Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Troop movement

The above screen cap is a scene from an episode of Lawman entitled “The Chef”…and when I saw these two individuals together—character actors Sig Ruman and Dub Taylor—the first thing I thought of was that it would make a great “They Were Collaborators” post over at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… Let’s be honest, a pairing between these two unique silver screen veterans is something you don’t see everyday.

“The Chef” stars Ruman as Hans Steinmeyer, a European immigrant just off the boat who ends up in Laramie, Wyoming…and whose culinary talents earn him employment at a restaurant managed by Harry Dorn (Byron Foulger). Steinmeyer’s prowess in the kitchen is so potent that it’s SRO at the restaurant—and Dorn is prepared to make his cook a full partner in his business venture.

But there’s trouble on the horizon. It would appear that Hans entered into an agreement with Ira Young (John Doucette) and his wife Mary (Lee Patrick) to serve as their chef—Ira even fronted the money to bring Steinmeyer over to America. Hans tells Young he’ll more than happy to reimburse him for the travel costs but Ira is a man who’s used to getting what he wants. The four principals—Steinmeyer, Dorn and the Youngs—appeal to Marshal Dan Troop (John Russell) for a solution that will make everybody happy…and while Troop is inclined to side with Hans, local magistrate Judge Talbot (Harry Cheshire) agrees to rule in Ira’s favor, issuing an injunction that forbids the great Steinmeyer from cooking for anyone but Mr. and Mrs. Young.

Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how this turns out—Hans uses stragedy, cooking a meal so foul for the Youngs (who are entertaining the Governor and his wife) that they agree to break the contract and let him achieve the American Dream of successfully running his own eatery. This is, of course, accompanied by a bit of “what-makes-this-country-great” propaganda that would probably sink the episode if it were not for the fact that a) it’s only a half-hour (actually twenty-five minutes), making it painless to take and b) it’s a fitfully funny outing, with first-rate performances from some of the best character actors in the bidness.

Oh, and then there’s this…

Yes…this is as close as you’ll get to seeing Russell smiling on this show. My God, this man had a stick up his ass. (Hell, even Matt Dillon exercised a bit of joviality once in a while.)

Studying Russell’s stone-faced visage to see if he’s actually going to smile is one of the benefits of watching Lawman—a classic television oater that originally aired over ABC from 1958-62 and is now in reruns on the Encore Westerns channel. The premise of the series had Marshall Troop as the man handling the peace in the rough-and-rowdy town of Laramie…assisted by his loyal deputy, Johnny McKay, played by Scott C. fave Peter Brown—who would later repeat his boob tube sagebrush success on NBC’s comedy-western Laredo (1965-67).

I’m not sure why I used the adjective “rough-and-rowdy” to describe the town in this series because from the episodes I’ve watched so far, things seem relatively sedate…though that could suggest that Troop is darn good at his job. During the second season, the show added B-picture fave Peggie Castle as Lily Merrill, proprietress of the Birdcage Saloon…and whom I’m pretty sure wasn’t supposed to resemble in any way a similar saloonkeeper who ran a joint in Dodge City on a western televised on another network about that time. Castle’s character was added apparently to get Troop to lighten up a bit—but since Encore’s still on the first season episodes I’m not able to report as to whether or not this experiment was a success. During the first season, an actress named Bek Nelson played a character named Dru Lemp who ran a restaurant Troop frequented…and I’ve noticed he softens a bit when he’s in her presence, so maybe the tranquilizing effect does work to some extent.

There’s a website on the Internets devoted to this TV series (an offshoot of a site that honors actor Brown), and the people who tidy up around that joint have this to say: “In the collective opinion of our NiteOwl video group of baby boomers, Lawman, along with Maverick, represented the best of the Warner's Westerns which dominated ABC in the late 50's through mid-60's, although we liked them all. Where Maverick was a delightful, light-hearted romp with occasional serious moments, Lawman was a straightforward serious Western with occasional light moments. The half-hour format, almost unheard of today for a drama, required a compact, no frills story. There was little time for romance or development of secondary characters.”

To paraphrase a scriptwriter for The Lone Ranger: “We don’t do nuance…we only have a half-hour.” Not to say that this sort of thing couldn’t be accomplished with a thirty-minute show—Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel are the clear exceptions to the rule—but Lawman’s mission is to tell a simple story in black-and-white…both literally and figuratively, and I think it does a superb job of doing so. The adjective used to describe the series at the Lawman website is “solid,” something with which I agree wholeheartedly. (Where I would part company with them is their assessment that the program ranks after Maverick as the best of the Warner Bros. studio Westerns…I think I’d probably put Cheyenne after Maverick, then Lawman.)

That shock of white hair on Russell had been bugging the hell out of me for some time before I learned (via the website) that the actor asked the makeup department to do this because the thirty-seven-year-old thesp wanted to appear much older…envisioning Troop as a man in his late forties. (This is also why Russell spoke in a lower, authoritative tone.) Russell also modeled the stern, no-nonsense Troop after a superior he had encountered during a stretch with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Russell’s character of Dan Troop can be described in one word: badass. I’m serious. This is not a dude you want to get on the wrong side of—let me illustrate with an example. I saw a Lawman episode a week or so back called “The Encounter,” in which Dan goes after a pair of outlaws but while camping out he’s attacked by a ferocious bear. Honest to my grandma, for one brief second I thought that bear was gong to get its ass kicked. Fortunately, nature makes bears of sterner stuff—but even after being mauled by this grizzly, Troop is able to summon up enough strength to get on his horse and ride towards medical attention without batting a freaking eyelash…when he’s rescued by the sister of one of the outlaws, an actress you may recognize here:

Yes, that is future Oscar-winner Louise “Nurse Ratched” Fletcher, who apparently did this guest shot on the show when she was twelve years old. Okay, I may have exaggerated a tad—she was twenty-four at the time. (Incidentally, the actor who plays her brother is Russell “The Professor” Johnson.) But she was a year older than co-star Brown, who was twenty-three at the time the series premiered…his character of Johnny McKay was supposed to be eighteen, which is why Troop often refers to him as “boy” and why their relationship was not unlike that of father and son. Anyway, Fletcher’s character falls hard for our hero because…well, because he’s a manly fellow, that’s why…even at the risk of turning over her brother and his skeevy partner (Donald Buka) to the right side of the law, where they’ll surely be hanged.

