Thursday, February 19, 2009

Long Tall Texan

Back in September of last year, I made mention of the fact that Timeless Media Group had issued an all-points bulletin to vintage TV program collectors seeking out episodes of the 1958-60 western series The Texan, which they had planned to release in November as a DVD box set. There were seventy-eight episodes in toto…but despite Timeless’ diligence, only seventy of the installments were deemed releasable—and looking back on that post, I sounded kind of snarky when I talked about this…which I apologize, since it certainly wasn’t my intention; considering that the series sort of disappeared after a Saturday morning run on ABC in 1962 and hadn’t been heard from since, acquiring that many episodes is a pretty impressive accomplishment. (I also borrowed the title of that post for this one…if you don’t say anything I won’t.)

I ordered The Texan box set last year but there was a small screw-up with the computers at DVD Pacific and when I checked on the set’s status a few weeks ago the nice lady told me that my order had been dumped out of the system. She asked me if I wanted a refund or whether I wanted to apply the amount to my next order—and when I asked her if it was possible for Pacific to just send me the original order she said no problem. (I’d give her a credit here, only I have unfortunately forgotten her name. Suffice it to say; when you deal with DVD Pacific they have good people taking care of you.)

At the time of The Texan’s debut on CBS-TV on September 29, 1958, the TV western fad was in full swing, with many of the tube’s top shows spotlighting tales of the Old West. In the top ten shows alone there were Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Tales of Wells Fargo, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp; the most popular new show of that season, in fact, was another shoot-‘em-up starring Chuck Connors as The Rifleman. Many of the westerns distinguished themselves by having some sort of hook—and that’s sort of what makes The Texan stand out from the crowd: it was relatively gimmick-free, a sparse, simple tale of a former Civil War veteran named Bill Longley (Rory Calhoun) who rode around Texas after the war. His family once owned a large plantation and he was very happily married—but upon his return he learned that he has tragically lost his wife to cholera. He had the reputation of being a fast gun (though many people thought him a gunfighter, he really wasn’t) and a man who was quick to anger—but when one of his friends or newly-made acquaintances was getting the worse of the deal, he’d whip into action and open up a forty gallon can of whupass to deal with the bad guys.

Calhoun the actor got his break in show business when he was spotted by agent Sue Carol (wife of Alan Ladd) horseback riding in the Hollywood Hills; most of his films were B-westerns filmed at 20th Century-Fox, but occasionally he would grab something bigger like The Red House (1947), With a Song in My Heart (1952), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and River of No Return (1954). At the height of his fame, his world was in danger of collapsing down on him when snoop rag Confidential dug up some dirt about his teenage days, when he drifted into a life of petty crime and spent three years in a juvenile reformatory for car theft. They threatened to blackmail him with the story, but Calhoun publicly revealed it anyway…and it merely enhanced his “bad boy” image.

Calhoun and partner Victor M. Orsatti formed a company entitled Rorvic in 1956, and it was this company that produced Calhoun’s series The Texan, in tandem with Desilu. In the show’s first season, the series was quite popular in its Monday night timeslot of 8:00pm, ranking #15 among all TV programs according to the Nielsen ratings. By season two, however, ABC had moved its “big gun” Cheyenne in that same slot, and Texan’s audience soon began to dry up like an abandoned well. From October 1960 to March 1962 ABC showcased reruns of the program on its daytime schedule—and added it to its Saturday morning lineup from February to May 1962. After that, The Texan drifted off into television oblivion.

Until now. I’ve sampled three of the ten discs in Timeless’ Texan collection (about twenty-one episodes) and can honestly say that while the series won’t make you forget western half-hours like Gunsmoke or Have Gun – Will Travel anytime soon, The Texan remains a serviceable little oater. Calhoun, despite his beefcake reputation (he’s a very handsome guy, no question about it), was not too shabby in the role of Longley—he possessed a wry sense of humor that aided him immeasurably in a part that could have been a real stiff in the hands of any other actor. His character is very easygoing…and yet can be a tiger when he’s riled—he bottles up his anger like a reservoir in order to strike a contrast between his normal demeanor…and when he’s really ticked off.

The partnership with Desilu guaranteed that although it had a television budget (the towns and especially the saloons have a tendency to look the same after a while), The Texan boasted fairly impressive production values…along with veteran directors (Erle C. Kenton, Felix E. Feist, Hollingsworth Morse) and scribes (Curtis Kenyon, Harry Kronman) capable of putting a professional sheen on the series without spending a lot of gitas. The show also didn’t skimp on the guest stars; you’ll see a lot of veterans and up-and-comers in these episodes, including Neville Brand, John Larch, Hank “Fred Ziffel” Patterson, Bruce Bennett, Thomas Gomez, Peggie Castle, Sidney Blackmer, Barbara Baxley, Mike “Mannix” Connors, Herb Rudley, Vaughn Taylor, James Westerfield, Paul Fix, Martin Garralaga, Ray Teal, Jack Elam, Fay Spain, Ellen Corby, Ross Elliott, Milton Frome, Yvette Vickers, Murvyn Vye, Lou Jacobi, Anthony Warde, Brian Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel, Jean Willes, Russell Simpson, Paul “Wishbone” Brinegar, Grant Withers, Adam Williams, Vito Scotti and Kenneth McDonald. (You’ll also spot some OTR veterans, chiefly among them Ralph Moody, Karl Swenson, J. Carrol Naish, Lurene Tuttle, Gerald Mohr, Emory Parnell, Les Tremayne and Irene Tedrow.)

