Monday, November 10, 2008

“…but I did not shoot the deputy…”

Back in June, I posted a little information on an upcoming Timeless Media Group DVD release containing twelve episodes of the classic TV oater The Deputy, telecast on NBC-TV from 1959 to 1961. Though the number of DVD’s and DVD box sets that used to arrive at Rancho Yesteryear has been curtailed somewhat due to my financial situation, I took a flutter on this one and my copy arrived two Saturdays back. I’ll just get the nitpicks out of the way before touting what I believe to be an interesting DVD set.

First off, Timeless Media has edited the opening credits of the series out of each episode on the set—the only time you see it is when you first play the DVD (the credits run and then the disc shifts to menu mode) and while that sort of thing may not matter to you, to me it’s like sand in a swimsuit. Secondly, of the dozen episodes in the collection, two of them (“Man of Peace” and “The Hidden Motive”) were culled from videotapes. I don’t mind when Timeless needs to get these shows from collectors’ 16mm copies (they’ve leased the rights to Deputy from NBC/Universal, which means they’re responsible for digging up the source material) but unless the episode is of earth-shattering historical importance or significance it would be better to leave it off a set entirely. (“Man of Peace” guest stars Edgar Buchanan as a whiskey-swilling scalphunter, so maybe Timeless is catering to Petticoat Junction completists out there.)

That out of the way, I have to say that in getting the opportunity to watch the shows in Timeless’ collection (my previous exposure to Deputy was two public domain entries—“Hard Decision” and “The Return of Widow Brown”—and the occasional straggler rerun on TVLand) I’ve come away with a new appreciation for the series. I still think it’s no great shakes, but a more thorough viewing has introduced me to elements that I previously overlooked. For example, I like the sharp interaction between the show’s main characters, Chief Marshal Simon Fry (Henry Fonda) and Deputy Clay McCord (Allen Case). The conversations between the two have sort of a sardonic edge to them, borne out of the two men’s personalities: Fry is the been-there, seen-it-all veteran who knows it’s a dirty job but that someone has to do it (“it makes a man watchful…and a little lonely,” as a seasoned Dodge City marshal once observed) while McCord (despite his proficiency with firearms) takes a more pacifistic view (he believes that the escalation of guns results in an escalation of frontier violence).

In fact, the early Deputy episodes featured McCord moving back-and-forth from his day job (proprietor of a general store) to part-time deputying; he was frequently called on to help out Silver City’s resident man-of-the-peace Herk Lamson (Wallace Ford)—who many believed was getting too old for the job. (McCord was helped out in the store by his sister Fran, played by Betty Lou Keim.) In “The Truly Yours” (04/09/60), the matter of McCord’s mercantile is dealt with by having it burn down during a bank robbery (courtesy of a gang led by guest star James Coburn)—and while McCord has hopes of rebuilding his establishment by building up a nest egg of the money earned by collecting rewards, Fry takes a perverse pleasure in stymieing McCord’s goal by giving the $200 on Coburn’s sorry carcass to an eight-year-old Latino girl. Three episodes later, in “Palace of Shame” (05/21/60), a saloon/casino employee (Karen Steele) is awarded the booty by Fry after unwittingly luring her boyfriend out for capture (said paramour, incidentally, is played by Lee van Cleef). “You wouldn’t want her to leave town broke, would ya?” Fry asks McCord. (Fry’s motive—self-serving though it may be—is to keep McCord in his job because he’s damn good at it.)

I also need to make a correction regarding Fonda’s participation in The Deputy; while it’s true that the bulk of the show’s seventy-six episodes were built around the secondary character of McCord, the top-billed actor did appear in some capacity in every episode…though most of the time it was either in the beginning or at the end (and sometimes both). The IMDb reports that Fonda’s character of Fry was fully integrated into a total of nineteen entries—six during the first season and thirteen in the second. There’s only one episode on the Timeless set that can be called a “full Fonda” and that’s “The Three Brothers” (12/10/60), in which Fry investigates a murder in Silver City and the trail keeps leading back to a trio of siblings (Jack Ging, Lew Gallo, Buzz Martin) who have befriended deputy McCord.

