Critically acclaimed by some when it first aired and now considered a cult classic of the western television drama, The Westerner owes its lofty reputation to being an early work of controversial and revered director Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah's knowledge of the wild west was secondhand but perhaps more real than all the other directors and producers who churned out cookie-cutter horse operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had grown up near Fresno, California where his grandfather ran a ranch that not only allowed the young Peckinpah to experience ranch life first hand but to also hear the stories of descendants of 19th century miners and ranchers who worked on his grandfather's spread. After a stint in the Marines in which he served in the Pacific and witnessed firsthand the brutality of war between the Chinese and Japanese, he enrolled at California State University, initially studying history until his first wife Marie Selland got him interested in theater and directing. He went on to earn a master's degree from USC, worked as a stage hand on local TV, and worked for director Don Siegel as a dialogue coach on several of his films. With Siegel's recommendation he began getting scriptwriting assignments for western TV series such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun -- Will Travel, and Broken Arrow. His script for an episode of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre became the basis for the series The Rifleman, for which Peckinpah directed four episodes and wrote several others. His association with Powell's anthology series eventually led to The Westerner as his 1959 episode "Trouble at Tres Cruces" became the unofficial pilot for the 1960 series. The pilot revolved around a high-powered Winchester repeating rifle which is bequeathed to drifter Dave Blassingame (played by Brian Keith) and which he uses to exact revenge on the killer of the rifle's original owner. Initially the series was to be called The Winchester and focus strongly on the high-powered gun, much like Lucas McCain's trademark gun in The Rifleman.
While the Winchester does figure prominently in The Westerner's first episode "Jeff" (September 30, 1960) and "The Old Man" (November 25, 1960), it is not central to the theme of these two episodes and is rarely seen in the other 11 episodes. But the violence and brutality that earned Peckinpah the nickname "Bloody Sam" is very much a part of the series, though the intensity of the violent episodes is leavened by the series' three comic episodes--"Brown" (October 21, 1960), "The Courting of Libby" (November 11, 1960), and "The Painting" (December 30, 1960)--all three directed by Peckinpah and co-starring John Dehner as Blassingame's friend and foil Burgundy Smith. As film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and Nick Redman note in their commentary for the 2017 DVD release, The Westerner is a case study in Peckinpah's skill as a director and script writer even before he made his first feature film and an exploration of his demythologizing of the old west. Though he sometimes gets miscast as a promoter of graphic violence, these film historians point out that in The Westerner violence has real-world and often tragic consequences, unlike almost all the other westerns from the era.
The standard formula for television westerns by 1960 centered around a mythic hero (sometimes a duo, as in Laramie and Lawman, or ensemble, as in Wagon Train and Gunsmoke) who was either bound to a place (again, Gunsmoke, Lawman, and The Rifleman) or wandered freely dispensing justice (Cheyenne and Have Gun -- Will Travel). In the single-location westerns, evil typically comes from outside the community. In the picaresque-style westerns, the hero encounters evil in the places he visits. In both cases, while the hero can be occasionally wounded, he is invincible and the agent for defeating evil or enabling the downtrodden to do so. Such a formula rarely allows for real tragedy because the villains get what they deserve. Though occasionally a character will begin as the embodiment of evil, we may learn that he is misguided and has a change of heart, allowing him to be redeemed in this life, or if his sins prove too severe, he is allowed to give his life to restore order and therefore achieve redemption in the next life.
But this is not how the narratives generally play out in Peckinpah's world, though "The Old Man" perhaps fits closest to the standard redemption trope when dying patriarch Tyler McKeen willingly gives up what short time remains for him to ensure that his estate passes to his grandson rather than to the vulture-like distant relatives who show up and demand that he bequeath his effects to them. McKeen even gives a dying speech to his grandson that he would not have wanted to go out any other way. But in the series opener "Jeff," Blassingame travels many miles to try to rescue his childhood girlfriend currently trapped in an abusive and exploitative relationship with a brutal former boxer named Denny Lipp. Though Blassingame nearly convinces her to come away with him and endures a violent shoot-out with Lipp's Indian bartender and a brawl with Lipp himself, Jeff ultimately decides to stay in her sado-masochistic relationship with Lipp because she cannot forgive herself for her descent into prostitution and she believes that no one else can either. Blassingame as savior is foiled and is forced to leave beaten and empty-handed. This is hardly the sort of "all's right with the world" ending that pervaded 1960s westerns.
