Friday, August 13, 2010

Drawing cards

In April 1980, CBS-TV scored big in the Nielsens with a TV-movie entitled Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, a ninety-minute western that featured the popular vocalist in the role of cardsharp Brady Hawkes. The production successfully capitalized on a hit song (The Gambler) written by tunesmith Don Schlitz, a ditty that—quite frankly—if I never had to hear it again for the rest of my born days it would be okay-fine with me.

See, I’ve never been a huge fan of Rogers. His music sort of represented the soulless pap that came to define country in the late 70s/early 80s, that whole “Urban Cowboy” fad where all the songs pretty much sounded the same. (To put it more succinctly—if there’s a Kenny Rogers song with a steel guitar, I’ve yet to hear it.) With regards to my mother—that’s a different story. She loves the man, and in 1985 I was in very good stead because I scored her and my father free tickets to see Kenny in concert in Savannah (I was working at a country music station at the time), which she enjoyed very much. (I volunteered to work s shift so that the other station employees could attend and our program director felt so bad that I didn’t get to go—though I assured her it was not in any way a big deal—that she got me an album autographed by Rogers’ opening act, Sawyer Brown, who were enjoying their brand-new success as the new kids on the country music block.)

Despite my dislike for Kenny, I watched the TV-movie when it first aired—though why I did this I have no idea; my only defense is that back then I simply didn’t know any better. (Hey, I ponied up the money to take my sisters to see Rogers’ 1982 Six Pack, too—a movie so bad I’m still hearing about it from Kat and Debbie some twenty-five years after the fact.) So I’ll take full blame for it becoming a ratings success—so much so that it led to four sequels: Kenny Rogers as The Gambler: The Adventure Continues (1983), Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues (1987), The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) and Gambler V: Playing for Keeps (1994). I saw a portion of Part III last week while sitting down in front of the tube for a bit o’lunch and I sat down with Luck of the Draw last night—and as far as I’m concerned, that as much of a “gamble” as I’m willing to take.

In Draw, Rogers’ Hawkes teams up with a saloon owner named Burgundy Jones (Reba McEntire) and his partner Ethan Cassidy (Rick Rossovich—I’m guessing Bruce Boxleitner, who played Brady’s sidekick Billy Montana in the other four Gambler flicks, must not have been available) on a trek to San Francisco for a high stakes poker game—a competition that’s reportedly going to be last opportunity for Hawkes because Congress is getting ready to pass a law prohibiting gambling, thanks in large part to a temperance group headed up by Carrie Nation wannabe Melody O’Rourke (Park Overall). Along the way, Hawkes and Company cross paths with several historical figures of note—Judge Roy Bean (Brad Sullivan), Diamond Jim Brady (Dion Anderson) and President Teddy Roosevelt (played by movie/TV vet Claude Akins).

You’re no doubt asking yourself right now—“Why for the love of Pete did you sit down and watch this, Iv? Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” My response to you would be—where else could I enjoy a three-hour film (Luck of the Draw was originally presented in two-part miniseries form) that includes so many of my boob tube Western heroes as

Lucas McCain, a.ka. The Rifleman (Chuck Connors)…

Lucas’ son Mark turns up later on, too—he’s out in Hollywood working in the fledgling motion picture industry with a director (Mickey Rooney) who identifies himself as “D.W.”…

The great horse Silver…

Wyatt Earp (Hugh O’Brian), who’s telling his life story to an eager-beaver chronicler (“...like the man said: ‘When the legend becomes fact...print the legend.’”)…

Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker—“Things have been pretty quiet for me lately--good to get the ol' heart pumpin' again…”)…

William Bartley “Bat” Masterson (Gene Barry)…

Dave Blasingame (Brian Keith)…

(Blasingame’s disloyal dog, Brown)…

Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine)…

…and the one-and-only Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly), who announces that he’s participating in the poker game by wryly observing: “Without a Maverick in it, you don't have a game...”



There’s also a pair of unnamed ranch hands (one of them, however, is addressed by McEntire’s Jones as “Doug”) who resemble a couple of ranch hands who worked on a ninety-minute spread back in the 1960s. (I’m guessing the reason they go unnamed is because the people behind Draw couldn’t secure the rights to the characters—but when Rossovich’s Cassidy asks why they’re so far away from the ranch, “Doug” replies: “We quit that sorry outfit a long time ago.”)

