Sunday, January 07, 2007

What's Old West is New Again

This past weekend, Encore Westerns hosted 24-hour marathons of the popular 1950s teleseries THE RIFLEMAN (Saturday) and BAT MASTERSON (Sunday). Happily, these round-the-clock broadcasts were preamble to the announcement that both shows are joining the channel's regular broadcast schedule this week.

Effective Monday, January 8, BAT MASTERSON will be airing in hour-long, two-episode blocks from 5:00-6:00 pm weekdays, with THE RIFLEMAN airing in hour-long, two-episode blocks from 7:00-8:00 pm weekdays (eastern time). I understand there will also be Saturday showtimes; for these, consult Encore Westerns schedule here. Both programs will be shown complete and uninterrupted, and (importantly for perfectionists like us) in their original broadcast order.

Encore Westerns' acquisition of THE RIFLEMAN is welcome news, as it signals the show's rescue from the Hallmark Channel, its home for the past several years, where episodes were hacked to pieces to accommodate commercials and often interrupted at dramatically inopportune moments. Arguably the greatest of all television Westerns, THE RIFLEMAN is also the warmest and frequently the most profound. At heart, it's about the father-and-son relationship of widowed rancher and expert marksman Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors in the role he was born to play) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford, who's an able young horseman as well as one of the most gifted child actors ever), but the show also tackled difficult subjects like prejudice and mob violence and equally rigorous situations, including more than one episode in which Lucas was required to survive strandings in the desert without food or water. A number of outstanding first season episodes were helmed by Sam Peckinpah, who shocked audiences from the get-go by allowing the show's hero Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) to be felled by a bullet at the end of the first episode he directed -- none of the show's characters, including Paul Fix as stoic Marshall Micah Torrance, was bullet-proof. THE RIFLEMAN was also the site of the earliest collaborations between Peckinpah and Warren Oates, who guests in several episodes. GUN CRAZY auteur Joseph H. Lewis also directed many episodes.

The right to a second chance was another of the show's recurring themes, and the quality of its writing is exemplified by a moment in the episode "The Sheridan Story," in which Lucas takes on the help of a wretched homeless man (Royal Dano) whose state literally repulses the McCains. When the boy asks his father if he hired the vagrant because he was so far gone, Lucas replies, "No, son... because we were so far gone" -- in other words, so far gone that their instincts were to turn away from a fellow human being in need. The show's writing is sometimes startlingly resonant in its simplicity and humanity, and the second act of this episode features dialogue that is positively Shakespearean in its crafting. Other episodes can be just as surprising and pleasing in the degree of their tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Akim Tamiroff, Sammy Davis Jr., John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., and Dennis Hopper are among the show's most memorable guest stars.

THE RIFLEMAN (which ran for five seasons) is one of the classic television series worth owning in its entirety. Six 20-episode box sets have been released on DVD by MPI Home Video; the intact episodes look fine, but unfortunately, this collection got off on the wrong foot by initially collecting the "best of" compilations MPI originally issued as single discs -- so the MPI box sets do not represent entire seasons, nor are the episodes presented in original broadcast order; the final episode was included in VOL. 5, and some first season shows continue to turn up as late as VOL. 6. This is a problem because the program did observe a certain continuity, sometimes referencing earlier episodes in the dialogue, and the sequencing of the discs can become distracting as Johnny Crawford grows or shrinks an inch or two in height between episodes. Furthermore, the half-dozen MPI sets in release are a substantial 48 episodes shy of the complete run, and MPI's press rep has sadly informed me that the company's rights to THE RIFLEMAN expired with the coming of the New Year. Therefore, there won't be any additional MPI sets, and even if you've been collecting them in the hopes of acquiring them all, your only hope now of securing the complete series -- and in its original broadcast order -- is to record the Encore Westerns broadcasts.

BAT MASTERSON (which ran for three seasons, beginning in 1958) is one of those programs I've heard about all my life, but didn't actually see until yesterday. To the best of my knowledge, it's been off the air for many years and not commonly found in syndication. Gene Barry stars as real historical figure William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, a dapper gunfighter so nicknamed because of his self-defensive abilities with a gold-capped walking stick. The first episode, "Double Showdown," I didn't find very interesting until a premature finale led to an out-of-character appearance by Barry, who explained that history recalls this particular adventure of Masterson ending two different ways... at which point, the episode gives us the other version, as well. Subsequent episodes not only held my interest; they held me in thrall until 5:00 in the morning. I left the balance of the marathon's offerings in the capable hands of my DVD burner's hard drive.

I don't recall ever reading about Barry's portrayal being any kind of precursor to the screen version of James Bond, but I find the comparison (and debt) glaringly obvious. Barry's Bat is debonair and worldly, a professional gambler, a connoisseur of fine wines and fine living, a ladies man (he not only gets around, but seems to have previously known every woman of visible experience to appear in each episode... and gets around to knowing some of the innocent ones too), and armed with a ready quip at the most daunting moments. Strapped to a tree with rawhide bonds and left behind as bear bait, Masterson tells his farewell-bidding adversary, "I'd shake hands, but I'm all tied up." (One of the episodes is even called "License To Cheat.") Make no mistake: Sean Connery wasn't the first hero to punctuate his prowess with smug remarks like "Shocking" -- Gene Barry was doing it years earlier, in high style, and the memory of this show probably helped to inspire the later cult series THE WILD WILD WEST.

As with THE RIFLEMAN, the guest stars alone provide good reason for watching. The episodes of BAT MASTERSON I watched last night featured Allison Hayes, Yvette Vickers, Gloria Talbott, Marie Windsor, and Louise Fletcher (they all got kissed) -- as well as Elisha Cook Jr., William Conrad, Ross Martin, Walter Barnes (who appears uncredited in "Bear Bait"), Joe Turkel, Barry Atwater, and Hank "Fred Ziffel" Patterson.

Tune in or set your timers: the adventures of these Western heroes are habits you'll find well worth acquiring.

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