While the film historians mentioned above consider the comic episode "Brown" to be an extended depiction of the kind of drunken bender that the notorious alcoholic Peckinpah himself experienced on many occasions, he shows the other side of the coin in how drunkenness can lead to pointless tragedy in "Line Camp" (December 9, 1960). In this episode Blassingame runs across a traveling company of horse wranglers and lands a job after finding one of their members dead along the trail. After joining them he learns that the group also includes someone he has worked with before, Ben Prescott, who is clearly an alcoholic and takes advantage of their foreman's absence to break company rules in buying alcohol from some traveling hunters and then getting drunk with the other wranglers, including Blassingame. But when the foreman returns and fires Blassingame and Prescott for breaking the rules, Blassingame accepts the decision and says he is guilty but he does not want to travel with Prescott because he knows what kind of man he is from their past acquaintance. This offends Prescott, still obviously intoxicated, who begins spouting off that Blassingame intends to kill him once they both leave camp, and even though Blassingame peacefully goes outside and tries to saddle up to leave alone, Prescott follows him outside with his gun, begins firing at him, and wounds him in the leg, forcing Blassingame to fire back and kill Prescott. Blassingame reiterates that Prescott's behavior was senseless as he posed no threat to him, and the foreman asks how he is going to explain to his company how he wound up with one wrangler dead and another one incapacitated due to his leg wound. There is no sense of justice at the end of this episode because even though Prescott behaved foolishly and proved to be a threat to Blassingame, he was not motivated by evil, only a paranoid obsession brought on by too much alcohol. Here Peckinpah strips away the myth of good triumphing over evil and shows the dire consequences of bad decisions, a much more realistic depiction of human behavior than is found in all the other westerns of the era.
The episode "Hand on the Gun" (December 23, 1960) paints a similar picture of someone taking things too far and receiving more than he bargained for. In this case, it is easterner Calvin Davis, who joins Blassingame's group of wild horse wranglers thinking that because he has read about the west and can do a few gun tricks that he can take on anyone. The greenhorn who gets in over his head is common trope in television westerns, but is usually played for comic effect. Peckinpah's version is grimmer because it shows that gunplay is not a kid's game. Besides feeling like he has something to prove, Davis also displays a racist streak in calling Blassingame's friend Oresquote Solera a "pepper gut," an insult because of Solera's Mexican heritage. After the group has delivered the horses they've captured and have been paid, Davis wants to continue in Blassingame's employ, but the latter doesn't want him because he has seen how reckless and hard-headed he is. Davis tries to strike back by repeating his insult to Solera and will not be satisfied with anything other than a showdown in the street. Earlier in the episode Blassingame tries to each Davis the real-world consequences of a gun wound by having Solera show him where a bullet entered his abdomen and then exited from a much larger hole in his back, a wound that laid Solera up for 8 months recovering. But Davis fails to heed the warning, and when he faces Solera in the street he gets off the first shot at point blank range but misses. Solera doesn't miss in returning fire, and Davis drops to the street in shock, still not believing that the duel didn't play out the way he imagined, as Blassingame and Solera ride out of town, leaving him to die. Here another life is wasted because someone failed to grasp the serious, tragic consequences of the violence that a gun can deliver. Rather than being a champion of bloodshed and violence, as he is often labeled, Peckinpah is unblinking and graphic in his depiction of violence to show the viewer what can really happen in the real world, which is nothing like the morality plays that pervaded the television airwaves in 1960.
