually cause his death. But he decides, malgré Jessie (an unfamous Rita Lee), to go down to old Mexico after Jessie has read a letter to him (so he can’t read) from an old friend who talks of a new high-powered rifle. Peckinpah did not cast some glam starlet as Jessie but a ‘plain’ woman, and it seems all the more realistic. Dave has no romantic interest in her but tries to let her down gently.
Now, curiously, John Wesley Hardin makes an appearance. Oddly, though, he is not mentioned by name in the script, only in the credits. At least, I am assuming JWH was the nasty cowhand who threatens the dog and is consequently punched out by Dave (and quite right too) but I wouldn’t swear to that. If it is so, then Brad Johnson, I do not say a nonentity but certainly not a Western star, joins the long roll call of those who have played the Texas gunman on the big screen or (mostly) small.
Anyway, Dave + mutt set out for Tres Cruces. He does not know, yet, what we have seen in a prologue, that the owner of the rifle, Adam (Ted de Corsia) has been killed and his rifle taken by local crime boss Nick Karafus (Neville Brand as a Greek, rather good) and his thuggish henchman Miguel (Michael Pate, playing a Mexican, we first think, though he later says he is not Mexican, he is Yaqui, and so Pate continued in his long series of roles as an Indian).
At the cantina in Tres Cruces Dave first gets a frosty welcome but when he reveals who he is, he is welcomed by Ysidro (Frank Silvera, who played every kind of ethnic character and nationality) and his daughter, the barmaid (Elsa Cardenas), who were close friends of the murdered Adam.
There’s a good scene when Karafus and Miguel arrive and Dave and the Greek get to bare-knuckle fighting. Dave loses, unusually for a TV hero, but now, in a reversal of the usual pattern, the Mexican villagers with their machetes surround the thugs, to protect their new gringo friend. The bad guys decide to beat a tactical retreat but Miguel shoots a Mexican woman in parting, and Dave, who now has the Winchester, and Ysidro together set out in pursuit.
The showdown shoot-out is very well done. First Dave shoots, using the scope, without warning (no Western code of honor here), downing the Greek’s horse, but rather than take a second, fatal shot at long range, he goes down to meet his opponent, face to face, the code of the West now prevailing. The Greek will discover the sheer power of the Winchester bullets.
It was a brilliant half-hour show. No wonder NBC bought the series.
|1||Jeff||Sam Peckinpah||Sam Peckinpah & Robert Heverly||September 30, 1960|
Who is the Jeff of the title? Nay, it is not your own blogger, the present writer. This Jeff was but 12 at the time and had (regrettably) never met Mr Peckinpah. The Jeff of the show’s title was a female and a prostitute, and I can lay my hand on my heart (or indeed anyone else’s heart) and swear I have never been either. This Jeff is a saloon gal, ‘owned’ by her pimp boss Denny, and played by 60s blonde Diana Millay, a top model with classic late-50s/early 60s looks, who did a few TV Westerns. Of course the word prostitute could never be pronounced on a 1960 TV show, and NBC execs heavily insisted that she be referred to as a “singer”. Why Peckinpah chose a man’s name for her is unclear, though we did quite often get women with men’s names in Westerns (Mike being a particular favorite).
Dave announces to Brown in the opening scene that they have a long way to go and “a man to kill”. This is of course Denny, the lowdown saloon boss who is abusing Dave’s old flame Jeff. Actually, it was superb casting because Denny was played by English stage actor Geoffrey Toone, and brilliantly too, as a cultured brute. Toone had a long film career (he was Sir Edward Ramsay in The King and I and Harold Hubbard in The Entertainer) and here he is icy, ruthless and really quite frightening. He is an ex-pugilist (Peckinpah had old fight posters up on the saloon walls) and when he takes his shirt off to duke it out with Dave, he has a splendid physique. Although Dave lost his first fight, the one in the pilot, this time he manages to beat Denny to the ground, using what the ex-prizefighter complains are “unfair” moves. “This ain’t a game!” Dave shouts as he knees his opponent in the groin and pummels the man to the floor. Tough stuff.
