Thursday, September 15, 2016

Remembering the "Laredo" TV Series

Stars Brand, Brown, and Smith.
In contrast to the popular cowboy ballad "The Streets of Laredo," the streets depicted in this 1965-67 TV Western were pretty lively thanks to a trio of boisterous Texas Rangers. The series, which currently airs on GetTV, starred Neville Brand as gruff Reese Bennett, Peter Brown as the refined Chad Cooper, and William Smith as the muscular Joe Riley. Television veteran Philip Carey played their put-upon boss Captain Parmalee.

The original series pilot aired in 1965 as the last episode of the third season of The Virginian. In "We've Lost a Train," Trampas (Doug McClure) travels through Laredo to pick a bull in Mexico for Judge Garth. Along the way, he runs afoul of Reese, Chad, and Joe--but winds up helping them retrieve stolen money from a train. As often happens with pilots, the characters here differ slightly from the ones in the eventual Laredo series. Reese is less comical and Chad isn't the ladies man that he would become.

Brown, Doug McClure, Brand, and Smith on The Virginian.
The teleplay was written by Western scribe Borden Chase, who penned film classics such as Winchester '73 (1950), The Bend of the River (1952), and Man Without a Star (1955). Universal Studios padded the pilot with footage from another Virginian episode ("Ride a Dark Trail") and released it in Europe as a theatrical film called Backtrack.

The Laredo TV series debuted on NBC in September 1965. Its time slot, Thursday from 8:30 to 9:30, pitted it against some tough competition: Bewitched on ABC and My Three Sons on CBS. Still, Laredo found an audience with its easygoing mix of action and humor. The latter often involved Reese being manipulated by his colleagues. In various episodes, Chad and Joe convince Reese to get into a ring with a lively bull, go undercover to catch villainous French officers, and take over as "acting captain" when Parmalee is away.

The second season of Laredo added Dutch actor Robert Wolders, who joined the cast as rookie Ranger Erik Hunter. According to some sources, the rationale for a fourth Ranger was to lighten Brand's workload. Erik was a bit of dandy and surpassed Chad as the best-dressed Texas Ranger on television. In real life, Wolders married classic movie actress Merle Oberon in 1975--she was 25 years older than him--for the last four years of her life. He later lived with Audrey Hepburn for the last decade of her life.

Neville Brand as Reese Bennett.
Still, Laredo owes its success to the Gunga Din camaraderie of the three actors that played the original Rangers. Each of them brought something different to the show. Neville Brand was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. He carved an acting career as a tough guy in movies like D.O.A. (the villain's description of Brand's henchman: "He's not happy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood.").  In his autobiography, Bruce Dern said of Neville Brand:   "(He was) the baddest guy I ever met in the business."

Peter Brown as Chad Cooper.
Peter Brown came to Laredo as a TV Western veteran. He played young deputy Johnny McKay to John Russell's marshal on four seasons of the half-hour series Lawman (1958-62). The show was one of the many Westerns produced by Warner Bros. at the time (others included Cheyenne, Maverick, and Sugarfoot). Between Lawman and Laredo, Brown starred opposite actresses Hayley Mills (Summer Magic), Ann-Margret (Kitten With a Whip), and Barbara Eden (Ride the Wild Surf). In the last film, he played a blonde surfer--apparently, the producers were concerned that the good-looking Brown would distract female viewers from the film's dark-haired star...Fabian.

William Smith as Joe Riley.
The least known of the three Laredo stars was William Smith, a former child actor, arm wrestler, and bodybuilder. Ironically, he was probably the most successful Laredo star after the series' cancellation, guest starring in over 90 television shows. On the silver screen, he often portrayed villains such as the motorcycle gang leader in 1971's Chrome and Hot Leather (which also featured Peter Brown). One of Smith's most memorable roles was as Clint Eastwood's bare-knuckle fight opponent in Any Which Way You Can (1980). It's interesting to note that Smith had a brief bare-knuckle bout against Mike Mazurki in the season one Laredo episode "Pride of the Rangers."

Carey as the put-upon Parmalee.
Finally, no review of Laredo would be complete without mentioning Phillip Carey, whose Captain Parmalee tried, to no avail, to keep Reese, Chad, and Joe in line. Carey made his film debut in the early 1950s and appeared in movies like Mister Roberts and Calamity Jane before entering television. Prior to playing Parmalee, he starred in the TV series Tales of the Bengal Lancers (1956-57) and in the title role in Philip Marlowe (1959-60). In 1979, long after Laredo, he made his debut on the daytime television drama One Life to Live, in which he portrayed Texas tycoon Asa Buchanan for the next 28 years.

NBC cancelled Laredo in 1967 after two seasons and 56 episodes. The network's decision to move the series to Friday nights at 10 P.M. likely contributed to the show's early demise. It still holds up nicely, a refreshing change from the traditional 1960s Westerns--although there are still plenty of shoot-outs and daring rescues. Laredo airs weekdays at 10:45 AM Eastern Time on GetTV.


  1. The move to Friday nights was indeed a killer for LAREDO. The show was a solid # 43 in the season-ending Nielsens (out of 119 shows) for the 1965-66 season (31.3 share) but fell out of the top 70 completely during 1966-67. While I don't have a final ranking, at mid-season LAREDO had fallen all the way to 75th out of 91 shows on Fridays.

  2. NBC would use that time slot as a show killer, as it did with Star Trek. I know there were problems with Neville Brand, who was replaced on at least one ep by Claude Akins.

  3. Boy oh boy. TV viewers back in the day must have felt so ripped off to have three fab shows airing at the same time! And no way to record them!

    Laredo sounds like a good viewing experience, and I hope it's gaining new popularity from airing on GetTV.

  4. I enjoy the breezy camaraderie in the show. I especially get a kick out of William Smith. When I hear his name the first thing I think of (after 5-0) is "Rich Man, Poor Man" as Falconetti. Then it is the "Gunsmoke" episode "Hostage!" when Matt really should have let that boulder crash on his head. Pardon me, I seem to be getting carried away. TV will do that to a person. Bottom line: I wish I had GetTV.

  5. One of Smith's greatest moments on screen beating the crap outta Rod Taylor - for real. See it on youtube under "darker than amber fight scene".

  6. Smith also played the Russian commander in "Red Dawn."

  7. Your post has me wanting to buy the Timeless DVD set. I enjoy all these actors, but have never seen LAREDO. Peter Brown, who passed away recently, had a fun appearance on an early episode of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and Phil Carey had a daring one on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Like most posters, I'm a huge William Smith fan and have been ever since I caught his 1974 flick INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS on the late show.

    1. All the William Smith comments have me thinking about doing a post on him. He was certainly an interesting guy in real life!

  8. He's one of the last living links to the Universal monsters - as a kid in the crowd scene in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN '42. He's not, however, the kid who kicks the ball, as he's claimed.

  9. Smith, another white-haired killer ("Darker Than Amber"), an unusual movie sub-genre. What is Hollywood's fascination with white/blond/albino/gray killers? Smith here; Paul Genge, one of the hit men in "Bullitt's" car chase, Paul Bettany in "The Da Vinci Code." Of course, many more. Does it all come from Robert Shaw's assassin in "From Russia With Love"? Just curious.

  10. I love the series. I was born in 65. But laredo is a wonderful western.