Peckinpah's attempt to offer a more realistic depiction of western life didn't stop with the stories--the character of Dave Blassingame was far from the one-dimensional characters seen in other western series, where men tended to be bolt upright defenders of justice, irredeemable villains, or simple-minded comic foils. Blassingame generally tries to do what's right and doesn't go out seeking violence, but he is prone to bouts of drunkenness and delusion, thinking a woman like Libby Lorraine in "The Courting of Libby" would be a suitable partner for a penniless trail bum like him. However, he strikes a particularly poor figure in "Treasure" (November 18, 1960) in which he discovers U.S. Government saddlebags laden with golden coins hidden out in the desert after being stolen from an army payroll some years ago. He knows they are stolen because an old prospector wanders by shortly after his discovery, obviously looking for the same treasure, and tells him the tale of this missing payroll. When the prospector observes that Blassingame is acting oddly, he decides to stick around, hoping that Blassingame will make a mistake that will let him walk away with the coins. Neither man is willing to bargain with the other or admit to the other what they are after, so that when Blassingame finally nods off while guarding the hole in a rock formation where the saddlebags are hidden, the prospector makes his move and tries to kill him with a knife. Blassingame is able to fend him off and shoot the prospector dead, but in the process scares off the prospector's mule. He is then forced to ride back to town and the strain of the saddlebags finally does in his horse, which he has to shoot. He refuses to share his water with his dog Brown, another character who doesn't fit the mold of the heroic canine forged by Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, because he says there might not be enough for the both of them. In fact, he leaves Brown to die of thirst in the desert and makes it back to town, where he finds that the local Marshal Frank Dollar has not only found the dead prospector after getting a tip and rescued Brown from sure death, but he also has a pretty good idea of what Blassingame dragged back to town in his saddle bags. But rather than admit the jig is up, Blassingame takes the marshal at knifepoint and then gunpoint and forces him to drive him to the Mexican border with Brown and the gold coins so that he can sneak across the border and live high off the stolen treasure. So at this point he has allowed greed to justify killing another man, abandoned his dog in the desert, and kidnapped a law officer to escape with stolen money. Hardly a resume worthy a western hero. In the end he comes to his senses when he sees that Brown will not be able to make it across the Mexican desert, and he returns back to the U.S. and hands the money over to the marshal who is patiently waiting for him. It's not clear why this time he decides to stay loyal to Brown when he was not before, perhaps further reflection made him realize the payoff would not be worth the price, but he is allowed to ride off scott free after turning over the money to Dollar, thereby perhaps avoiding the karma visited upon characters like Calvin Davis and Ben Prescott in other episodes. Whatever his rationale, Blassingame is a highly fallible character who doesn't always do right, unlike the other western heroes of 1960s television.
However, Peckinpah was too far ahead of his time. A show like The Westerner would fit nicely alongside more recent television dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but in 1960 it was too dark and failed to connect with a public used to more shine and polish rather than grit. It didn't help being shown in the same time slot as the popular Route 66 and The Flintstones. The series was canceled after 13 episodes, and when shown in syndication thereafter was lumped with other more common fare such as Black Saddle with inane introductory commentary by Keenan Wynn. But Peckinpah's association with Brian Keith paid off because the latter got Peckinpah assigned as director for his next feature film The Deadly Companions in 1961. Peckinpah revisited The Westerner in a 2-part episode of Dick Powell Theater in 1962. Now with its release on DVD, present-day viewers can finally see why this short-lived series has such a vaunted reputation.
Most of the music for The Westerner was composed by Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose biography can be found in the 1960 post for The Rifleman.
The complete series has been released on DVD by Shout!Factory.