The name Denny was personal to Peckinpah. His brother Denver Peckinpah, a Fresno County Superior Court Judge, was always known as Denny. I don’t know if Sam had anything in mind when he named the fighter-pimp in his show that!
The saloon is a rat-hole and everything (and everyone) is dirty. We see Warren Oates in a wordless part subside drunk to the floor – the first time, as far as I know, that Peckinpah used the future seeker of the head of Alfredo Garcia. Peckinpah used harsh, unforgiving lighting on Millay to emphasize the lack of glamor. The woman has been forced into prostitution in a low dive and the director clearly wanted a pitiless and totally unglamorous portrayal. Dave and Jeff together foreshadow perhaps Pike Bishop with the whore in ’69.
There’s another struggle, that with the brutal Apache barman (our old pal stuntman Charles Horvath, who was often an Indian), who tries to get Dave with a shotgun. The scatter gun is no match for the Winchester, which Dave seems to handle as dexterously as if it were a small handgun. Dave has won, and the Englishman rather sportingly admits as such, even giving Jeff money to help her future with Dave. There is, though, a final plot twist…
Two short but fascinating interludes come before Dave enters the saloon and as he is leaving it, when a strange evangelist woman offers him a religious tract, quoting Psalm 139 (with a prostitute laughing in the background). “Have you found salvation?” she asks him. “Nope. Have you?” He gives her a lot of money for the pamphlet, far too much, which she disapproves of. This woman was played by Marie Selland, the then, but very soon to be ex-Mrs Peckinpah. It’s a curious exchange, almost weird. Who knows what the director-writer meant by it.
I must say, the women in Peckinpah’s Westerns, The Westerner included, are completely unlike those in other big-screen and (especially) small-screen Westerns, and about as far from John Ford’s as you can get.
The great Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, a favorite of Peckinpah’s, and he manages to endow the ultra-cheap set with mystery, even danger. It’s very well done indeed.
I noticed at the end the announcement “© Four Star – Winchester”, so it seems they were using the name. I don’t know if the Winchester Repeating Arms Company were aware, or approved.
This opening episode was most certainly an adult Western, no doubt about that. Variety thought it was “depraved”, though Cecil Smith in The LA Times was enthusiastic (as he was about the whole series). Perhaps it was personal to Peckinpah (a man who often used the services of prostitutes when he was a Marine) and he wanted to kick the series off with Jeff. On the commentary to the episode on the DVD it is suggested that while on a hunting trip Sam had met a prostitute in a bar in Nevada who had told him her story, and that he had used that as the basis of Jeff. It’s a story of shame, and power.
Today, with all these cable shows, Jeff does not seem perhaps that startling or brutal but in a time when TV programs were anodyne and safe (1960 was the year of such shows as National Velvet, Route 66, My Three Sons, and the like, and Western series of that year included Stagecoach West, Overland Trail, and Outlaws) this one was quite a shock. Certainly Jeff is one of the best episodes of the series.
|2||School Days||André De Toth||Robert Heverly||October 7, 1960|
Peckinpah did not direct or write all the episodes. Episode 2, School Days, was directed by class act André De Toth. Though he had a background as a European film maker of an intellectual kind, after he immigrated to the US De Toth immersed himself in the world of the hard-boiled American film, doing crime, horror and Westerns. He directed the superb Ramrod with Joel McCrea in 1948, co-wrote The Gunfighter for Henry King in 1950 and directed a series of Westerns with Randolph Scott. But he also helmed a few Western TV shows, episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, Maverick and Bronco. He did a fine job on this short episode of The Westerner.
It opens with Dave being taught to write his name by a kind schoolma’am, Miss Larson (Jock Mahoney’s wife Maggie Field). After the lesson he leaves with Brown but loathsome Frank Ritchie (James Anderson, whom Peckinpah would use again in Cable Hogue) turns up at the schoolhouse, makes advances to Miss Larson and, when she resists, hits her so hard that she dies (it’s a short part). Anderson’s part is short too because Dave rushes back and shoots him (with a pistol, not the Winchester). At the homestead of Frank’s two white-trash brothers, Leth (our old pal John Anderson, always good as a nasty thug) and the dumb one, Doug (William Tracy), Frank passes away, the brothers k.o. Dave and tie him up, and set off to put the blame for the teacher’s death on him.
