Thursday, December 1, 2016

Guest Who: "Trail" Mix

The rather obscure TV western series The Oregon Trail came and went in 1977 before I'd ever even known of its existence and has scarcely been seen again but for a (low-quality) DVD release a few years back. Since it starred a couple of our favorite people such as Rod Taylor, Andrew Stevens and granite-jawed Charles Napier, it's long been something we wanted to check out.

This was a time when the TV western was in transition. The long-running Bonanza (1959-1973) had ended, the legendary Gunsmoke called it quits in 1975 after 20 seasons (!) and a new breed of semi-western had found success with Michael Landon's Bonanza follow-up Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983.) The Oregon Trail clearly intended to provide the family element of Little House while also incorporating the anthology-like nature of the earlier, successful Wagon Train (1957-1965.)

The two-hour 1976 pilot movie for Oregon showed promise. Widower Taylor was the father of teen-aged Stevens and younger children Tony Becker and Gina Marie Smika. He was just being wed to a second wife, red-haired Blair Brown. His own father Douglas Fowley was also along for the ride when the family departed across the nation in a covered wagon, looking for a new start.
Stevens, still missing his mother after two years, was slow to warm up to Brown, but with the firm yet gentle guidance from Taylor, things eventually worked their way out.
Brown shared a palpable chemistry with Taylor and they worked well together in both romantic scenes as well as combative ones when her eastern background clashed with some of the western ways of the wagon train they were on.

Among the other members of the wagon train could be found one Wilford Brimley in one of his earliest acting roles (he pops up in two episodes as a matter of fact), proving truth to the rumor that practically from birth, Wilford Brimley always looked like Wilford Brimley!
Of course, of chief interest to me was the appearance of young, fresh-scrubbed, occasionally semi-shirtless Stevens, though his obvious physical charms were never exploited to their fullest extent. (I mean, is it asking too much for him to have been kidnapped in one episode and stripped down to almost nothing and tormented by his captors? LOL)

Cut to the regular series, which didn't air until close to two years later (!), and some changes were made. Grandpa Fowley was gone completely, the captivating Brown was now dead, too, making Taylor a widower twice over and Taylor was sporting a thick, obnoxious mustache. Also, Stevens' previously loose, wavy locks were now cut shorter, feathered and blow-dried! (Thankfully, Taylor's mustache was shaved off before the end of the first episode.)
As a new female lead for the series, the decidedly less mes- merizing Darlene Carr appeared as the daughter of a gambler who stays with the train after her father's (William Windom) death. She began the series with a braided bun at the back of her head, but soon enough graduated to one of the most hellacious mullets imaginable for most occasions.
A more welcome addition came in the form of Charles Napier as a new trail scout for the wagon train. In a hoary scenario at least as old as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1968) and used for the pilot of The Big Valley (1964) as well, Taylor and Napier first meet on a bridge at which neither one is inclined to give way to the other. We later find Napier in his long underwear, his clothes having to dry out from the encounter with Taylor.
Now finally on to some guest stars who popped up on the show. Here we see Kim Hunter, Oscar-winner for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), though arguably better known as the simian Dr. Zira in the classic Planet of the Apes (1968.) She portrayed a zealously religious woman who suffers severe mental strain during a drought-ridden period of the wagon train, with Lonny Chapman and Jean Rasey as her husband and daughter.

We were excited to see The Sound of Music's (1965) blue-eyed Nicholas Hammond in another episode as a wayward soldier, a deserter, who comes upon a pioneer family slaughtered by Indians and decided to assume the identity of their similar-aged son. To help the masquerade, he shoots himself in the side as if he narrowly escaped death himself.
He is befriended by Taylor and, especially, Stevens during his recovery, but is relentlessly pursued by his former commanding officer Kevin McCarthy, who's ready to execute him for desertion.

In a later installment, Taylor and Napier come upon a quintet of attractive ladies who appear to be stranded on their way to fulfill their obligations as mail-order brides. One of the ladies is none other than (a brunette) Miss Stella Stevens, mother of the series' costar Andrew Stevens.

The gals turn out to be prostitutes (!), not mail-order brides, and their pimp Billy Green Bush is in hot pursuit. Stevens shares the bulk of her screen time developing a tentative relationship with Taylor, solidified further when she pitches in to help save his daughter from a serious illness.
In a clearly missed opportunity, the two Stevens share no scenes together, appearing in the same frame briefly in the middle of the episode and then connecting ever so swiftly in this shot as the little girl Smika has recovered. There is no dialogue between them, though Andrew does put his arm around mom for this one moment.

Next we find Taylor coming upon gunrunner Bill Bixby (who directed this episode) and his squeeze Miss Donna Mills. After wrangling around with Bixby, Taylor takes charge of the contraband guns and winds up with duplicitous Mills in tow as part of the bargain.

Mills' luminous eyes are shown to great effect several times within the episode, such as here when she attempts to win points with Taylor by openly bathing in front of him and showing herself to him topless. At this stage, Mills was still primarily a good girl on screen, having played countless put-upon heroines, so she surely relished the chance to be a bit naughty, something she'd truly excel at in 1980 when she joined Knots Landing as a major troublemaker.

