How I Became Addicted To Western TV shows, books, movies, and Western history
| I have not been an admirer of Western novels, movies, or TV shows long. I tolerated John Wayne and Clint Eastwood because there are men in my life. If you have a man in your life, father, brother, husband, boyfriend, or son, you are going to watch plenty of them, so you better accept them. Of course, I grew up with cowboy shows, but I put them aside when they fell out of fashion.
As a child, we played cowboys and Indians. That's what we did back then. I had a gun and holster and a fringed vest just like my brothers. My mother was kind of progressive for that era. The boys had dolls in preschool years, because she thought that made them more nurturing, and they'd be better fathers some day. I had guns and boy toys until I wanted to be more girly. And I did. But in first grade, we were still playing those games, and my nemesis wanted to be the sheriff every time. She was my nemesis all the way through high school. I refused to be in her posse. I wanted to be in charge, too, so I played the Indian chief. Unfortunately, most of the kids wanted to be cowboys. I didn't care as long as I was chief (no squaw stuff for me).
As children we watched Sugar Foot (that's lower than a Tender Foot), Maverick, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and eventually Bonanza. On Saturday mornings, we watched Roy Rogers and Sky King before going out to play. My brothers and I were enthralled by The Wild Wild West. We also watched Riverboat and Rawhide, and Branded after The Rifleman went off (both starred Chuck Connors). By the time I was in college, most cowboy shows had faded into the sunset. I wasn't aware of the intentional changeover in television programming. I just thought they weren't cool anymore.
So, it's safe to say I was grounded in the western genre. My oldest bother watched reruns of The Big Valley after we were out of high school, but I didn't watch with him. Then after many decades of their absence, I rediscovered them.
One Saturday in the fall of 2013, definitely after Labor Day but before Thanksgiving, I was sick and sat in front of the TV moaning and groaning. I barely moved. On this pivotal day for me, I discovered some cowboy shows back to back. They included The Big Valley, Bonanza, The High Chaparrel, and The Virginian (which I had never even heard of before then). I want to point out that I didn't like Bonanza, because my ex-mother-in-law, the mother-in-law from Hell, watched it at least once a day on TVLand, and couldn't be interrupted even if you were doing something for her. But I was too lazy to pick up the remote; so thought I'd give it another chance. On that particular day, each one had something about agri-business. I was fascinated, and thought, "Could these shows be used to illustrate or supplement the teaching of American history?"
I had to have a change of scenery and went to the room with the computer and researched the shows. I made notes-the first sign of an obsession--on what state the shows were placed, and the time period. I was shocked to discover that each one had been inspired by a real life ranch. Well, the geography was all over (Nevada, California, New Mexico, Wyoming), but the time period was pretty close for all. I jotted more notes, but I failed to note the channel where I found these shows.
The following Saturday, I repeated my action, minus the aches and pains, and sat down earlier with coffee in hand. On one channel I found Rawhide, a very bad, dark, grainy version. I knew we wouldn't have stayed interested in that as kids. (Since then, I've discovered you can watch Rawhide on YouTube, and the quality is good.) It was followed by The Rifleman. Now as a kid, I thought Chuck Connors played a mean man who was a strict disciplinarian. As an adult, I saw that he was a loving father and cared deeply for the boy for whom I felt sorry when I was the same age. Funny how we change with age. Then on another channel I found something else. I ended up watching a movie with Jason Robards, Robert Culp, and Raquel Welch--Hannie Caulder. I I don't think I saw any of the shows from the week before that had captivated my attention.
I continued each Saturday to channel surf for westerns until I discovered INSP had Saddle Up Saturday. I watched all four again, with the info I had from the Internet about the stories and the filming of them. When I saw the Cartwright sons all step and draw their guns in choreographed precision, I said, "I don't need this." I stopped watching it. The sets were more fake than all the others, and the costumes were the same to be easier for the stunt men and to make stock footage that could be added as filler any time. So the colors and scenery were dreary. Only occasionally was there a brief natural looking scene, like a horse running.
It didn't take long to drop The Big Valley. I love Barbara Stanwyck and her old movies. But I had seen this show before, and it wasn't new or fresh to me. I did feel a connection to my brother who had passed away the year before. But it was almost as bad as Bonanza in placing a rich, successful family as the enemy of everyone else. The real world has envious people, but that was just too much the focus in these two shows. I did have housework to do, and did have to run errands. I couldn't watch TV all day, so this show went bye-bye.
Now I have to say I don't mind The High Chaparrel. I like to look at Manolito, played by Henry Darrow. He speaks four dialects of Spanish, you know. That makes him smart and handsome. I'll still watch occasionally, but the story is not as captivating as The Virginian. So I reclaimed that hour for other things.
Then either the schedule changed or I caught on that there were two episodes of The Virginian back to back. Oh, no. I loved this show. No complaints. Two 90 minute episodes. There went the afternoon! Within six or seven weeks of that first sick day, I was completely hooked, like someone on drugs. I hated missing part of one. If I was getting my hair done, I'd start getting antsy when it got close to one o'clock, but you can't leave when the stylist is in the middle. By Thanksgiving, I was telling my baby brother (he hasn't been a baby in decades) that I was addicted to reruns of The Virginian. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. I was seeing a fifty year old show for the first time ever, and loved it more than modern shows.