Enter the splendid RG Armstrong, as town boss Shell Davidson, who is as tough, sadistic and thuggish as anyone. He decides unilaterally that Dave is guilty and organizes a posse to find him and lynch him. The young and green deputy (Richard Rust, Dobie in Comanche Station) is powerless to stop this. The townsmen detest Davidson but go along. I’ve always great admired RG in Westerns, and of course Peckinpah did too (think of RG’s memorable parts in Ride the High Country and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid).
The relationships are very skillfully handled in the space of a few minutes (that’s all they had) and a few lines.
Dave is unfairly hard on Brown when the mutt crashes through a glass window and chews the ropes that bind Dave but gets distracted by a dinner on the table.
The climax is really quite gripping. The youthful lawman shows he’s not all that green and the truth outs.
Another high-class episode, with writing, directing and acting to match.
|3||Brown||Sam Peckinpah||Bruce Geller||October 21, 1960|
I’m not sure about Brown. I think it was a bit early to introduce such a broadly comedic episode. The series had hardly established its dark, even somber persona. Still, there’s no doubt that it was done with gusto. Keith seemed committed (for once) and Peckinpah (an alcoholic very fond of the bender, and it was the era of the heavy drinkers) directed with gusto.
The great thing about the episode is John Dehner, appearing in the series for the first time as Burgundy Smith. Dehner was a superb Western character actor, really excellent in a whole host of TV shows and big-screen Westerns (I think his Pat Garrett in The Left-Handed Gun was the best Garrett ever).
It’s a rather slight 4th July story with minimal plot in which Burgundy, a slick besuited saloon owner in the classic Western tradition, covets Dave’s dog. There’s a horse race, in which Dave is so incompetent and/or drunk he never even gets to start, Burgundy shoots up the piano (or pianola), saying “I love music”, there’s an entertaining fat sheriff (Harry Swoger), and a classic ‘comic’ saloon brawl. Dave loses the fight again. It reminds us of the comment in Ride the High Country: “Good fight. I enjoyed it.” The commentators on the DVD say this was “the best comedy episode of the series.” I wasn’t so keen. The comedy was very broad, even slapstick. It has its charm, and the actors were clearly invested, but I prefer the less comedy shows.
|4||Mrs. Kennedy||Bernard L Kowalski||John Dunkel, Sam Peckinpah||October 21, 1960|
Mrs. Kennedy was perhaps the least Western of the series. It could have been set at any time, in any place. It’s really a melodrama. Dave finds himself at a failing ranch with an incompetent owner, Marsh Kennedy (Paul Richards, a strong face but only bit parts in Westerns) and his floozy, fey, almost loony wife Margie (Jean Allison). She is out of love with her husband and ready to sleep with even a saddle tramp to escape. She comes across as antipathetic yet curiously vulnerable and pitiable.
An Uncle Henry arrives, in the shape of Wendell Holmes, a TV Western hack, with a saddle bag full of gold. In the over-dramatic ending these saddle bags will do for him. There’s an odd interlude of Henry mind-reading, knowing without looking which passage from a family bible someone is reading from. It’s all a bit odd. The episode was written by John Dunkel, a Gunsmoke regular (with additions by Peckinpah, obviously) and directed by Bernard Kowalski, who did loads of Rawhide episodes. Me, I don’t think it was one of the best.
|5||Dos Pinos||Don McDougall||E Jack Neuman||November 4, 1960|
Dos Pinos is the name of the cantina and the surrounding village which Dave comes to at the start of Episode 5. It is inhabited by drunks (again). They aren’t very nice people either: one, Pauk (Adam Williams) has just shot a fellow named Red (Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan) and another bets the shooter $5 that Red won’t live out the night. Dave only wants a bed for the night and something for him and Brown to eat but is given short shrift by the hostile saloon owner, Sal (Jean Willes, who made a specialty of hard-boiled gold-digger, gun moll and saloon girl parts) and her surly customers.
