As her film opportunities began to decline once she turned 50, four-time Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck turned to television, first with single appearances on drama anthology series such as Alcoa Theatre and Goodyear Theatre, followed by four appearances on the western-themed Zane Grey Theatre in 1958-59. She had wanted, in fact, to star in a western series herself but said that her agents were against the idea because westerns were in decline. Five years later she would get her wish when she was cast as matriarch Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley, which would run for four seasons and mark the highpoint of her TV career. But since these same agents apparently couldn't decide what kind of show she should do, The Barbara Stanwyck Show (sometimes titled Barbara Stanwyck Theatre) provided a looser format wherein she could play a different role in each week's 30-minute drama, a vehicle for her much like The Loretta Young Show and The DuPont Show With June Allyson were for their respective hosts. Running on NBC on Monday evenings, the show was canceled after a single season of 36 episodes (32 of which featured Stanwyck) despite the fact that she won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Series in 1961. Originally NBC had proposed the idea that Stanwyck would each week play "one of history's most noble women," but the self-deprecating, down-to-earth Stanwyck would have no part of it. She also didn't like the opening sequences in which she would appear in a fabulous gown and deliver an introductory monologue about that night's episode, but she apparently was talked into that, though a few episodes have alternate openings, such as the theatre handbill held by an unidentified female hand at the beginning of "Out of the Shadows" (December 19, 1960).
The show also provided a forum to try out new show ideas, not all of them involving Stanwyck. The four episodes in which she did not appear are said to be pilots for shows that were never picked up. In three other episodes, including "The Miraculous Journey of Tadpole Chan" (November 14, 1960), Stanwyck played the same character, Josephine Little, an American importer/exporter living in Hong Kong, in the hope that this character and premise might be picked up as a regular series, but it also was not to be. And Stanwyck was able to sneak in a western plot now and then, such as "Ironbark's Bride" (November 28, 1960), in which she plays a woman believed to be a widow who answers an advertisement by a wealthy rancher looking for a bride to bear him a son to carry on his family name. In this episode, Stanwyck plays a seemingly shy, demur female, out of character with her usually brassy roles, up until the very end. By contrast, in "The Secret of Mrs. Randall" (November 21, 1960), she plays a widowed president of an oil and gas exploration company who must stand up to a domineering mother-in-law. In "The Key to the Killer" (October 31, 1960), she plays the deputized wife of an absent sheriff who must transport a wanted and dangerous killer to another town for pickup. And in "House in Order" (November 7, 1960), she plays an active socialite whose husband is having an affair and who must come to grips with her shortcomings as a mother when she is diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Stanwyck thrives here, as she did in feature-length films, when playing strong women who are a match for any man. But the characters are far from stereotypes--they make mistakes, have moments of weakness, and sometimes doubt themselves, as when Dr. Susan Bryce questions her own sanity in "Out of the Shadows." This tough but fallible character matches exactly with how Stanwyck saw herself. In an interview she gave to Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne late in her life, she said, "When you write your story, just remember -- I don't walk on water. I'm just an actress. Leave out the adjectives."
Earle Hagen provided the tinkling piano theme music that begins and ends each episode. Hagen, a trombonist in the Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Ray Noble orchestras, first reached acclaim as the composer of the standard "Harlem Nocturne," which would be used in the 1950s as the theme music for the TV detective series Mike Hammer. After working on film scores for movies such as Call Me Madam, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Carousel, he moved into television in the early 50s and began a long working relationship with producer Sheldon Leonard when he worked on Danny Thomas's series Make Room for Daddy. The Leonard-Thomas connection continued for Hagen on another new show for fall 1960, The Andy Griffith Show, for which Hagen co-wrote the memorable theme song "The Fishin' Hole." He continued working with Leonard on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., I Spy, and That Girl. His work on I Spy won him an Emmy in 1968. He also worked on the scores for The Mod Squad and Eight Is Enough. He died of natural causes at the age of 88 on May 26, 2008 and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame three years later.
Twenty-five of the series' 36 episodes have been released on DVD in two boxed sets by E1 Entertainment.
She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, NY in 1907 to working-class parents. Her mother was killed when she was four years old, pushed off a streetcar by a drunk; her father disappeared and was never seen again after going to Panama to help dig the canal. Stanwyck and her brother Byron were raised by her sister Mildred until Mildred got a job as a showgirl, forcing Stanwyck into a series of foster homes from which she often ran away. She dropped out of school at age 14 and worked a series of jobs before landing a spot as a Ziegfield Girl at age 16. Three years later she was offered the part of a showgirl in a theatre play and when her part was expanded, the play became a hit, resulting in a movie screen test the following year. She received her first lead part in a stage production also in 1927, Burlesque, which received bad reviews but praise for Stanwyck's performance. It was during this production that she met her first husband, actor Frank Fay, whom she wed in 1928. Her first talking movie role came in 1929 in The Locked Door, which led to a starring role in Frank Capra's Ladies of Leisure the next year. From there she went on to star in such classics as The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. In 1935 she divorced the sometimes abusive Fay and married another actor, Robert Taylor in 1939. By 1944 she was the highest paid woman in the United States. Though Stanwyck reportedly had a torrid affair with Henry Fonda during the making of The Lady Eve, she filed for divorce from Taylor after learning of his affair with Lana Turner and never remarried after that.