Robert Alba Keith was born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1921. His parents were both actors on the stage and they brought him with them during their performances. After they divorced, Keith lived with his father and stepmother, actress Peg Entwistle, in Hollywood, appearing in his first film at age 3 in the silent feature Pied Piper Malone. Entwistle famously committed suicide by jumping from the "H" in the Hollywood sign in 1932, and Keith would be raised by his grandmother in Long Island, New York, where he graduated from high school in 1939. He served in the Marines during World War II as an airplane machine gunner and received an Air Medal, but when he applied for an officer's commission with the Merchant Marine in 1945, he was turned down because of poor algebra scores. After his military service he worked in stock theater, on radio, and for carnivals before moving to Hollywood, where he made his first uncredited film appearance in 1947. By 1951 he was appearing on television series such as Hands of Mystery and Shadow of the Cloak. He made his first credited feature film in 1953's Arrowhead and continued to balance feature film roles and TV guest spots until landing his first starring television role as reporter Matt Anders in Crusader, which ran from 1955-56. He continued making numerous appearances on drama anthologies such as Studio 57 as well as feature films such as Chicago Confidential, Violent Road, Desert Hell, and Villa! through the remainder of the 1950s before being cast as Dave Blassingame on The Westerner.
Besides getting Sam Peckinpah his first feature film directing job in The Deadly Companions in 1961, Keith starred opposite Maureen O'Hara and Hayley Mills in Disney's 1961 comedy The Parent Trap, showing that he could handle comic roles as well as drama. Thereafter he became a Disney regular, appearing in Moon Pilot(1962), Savage Sam (1963), A Tiger Walks (1964), and Those Callaways (1965). The following year made him a household name when he was cast as Uncle Bill Davis on Family Affair, though he also appeared in such notable features as Nevada Smith and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! in 1966. Family Affair ran for 5 seasons, but Keith continued to maintain a steady workload in feature films such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, With Six You Get Eggroll, and Krakatoa: East of Java. Yet he is said to have turned down a role in Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch because it conflicted with his work on Family Affair. Disappointed at the series' cancellation in 1971, Keith nevertheless was never out of work, landing the Hawaii-based doctor series The Brian Keith Show from 1972-74, followed by the very brief The Zoo Gang in 1974 and Archer in 1975. In 1975 he also played Theodore Roosevelt in the acclaimed feature The Wind and the Lion. He had four appearances on the TV series How the West Was Won and played Sheriff Axel Dumire on the mini-series Centennial to close out the 1970s. In 1983 he scored another major TV role as retired Judge Milton C. Hardcastle on the popular Hardcastle & McCormick, followed by the role of Prof. Roland G. Duncan on Pursuit of Happiness in 1987-88 and as B.L. McCutcheon on Heartland in 1989. Then came the role of Walter Collins on Walter & Emily in 1991-92 as well as a host of other TV guest spots on shows as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Touched by an Angel, and Walker, Texas Ranger as well as an assortment of minor feature roles. Suffering from emphysema and terminal lung cancer, Keith committed suicide on June 24, 1997 at age 75, two months after his 27-year-old daughter Daisy had committed suicide.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 1, Episode 1, "Jeff": Diana Millay (shown on the left, played Laura Collins on Dark Shadows) plays Blassingame's childhood girlfriend Jeff. Geoffrey Toone (Steve Gardiner in The Odd Man, Jacques Charlustin on Contract to Kill, Sergeant Baines on 199 Park Lane, and Von Gelb on Freewheelers) plays former boxer Denny Lipp. Michael Greene (Deputy Vance Porter on The Dakotas) plays abusive drunk Waggoner. Warren Oates (starred in In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch, and Stripes and played Ves Painter on Stoney Burke) plays a drunk. Marie Selland (wife of director Sam Peckinpah) plays evangelist Glorie.