Pauk delights in mocking Dave’s surname, which coming from a fellow named Pauk is a bit rich. When Brown growls at him he threatens to kill the mutt (not the first time Brown has received death threats) but Dave ignores him and leaves. Outside he meets the local sheriff (Malcolm Atterbury) standing over Red’s nearly-corpse. Together Dave and the lawman get the man inside and Dave performs prairie surgery on him, digging out the slug. “Where did you learn how to do that?” asks Sal. “Laredo.” “Didn’t think you learned anything in Texas.”
Red’s wife turns up, Jenny (Mrs Peckinpah, Marie Selland again) and carts him off home. Sal makes up to Dave. “I could be someone else,” she says. They kiss. But no, it’s “Goodbye, pilgrim” and Dave rides off into the sunset, though not before gunning down the odious Pauk.
This was rather a good episode, and it was directed by Don McDougall, who worked on Westerns from 1948 on, was the main director of Cowboy G-Men, The Roy Rogers Show, Trackdown and Wanted: Dead or Alive, and was still directing TV oaters in 1979. What you call an experienced hand.
|6||The Courting of Libby||Sam Peckinpah||Bruce Geller||November 11, 1960|
Episode 6 was another of the broad comic ones featuring John Dehner as Burgundy Smith. It is interesting that three of the five episodes that Peckinpah chose to direct himself were these comic ones, yet he was hardly known as a comedy man (though of course there would later be strong comic sides to some of his features, especially Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner). Like the other shows, this one is quite fun, and Dehner especially was clearly enjoying himself, but they do sometimes teeter over into slapstick, I fear. Brown chases cats into the saloon and the critters manage to wreck the place. Dave denies any knowledge of the dog and Burgundy gets the bill for the damages, which he cannot pay, and there is a long scene as he tries to persuade Dave, in a painted tub, to stump up some cash.
Burgundy and Dave both court la belle Libby (Joan O’Brien) and Dave attires himself in a very loud checked suit, a tie and a derby to do his courting, accompanying Miss Libby to a temperance meeting, which is (bizarrely) addressed by Burgundy. In the end, though, they both lose out, to a third (and richer) party. Dave and Burgundy were anyway equally unsuitable as husbands. Burgundy scoots off with Brown while Dave’s back is turned.
I don’t know if the two cats and one dog opening scene were matched by the two men and one woman of most of the episode. Marie Selland is a customer. Hank Gobble, only known for The Westerner and The Deadly Companions (he would die in ’61) is there as Luke (in another four episodes he was Digger). This one too was shot by Lucien Ballard.
|7||Treasure||Ted Post||Cyril Hume||November 18, 1960|
Episode 7 opens back at the cantina at Dos Pinos, but it’s under new management. Dave now seems to have become quite a pal of the sheriff, Frank Dollar (Malcolm Atterbury). Dave gives Brown some beer and announces he is going up to Coarsegold, three days’ ride.
Now, you know of course, that Coarsegold was the site of the camp in Ride the High Country two years after this series. It was the name of Peckinpah’s grandfather’s ranch in California, where Sam pent many happy days and talked to the Western old-timers who spun him yarns. Evidently Peckinpah wanted to memorialize the name.
The thing is, to get to Coarsegold in only three days, Dave has to cross the desert. And 50 miles out he is caught by a violent storm that blows up out of nowhere. He and Brown take shelter under a blanket (no such luck for the horse, which, by the way, is not the usual Appaloosa). When the storm blows over and they emerge, Dave notices that in the rocky nook where they cowered, stones seem to have been piled up. He digs down and finds gold coins. Wow. For a penniless drifter like him, this could be life-changing.
Just at that moment, however, an old prospector turns up and it is none other than our old pal Arthur Hunnicutt, perennial old-timer (even when he was young; he was a bit Walter Brennan-ish in that way). In the script he announces that he is 71 (in fact he was barely 50).