After her single season of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Stanwyck had a few appearances on shows like Rawhide, The Untouchables, and WagonTrain as well as occasional work in films such as Walk on the Wild Side and an odd pairing with Elvis Presley in Roustabout before finally landing the role she had sought since the 50s on The Big Valley. Her next big role was playing Mary Carson on the TV series The Thorn Birds in 1983, followed by Constance Colby Patterson on three episodes of Dynasty, which was then spun off into The Colbys. Reportedly she did not care for the series and retired from acting after the first season. Her health had begun to decline after a home invasion and assault in 1981, the same year she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award Oscar. Special-effects smoke on the set of The Thorn Birds combined with a lifelong smoking habit to cause further health problems. She died of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 20, 1990 at the age of 82. In 1999 she was named the 11th greatest female actress by the American Film Institute, just behind Joan Crawford.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 1, Episode 5, "Key to the Killer": Stanwyck plays sheriff's wife Stella King. Vic Morrow (shown on the left, starred in Tribute to a Bad Man, God's Little Acre, and Portrait of a Mobster and played Sgt. Saunders on Combat! and Capt. Eugene Nathan on B.A.D. Cats) plays wanted killer Leroy Benson. William Fawcett (Clayton on Duffy's Tavern, Marshal George Higgins on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, and Pete Wilkey on Fury) plays Deputy Homer Stilson.
Season 1, Episode 6, "House in Order": Stanwyck plays socialite Elizabeth Mowry. Shepperd Strudwick (starred in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, All the King's Men, and A Place in the Sun and played Victor Dalby Lord on One Life to Live) plays her husband Bill. Yvonne Craig (shown on the right, starred in Gidget, High Time, Kissin' Cousins, Ski Party, and One Spy Too Many and played Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, on Batman and Grandma on Olivia) plays her daughter Susan. Jack Mullaney (Johnny Wallace on The Ann Sothern Show, Lt. Rex St. John on Ensign O'Toole, Dr. Peter Robinson on My Living Doll, and Hector on It's About Time) plays Susan's boyfriend Jed Krieger. Mary Jackson (Emily Baldwin on The Waltons, Sarah Wicks on Hardcastle and McCormick, and Great Grandma Greenwell on Parenthood) plays Jed's mother Mrs. Krieger. Walter Coy (Zoravac on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and the narrator on Frontier) plays Elizabeth's doctor John Steele.
Season 1, Episode 7, "The Miraculous Journey of Tadpole Chan": Stanwyck plays importer/exporter Josephine Little. Ralph Bellamy (shown on the left, starred in Air Hawks, His Girl Friday, The Wolf Man, Trading Places, and Pretty Woman and played Mike Barnett on Man Against Crime, Dr. L. Richard Starke on The Eleventh Hour, Ethan Arcane on The Most Deadly Game, Harold Baker on Hunter, and the narrator on Frontier Justice) plays U.S. Vice Consul Dobson. James Hong (Barry Chan on The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Frank Chen on Jigsaw John, and Doctor Chen Ling on Dynasty) plays Little's assistant Jack Wong. Beulah Quo (Alice Wong on My Three Sons) plays Little's housekeeper Amah. Weaver Levy (Oliver Kee on Adventures in Paradise) plays bartender Charley.
Season 1, Episode 8, "The Secret of Mrs. Randall": Stanwyck plays oil company president Liz Randall. Doris Packer (shown on the right, played Mrs. Sohmers on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Clara Mason on Happy, Mrs. Rayburn on Leave It to Beaver, and Clarice Osborne on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) plays her mother-in-law Jessie Randall. Stephen Talbot (Gilbert Bates on Leave It to Beaver) plays her son Mike. Bruce Gordon (Commander Matson on Behind Closed Doors, Frank Nitti on TheUntouchables, and Gus Chernak on Peyton Place) plays ex-employee and ex-con Roy Turner. Cecil Smith (real-life entertainment reporter for the LA Times) plays reporter Sy Lambert.
Season 1, Episode 9, "Ironbark's Bride": Stanwyck plays presumed widow Ella Cahill. Charles Bickford (shown on the left, starred in Of Mice and Men, The Song of Bernadette, Four Faces West, Johnny Belinda, and A Star Is Born and played John Grainger on The Virginian) plays wealthy landowner Isiah B. Richardson. David Kent (Bill Scott on Leave It to Beaver) plays Cahill's son Jared. Gerald Mohr (narrator on 19 episodes of The Lone Ranger, Christopher Storm on Foreign Intrigue, voice of Mr. Fantastic and Reed Richards on Fantastic 4) plays Cahill's long-lost husband Charlie. Nesdon Booth (Frank the bartender on Cimarron City) plays an unnamed ticket agent.
Season 1, Episode 11, "Out of the Shadows": Stanwyck plays psychiatrist Dr. Susan Bryce. Yvette Vickers (starred in Reform School Girl, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and Attack of the Giant Leeches) plays waitress Peggy.