Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

A Quick Recommendation (Seriously, It’ll Probably Be Gone Soon)

Just a hit-and-run recommendation of something we stumbled across this week.

It happened like this. We love Westerns in this house, though I came to them rather late in life. Despite growing up in the sixties, when literally fifty percent of prime-time network television shows were westerns of some kind…

….I was much more about Batman and The Man From UNCLE and Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea. I didn’t really get interested in Westerns until the seventies and even then it was mostly novels, thanks to a visit to my Uncle Jack in Simms, Montana. Westerns were what he got off the bookmobile and that was all there was, and since I had not been allowed to bring any books of my own (Mom was on one of her tears about me being indoors too much, I think, and she didn’t want me to hide from my relatives the whole time. How little she understood me. I could ALWAYS find something to read.) I reread these two actioners, in particular, three or four times each over the two weeks we were there. Loved them then and now and they are here in the home library today.

By the time I warmed to the idea of actually watching Westerns, though, there weren’t that many around. There was Jonah Hex in the comics, which I liked a lot, but that was pretty much it. Didn’t really get interested again until Sam Elliott started making all those Louis L’Amour adaptations for TNT.

Since then we have filled most of a bookcase with various Western movies and TV shows… the High Chaparral, every iteration of The Magnificent Seven including the TV show, Wanted Dead or Alive, Alias Smith and Jones, Shane, a couple of Best of Gunsmoke collections, all the movies Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher, The Big Valley, Whispering Smith, both versions of True Grit, and of course lots of Sam Elliott. No real rhyme or reason to it– this kind of haphazard approach is usually governed by whatever we happen across on our thrift shop expeditions that’s cheap.

It’s also given me some unorthodox opinions about the genre– for example, I really don’t think John Wayne was all that, and I like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than his. I’ve never understood the worship for The Searchers when Stagecoach was better and The Cowboys was better than both. I thought the TV pilot for The Magnificent Seven was better-written than the original. And so on. But I am resigned to being alone in my blasphemy in most cases.

All of which is by way of admitting, shamefacedly, that we did not get around to Have Gun Will Travel until a few weeks ago. Somehow, over all these decades of it being a near-constant presence in syndication, neither Julie not I had ever seen it.

If I’d realized how many people whose work I admire had worked on it –I knew Gene Roddenberry had gotten his first real break there, but I had no clue it was co-created by UNCLE‘s Sam Rolfe or that Mission: Impossible‘s Bruce Geller had written a bunch of them– I’d have gotten to it a lot sooner. As it is, we are really enjoying it. Strictly an impulse buy, we found the first couple of seasons at a Goodwill for five bucks each.

“I just can’t believe this suave James Bond guy is Richard Boone,” I told Julie.

I added, “When I think of Richard Boone I think of the grizzled whiskey-voiced hardcase from things like Hec Ramsey or The Last Dinosaur.”

As usual when I make an obscure pop culture reference, Julie just blinked in confusion. So I had to explain about both of them. “The Last Dinosaur is just a shitty made-for-TV movie I still regret wasting the time on, but I’ve always been kind of curious about Hec Ramsey. It’s the fourth part of the NBC Mystery Movie nobody remembers. Everybody knows Columbo and McCloud, and a lot of people remember McMillan and Wife, but hardly anyone knows there was a fourth slot they kept trying things in. The most successful one was Boone’s Hec Ramsey, it lasted two seasons. I never saw it but I’ve always wondered.”

Julie expressed an interest so I went looking online. But Hec Ramsey was apparently lost to the ages. No home video release ever, even though most of the other NBC Mystery Movie shows are available.

Oddly, though, there were a couple of licensed paperbacks that go for insanely high prices today.

I wasn’t THAT curious. But by this time I kind of had the bit in my teeth about it and went looking for clips on YouTube. And guess what? Some good angel has put up pretty much the entire series, apparently from syndicated reruns, and even cut the commercials out. We watched the first two last night and the pilot, especially, is just terrific. The throughline is basically that Hec Ramsey used to be a gunfightin’ marshal, but he is looking to redeem himself and become a real police officer, using all that newfangled eastern citified SCIENCE like casting footprints in plaster and lifting fingerprints and so on. Everyone knows his rep as a killer, though, and he is handicapped by that reputation.

We adored it. Check it out before the trademark police gets wind of it.

Also? Speaking of unexpectedly delightful YouTube finds, Sam Elliott in The Quick and the Dead is up there too.

Enjoy. And I’ll be back next week with something cool.

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  1. conrad1970

    I absolutely love westerns. Movies and tv series at least, I never could get into the novels.
    Seems to be a dead genre at the moment as no one seems to know what to do with it, everything has to be so realistic and gritty. Why can’t Hollywood just have fun anymore?
    Not a lover of John Wayne Greg?
    Come on, you have to admit Rio Bravo and El Dorado were brilliant movies. I’d have to throw in Ride the High Country as well, probably the only movie in which I actually liked Randolph Scott.

  2. tomfitz1

    There’s a great western series on tv now, it’s called THE MANDALORIAN.

    I know it’s a Star Wars series and it’s sci-fi, but it has that western-like feel.