He tells the story of how back in the day a Cavalry paymaster hid some gold up here to prevent it falling into the hands of attacking Apaches. It was never found. The shrewd old prospector has a good idea that Dave might have discovered it. In the night he seduces Brown with some bacon, trusses him up and then attacks Dave with a knife. It does not end well for the old man.
Dave now sets off with ‘his’ gold but his horse falls and he is obliged to shoot it. So he walks, with the heavy gold, then staggers, then falls. He has no water. The dog can go no further. Dave heartlessly leaves the pooch and staggers on, making a travois for his precious load out of an Indian burial stand (no respect for the dog, or the corpse either). As he pulls the burden along through the pitiless terrain, we are reminded of The Deadly Companions of the following year.
Now, that friendly marshal is out with a posse and comes across the abandoned Brown. He resuscitates the mutt with water. Dave gets back to Dos Pinos, finally, and there, no thanks to him, he is reunited with Brown, who seems remarkably forgiving (you might have thought he would have attached himself to the marshal). Unpersuaded by the lawman that it would be best to turn the gold in and claim the reward, Dave holds the marshal at knifepoint (the same knife he took from the prospector) and sets out for Mexico. All this would be unthinkable for most heroes of Western TV shows at the time. The marshal waits patiently at the border. He knows that Dave will finally do the right thing. Yup, he was right. Dave comes back.
This very nice little episode was directed by Ted Post, the only one of the series he helmed, and very skillfully too. Post directed numerous episodes of Gunsmoke and Rawhide, as well as a few features, notably Hang ‘em High. It was written by Cyril Hume, who started on talkie B-Westerns in the mid-30s, co-wrote Alan Ladd’s Branded, and penned many TV show episodes, especially The Rifleman.
|8||The Old Man||André de Toth||Jack Curtis||November 25, 1960|
The Old Man was the second of De Toth’s two episodes. It opens with Dave missing a buck with the Winchester. They seem to have forgotten about the Winchester recently, but they probably suddenly remembered that was supposed to be central to the show. While Dave is tending to Brown’s sore paw, two men in suits appropriate his horse, and the Winchester with it, one of their mounts having broken a leg and been shot, and Dave and his dog are obliged to walk.
These men turn out to be the cousins Murdo and Troy McKeen and good news, e-pards, Murdo is played by Robert K Wilke. Lean and mean Michael Forest, a Roger Corman regular, is Troy. They are on their way to the dying of Old Man McKeen (Sam Jaffe) and they want to assure their inheritance. The bible-readin’ old man is tended by a solicitous grandson, Billy (Dee Pollock) who does not care for the vulture-like cousins one bit. Another good thing: another old friend, Frank Ferguson, plays Stuart but is shot in the back by the dastardly Murdo (classic Bob Wilke stuff).
When Dave turns up, footsore and weary, he wants his horse and gun back, and some revenge would be nice too.
This was another really good episode, with De Toth on cracking form.
|9||Ghost of a Chance||Bruce Geller||Milton S Gelman||December 2, 1960|
Writer Geller got the chance to direct this one. It was the oddest episode, a semi-ghost story. The great thing about it is that it starred the wonderful Katy Jurado.
It begins, as so many episodes did, with Dave riding, and Brown trotting along with him. Dave pulls out a note, so he seems to have learned to read at least a few words. He is going to Ventura Grande to deliver a letter. Now, though, he is disturbed by ghostly singing in the desert. He pulls the Winchester.
When he finally gets to Ventura Grande, the place is deserted. Yet there is hot food on tables, and kettles are singing. A pianola is playing. It’s a Marie-Celeste scenario and though Dave and Brown are happy to help themselves to the waiting victuals, it does all seem very odd.
They ride out but, hearing more ghostly wailing, return to the pueblo and this time village life is in full swing, with busy people milling about and children running. Dave finds the cantina’s owner, Carlotta, and asks her where she was before. Here, she says. How long have you been here? All my life. This rather elliptical dialogue sets up the slightly uncanny tone of the show.
