The heyday of the American West was in the latter half of last century. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the rough-and-tumble lives which were the daily lot of those who opened up the vast tracts of the American continent still have an enormous attraction. The stories brought to the television screen of cowboys, rustlers, sheriffs, gamblers, posses and saddle-tramps are as popular as ever.
Sociologists try to explain why this particular form of entertainment should have an attraction for television-viewers in all levels of society and income groups. Phrases like “escapism”, “boyish dreams”, “a regard for good” have been bandied around. What is certain is that Westerns are among the most lasting and popular of television programmes seen regularly on our living-room screen.
In the choice of “Bonanza” and “Rawhide” for viewers in the London and Midlands ITV regions this year, ATV has chosen Western series as different in their stories and settings as are the regular characters around whom the stories are told.
“Bonanza” relies on its family association for its impact. “Rawhide” reflects what can happen when a group of assorted human beings are thrown together to face different sets of circumstances secondary to their main job in life — getting herds of cattle from a ranchland to a market or railhead.
Yet, from these essentially different backgrounds, have emerged tales of personal hardship, of humour — even heroism — all of which go to make the good Western. It is in the tale which reflects one or more of these qualities that the Western relies for its success.
The Cartwright family, around whom “Bonanza” has been created, have had their share of adventures involving hardship, humour and no little amount of heroism. And in the process the four main characters have emerged as individuals, but still owing allegiance to the family. To his role of Ben Cartwright, actor Lorne Greene brings a mixture of fatherly wisdom and a knowledge of human nature based on years of experience of all types of people. He portrays a character who is called upon to be understanding and patient, yet tough when the occasion demands. In himself, Lorne Greene has many of these same qualities. He has acquired them in a career which has taken him from college dramatics in his native Canada, through radio and local stage work and Hollywood films to a way of life in which he feels as much at home in rancher’s clothes as he does in the slippers, casual slacks and open-neck shirt which await him at the Beverley Hills home which he shares with his young actress wife and to which he returns from the cardboard-and-make-believe setting of Virginia City after each day’s filming.
As the eldest Cartwright son, Adam, bachelor Pernell Roberts shows a liking for dark clothes which match his black hair and deep-set dark eyes. The part he plays calls for someone who never really shows his feelings, is even withdrawn. In some ways, this is true of the real-life Roberts. He likes nothing better than to lock himself up in his photographic dark-room, there to develop and print his photographs — for, after acting, photography is his great interest in life. It is not that Roberts doesn’t like people. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. But he likes seeing them reflected in the lens of his camera. Essentially an observer of life around him, he admits to having ambitions to be a photographic journalist — if he hadn’t become an actor, that is.
The character of Hoss is the exact opposite. Jovial, good-natured, everybody’s friend — these faithfully describe Dan Blocker, who plays the part. Big of heart, as well as of body, this giant Texan has always known what it is like to stand out in a crowd. He was the biggest baby ever born in his home county. Before he was ten he had begun to realise that his unusual physique and strength were such that he could well capitalise on them. At university he was a natural for the football team. And when, by chance, he was introduced to stage work it was soon obvious that he was ready-made for “husky” roles. Family man Dan Blocker likes nothing better than to be surrounded by his growing family — all of whom show signs of following Dad in size and stature. Among his close friends he is regarded as “a genial giant”. Perfect casting, then, for the role of Hoss.
The Cartwright family history tells of “Little Joe” as being the son born of Ben’s third marriage — to the daughter of a French family from Louisiana. With such a background on his mother’s side, “Little Joe” has to be gallant, quick-tempered and dashing, whether in a bar-room brawl or with an attractive young lady in his arms under a romantic moon. The “Bonanza” stories brought to the screen this year have found “Little Joe” in stories which call on him to display one or other of these qualities. New York-born Michael Landon is just right — in appearance and athletic ability — to match up to the situations (romantic and otherwise) in which he frequently finds himself as “Little Joe”. The determination he put into his desire “to be the fittest kid on the block” stood him in good stead when he had to rough it in Hollywood before the “Bonanza” break came his way. The soft life which is open to anyone in the film capital who “has arrived” has not deflected him from his “keep fit” passion. To prove himself, he spent days on a training session with a regiment of US Marines and so impressed the officer in charge of the assault course that he was made an honorary member of the corps afterwards. There is no denying the good looks which his “Bonanza” part calls for. The endless admiring fan mail from thousands of teenage girls bears witness to this.
This year’s “Bonanza” stories have told the life-story of Ben Cartwright and his three wives, each the mother of one of his sons.
In the “Rawhide” stories three men dominate the action. Eric Fleming is the lean, taciturn “boss man”, Gil Favor. Romance may never come to Favor, but somehow the impression is given that it could always be just around the corner, even in the next cow-town through which he pushes the herd of hundreds of cattle. For ex-sailor, 6ft.-4.ins. Fleming, voted by British housewives “the man we would most like to meet”, this is nearly true to life. A self-proclaimed bachelor, he likes girls, knows many of them who are mostly attractive “and interesting”, but to date has never found the “real one”.
Clint Eastwood — Rowdy Yates — is different. A lady in distress sends him rushing to her aid. Off the studio floor he did this once with lasting effect. An attractive blonde, Maggie by name, has been signing herself Mrs. Eastwood for the past seven years as a result.
Superstition has its place in show business. Among the “Rawhide” cast it is admitted that if Paul Brinegar, who plays the bearded bad-tempered “Wishbone”, ever really learns how to boil an egg his fellow artistes on the series could be out of a job. For the man who is seen every week serving up man-sized batches of beans and stew for his hungry co-stars admits to being an amateur in the kitchen. All his meals were taken in restaurants … that is, until this year. Then he met actress Shirley Talbott. A whirlwind courtship followed and as part of a near round-the-world honeymoon Mr. and Mrs. Brinegar stayed a few days at one of London’s plushiest hotels. But true to his off-screen reputation “Wishy” never ventured near the kitchen. Nor will he in his new Hollywood home!