Season 1, Episode 2, "School Days": Margaret Field (mother of actress Sally Field) plays school teacher Eleanor Larson. R.G. Armstrong (shown on the right, played Police Capt. McAllister on T.H.E. Cat and Lewis Vendredi on Friday the 13th) plays her admirer Shell Davidson. John Anderson (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays her killer's brother Leth Ritchie. Richard Rust (Hank Tabor on Sam Benedict) plays local lawman Deputy Tyson. William Mims (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays posse member Ray Huff. Bill Quinn (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Rifleman) plays posse member Ted Manning. Dub Taylor (starred in You Can't Take It With You, Bonnie & Clyde, and The Wild Bunch, played Cannonball in 53 western films, and played Wallie Simms on Casey Jones, Mitch Brady on Hazel, and Ed Hewley on Please Don't Eat the Daisies) plays posse member Walt Smith.
Season 1, Episode 3, "Brown": John Dehner (shown on the left, played Duke Williams on The Roaring '20's, Commodore Cecil Wyntoon on The Baileys of Balboa, Morgan Starr on The Virginian, Cyril Bennett on The Doris Day Show, Dr. Charles Cleveland Claver on The New Temperatures Rising Show, Barrett Fears on Big Hawaii, Marshal Edge Troy on Young Maverick, Lt. Joseph Broggi on Enos, Hadden Marshall on Bare Essence, and Billy Joe Erskine on The Colbys) plays con man Burgundy Smith. Harry Swoger (Harry the bartender on The Big Valley) plays South Fork Sheriff Tom Lacette. Conlan Carter (C.E. Caruthers on The Law and Mr. Jones and Doc on Combat!) plays his jail keeper Mead. Victor Izay (starred in Dr. Sex, The Astro-Zombies, and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils and played Judge Simmons on The D.A., Bull on Gunsmoke, and Dr. Matthew Vance on The Waltons) plays the bartender.
Season 1, Episode 4, "Mrs. Kennedy": Paul Richards (appeared in Playgirl and Beneath the Planet of the Apes and played Louis Kassoff on The Lawless Years) plays poor dirt farmer Marsh Kennedy.
Season 1, Episode 5, "Dos Pinos": Jean Willes (shown on the right, appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ocean's 11, and Gypsy) plays cantina owner Sal. Adam Williams (appeared in Flying Leathernecks, The Big Heat, Fear Strikes Out, and North by Northwest) plays cattle worker Pauk. Warren Tufts (voiced Captain Fathom on Captain Fathom, and worked on animation for Space Angel, Jonny Quest, The New 3 Stooges, Sealab 2020, Challenge of the Superfriends, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends) plays his accomplice Gator. Malcolm Atterbury (starred in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Birds, and The Learning Tree and played John Bixby on Wagon Train and Grandfather Aldon on Apple's Way) plays Dos Pinos sheriff Andy. Marie Selland (see "Jeff" above) plays an injured man's wife Jenny. Marianna Hill (appeared in Roustabout, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, The Godfather: Part II, and High Plains Drifter and played Rita on The Tall Man) plays saloon girl Cora.
Season 1, Episode 6, "The Courting of Libby": Joan O'Brien (shown on the left, starred in Operation Petticoat, The Alamo, It Happened at the World's Fair, and It'$ Only Money) plays Blassingame's love interest Libby Lorraine. John Dehner (see "Brown" above) returns as Burgundy Smith.
Season 1, Episode 7, "Treasure": Arthur Hunnicutt (starred in The Red Badge of Courage, The Last Command, The Cardinal, and Cat Ballou) plays an old prospector. Malcolm Atterbury (see "Dos Pinos" above) plays Dos Pinos Marshal Frank Dollar.
Season 1, Episode 8, "The Old Man": Sam Jaffe (shown on the right, starred in Lost Horizon, Gunga Din, The Asphalt Jungle, and Ben-Hur and played Dr. David Zorba on Ben Casey) plays dying patriarch Tyler McKeen. Frank Ferguson (Gus Broeberg on My Friend Flicka, Eli Carson on Peyton Place, and Dr. Barton Stuart on Petticoat Junction) plays his son Stuart. Dee Pollock (Billy Urchin on Gunslinger) plays his grandson Billy. Robert J. Wilke (appeared in Best of the Badmen, High Noon, The Far Country, and Night Passage and played Capt. Mendoza on Zorro) plays covetous relative Murdo McKeen. Michael Forest (starred in Ski Troop Attack, Atlas, and The Glory Guys and was the voice of Capt. Dorai on Street Fighter II: V and Olympus on Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue) plays his partner Troy McKeen. Marie Selland (see "Jeff" above) plays distant relative Addie McKeen.