Another observation from the Lawman site: “The stand-out quality of Lawman may be attributed in great part to the efforts of the two stars both of whom came to the series as excellent horsemen and gun handlers as well as actors dedicated to their craft. They were perfectly cast and together ‘conspired’ to maintain the consistency and integrity of their characters in the face of constantly changing writers and directors, barebones budgets and frantic shooting schedules.” I concur that this is one of the reasons the series has a sheen of classiness to it—the program utilized the talents of competent journeymen like Robert Sparr, Stuart Heisler, Richard C. Sarafian, Robert B. Sinclair and Leslie H. Martinson to direct many of the installments; character actor Marc Lawrence sat in the director’s chair for about a dozen episodes (in addition to helming installments of M Squad, Bronco, Maverick and The Roaring 20’s), as did future Support Your Local Sheriff! director Burt Kennedy and Green Acres’ Richard L. Bare. The scripting—again, meaty, plot-driven tales not given to meandering character studies—was supervised by the likes of Ric Hardman, William F. Leicester, Edmund Morris, Clair Huffaker and John Tomerlin. Richard Matheson penned a few Lawmans, as did the aforementioned Kennedy and veteran TV scribe Montgomery Pittman.

But my favorite pastime while watching these reruns is getting a gander at some actors who were either just starting out or in the twilight of their careers…here’s a gentleman you might recognize from a long-running ninety-minute oater that debuted on NBC in 1962...

Yes, that individual is Doug McClure. (I recognized him right off the bat, but there was a tiny scintilla of doubt when I first glimpsed him, as in “That can’t be Doug McClure…”)

That old gent with Russell is character great Roscoe Ates—who appeared in a handful of Lawman outings as an old codger named Ike Jenkins (though he’s just credited as “Old Timer" in this episode)…

…moppet actor Steven Talbot, who played “Beaver” Cleaver’s creepy friend Gilbert on Leave it to Beaver (I don’t know who the other two mooks are but for the purpose of this discussion, they don’t matter to a hill of beans)…

…and this husband-and-wife couple are played by OTR veterans Vivi Janiss and Ned Wever. Vivi and Ned play Alice and Ernie Welch, whose son Jamie (Talbot) takes up with a visitor to Laramie—famed gunslinger Jack Rollins, played by Charles Cooper. Rollins has taken a shine to Jamie for one simple reason—Jamie is his son…the Welches took the boy in when Jamie’s mother succumbed to fever and even though they think of him as their own, they technically never adopted the kid. So Rollins wants to take his flesh-and-blood with him…except that Marshal Troop has other ideas. This episode, written by Edmund Morris and directed by Stuart Heisler, is sort of interesting in that the big expected shootout between Troop and Rollins never materializes; the two men just engage in your run-of-the-mill street brawl, and the vanquished gunfighter ends up getting his ass handed to him. (Rollins gunned down McClure’s character earlier in the episode, so maybe the corpse quota was filled up that week.) I have to admit I sort of chuckled at this turn of events—it’s sort of every father’s dream to have his son watching him take a massive ass-whooping…particularly in the middle of town, and in front of his rugrat friends. (This morning’s episode, “Battle Scar,” featured an appearance from a young Robert Conrad, who would get his first taste of TV stardom the following season on the Warner Bros.-produced detective drama Hawaiian Eye.)

Because of its plum scheduling spot—it followed the phenomenally successful Maverick on Sunday nights at 8:30pm for most of its four-year-run—Lawman enjoyed much success in the Nielsen ratings, even ranking #15 among all televised programs during the 1959-60 season. But the audience for Lawman began to taper off after that, particularly since Maverick was having ratings problems of its own (it was having to function without its star, James Garner, who had successfully jumped ship from the show as a result of his contract dispute with Warner Bros.) and in its last season, the fact that it was sandwiched between non-performers (and non-Westerns) Follow the Sun and Bus Stop telegraphed that Marshal Troop and Deputy McKay would soon be riding off into the sunset and towards Rerun City. It’s nice to see this series revived on Encore Westerns—a superb example of the fine craftsmanship that went into the production of this program. Just heed my warning: if you’re planning on starting a drinking game whereupon you chug one every time John Russell cracks a smile…you’re going to be the thirstiest hombre who ever drew a sober breath.

The lawman came with the sun
There was a job to be done
And so they sent for the badge and the gun
Of the lawman

And as he silently rode
Where evil violently flowed
They knew he’d live and die by the code
Of the lawman

The man who rides all alone
And all that he’ll ever own
Is just a badge and a gun and he’s known
As the lawman

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Laura said...

I've not yet seen any of THE LAWMAN...thanks for a most interesting review. Sounds like my kind of show.

Best wishes,

Scott C. said...

Thanks for this, Ivan. A terrific precis of one of the most -- well -- solid Westerns from the golden age of TV oaters.