Monday, April 9, 2018

Sam Peckinpah's TV Series "The Westerner"

Brian Keith and Spike in The Westerner.
Produced in 1960, The Westerner is a tough, realistic TV Western that befits its creator, Sam Peckinpah. The director  was already a TV veteran, having written and directed episodes of Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, and The Rifleman in the 1950s. In fact, he is often credited as the creator of The Rifleman, having written the pilot which first appeared on Zane Grey Theater.

The Westerner stars Brian Keith as an illiterate drifter named Dave Blassingame, who travels from town to town with his dog Brown. While not openly affectionate--indeed, Dave criticizes Brown for not helping out on more than one occasion--there is a strong bond between man and dog. They're both independent souls; Dave describes Brown as "being his own dog." Hence, it's not a surprise when Dave turns down a hefty sum of $200 when a dandy tries to buy Brown (the same episode features what may be one of the longest fist fights in broadcast TV history).

Diana Millay and Brian Keith.
The Westerner, though, is not about Dave and Brown. They're the protagonists that keep the plots moving, but Peckinpah is more interested in the people they meet while roaming the frontier. In the first episode, Dave almost dies trying to rescue a young woman from the apparent clutches of a manipulative older man. It's not until the closing scene that Dave learns she really doesn't want to be rescued.

Peckinpah earned his reputation as a director, but he was a good writer, too. He has a hand in many of the scripts with Bruce Geller (creator of Mission: Impossible) also penning several of them. The second episode includes some great examples of the series' first-rate writing, such as this exchange between Dave and a dead man's brothers played by John Anderson and Williams Tracy.

Brother #1:  It must take a lot of stomach to ride into a man's kin and tell them you killed their brother. (To the other brother) Go find the book.

Brother #2 (to Dave): Proud of it, he is.

Dave: Don't point at me as being proud. I don't take no pride in killing.

Brother #1: You ain't sorry.

Dave: You bet I am. I'm sorry if I had to kill him I didn't get there a couple of minutes earlier. I'm sorry he was ever born.

Sadly, NBC cancelled The Westerner after 13 episodes due to low ratings; it was up against Route 66 on CBS and The Flintstones on ABC. I suspect the show may have experienced some challenges with the network's censors, too. Some episodes feature sudden violent outbursts (e.g., a schoolteacher attacked and accidentally killed) that remain potent today.

Peckinpah tried to revive the series in 1963 with an episode of The Dick Powell Theatre called "The Losers." It was a contemporary "Western" and starred Lee Marvin as Dave Blassingame (who still has a dog as a companion).

In 1967, Tom Gries adapted an episode he wrote of The Westerner ("Line Camp") into the motion picture Will Penny. The critically-acclaimed movie starred Charlton Heston as a aging cowboy who befriends a young woman and her son. Heston has often claimed it was his favorite among his film roles.

Spike in Old Yeller.
By the way, if the dog playing Brown in The Westerner looks familiar, then you may recognize the work of canine actor Spike. He is best-known for portraying the title role in Walt Disney's Old Yeller. My favorite of his scenes in The Westerner is when Dave is trying to get Brown to chew the ropes tying his hands--and the canine is too busy sampling leftovers on a dinner table. That sounds like my dogs.

10 comments:

  1. I had the opportunity to enjoy The Westerner on a local western channel back in the early 2000s. I haven't seen it since, but it has stayed strong in my memory.

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  2. The Westerner's history is a touch more complicated than this.

    NBC had a commitment with Westinghouse to put that company's sponsored sitcom with Nanette Fabray in that Friday time slot, but that show wasn't ready for a fall startup.
    The Westerner was only a placeholder; the Fabray show (officially titled Westinghouse Playhouse) was locked in, with a guaranteed January premiere, and there you are.
    Of course, had The Westerner attracted any kind of popular reaction (it was a critical darling), NBC could have cleared space easily, but it didn't, and again there you are.

    Back in '60, my dad was a big fan of The Westerner and of Brian Keith - and also of John Dehner, who had a recurring role as a slicker named Burgundy Smith, who would pop up every so often to complicate matters for Dave and Brown (and kept things from getting too grim in the bargain).
    When Sam Peckinpaugh did "The Losers" for Dick Powell in '63, Burgundy Smith came back too, in the person of Keenan Wynn, no doubt with the same basic plan in mind.
    When my dad watched "The Losers" on Powell, he immediately spotted it out as a Westerner update, and enjoyed it all the more for that.

    Many of the Powell shows were backdoor pilots anyway; "The Losers" was just one of the "no-sales", and so Lee Marvin and Sam Peckinpaugh stayed in TV for a few more years.

    As to the Westerner series itself:
    Four Star must have had a Vice-President in charge of reusing short-lived shows.
    The Westerner found itself mixed in with a number of Four Star's lmany westerns, including Johnny Ringo, Law Of The Plainsman, Black Saddle, and some others, using the old Zane Grey Theater as a container; all the shows were given new intros by a grizzled Keenan Wynn, and the overall package was called - The Westerners (see how this all ties together?).
    ... And Life (or Syndication) went on ...

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  3. Excellent essay and follow-up by Mike Doran. Y'know, I bought the set and watched a few episodes. It just didn't grab me the way Rod Serling's THE LONER did, which I remember buying on the same day when they were still Wal-Mart exclusives. Blassingame was a hard character to warm up to, whereas Lloyd Bridges' Colton was likeable from the start. I love Brian Keith, just not in that role. And--heresy alert--I was never a big fan of Sam Peckinpah (a beautiful name in Navajo).

    I may give the series a second shot to see the shows scripted by Tom "Rat Patrol" Gries and Bruce "Mannix" Geller, and to enjoy more of John Dehner, one of my favorite character actors.

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    1. I agree that THE LONER is a better show (especially the Serling-penned episodes). But I like Brian Keith in THR WESTERNER. His dog brings out elements of his personality and they're an engaging duo.

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  4. It looks like this series is now in the public domain? It sounds really interesting, like a western for "grown-ups".

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  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post on The Westerner, one of my favorite westerns. I enjoy The Loner, and Lloyd Bridges especially, though Serling's penchant for over-the-top preachiness can be tiring in some of them.

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  6. The relationship between Dave and Brown reminds me a lot of the one between Hondo Lane and Sam in both the 1953 film and its 1967 TV remake. In fact, one episode of the latter, "Hondo and the Gladiators", has a scoundrel trying to buy Sam from Hondo for nefarious means, resulting in a lengthy bare-knuckle fistfight between the two, similar to the episode you mention in which John Dehner tries to buy Brown from Dave.

    Neither series lasted more than a half season, but both are highly rewatchable. Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Hal. I always enjoy your HONDO posts at The Horn Section!

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  7. This sounds really good, and with Old Yeller in it I will definitely be watching it. Just yesterday I caught a few episodes of Death Valley Days and was thinking how good the western televisions series of the 1950s were. Brian Keith really was born for westerns. He played a mustang-man in a great episode of Elfego Baca, too.

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    1. I wish TCM would how some of the ELFEGO BACA episodes of Disney. Would love to see Robert Loggia in that role.

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