I love watching old TV westerns. In part, I like it because I love old TV westerns. (Not all, I have my favorites, most notably Have Gun, Will Travel; Maverick, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.) But also in part because old TV westerns tend to have a lot of young actors and filmmakers at the start of their careers. That may be because so many westerns proliferated TV in the late-50s and early-60s, so if you were a young actor, writer or director, there was a massive playing field on which to get your break.
And sometimes you get to catch lightning in a bottle and overlap with a bit of film history, which is what this today is about. But I'll get to that story in a moment, because even without it, even on the lower level, film history spills over and can be seen throughout so many of the episodes.
For instance --
Among the best shows for young actors it seems are Gunsmoke and Bonanza. To a certain degree, that's because they were both on the air for so long that you're likely to cross paths with someone now-famous passing through. But they also had wide-ranging stories that lent themselves to supporting guests. A few years back, for example, I wrote here about an episode of Gunsmoke where the small role of a gang's henchman was played by a young Harrison Ford. Last month, an episode of the show had Richard Dreyfuss as a young man trying to get revenge. The next week, Bonanza featured a grown-up (but still-called) Ronny Howard a year before he broke out in feature films with American Graffiti A few weeks ago, there was a joyous episode of Have Gun, Will Travel that guest-starred both Vincent Price and Broadway legend Patricia Morison (who famously starred in the original production of Kiss Me, Kate) as a husband-and-wife team who traveled the Wild West performing Shakespeare. Or seeing tough guy Charles Bronson as a rancher too shy to woo a woman. Or Dan Blocker in the show right before he played 'Hoss' on Bonanza. And fun to see James Coburn in Wanted: Dead or Alive opposite Steve McQueen, since a few years later they would star together in The Great Escape. And Cloris Leachman, still active today but 60 years ago at just 34 as a vibrant, sweet wife who (spoiler alert) turns out to be the killer.
And we haven't even gotten to that lightning in a bottle overlap with film history yet. That's still to come. Bear with me. We'll be there in just a moment. Plus a bonus I think you'll love, for your patience. But first there's all the behind-the-scenes talent that's such a remarkable part of this old TV western world and helps put everything all in perspective.
And in that "behind-the-scenes" world, I've found that Have Gun, Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive are two of the best for writers and directors, perhaps because those two shows were among the best "adult westerns" along with Maverick, and so perhaps attracted that level of talent. The only problem, as opposed to actors, is that in those days writers and directors weren't generally identified until the end, so you don't realize whose work you just saw until it's over, and you get your "Oh, my God, HE did that??!"
Have Gun, Will Travel in particular leaps out above the pack. For instance, I saw an episode that was written by Sam Peckinpah, who later directed The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. A particularly-major "Oh, my God" moment came after I watched a Have Gun episode and discovered in the end-credits that it was directed by the legendary Lewis Milestone -- who decades earlier directed the classic film All Quiet on the Western Front. And The Front Page. And Of Mice and Men. Yet this wasn't a case of him picking up a job at the end of his career, because even after having directed this TV show episode, he later directed the original Ocean’s 11 and also the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando.
There are others, too. Andrew V. McGlaglen, who directed 116 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel, later moved on to direct such classic westerns as Shenandoah with James Stewart, and John Wayne films like McClintock! and Chisum. (By the way, his father Victor McGlaglen, who was one of Hollywood's great character actors, often working with John Ford and John Wayne, most notably in The Quiet Man and winning a Best Actor Oscar in The Informer, guest-starred in an episode directed by his son -- and was great.) And Have Gun had many episodes written by Frank Pierson -- later president of the Writers Guild of America and co-writer of the great comedy western Cat Ballou. And three episodes were written by Irving Wallace, who would go on to write the bestselling novels The Prize, The Chapman Report, The Word and others.
Which finally brings us to a bit of Hollywood history with The Virginian.
I never particularly watched The Virginian growing up – in fact, I’m not sure if I ever did – but I saw a promo the other week that they would be doing a “Cast Favorites Week,” where still-surviving cast members would pick an episode and then do brief commentaries during the ad breaks. I loved the idea, so I figured it would be fun to check one out. I scrolled through the plot "loglines" for that week, saw one that seemed the most interesting, and set my DVR.
Boy, howdy, did I luck out.