Now a Mexican in eyeglasses appears, and claims to be (it is a lie) the recipient of Dave’s letter. He is in fact Serafin, a bandit, and he is played by Joseph Wiseman, who was so memorable as the Stalinist Fernando in Viva Zapata!, though in fact he was a Canadian Shakespearean actor who also became the first Bond villain. He is good as the charming but dangerous gang boss in crossed bandoliers.
Dave wants to leave but is prevented. He realizes now that while village life has resumed, there are no men at all around. It’s the opposite of the Mexican village in The Magnificent Seven, in which there were only men but no women. Where are they? All will be revealed, and there will be an ending to gladden any passing feminist’s heart.
Jurado is absolutely splendid, as she always was, and she really lifts the show onto another plane.
This one was written, Geller being otherwise occupied, by Milton Gelman, who wrote Mackenzie’s Raiders and episodes of many other TV shows.
|10||Line Camp||Tom Gries||Tom Gries||December 9, 1960|
Line Camp is interesting because it was spun off into a feature film in 1968, Will Penny, with Charlton Heston in Keith’s part, and director-writer’s son Jon in a key role. Dave reveals in the usual start that he and Brown are in snowy Texas, and this was probably a mistake. They find a dead man. Well, Brown does. Then along come a cattleman named Potts and his foreman Hudson, and the latter certainly thinks that Dave probably did the dead man, one of their hands, in. Potts is played by Karl Swenson, Lars in North to Alaska, Doc Isdell in The Sons of Katie Elder, and a regular on Western TV shows. Hudson is Slim Pickens, so that sure adds to the quality of the episode. Potts hires Dave, who is, as usual, on his uppers, to replace the dead man, which Slim doesn’t care for at all.
Up at the line shack, one of the cowpokes is Robert Culp, still five years before I Spy, who had starred as Hoby Gilman in Trackdown from 1957 to ’59 and afterwards guest-starred on a number of TV Western shows. He would appear on the big screen in The Raiders, Hannie Caulder and The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday. Shep Prescott (Culp) will do anything for a drink, and when two dubious types, “market hunters”, appear (Potts thinks they are rustlers) Shep, against orders, trades them cartridges for whiskey. A major drunk will follow. There’s “stock footage” (if you’ll forgive the pun) to detract from the studio set, Keith and Pickens slug it out (Slim using the skull of a former rustler as a weapon) but after the fisticuffs they come to a mutual respect. Such is not the case with Dave and Shep. The former has a low opinion of the latter. It will come, very reluctantly on Dave’s part, to gunplay…
|11||Going Home||Elliott Silverstein||Jack Curtis||December 16, 1960|
Going Home was directed by Elliott (or Elliot) Silverstein, who would later direct Cat Ballou. This episode of The Westerner is, however, very far from a comedy Western. Jack Curtis, a seasoned hand on many of the Western TV shows, wrote it. Both were competent.
Two women nurse a dying man, Bick (John Brinkley), somewhere out on the prairie (in a studio of course, but hey). They are his mother (Virginia Gregg) and wife (Mary Murphy). Ms. Gregg was a regular on any number of Western TV shows, Ms. Murphy was the good girl who redeemed Marlon Brando in The Wild One, was the love interest for Ray Milland in A Man Alone and for Dale Robertson in Sitting Bull, and would be Ruth for Peckinpah in Junior Bonner. It is clear that there is no love lost between mother and daughter-in-law.
Suzy (Murphy) refers obliquely – it was an early 60s TV show after all – to “My previous line of business” and later says that “being no good beats plowing.” That’s quite clear then.
A bounty hunter (Jimmy Lee Cook) arrives at the gallop, is shot to death by the sick man but Bick himself is gut-shot. The two women start pushing a cart containing the gravely wounded man. Dave and Brown happen along. Dave knew Bick. Bick duly expires of his injuries, and Dave elects to help his mother (Suzy thinks it’s a waste of time) push the cart with the corpse back to the family home where he may lie with his dead siblings. So we get another Deadly Companions reference as Dave wearily carts the corpse across the desert.
