Several weeks ago, I noticed that they were running a marathon of the western series, Nichols, which they now show every Saturday afternoon. Nichols was a wonderful, short-lived series that ran for 24 episodes over two seasons in 1971-72, and is arguably the most uncommon series in the history of television.
And this afternoon, they ran the special episode that made it unique.
This is not hyperbole. Really. Honest. The show -- because of this one episode -- is unique in TV history. I mean it.
A little background first. When Nichols went on the air, it got a lot of attention because it marked the return of James Garner to TV after 10 years in the movies, and largely brought him back in a character that had close ties to that most-famous role of his, Bret Maverick. He played a genial, easy-going, fast-talker who quits the army because he's gotten sick of killing, and prefers avoiding conflict at all costs and not using a gun. He comes back to the town his family founded, only to find things fallen on bad times, and is forced to pay off a questionable debt by becoming the town sheriff. Still refusing to use a gun, he resolved conflicts with his charm and quick wit.
So, why was the show unique in TV history?
Well...that's because, at least as far as I know or have ever been able to find out, Nichols is the only television series that actually killed off its main character.
Yes, you read that right. Nichols killed off Nichols, played by the show's star James Garner.
The series, as I said, was charming and wonderful. But it was also very gentle and not doing great in the ratings. And the feeling among network executives was that it was just too gentle. Here they were in the Old West, with characters shooting one another, all rough and tumble, and you had this main character doing everything he could to avoid using a gun, and even avoid a fight. (I thought it was great for that, and stood out as special, though apparently -- or so executives thought -- people like me were alone. Of course, it could have been that TV audiences simply didn't want to see a western. But whatever the actual reason, the powers-that-be, in all their wisdom, thought that Nichols was too gentle and passive. So...they killed him off.)
The episode in question came late in the second season. There's a bar brawl in the opening scene, lead by a feared bully (played by Anthony Zerbe, who probably played more villains on Mission: Impossible than anyone, and was the bad guy chasing John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, in Rooster Cogburn, the sequel to True Grit.) Nichols is off happily playing poker with a winning hand and called in to help. Reluctantly, he heads over through town, and although no one has ever tried to arrest the tough Quinn before, Nichols puts him under arrest...despite not having a gun. Quinn scoffs at this, so Nichols just wearily shrugs, "Oh, okay, so you want this to be official?" -- and turns to someone standing nearby to borrow their gun. The moment he takes hold of the pistol...Quinn blasts him, and sends Nichols flying, laid out flat on the ground. Dead. And the first act ends.
And he's dead. It's not one of those, "back from the commercial" moments, where he opens his eyes and someone shouts, "He's alive! Nichols is alive!!!" No, Nichols is dead. The second act opens at the wake in a saloon following the funeral.
One of my most vivid memories of everything surrounding the episode was getting a pretty funny phone call from a friend a couple days later. "Did you see Nichols this week??!" he asked, still sort of bewildered. He said he'd been watching, and had been smoking pot at the time, so he was a bit high. And he said that when Nichols got shot and killed, it just absolutely, totally freaked him out. "I just kept staring at the television," he said. "I kept saying, 'Nichols is dead!!' I was so freaked."
What the network had in mind was the equivalent of a football Hail Mary pass. A last-ditch effort to win a losing game. And so into the saloon during the wake comes...Nichols' brother, Jim, played by -- yes, you guessed it, James Garner, with a mustache. ("So, why did Nichols never tell me he had a brother?" his skeptical sort-of girlfriend Kidder asks. "Well -- did you ever ask him?" he laconically inquires. Sheepishly, she answers "no," and the brother just shrugs, "That could explain a lot.")
The brother is only there for the funeral to pay his last respects. But when he finds out that the town has been too afraid to do anything about Nichols' killer, he spends the next few days before the train arrives to take things into his own hands. He's charming, too, but a lot more grounded, more world-savvy, and (importantly for TV execs) more than happy to use a gun. With the help of the town finally behind him, he captures Quinn and his two sidekicks. But he turns down the offer to become the town sheriff and rides off. As memory serves, though (I'll have to wait until next week, of course...) he comes back the next episode, since it is his family's town, named Nichols.
The network hope was by having a more aggressive, though equally charming Nichols in the lead, perhaps it would please the audience more and build the numbers. It didn't. In fact, the show only lasted on more episode (hardly much time for the change to take hold...), the season ended, and the show wasn't renewed.
Given that there were only these two final episodes, it's a shame that they screwed around so much -- and so stupidly -- with a wonderful series that they were likely going to cancel anyway. Was it worth the effort to try and save it? Well, I give them points for trying, but it was a pretty silly thing to do.
But...it sure was unique.
And it was fascinating watching the episode again, after 45 years.
Here is a scene from the pilot, when Nichols has returned to town for the first time in decades, found that his family home has been sold, and stops in the saloon before planning to leave.