As many of my fellow insomniacs will attest, sometimes it’s not easy falling asleep at night. That’s why this portable DVD player I received for one of my natal anniversaries sometime back is a godsend, because what I like to do is grab, say, a disc from one of the Mill Creek 150 Western or Detective collections and stick it in the player to watch until I achieve drowsy status. I’ve done this the past couple of nights watching some public domain episodes of Shotgun Slade, an offbeat Western series generously featured on Western TV Classics.
The title character of this 1959-61 series was created by prolific pulp fictioner Frank Gruber, whose other P.I. creations included Simon Lash, Otis Beagle and Joe Peel, and Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg. By the time Revue/MCA-TV syndicated the series in 1959, there were so many oaters on the tube that the key to creating a successful one was in making it stand out among the competition. Slade was an intriguing blend of the private-eye and western genres (sort of Peter-Gunn-meets-Have-Gun-Will-Travel), accompanied by a jazzy 77 Sunset Strip-like musical score. (The P.I.-Western mix wasn’t completely original: Travel frequently contained gumshoe elements, and a short-lived western called The Man from Blackhawk also explored the territory, with Our Miss Brooks’ Robert Rockwell as an insurance investigator named Sam Logan.) “Shotgun” Slade also packed an intriguing method of heat, a combination shotgun described by Wikipedia:
The lower barrel fired a 12-gauge shotgun shell, while the top barrel fired a .32 caliber rifle bullet. The idea was that this weapon gave Slade the ability to fire at close and distant targets with the same amount of accuracy. Western television shows were known for featuring distinctive weapons, such as those on shows like The Rifleman, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and The Rebel, but Slade’s shotgun stood out even among the weapons of those other shows.
Finally, Slade attempted to establish a foothold in television’s big honkin’ corral through its frequently offbeat casting. The first entry of the series, “The Salted Mine,” guest stars TV icon Ernie Kovacs as a disheveled desert rat (the cast also includes “Dark City dame” Marie Windsor and Frank Ferguson). The program would also feature personalities like World War II flying ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (“Omar the Sign Maker”), baseball legend Sandy Koufax (“Too Smart to Live”) and football great Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (“The Lady and the Piano”)—and the show’s creative staff really seemed to have a fondness for country-and-western stars, casting the likes of Johnny Cash (“The Stalkers”), Tex Ritter (“Missing Train”) and Jimmy Wakely (“The Safe Crackers”) as lawmen. Other episodes of the series spotlight well-known character actors and up-and-comers (Lee Van Cleef, Malcolm Atterbury, John Banner) as well as serial stalwarts like Roy Barcroft and John Hart.
In “Backtrack,” former boxer Lou Nova plays a bartender, but the episode’s real curiosities are King “Love That Bob” Donovan as an imprisoned con man in Slade’s care who’s set free by a gang of train robbers, and Connie “Mister Ed” Hines who’s in cahoots with the gang. Donovan’s character is laughably lovable, and as such the entry rates slightly higher than the usual Shotgun fare. Most of the plots in Slade are pretty predictable, but when the cast is interesting (like “Lost Gold,” a tale that finds Slade investigating corruption at a mine and features Ted de Corsia, Alan “Skipper” Hale, Jr., and Stacy Keach, Sr.) or the writing is off the beaten path the show can certainly hold its own amongst the top westerns of its day. I particularly enjoyed “The Fabulous Fiddle”: Slade prevents a Stradivarius from being stolen from a violinist/professor (Ludwig Stossel) and the suggestion that “Shotgun” sign on as a bodyguard to protect the valuable instrument is presented to our hero by insurance agent Paul Picerni…with the help of Stossel’s comely nieces (Lili Kardell, Natalie Daryll):
QUINN: …we would like to hire a guard for the Professor’s violin for as long as he remains here in Denver…
PROFESSOR (clarifying): One week…
QUINN: Will you…take the job?
SLADE: Well, I…
GRIZELLA (attaching herself to his left arm): Please, Mr. Slade…
FREDIA (attaching herself to the other): As a favor to us…
PROFESSOR: Perhaps Mr. Slade has better things to do than spend a week living with us…
SLADE (with a look of interest): Now just a moment here…I’d be…uh…living with you?
FREDIA: Like one of the family!
GRIZELLA: And we’re a very close family, Mr. Slade…
QUINN: How ‘bout it?
SLADE (after eyeing the nieces again): Well…what’s it worth?
QUINN: Two hundred dollars…
SLADE: I don’t have that much on me now…but if you just give me half-an-hour, I can scrape it up real fast…
Naturally, Quinn is referring to the fee Slade will receive, prompting our hero to observe: “Considering the side benefits, you could’ve driven a lot harder bargain.” Experienced mystery buffs will see the denouement to this yarn coming a mile away, but “Fiddle” has a great script courtesy of veteran scribe Dean Riesner (Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me) and includes support from character greats Henry Brandon and Roscoe Ates (spelled “Rosco” in the closing credits). I was also impressed with “The Charcoal Bullet” (Slade enlists the help of a drunken artist [Ned Glass] to catch a murderer; Frank Ferguson is also in this one, and the part of the bartender is played by—I swear I’m not making this up—an actor named “Mickey Finn.”), “Killer’s Brand” and “The Spanish Box.” Unfortunately, many of the entries are along the lines of “The Deadly Key,” a Maltese Falcon-rip off that, derivative though it may be, does featuring some good casting in Ann Robinson, Mort Mills and Vito Scotti.
One of the Shotgun Slade episodes in this package, “A Flower for Jenny,” features the words to the show’s theme song sung over the closing credits…and they sound like they were improvised on the spot, similar to the “words” to the My Three Sons theme featured in that hysterical Nick at Nite spot. So if you know the words, join in!
Of the two-barreled gun
You’re afraid that someday you’ll be won
By a woman
A dreamin’ woman
Maybe someone like me
Better run, Shotgun Slade
I’m the one, Shotgun Slade
When you’re mine and I settle you down
You will shine like a diamond in town
As a lover
A perfect lover
Of a woman like me
Don’t forget, just hold still
Haven’t met but we will
Thank you, and I hope we passed the audition.