Of the episodes I’ve watched so far there are a few standouts: “The Hemp Tree” (11/17/58) stars a pre-Bonanza Michael Landon as ex-con who’s innocent of a bank holdup but makes tracks for the border anyway because his reputation will surely convict him; This is Your FBI’s Stacy Harris also appears in this episode. “The Troubled Town” (10/13/58) doesn’t break any new ground in drama (a young bully [James Drury] threatens Longley, and is later found shot in the back—prompting a vow of revenge against Longley from the young snotnose’s gunfighter brother [Pat Conway of Tombstone Territory fame]), but it has a really impressive guest cast ([Harry] Dean Stanton, William Schallert, Kathryn Card and Walter Sande) including TDOY fave Andy Clyde as a legendary Western hero named “Wild Jack” Hastings. Clyde doesn’t slip into Western sidekick mode here (“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”) but plays it perfect straight, and the scene with him and Calhoun’s character—with Longley admitting his boyhood worship of Hastings’ exploits—is tremendously good. On the lighter side, “The Widow of Paradise” (11/24/58) swipes the plot from The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) by putting Longley in the custody of widow Iris Crawford (Marilyn Hanold) when he kills her no-account husband; he must then provide for her and her two bratty sons until she remarries—so he plays matchmaker between her and Alan Hale, Jr. (Russell Thorson and Len “Uncle Leo!” Lesser also grace this funny outing).

The Texan box set also showcases a most entertaining Yuletide-themed episode in “A Time of the Year” (12/22/58) in which Longley meets up with a couple (Suzanne Lloyd, Michael Macready) on a stagecoach ride into their hometown—Macready’s wife is great with child and they’re returning home to spend the holidays with Macready’s father, played by his real-life dad George. The younger Macready is killed by bandits on the way in and George—who pretty much runs the town—orders the town’s doctor not to treat the wife because she’s of Latino origin…but has a change of heart when Longley prevents him from being killed by the same gang who croaked his son. A very well-done allegory that also features Charmin spokesman Dick Wilson as one of the bad dudes.

But my favorite so far is “A Quart of Law” (01/12/59), in which the citizens of a small town attempt to take it back from autocratic sheriff Coy Benner (Robert Lowery), who rules the roost with an iron hand and has only a soft-spoken, alcoholic lawyer-judge Winthrop Davis (the too-marvelous-for-words Edgar Stehli) as token opposition in the election for sheriff. When Longley discovers that the change due him for buying a drink in the town’s saloon is short, Davis explains to him why the bartender took out a dollar for a contribution to Benner’s re-election campaign:

DAVIS: It’s…unique…even for American politics…I’m afraid it’s the least of our innovations…
BENNER (to his goons) Shut him off…
(Two men get up from Benner’s table and head towards the bar)

DAVIS
: So many of our local concepts are unorthodox…frankly, it would take several hours to describe all our political heresies…
FIRST MAN: You think he’s been talkin’ too long?
SECOND MAN: Too long and too loud…maybe he’s thirsty…
FIRST MAN: Yeah… (To
Davis) You better have a drink…compliments of Sheriff Benner…
DAVIS
: Please convey my regrets to the Sheriff…
FIRST MAN: I didn’t say nothin’ about regrets…I said have a drink…

DAVIS
: I’d rather not…
FIRST MAN: You’re makin’ it hard on both of us…
(The second man grabs
Davis’ arms and pulls them behind his back while the first goon tries to force whiskey down his throat. Longley grabs the thug with the whiskey and cold cocks him, sending him to the floor. The second man steps out from behind Davis, prepared for a showdown with Longley…)
LONGLEY: I’d almost wish you’d try

Stehli is incredible in his role, a man fiercely dedicated to the law (and oddly, in many ways a strict pacifist) but too scared to confront Benner because he’s still wrestling with his inner demons. But that’s why Big Bill Longley was always around—to right the wrongs and injustices invoked against his fellow man.

As a kid, my only exposure to Rory Calhoun was in the actor’s twilight years, when he was paying the rent by appearing on the CBS-TV soap opera Capitol (along with Carolyn Jones, Julie Adams, Richard Egan and a cast of others) or appearing in cult films like Motel Hell (1980) and Angel (1984). (Though I do remember him from an episode of Gilligan’s Island in which he starred as a big-game hunter in a parody of The Most Dangerous Game.) The Texan has shown me that he was a much better actor than I previously gave him credit, and if you’re as fanatical about these old television westerns from the past as I am, you may want to seriously consider adding this collection to your library. The prints used by Timeless (the company states on the box that they were culled from 35mm masters—who am I to question their integrity?) range from okay to near-pristine…and in a rare departure, they include the opening and closing titles on each episode:

2 comments:

Linda said...

This is too funny. The Texan theme music played here was used in an episode of Lassie, in "Lassie's Odyssey," to be exact. Lassie is on a railroad track about to be run down by a freight train and this music plays as the train approaches and she seeks and then finds a bolthole. I don't see any music credits. Was this perhaps stock music?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

One source says that it was stock music, another reports the theme was written by William Loose and John Seely. Either way, it's not too much of a stretch to believe they borrowed it for Lassie.