Classic Movies · Television

Can you hear those Pioneers


PBS’ critically-acclaimed documentary series on one of my favorite subjects—namely the boob tube—is back for a second season; I missed the premiere of Pioneers of Television the week previous, which covered shows of a science-fiction nature, but was fortunate to remember to watch Wednesday night, when TV westerns was the topic.  (And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have seen it had I not glimpsed a notice about it on Facebook, so those annoying ads can’t be all bad.)

pioneerstvThe discussion of television oaters made for a lively hour but I think that was my biggest nit-pick about this particular Pioneers of Television: it tried to cover a very broad topic in a short span of time.  Kelsey Grammer, who narrated the doc (I guess Sam Elliott wasn’t answering his phone), points out that there were over 100 western series featured in the history of the boob tube but “only a few stand out”—and those chosen for closer scrutiny were MaverickThe RiflemanBonanzaThe Big ValleyThe Wild Wild WestGunsmokeDaniel Boone, and The High Chaparral.

Roosevelt Grier, Fess Parker, and Jimmy Dean of Daniel Boone

Now, I’m very fond of all the westerns on this list with maybe the exception of Bonanza—but even though this program wasn’t to my liking I’d still insist that it have been included because, my personal preference aside, it was an important show: the second-longest running oater in TV history and the Number One-rated series in the Nielsen rankings from 1964-67.  But some of the others…well, it’s long been a suspicion of mine that a lot of these programs make the cut in these presentations because there are still people who were associated with the show around to chat them up.  The clearest example of this is Boone, which featured observations from Ed Ames, Veronica Cartwright, Darby Hinton, Roosevelt Grier and the late Fess Parker.  Boone was a popular series (but was not, as Pioneers erroneously pointed out, created by Walt Disney) during its six seasons on the air but I can’t quite figure out why it was discussed in depth and other popular oaters—Rawhide and Have Gun – Will Travel were the two most egregious omissions—were not.

The High Chaparral, clockwise from top: Henry Darrow, Leif Erickson, Mark Slade, and Cameron Mitchell

Pioneers does argue that Daniel Boone was a bit groundbreaking in its depiction of race relations (you had Ames’ and Grier’s characters, an Indian and a former slave respectably, pals with the titular hero) and that’s also why High Chaparral was in the lineup; it featured Anglo and Hispanic family members in close harmonial contact.  I understand that it’s not possible to include every single sagebrush saga that aired on TV when you only have an hour but they left out a lot of “pioneers,” if you will.  I thought snubbing Cheyenne (TV’s first hour-long western) and The Virginian (TV’s first hour-and-a-half-long western) was unseemly, and I’d also have argued for the inclusion of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp as TV’s first “adult” western (though the presence of Gunsmoke kind of makes up for that—but really, you can’t talk about TV westerns and leave Gunsmoke off the list).  Though Grammer mentions that westerns were a TV staple almost from the beginning the early oaters like The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy were MIA—the only one mentioned was The Cisco Kid, and that was to demonstrate how far a series like Chaparral had progressed in its presentation of Latinos.

With all that grousing aside, here are some observations I made with regards to the various westerns discussed on the telecast:

Maverick’s James Garner…minus what’s-his-name

Maverick – If you watched Pioneers of Television, you would have learned that James Garner had a co-star (and even viewed a photo or two of him, working on the set with Jim) but the writers and producers apparently forgot his name.  (“John…Jeff…little help here?  I know it was two first names…”) Honest to my grandma, I’m the biggest Garner partisan you’ll ever meet but Jack Kelly has to be my candidate for the Rodney Dangerfield of TV westerns.  Also, since Nichols is mentioned in the documentary as being Garner’s favorite of all his TV shows, how about getting this bad boy to DVD before Jim rides off into the sunset?  (Oh…hang on a sec…the show is a Warner Bros. property.  I don’t know what the heck I was thinking…)

The Rifleman – I forget whether I read it somewhere or saw veteran director Joseph H. Lewis talking about it in an interview but I remember he once proffered the information that you could always tell which episodes he directed without looking at the credits because the stories would focus more on the warm relationship between father-and-son Lucas and Mark McCain…and the episodes helmed by Sam Peckinpah (the show’s creator) featured Lucas shooting up half the town.  I thought of this because co-star Johnny Crawford says on Pioneers that many people were intimidated by star Chuck Connors (“A lot of people were afraid of him”).  Gosh—I wonder where they could have gotten that impression? (Seriously—has Johnny ever watched the opening credits to this show?)

Bonanza – Creator David Dortort deliberately kept this show an all-male preserve because he believed a regular female presence would emasculate the main characters.  (I’m beginning to think Scott Clevenger’s ma was right when she accused Ben Cartwright of being a Bluebeard.)

Charles Briles, Linda Evans, and Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley

The Big Valley – Not a whole lot revealed about this show but I did enjoy Linda Evans’ recollections that star Barbara Stanwyck was the complete opposite of her ball-breaking persona (a real softie and “a pussycat”).  She choked up when remembering Babs with great affection and I had something in my eye at that time, too, so it only looked like I was crying.  (And I may be in the minority on this, but I think Evans is far more attractive nowadays than her younger self…I feel the same way about Angie Dickinson and Pat Crowley, who were also featured in the doc.)

The Wild Wild West – I loved this show when I was a kid.  I mean…loved it.  (And my devotion to it hasn’t diminished now that I’m no longer a kid.)  I think it’s a little out of place here because the program was more of a spy series (next week they’re supposed to discuss crime dramas, with non-crime dramas I Spy and Mission: Impossible on tap) but I really enjoyed hearing how much respect and regard Bob Conrad had for co-star Ross Martin…as a kid, I always got to be Artemus Gordon because I…was an ac-TOR!  I also learned that West was cancelled from CBS’ lineup not due to low ratings but because Senator John O. Pastore (D-RI) pressured the network to give it the boot, citing the show’s “violence.”

Dennis Weaver, Amanda Blake, James Arness, and Milburn Stone of Gunsmoke

Gunsmoke – Pastore might have had it in for Wild Wild West but another Democratic senator (from my home state of West-By-God-Virginia), Robert C. Byrd, actively lobbied the network to keep the dean of TV westerns on the air, something of which I was not previously aware.  (My estimation for the late, great statesman continues to grow by leaps and bounds.)  One of the enduring legends about Gunsmoke is that motion picture western icon John Wayne was asked to play the role of Matt Dillon but Duke refused, not wanting to commit himself to a weekly series at a time when television was still a dirty word.  According to the man who ultimately played Dodge City’s keeper of the peace, star James Arness, Wayne suggested Big Jim as a replacement.  Other sources claim that this as a myth—the program’s first director-producer, Charles Marquis Warren, went on record as saying he hired Arness based on a film he had seen him in and never even thought to offer it to Wayne.  Well, in this doc Mike “Mannix” Connors claims to have been present when Duke took a phone call from the Gunsmoke people asking if he was interested…so I guess John Ford was right.  (Connors and Wayne worked together on 1953’s Island in the Sky but that seems a little too early for that phone call.)

Though it’s apparent that I had my share of criticisms about “Westerns,” to which this Pioneers of Television segment should be referred, overall, I did enjoy watching it—and the opportunity to see individuals who are unfortunately no longer with us (Parker, Robert Culp, Peter Graves, and Dennis Weaver) made me get something in my eye again.  I’m looking forward to seeing next week’s chapter (on crime dramas) and will probably have a few things to say about that when I do watch.

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