Co-star Case had been a successful singer (with frequent appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning program) and Broadway performer when a bit part in the 1958 film adaptation of Damn Yankees! secured him regular TV work guesting on oaters like Bronco, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Have Gun—Will Travel, The Rifleman and Sugarfoot. When the opportunity to appear opposite Fonda on Deputy presented itself, he quit a gig in the off-Broadway hit Once Upon a Mattress for a bid at TV stardom. A handsome leading man (he resembles a young Bruce Campbell, sans chins), Case never got the opportunity to utilize his vocal talents on Deputy but shortly after the series premiered Columbia released an LP (with West Virginia native Frank DeVol conducting the orchestra) entitled Allen Case: The “Deputy” Sings…an album that went wood shortly after. (Okay, I’m joking about that last part.)

One of the things I’ve noticed about Case on The Deputy is that he has a tendency to mimic Fonda’s vocal mannerisms from time to time, particularly when he’s “riled up” and threatening the bad guys. I don’t think this is an unconscious thing on Case’s part (particularly since it disappears in conversations with Fonda) but it is a tad distracting. After Deputy, Case continued to make guest appearances in shows like The Virginian, The Time Tunnel, Barnaby Jones and Quincy, M.E.—but his only other foray in a regular series role was as Frank James in ABC’s The Legend of Jesse James (1965-66), a revisionist Western series (the James brothers are actually the good guys!) that starred Christopher “Wild in the Streets” Jones in the title role.

Part of the fun of watching these classic series is finding both future stars and seasoned veterans in the casts, all doing their best to pay the bills. One of the more interesting entries on the Deputy set is “Last Gunfight” (04/30/60), which guest stars noir icon Charles McGraw as an aging gunslinger who wants nothing more than to retire and forget his past—something a younger gunfighter (Paul Clarke) looking to make his reputation and a flaky local nuisance (Robert Redford, in one of his earliest TV gigs) are determined not to let happen. “The Stand-Off” (06/11/60) features Alan Hale, Jr. as a smart (if slightly unhinged) outlaw determined to outlast McCord in a contest of wills. Other guest stars include Vito Scotti, Kathleen Crowley, H.M. Wynant, John Larch, Dick Foran, Francis McDonald, George Dolenz (Micky’s old man) and Elisha Cook, Jr. Serial baddie Roy Barcroft and Hazel mom Whitney Blake appear in the earliest of the Deputy episodes on the Timeless set, “Proof of Guilt” (10/24/59)—I mention this only because for some unknown reason the child actor (Alden Warder) playing Blake’s son has clearly been “looped”—by none other than June Foray!

Series regulars Wallace Ford and Betty Lou Keim vanished from the second season and a character named Sergeant Hapgood Tasker (mercifully known to one and all as “Sarge”) began to make regular appearances, played by Read Morgan. “Sarge” was an Army officer assigned to maintain a supply depot in Silver City and would also do double-duty as sidekick to McCord, who began to abandon his dream of rebuilding his store and concentrated more diligently on his deputy duties. Another serial/B-movie veteran, Addison Richards, turns up in various episodes as Silver City’s resident physician Doc Landy, as did Phil Tully as amiable Charlie the bartender. Tully has a standout bit in “The Fatal Urge” (10/15/60): he promises McCord that he’ll buy him and his friends a dozen round of drinks if he proves the innocence of a young man accused of murder. At the episode’s conclusion, Fry asks McCord if he has any money; he would at least like to buy a beer for the twenty men he deputized to go after an outlaw wanted for several bank robberies. McCord is tapped out—but then he remembers Charlie’s generous offer and enters the saloon with Fry to let the bartender know he’s taking him up on the deal. The look on the bartender’s face at having to foot the bill for a dozen round of drinks for twenty thirsty men is priceless, and Fry caps it off by laconically observing: “A man can’t have too many friends.”

Some time back, I ventured into the dark recesses of ioffer.com and purchased on “grey market” DVDs sixty-one of The Deputy’s seventy-six episodes from a reliable dealer; a cursory glance at the discs revealed that at the very least they were watchable, with one or two entries clearly have been videotaped from when the show was featured on “Western Saturdays” on the late, lamented TVLand. Having generously sampled this Timeless Media Group set, I’m hoping to be able to revisit the series with more episodes soon; while The Deputy may not have been able to distinguish itself from the other forty-odd westerns on primetime during its original run, it remains just enough of a novelty to continually attract my interest.

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