Other bad guys are after the $2000 price on Bick’s head. It’s “dead or alive” so the corpse will do. They are a fat lawman in a buggy (Jack Kruschen) and two thugs, Sliger (Rudy Dolan) and Muncie (Michael T Mikler). They are all out only for the bounty, not the law ‘n’ order aspect. Dave shoots them all anyway. With a pistol. The Winchester ’95 has been forgotten again.
Suzy will not survive. Her mother-in-law has the grace not to look glad.
It was shot by the great Ed Cronjager.
|12||Hand on the Gun||Sam Peckinpah||Bruce Geller||December 23, 1960|
Peckinpah chose to direct the last two episodes of The Westerner himself. The first was Hand on the Gun and it starred Ben Cooper (Turkey Ralston in Johnny Guitar) as the classic Easterner who has read too many dime novels and has come out West (though still in is dudish duds) to find excitement. He is Cal Davis. He asks for a job, to learn the ways of the West. The trouble is, he has been practicing quick-draw and gun-twirling to a ridiculous degree and is plain dangerous. Dave agrees to a bargain: he will teach Cal wrangling if Cal will teach him to read. The scenes of the reading lessons are very well handle, with a childlike Dave struggling through the Gospel of St. John and Cooper’s character clearly bored and frustrated.
Michael Ansara plays the Mexican hand Oresquote and he doesn’t like the idea of taking Cal on one bit. “There is the smell of death about him,” he says. Always good to see Ansara. Born in a small village in Syria, he was used for a very wide range of “ethnic” parts, and of course he was Cochise in the TV version of Broken Arrow.
Peckinpah was always interested in the dynamics of men together. This is a classic example, with an angry and jealous Mazo (John Pickard, Frank Ross in True Grit) constantly taunting “Lucky Dave” because Dave rounded up more horses than he did. They arm-wrestle but it will get worse than that: it will culminate in a stupid and tragic act of violence.
There will be another: Cal may be baby-faced and a greenhorn but he is also a racist, with a rage in him, which Dave and the punchers clearly are not. Oresquote is finally drawn, ultra-reluctantly, into a gunfight. The fight is handled brilliantly, with crane shots. The boy is expecting a Main Street quick-draw showdown in the classic tradition but Oresquote simply walks out of the saloon gun already drawn, takes aim calmly and shoots the youth from the sidewalk. He and Dave then ride stonily away without even looking down at the body lying in the dusty street. It’s the demythologizing of the gunfight, with Streets of Laredo playing ironically in the background. Superb writing and direction. It was another Bruce Geller script. It’s minimalist writing, with economy and punch.
Peckinpah wanted Cooper for the part of Heck Longtree in Ride the High Country and was rather unpleasant to Ron Starr, who took the part when Cooper couldn’t.
There was more location shooting than usual on this one, and a lot was done up in the Vasquez Rocks, with cinematographer Frank G Carson, a Western TV show regular. This and the classic theme help make the short show feel like a full Western movie. It was one of the very best episodes of the series – and that’s saying a lot.
|13||The Painting||Sam Peckinpah||Bruce Geller||December 30, 1960|
Peckinpah chose to end with another of the comedy episodes featuring John Dehner as Burgundy Smith. I like John Dehner, and he revealed in this series a talent for comic timing, but on balance I personally don’t find these episodes the best of the lot.
It starts with Dave punching a man to the ground. Unfortunately, this was the foreman he was working for, so Dave wins the fight but loses his job. He has to draw his pay, all six dollars of it. Indigent as ever and now jobless, Dave listens to a man, Walker (Paul Sorensen) who wishes to recover a painting, done by a Frenchman, of a lady he works for. This painting is of his employer, ah, how shall we say?, er, (much embarrassed circumlocution and slowness on the uptake from Dave). She was, of course, painted nude. Walker will pay Dave $100.