The episode I picked by total chance, the first I'd ever seen, was called “Mountain of the Sun,” and the show's main star James Drury did the commentary, dressed in cowboy gear. (I note "main star," since one of the show's other stars in the first four seasons before he left was Lee J. Cobb, the original 'Willy Loman' on Broadway in Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman.) The particular show, "Mountain of the Sun," was fairly enjoyable – episodes of The Virginian were 90 minutes, so they could be a bit more substantive than other westerns. The plot concerned Drury's character helping three ladies travel across dangerous, desert land to their destination. He did a very good job. As for the three actresses, I didn’t know one of them, though I did know character actress Jeannette Nolan. But it was the lead actress of the three who stood out. She was really excellent, it was clear how wonderful she was. And absolutely beautiful. To my complete surprise, i was – Dolores Hart!
Now, to some people reading this, they may be falling off their chairs at the moment. To others more uncertain, let me explain. Dolores Hart was a beautiful, talented young actress who at the height of her growing career in 1963 suddenly quit Hollywood and became a Benedictine nun. She had made her movie debut in Loving You, in which she always said that her kiss with Elvis Presley was so popular, "it lasted 15 seconds on screen and 40 years." She also starred in Come Fly With Me, Where the Boys Are, Francis of Assisi and more, in fact she was so busy she made 10 movies in five years. And even got a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in the Broadway play, The Pleasure of His Company. She acted opposite such leading men as Montgomery Clift, Stephen Boyd, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and Presley. And then, at the age of 25, her movie stardom growing, engaged to be married to a young man she'd been dating for five years -- she gave it all up. But it worked out properly for her. She is still to this day at that same Regina Laudis abbey, now the Mother Prioress there at age 81. She is also still a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy, something she remains proud of. In fact, only a few years ago in 2012, after almost a half-century, she made another movie of sorts -- HBO did a documentary on her, God is the Bigger Elvis, which got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short. I saw it at a screening, and it's terrific. And she comes across like a joy.
But the thing is, Dolores Hart simply being in that episode of The Virginian, even while at the height of her movie career, while fascinating, wasn’t the only remarkable thing about the episode or what weaved it with Hollywood history, that was just a case of wonderful casting. Perspective is everything, though, and the "Mountain of the Sun" episode -- from Season One, episode 28 -- is overloaded with perspective.
For starters, during his commentary as part of "Cast Favorites Week," star James Drury was just raving about how wonderful Hart was. Glowingly, on pretty much every level. And then he mentioned something that transformed this from just "an episode" of a TV show -- he said that this was the very last filmed project she did! In fact, he said that only four days after they completed it, that’s when she drove to the abbey and entered. (To be fair, I have no idea if his memory of dates is totally accurate, though for all I know it is -- but checking the iMDB does show it to indeed be her last project.)
Almost more fascinating, given what was to happen four days after completing production, is the full plot of the story – the three women are missionaries! They’re headed to a dangerous enclave of especially-vicious Indians to set up their mission there, which The Virginian (acting as their guide) keeps trying to impress on them how brutal the tribe is and hoping to get the ladies return, as does everyone they come in contact with, including the commander of a military garrison in Mexico. But the three women, and especially Cathy, the role played by Hart, are determined to fulfill the promise made to God. The story was loaded with dialogue that made you sit up in context. Two of them particularly leaped out – She tells The Virginian, “I’m not scared of death. Just scared of living without a purpose.” And later, when confronted yet again with how dangerous the mission is, she explains, “That’s why we made a covenant with the Lord, never to turn back.”
Adding even more dramatic context between this episode and her real life, where she had been engaged and had only recently called it off, is that a romance develops in the story between James Drury and Hart, and she fights with herself her growing love for him and her inner-drive to give herself to her God. And in the end, of course, she keeps on her path, and the women end up at the Indian village, where their actions are accepted by the natives, and Drury leaves them there deep in Mexico as he rides off, heartbroken but understanding.
It was a very enjoyable episode, but that it was her last film work and what it was about – and so much of the telling dialogue and overlaps with one of the more-famous acts in Hollywood history, especially at the time – made it just absolutely fascinating.
I have no idea why she did The Virginian, given the success of her feature film career. Perhaps she knew someone connected with the show and found out what the plot of the episode was, and it secretly appealed to her. Perhaps it's a simpler explanation, that she had nothing planned and got a good offer.
But whatever the reason, she was really wonderful in it. A level of acting much better than most you get in such things.
And here then is a treat. A one-minute clip from the start of the episode. I can't embed it, but if you click here it will open the page and play after a short ad.
But be sure to come back, because that's not the bonus, just a treat. This is the bonus --
Here is the full 36-minute, Oscar-nominated documentary short produced by HBO, God is the Bigger Elvis. It's wonderfully done, smart, thoughtful, very touching at times, open, amusing and even with a sort of surprising twist along the way -- befitting a story whose whole point was a big surprising Hollywood twist.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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