By that same token, here’s a “prairie chef” who answers to “Cookie”—and when Hawkes asks him if he used to work for a trail boss and his drovers he’s informed: “Things got too rowdy with that wild bunch.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Luck of the Draw because—as the marquee sign succinctly reads—nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. The cameos by these actors who headlined some of TV’s classic westerns are well worth sitting through the movie, even though Rogers is a better singer than he is an actor. McEntire’s pretty good (she had already demonstrated her acting chops with a funny turn in the sci-fi cult comedy Tremors [1990]), and the cast of Draw also includes first-rate performances from Christopher Rich (as Brady’s rival, gambler Lute Cantrell—he, Overall and McEntire would later reunite on McEntire’s WB sitcom Reba), Jere Burns, Juliana Donald, Patrick Macnee, Dub Taylor (as Keith’s half-deaf sidekick) and Linda Evans—who reprises briefly her role as Kate Muldoon, a character that first appeared in the second Gambler TV-movie.

And if you’re married to the star, I’m sure he can find a part for you in the picture, too—nepotism is a wonderful thing.

Luck of the Draw is crammed with a lot of in-jokes and references to TV westerns past—a funny example occurs at the San Francisco poker game, which is played at the Hotel Carlton and the Asian dealer (Kim Miyori) is introduced as “the late Mr. Paladin’s personal dealer.” While I enjoyed it for the most part, Draw’s conceit of having Brady Hawkes character conveniently knowing all these individuals by name as he runs into them strains the film’s credibility a tad. Still, it’s hard to completely dislike a movie that features this soliloquy by cook Paul Brinegar, badmouthing a gentleman who made the mistake of getting up in his face:

I would love to give that fool a whiff of gunsmoke...(chuckling) run his maverick butt right off this wagon train...of course, he's probably already wanted dead or alive by some lawman...I wish Diamond Jim'd get rid of him...settle down in some big valley...build a little house on the prairie...surrounded by high chapparal...oh, that'd be a real bonanza for me...I'm gettin' too old for this wild, wild west...well...oh...better get them doggies rollin' before these steaks turn into rawhide...

My second favorite is when Kelly’s Bart quips as he’s wiped out in the poker game: “I'm definitely not the best poker player in the Maverick family…” Draw would be Kelly’s cinematic swan song, not to mention Chuck Connors’. All of the TV cowboys are sensational in this, but I think the standouts are Drury and McClure, who appear to be having the time of their lives—it’s a shame no one ever floated the idea of a Virginian reunion while Doug was still with us.

Since I saw Luck of the Draw on Encore Westerns, subscribers to that channel can check it out by looking for it the next time it shows up on the schedule. It’s also been released on DVD, so it’s available for either rental or purchase.

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4 comments:

Hal said...

I enjoyed this one, too, for the same reasons you did. If there was one irritation for me, it was everyone---including the truly great Bart Maverick---acting starstruck and deferential whenever they were in Brady Hawkes' presence. I know, Kenny's the star of this particular show, but you'll never convince me that either Maverick brother couldn't wipe Hawkes out at the poker table. Bilko too for that matter. :)

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I know, Kenny's the star of this particular show, but you'll never convince me that either Maverick brother couldn't wipe Hawkes out at the poker table. Bilko too for that matter. :)

I thought the exact same thing when I watched it!

Ticketwood said...

What a wonderful concert. My husband and I had got tickets from Ticketsinventory.com at discounted prices and a big "Thank You" to Ticketsinventory for Reba Mcentire Tickets .We drove from the Lewiston-Clarkston area to attend Reba concert. It was our first, and won't be the last. Being a Music teacher, I've followed Reba's career since the first interview I saw years ago. Believe me, there is nothing like Reba and George Strait show.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I've seen the Reeb twice in concert--once in 1981, when she part of some outfit called "The Urban Cowboy Tour" (yes, I was repulsed by the name--but I wanted to see Mickey Gilley, who also performed along with T.G. Sheppard and Johnny Lee) and again in 1985, when she was joined by Ronnie Milsap. Sister Kat, not a country music fan by any stretch of the imagination, nevertheless accompanied me to the Milsap-McEntire show and had a tremendously entertaining time.