In town, who should be playing cards in the saloon but Burgundy Smith (John Dehner), in a rather dashing Prince of Wales checked suit. Now Burgundy shows Dave that he is holding four kings and an ace, but he’s cleaned out. He tells the other players that Dave is a friend of his, a banker from St Louis. This saddle tramp is the most unlikely banker you ever saw but the other gamblers, who include Digger (Hank Gobble) again, remain stony faced. So Dave invests his whole worldly wealth on Burgundy’s hand, an impressive four dollars and a couple of dimes. Unfortunately, Digger is also holding a king. Burgundy hastily folds. Both Burgundy and Dave are now stony broke.
Now Burgundy takes Dave to see a painting. He himself was the artist. “Count François de Bergerac,” he announces in a French accent, “at your service.” The scene in which the painting is revealed (it is in a wagon and Burgundy rolls up the canvas like the unveiling ceremony in an art gallery) is brilliantly handled, a sublime comedy moment. Of course we do not see the model in all her glory, for it is mainstream 1960 television, but we glimpse just enough thigh and so on to tell us she is naked. However, the way Burgundy and Dave’s eyes traverse the recumbent form is itself a sight to behold.
The lady’s factotum Walker and some henchmen now appear and try to take possession of the “art” but Burgundy offers Dave $300 and together they make their escape in the wagon. They are waylaid by the gun-totin’ lady herself, Carla (Madlyn Rhue) and Dave hides under the wagon. In a Maverick moment Burgundy yells at him “You’re a coward!” “Yup,” replies Dave.
Carla is taken by the dog. “Yah, my dog,” says Dave proprietorially. He is more taken by Carla than she by the mutt. He stares at her. “Why do you stare?” she asks. Well, of course he is looking at her and then bringing back to mind her inner form from the painting. She is gunning for Burgundy but when Dave tells her (it is a lie, naturally) that Burgundy is dead, she descends into boo-hooing. So now the Count de Bergerac emerges, in a beret, and they fall into each other’s arms. Burgundy agrees (for the moment, one fells) to a marriage, and quotes Sidney Carton, “It is a far, far better thing I do…”
Of course Burgundy still owes Dave $300 but he clouts him on the head, and in an amusing moment both Burgundy and Brown walk casually over Dave’s unconscious form. In the final scene, Burgundy tries to sell the portrait for a thousand dollars and it finally is revealed, but the artist has, er, amended his work. She is now discreetly draped in the required areas and able to be shown to the gathered townsfolk (and the TV audience). Burgundy once more does a bunk and Brown faithlessly goes with him. Dave’s search for his dog is however interrupted by the winsome Carla, and the mutt is altogether forgotten. Fin.
This last episode is light, neatly constructed and done by actors of more than a little comic talent.
Like all creators of TV shows, Peckinpah was saddened and frustrated that The Westerner was not renewed. But actually, how would it have developed anyway? Where would Dave have gone? Would he have become a broke-down bronc stomper like Junior Bonner? Or a crusty old-timer like Freddie Sykes in The Wild Bunch? Peckinpah was anyway aiming at feature films. TV shows had only ever been a springboard for him, good as the ones he did were. He would soon be working on The Deadly Companions, released in June 1961, again with Keith.
Unlike most modern TV shows, which have a developing and ongoing story line, The Westerner, in common with most shows of the day, was more a series of stand-alone episodes, short stories if you will. This was so that when syndicated they could be shown in any order and even cut, to allow more advertising time. In fact Peckinpah did not shoot the episodes of The Westerner in the order they were finally shown; he played about with the sequence.
One review has talked of the “unique blend of the hard-ass and the sentimental” the series had, and I get that.
The company Shout! did a good job on the DVD, and several episodes can be viewed again with a commentary by Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Nick Redman. Now, Seydor is the author of Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration; Simmons wrote Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage; Weddle is the author of “If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em!”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah; and Redman has made several documentaries on Peckinpah. So they should know a thing or two between them. At one point Walmart had it on at $14.96. Talk about a bargain!
“Only four or five of these were really good, but those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done,” said Keith. I wonder which four or five he meant. Personally, I think I would go for Episodes 1, 2, 9, 10 and 12. I don’t remember the series at all at the time but then I was only just turned 12 years old. As an adult, however, I can really appreciate it. It’s a very classy show indeed.