Things get even more complicated once Taylor tries to deposit Mills at an army camp run by disreputable William Shatner! This marks the only time that these two ever acted opposite one another on-screen. This is also the final episode of the series to be broadcast before the show (up against Charlie's Angels!) was cancelled by NBC. The remaining six were not shown in the U.S., but appear on the DVD set.

The folks shown here, Mariette Hartley, Andrew Prine and John Lawlor, figured into an episode involving adultery. Prine, a recovering consumptive, cannot due very much heavy labor, especially at night, so wife Hartley takes his place and is paired with Lawlor. One thing leads to another...
Somehow Hartley is so alluring that she also captures the affections of Taylor's youngest son Becker and also draws a certain amount of interest from Taylor! I mean, it's like everyone wants in this chick's drawers. Ha ha!

Prine is crestfallen when he finds out what's been happening and heads over to the married Lawlor's campsite to "fix his wagon" but good. If you've ever seen Prine's nude Viva magazine layout, then you know that Hartley probably had a whale of a time making up with him after this marital fall-out!

Susan Howard (later of Dallas) guest-starred as a woman loaded down with gold who manages to pay various people on the wagon train to do all the things she doesn't feel like doing, such as cooking, repairing things and even riding in back of all the other wagons. Her attitude begins to cause friction within the train.

She also, even though she may or may not be married to her wealthy husband, turns on the heat towards Taylor (he seemed always to be the object of female guests' desires!) She has Carr make dinner for them, then zeroes in for a passionate kiss. Eventually, she learns that money isn't everything and even has to toss gold out the back of her wagon in order to lighten it and escape from some escaped convicts.

Playing her cute, but callow, brother is an interesting face. This young man, making inroads in a TV career that previously included roles like "Bellboy," "Man at Beach" and "Worker," is Howard McGillin. Proceeding to further guest roles on prime-time TV and several stints on daytime soaps, he is best known for his Tony-nominated Broadway parts in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Anything Goes, as well as Phantom of the Opera (which he has played more than any other actor, greater than 2,500 times) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (opposite Vanessa Williams.) At the time of The Oregon Trail he was married to a woman with whom he had two children, but they divorced in 1990 and he married his longtime male partner in 2013. He was back on Broadway in 2015 with Gigi.

In this next episode, Napier and Taylor find an Indian campsite with everyone there dead except this dirty, fur-covered creature coming towards them out of the trees and smoke. No, it isn't the famed Sasquatch...

Turns out this is Kim Darby! A pioneer woman having been captive, she is not only filthy, but pregnant! She tells her rescuers that she was captured six months prior. They take her back to the wagon train where Carr gives her a head-to-toe makeover. As she cannot give Darby a mullet like her own, she settles for an 1800s bouffant!

Once back at her old ranch, she is greeted by her husband Gerald McRaney with a huge whallop across the face! Taylor is startled by this anger until he finds out that Darby lied and that she's actually been gone for -- oops! -- two YEARS!

Thanks in part to some snoopy and judgemental neighbors at the trading post, McRaney cannot resolve to accept Darby and her part-Indian baby into his life. He loves her, but this is something he cannot get past. As emotions continue to heat up, Darby suddenly goes into labor and Taylor winds up having to help deliver the baby. McRaney was already a veteran TV guest star by now for close to a decade, but would soon land Simon & Simon, which enjoyed a run for most of the 1980s. (I love the shirt he wears during this episode!)

Somehow the terrible mustache that Taylor wore in the first regular episode has found its way onto Stevens' lip for this one in which he is left for dead by a passel of robbers. Taylor, now a captive of the robbers who want him to lead them through the rough terrain, believes he is indeed dead, but Jim Davis (soon to be of Dallas fame) has come to his rescue.

The robbers include Dirk Blocker (Dan Blocker of Bonanza's son), Ed Lauter, William Smith, Lynne Randall and Kathie Browne.

Smith had been a regular cast member (and a good guy) on Laredo in the mid-'60s, but by this time had found a niche as very threatening villains (accented by his nefarious role in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, 1976, and its sequel the following year.) Browne was a busy TV actress, notable as a guest on Star Trek, and married to Darrin McGavin. She retired in 1980 having grown tired of too many similar, unchallenging parts.

Our last one features the little girl shown here and her religious father on the episode. Elizabeth Cheshire played the girl and if she seems at all familiar, it may be from her role in Airport '77 (1977) in which she was Arlene Golonka's daughter Bonnie. Robert Fuller (of Laramie and, later, Emergency!, which he was working on at this same time) plays her father, a widower whose wife had died of illness when he refused treatment, believing that the Lord would see her through.
When Cheshire is thrown from Carr's wagon during an accident, she lapses into illness as well and, again, Fuller isn't willing to allow her any outside care from a doctor or anyone else! Needless to say, Taylor is not inclined to settle for this and so conflict arises. Cheshire, who's bedridden for most of her screen time here, was comatose through most of Airport '77! She had an active career as a child actor from the mid-'70s on, but left the business in 1989.