Season 1, Episode 9, "Ghost of a Chance": Joseph Wiseman (shown on the left, starred in Detective Story, Viva Zapata!, Les Miserables (1952), Dr. No, and The Valachi Papers and played Manny Weisbord on Crime Story) plays Mexican bandito Serafin. Roberto Contreras (Pedro on The High Chapparal) plays one of his henchmen Pedro. Katy Jurado (appeared in High Noon, Arrowhead, Trapeze, and One-Eyed Jacks and played Rosa Maria Rivera on a.k.a. Pablo and Justina on Te sigo amando) plays bar hostess Carlotta Jimenez.
Season 1, Episode 10, "Line Camp": Karl Swenson (Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie) plays camp foreman Ben Potts. Robert Culp (shown on the right, starred in Sunday in New York, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Breaking Point and played Hoby Gilman on Trackdown, Kelly Robinson on I Spy, Bill Maxwell on The Greatest American Hero, and Warren on Everybody Loves Raymond) plays wrangler Ben Prescott. Slim Pickens (starred in The Story of Will Rogers, Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, The Apple Dumpling Gang, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and The Howling and played Slim on Outlaws, Slim Walker on The Wide Country, California Joe Milner on Custer, and Sgt. Beauregard Wiley on B.J. & the Bear) plays camp cook Oscar Hudson. Hari Rhodes (Mike Makula on Daktari, D.A. William Washburn on The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and Mayor Dan Stoddard on Most Wanted) plays wrangler Jones. Hank Patterson (Fred Ziffel on Green Acres and Petticoat Junction and Hank on Gunsmoke) plays hunter Sample.
Season 1, Episode 11, "Going Home": Virginia Gregg (starred in Dragnet, Crime in the Streets, Operation Petticoat and was the voice of Norma Bates in Psycho and was the voice of Maggie Belle Klaxon on Calvin and the Colonel) plays wanted outlaw's mother Sabetha. Mary Murphy (appeared in The Wild One, Beachhead, The Mad Magician, The Desperate Hours, and Junior Bonner) plays outlaw's wife Suzy. Jack Kruschen (appeared in The War of the Worlds, The Apartment, Lover Come Back, and Freebie and the Bean and played Tully on Hong Kong, Sam Markowitz on Busting Loose, Papa Papadapolis on Webster, and Fred Avery on Material World) plays lawman Rigdon.
Season 1, Episode 12, "Hand on the Gun": Michael Ansara (shown on the left, appeared in Julius Caesar, The Robe, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Harum Scarum, played Cochise on Broken Arrow and Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Buckhart on The Rifleman and the Law of the Plainsman, and voiced General Warhawk on Rambo) plays Blassingame's fellow wrangler Oresquote Solera. Ben Cooper (appeared in Johnny Guitar, The Rose Tattoo, and Support Your Local Gunfighter and played Waverly on The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and the Director on The Fall Guy) plays eastern tenderfoot Calvin Davis. John Pickard (Capt. Shank Adams on Boots and Saddles and Sgt. Maj. Murdock on Gunslinger) plays disgruntled wrangler Mazo.
Season 1, Episode 13, "The Painting": John Dehner (see "Brown" above) returns as Burgundy Smith. Madlyn Rhue (shown on the right, played Marjorie Grant on Bracken's World, Angela Schwartz on Fame, and Hilary Mason/Madison on Executive Suite) plays painting subject Carla de Castiliano. Paul Sorensen (Andy Bradley on Dallas) plays painting seeker Walker.