    Yee-haw! 🙂

  3. Edo Bosnar

    The Western in any medium has always been lower on the totem pole for me than other genres like SF, sword & sorcery, etc., so you can be as heretical and unorthodox as you want as far as I’m concerned. And yeah, I’ve never understood the general fondness for John Wayne in anything – personally, I’ve never liked him in anything I’ve seen him in, Western or otherwise.

    Thanks for the tip on Hec Ramsey. I’ve never watched it, but it sounds like it could be good. However, I don’t know when I’ll get around to watching it. Right now I’m slowly working my way through Space 1999 on YouTube (both seasons in pretty decent quality are all there). Also, I recently learned that late ’90s Magnificent Seven TV show you mentioned is also all up on YouTube. That’s a show I recall liking well enough and wouldn’t mind revisiting.

  4. Tim Rifenburg

    Thanks for the heads up on Hec Ramsey. I will definitely check out the pilot. It was not a show that made it to syndicated repeats (though I remember CBS showing some of the Mystery movies in late night in the 80’s before they went to talk shows) I loved the mystery movie format and the rotating features. Always liked McCloud, Columbo of course and I absolutely loved Banacek. (Always thought that it was a show / character that would be good for a feature remake.) I am always surprised at what does and does not get released on DVD. Years ago Banacek came out in two DVD sets and though they were never discounted I picked them up. They still were fun mysteries and held up well (though the sexism seemed more than just a byproduct of the time period.) I was sorry they never finished releasing all the episodes of McCloud and I would have liked to see Madigan with Richard Widmark and Cool Millions with James Farrantino again. They released a set of the Snoop Sisters and I cannot imagine many people hoping for that. McMillan and Wife has a complete DVD set as well as some single season sets. Have you seen How the West was Won with James Arness? That has popped up on one of the Retro channels and I have been meaning to see how that holds up. I remember enjoying it when I first saw it. Goodwill has been a great source for finding older shows at a cheap price and I’m always amazed at what sometimes I stumble across.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        You’re probably right about Snoop Sisters; I’ve never watched it, but if I understand the set-up correctly, it’s two elderly sisters, both writers, who engage in some amateur sleuthing. Seems kind of like a beta version of ‘Murder, She Wrote’, which was extremely popular. Also seems to bear some similarity to Christie’s Miss Marple – who had a pretty popular TV series in the UK in the 1980s.

  5. I have the complete McMillan and Wife and despite some flaws I’m enjoying working through it. And my crush on Susan St. James remains undimmed by time.
    Like Edo, Westerns do not appeal to me, though there’s a number that clear the disinterest bar.
    I’m not a huge John Wayne fan though I do like his work. I do think a lot of his iconic status is becoming an icon for old-school masculinity and military virtue despite choosing not to enlist in WW II (in contrast to Gene Autry who put his career on hold for the war effort). And man, Sands of Iwo Jima would outrage people if it came out today (very critical of career military).

    1. Rob Allen

      Yes, John Wayne was the “icon for old-school masculinity” for a lot of guys around my age. But my parents liked musicals a lot more than they liked westerns, so my icon for old-school masculinity was Howard Keel.

      and Reed Richards.

  6. conrad1970

    I hardly ever missed an episode of the 70’s western’s.
    Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Gunsmoke, my favourite was Alias Smith and Jones although it was never as good after Pete Dual died.
    I still stand by Wayne’s movies as some of the best though.
    The Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon and The Train Robbers were all highly enjoyable, as was The Shootist, a kind of swan song for Wayne’s career.

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    I grew up with this stuff and we watched the western series, in my household. Hec Ramsey was a favorite. I was pretty young when it was on; so, most of my memories were of the jail, as I recalled Boone’s desk being behind a railing with a swing gate and the jail cells were on an upstairs floor. I had vague memories of the proto-forensics. I watched the pilot and next episode on Youtube, several months ago and it stirred up some of the memories. The pilot was definitely better; but, the premise made it different from both the average western and detective show.

    If you look around on Youtube, there is also a series of interviews with actors from westerns, which includes one with Rick Lenzy, who played the sheriff and was also in The Shootist, with John Wayne (and Richard Boone).

    Snoop Sisters probably got a release because, one, it starred Helen Hayes & Mildred Natwick; and, two, it fits in well with the popular British tv detective series, like Rosemary & Thyme and Miss Marple. There is a big market for those shows. The unofficial pilot for the series was a telefilm, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, which featured the pair, plus Myrna Loy and Sylvia Sydney. Last I saw, you could find that on Youtube, as well. Vince Edwards plays a serial killer who answers personal ads and uses dating services, but his temper and personality cause him to fail with women.

    I can take or leave Wayne, though I enjoy the Shootist and the Cowboys a lot more than many of his earlier films. Like him in some of his non-westerns, like The Quiet Man and Donovan’s Reef; but, have always enjoyed stuff like Rio Lobo. Surround him with a good cast and a decent script and he usually rises to the occasion.

    As far as avoiding military service, Wayne was itching to enlist; but, the studio (Republic) put a lot of pressure on him to stay out. He was 34, which made him rather old for service (he was over the initial draft age); however, he did enquire about joining John Ford’s unit and did apply to join the OSS Field Photographic Unit, which was approved. The letter of approval, from William Donovan was sent to his estranged wife’s house and she never gave it to him. There is a copy in the National Archives. So, not exactly a war hero; but not a draft dodger, either.

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