That's right I had never seen it before! I didn't know who James Drury was, or Roberta Shore, or Doug McClure. How does any woman get through decades in my lifetime without knowing who Doug McClure was? What a hunk! Gary Clarke, Clu Gulager, Sara Lane, Lee J Cobb, Charles Bickford, Don Quine, Randy Boone. I never heard of any of them, but it turns out they all starred in a lot of shows and movies. I just had blindfolds on, I guess. I knew The Virginian was a book that I had never wanted to read, and that an old movie had been made of it with Gary Cooper (turns out it was made into a movie 4 times, but I never knew). I never heard of a TV show by that name, either when I was young or since. Obviously, it didn't make a lot of reruns. But that fall I became hooked on that show and a big fan of all its stars.
Some things I had seen, but I didn't know these stars. Like Pollyanna the movie, I was watching the kids, not Aunt Polly's boyfriend, played by James Drury. I had seen Ride the High Country, because I was a Mariette Harley fan, but didn't pay attention to one of the bad guys, Mr. Drury again. He was in Love Me Tender with Elvis, but what young lady saw anyone but Elvis? He was a guest on Red Skelton and Bob Hope, appearing as The Virginian.
Of course, I saw Peyton Place, but I only remembered Troy Donahue, not Roberta or Don. We used to watch Alfred Hitchcock occasionally, but I wouldn't have paid particular notice to any actor, including cute young Randy or Clu. (YouTube has nice quality versions of Alfred.) Randy was drop-dead gorgeous in his cable knit sweater and jeans, driving a jeap. He was the kind of guy you'd want to take home to mama, the all American smiling boy. Clu was a believable bad guy. All these decades later, the shows still stand up.
Doug McClure is a handsome blond, who was an able horseman He frequently showed off doing tricks on his horse Buck (there were several Bucks). Later he did several movies in a series The Land That Time Forgot. He was in the cast of Shenandoah with James Stewart. He had that boyish appeal that made everyone think that if they met him, he would just be an everyday person and fit in with the crowd. He added humor and humility. He passed away in the 1990's.
The first time I saw Gary Clarke on The Virginian, he was in his late 20's in a 1963 show. Remember, I saw this in 2013. I thought, "What a pretty man." His bone structure was perfect. His nose was perfectly shaped. He had a perfectly defined jawline. He was thin and blond, Every hair was in place. I thought there are women who would love to look that good. He turned to screen writing, and was part of several big hit TV shows. Now in his 80's, he's still writing and looking for new projects.
Clu was in The Last Picture Show, which I had never seen, The Killers with Lee Marvin, ditto on not seeing. He had been Billy the Kid in The Tall Man, again, not seen. He was in the satire Return of the Living Dead and many others. I don't where I've been to miss so much, but I really never knew who he was. My loss. I have seen those shows now, plus Vic, and Dracula's Castle, and others. I became a major fan of Clu Gulager in 2014.
Mr. Drury is on Facebook and has a web page, The Virginian. He and other cast members do "Cowboy Up" weekends to raise money for charity and go to other functions all over the country. Clu does Frightmare weekends to instruct young filmmakers. So many home films of these speeches or panel discussions and interviews are shown on the Internet. In about five months time, I watched these folks age 50 years! The girls were lovely, the guys were handsome. But fifty years later, they all still look great!
I felt guilty about my addiction. I couldn't stand to miss an episode. INSP started rerunning the afternoon shows at night a few weeks later. I had to go Christmas shopping a few times and couldn't see one or the other. I was at a cocktail party, seeing people I hadn't seen in years, and meeting a few new ones, but I couldn't stop thinking about TV and wondering if I'd been there long enough to leave. The Virginian was vying for my social life.
And then there was the part about mooning over these young men. I was a senior citizen ( a young one) watching these men in their late twenties and thirties and getting goo-goo-eyed. I told myself, they're not that young any more, that inside this aging exterior I'm still only 30, and that they were only images frozen on film;they weren't real people; Those people don't exist anymore. I still felt like Grandma eyeing her youngest children's friends. Oh, well. These guys knew what kind of work they were getting into. They have to live with the consequences.
I've come to terms with that issue, and it doesn't bother me anymore. I still am addicted to the show. It had wonderful values and dealt with a lot of issues. It had its ups and downs with the coming and going of stars, writers, producers, and studio execs. It carried out a lot of the themes from the book, which is excellent (that's right, I finally read it), It was a product of its times, including the ladies makeup and undergarments, which weren't always very natural looking. The outdoor scenery was spectacular on some episodes. By 1969 some of the story lines were weak. The David Hartman years weren't my favorites; they were too comical. They had a lot of tremendous guest stars, including Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Dick York, William Shattner, Cloris Leachman, Mel Torme,and Victor Jory, and many others.
I still can't stand to miss an episode. I prefer the early years, minus the Morgan Star year, then the early ones with Holly and Clay. I tried to pick my favorite male star and narrowed it down to Trampas, The Virginian, Emmet, Stacy, Randy, and Steve. Only six! There were many outstanding stories. The core values that were consistent were hard work, honesty, friendship, and loyalty. There were ongoing themes of natural aristocracy and justice, and establishing law in a new area with a lot of space and time between settlements. Common themes of might making right, ranchers versus farmers, big moguls against the little guys, and man versus nature were exercised as well. It's simply a show that makes you feel good. And you feel like it's a noble and good endeavor.
So now, I'm watching old western movies, I'm reading western novels, and still watching The Virginian whenever I get the chance. I've learned a lot about history of the western half of the U.S and geography. I've learned a lot about the history of television. I'm still learning. I've even developed an appreciation for film making, not just the finished product. So my recent love affair with westerns has been educational, entertaining, and inspiring.