We like Fuller and even though he probably enjoyed this departure as a devout, zealous man of faith, we tend to prefer him in more macho, action-oriented parts with some grit and sex-appeal to them rather than this wimpy kind or role. He's still with us today at eighty-three, though he quit acting in 2001.

The Oregon Trail petered out, as I say, after only a half-dozen airings and the subsequent episodes never saw the light of day here until the DVD release. Despite its failure, TV networks continued to try to ignite a successful western series be it The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977-1978) with Dan Haggarty, The Chisholms (1979-1980) with Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Ben Murphy, How the West Was Won (1978-1979), with James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner or The Young Pioneers (1978) with Roger Kern and Linda Purl (who was in the pilot for Oregon Trail), but none of these truly took hold. If I recall correctly, no period-set TV western lasted for any length of time until 1989 when The Young Riders ran for three seasons.


Gingerguy said...

Interesting show. I never would have watched it but then I missed a lot of hot men. The clincher being Falconetti(?) from Rich Man Poor Man. Always had a thing for Gerald McRaney too, and Andrew Stevens is pretty sexy. At that time I shied away from anything calico covered or western. Donna Mills looked hot in prairie gear, and lol on the mullet.

joel65913 said...

I'm fairly certain I saw the film that served as a pilot but didn't see the show on its initial run. That's too bad I was big watcher of the different Western TV show that dotted the landscape at the time, either new or reruns-except oddly enough Bonanza which I felt fake to me-but it sounds almost like a blink and you missed it type of affair. A good cast and terrific guest stars (boy Darlene Carr was all over TV at this time and now she's vanished so completely).

A shame it didn't have more episodes so it won't be popping up on one of the stations that runs those other shows-some have held up, still LOVE The Big Valley, Wagon Train and The Virginian, and some haven't-I still can't make it through an episode of Bonanza no matter how tight Michael Landon's pants are!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, it seems a lot of people shied away from westerns around this time, though they absolutely ruled the airwaves in the '50s and '60s. Hard to believe the writers could come up with all those stories, though I guess a huge number of them were recycled versions of the same thing. Donna Mills looked good, but hardly "period" with her 1977 hair! LOL

Joel, I have seen several episodes of "Bonanza" all the way through, but not too many. It's success baffles me a bit. Especially the way it went on and on and on after Pernell Roberts left, then later Dan Blocker's death. It just never resonated much with me beyond cutie-pie Landon, though I was for some reason fascinated by the fact that each of the three Cartwright sons had a different, deceased mother. I also could never get into "Gunsmoke" much. Neither show ever seemed to have the caliber of guest stars that other westerns had. The ones you mentioned seemed to boast really great guests. I'm all but obsessed with "The Big Valley," whose music is seared into my psyche as well. Less so "Wagon Train" but I've enjoyed catching up with "The Virginian" in recent years on a re-run channel.

joel65913 said...

Poseidon-A big YES to The Big Valley's theme music! It is quite memorable and really set the tone for the show with the basically glamour shots of all the young stars followed by the MISS Barbara Stanwyck credit bringing it all together with those sweeping strings pulling you in.

Wagon Train can be variable but since it told a different story each episode and frequently those episodes were studded with stars of the caliber of Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Ida Lupino, Linda Darnell, Ann Blyth and the like if you catch the right ones it's a treasure trove.

Another show I've recently discovered-though it's not a Western-that is a cornucopia of staggering plenty as far as guest performers go is the Gene Barry detective show Burke's Law. The guest cast on an episode that I saw recently called "Who Killed His Royal Highness" was Linda Darnell, Elizabeth Montgomery, Telly Savalas, Gale Storm, Mickey Rooney, Bert Parks, Lurene Tuttle and Sheldon Leonard!!! That's all in one episode!

And it was hardly an isolated incident, others were stuffed with Joan Bennett, Paul Lynde, Gloria Grahame and on and on.

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

Hmm, two Sound of Music tidbits on this one. First, it's fun to see Nicholas Hammond again (not Campbell by the way), and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Darleen Carr the sister of the late (sniff) Charmian Carr, a/k/a Liesl? Thank God Liesl didn't sport a mullet like that one!

I had no idea Blair Brown was kicking around this early. I've always liked her, and am surprised they picked her to star with Rod Taylor only because of her age. I'm sure she rocked the audition.

I think America just got burned out on Westerns in TV and movies. The only genre that was THAT popular that just went away except for rare spurts is the musical.

Poseidon3 said...

Joel, I love the theme from "The Big Valley," but I also mean its music in general throughout the episodes. It was just lush, beautiful, suspenseful and sometimes even spellbinding! Far above other shows of its (or any other) time. And I love, love, LOVE "Burke's Law!" In some ways it foreshadows "Murder, She Wrote" with the all-star casts involved in crime, but generally the names are even bigger (or closer to their prime.)

Dave, my gosh... how stupid of me to get Nicholas Hammond's name wrong. I think I've done it more than once! Like a mental block. I can't even picture Nicholas Campbell in my mind, but I know I've called Hammond that before... I wonder why. You are right about this being pretty early for Miss Brown. I recall seeing her first in an epic miniseries "Captains and the Kings" and thought she was terrific. I'll fix the post. Thanks!