“Custer”, the TV series, ended before its time just as the life of the real General George Armstrong Custer did at the Little Big Horn. The Wednesday night one-hour color 17 episode series from 20th Century Fox debuted from 7:30-8:30 ET on September 6, 1967, on ABC and was based on the life of Custer during the period 1868-1875, the year before his death at the Little Big Horn. After losing his Civil War rank of Major General, due to forced reductions, Custer was demoted to Captain but was reinstated in 1866 as a Lt. Col. And assigned to shape up and take command of the 7th Cavalry Regiment at Ft. Hays. The 7th was made up of a ragtag outfit of brawlers, former Confederates, drunks and malcontents under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Terry who disliked Custer’s unconventional methods as well as his long-hair appearance but nevertheless supported his methods of dealing with Crazy Horse and his warriors.
31 year-old newcomer Wayne Maunder was cast as the 28 year old Custer (right). Born in Four Falls, New Brunswick, Canada, Dec. 19, 1935, but raised in Bangor, Maine, Maunder was at first attracted to major league baseball but after several unsuccessful tryouts switched to psychiatry when he was at Compton Jr. College in California. But after a year he entered a drama workshop which fired his interest to try his luck on stage. After studying with Stella Adler’s group in NY and working in stock companies, he was seen by an agent who signed him to a contract which led to “Custer”, growing a mustache and long blonde hair for the role.
The only continuing Indian character, Crazy Horse, was played by Michael Dante who told WC, “David Weisbart was the executive producer, he’d produced ‘Kid Galahad’, the Presley picture I did with Elvis in ‘62. He mentioned to me after the picture he was working on something and said he’d be in touch with my agent. He wanted me for Crazy Horse. Truly, in or out of the business, one of the most wonderful human beings.” (Weisbart began in the early ‘50s as producer of “Carson City”, “Tall Man Riding”, “Thunder Over the Plains” w/Randolph Scott, “The Command”, “Charge at Feather River” w/Guy Madison, then hit the big-time producing “Them!”, “Rebel Without a Cause” and Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. He continued on with three more Elvis films then moved into TV with “The Legend of Jesse James” [‘65-‘66] for Fox TV.)
Dante continues, “We were doing very well in the ratings until about halfway through the 17 shows, Weisbart was on the golf course and had just uttered the words, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful day, a gorgeous day to be out here…’ and two minutes later he had a heart attack and died on the golf course. He was playing golf with (actor) Stephen Boyd who quoted those beautiful words Weisbart said just before he keeled over. Thereafter, there was really no one to defend the show against the barrage of people who were seeking political correctness. Custer became a bad word and they just railroaded the show right off ABC.”
Dante continued, “Wayne Maunder and I got along very well. I knew Wayne before that. He used to go to a place we catered to, a place for all the young actors to hang out. I had certainly read about Custer and seen Errol Flynn in the Warner Bros. film (“They Died With Their Boots On”), but I thought Wayne looked just like Custer! When I first saw him (in the role) I backed up, I said ‘Wayne, you look great with the hair and mustache.’ It was absolutely striking. He was built like Custer too, thin. I thought he did a good job. Wayne was also writing some screenplays at the time, wanted to write. He’s a hell of a nice guy, kinda shy, soft spoken, laid back. He was a good actor, but I don’t think he ever had the confidence that he was a good actor. We had a nice bunch of guys on ‘Custer’. Peter Palmer played Sgt. Bustard. Slim Pickens played the California Joe character, looked raggedy and rode a mule. Slim told me once, ‘My wife and two daughters are coming and I’d like you to meet them, say hello, take a picture with them.’ I said, ‘Of course, absolutely.’ They came on the set, and I tell you, they were two of the most gorgeous young ladies you’d ever wanna see in your life. His wife was very attractive, but those girls were just gorgeous! We kidded him, ‘Slim, thank God they didn’t take after you!’ His wife was a lovely, beautiful woman, but the two daughters were tall, thin, blonde—just so beautiful. We kidded him, he got a kick out of it. (Laughs) Then, Grant Woods played the Irishman with the brogue, and played the harmonica, Capt. Miles Keogh. Grant used to come to work on a motorcycle. Unfortunately, shortly after the series was over, Grant was killed on the freeway in an accident (10/31/68, at 36). Nice fella. Robert F. Simon was the craggily General Terry. Wonderful actor, great contrast. We shot ‘Custer’ at the Fox ranch in Malibu, had a big lake, rocky areas. One sequence that got a little scary is when I had to dive into the lake…there were limbs from trees. If you went deep enough and you caught the buckskin clothing on one of these limbs and got hook\ed in, and couldn’t shake yourself loose, a situation like that, you panic, struggling to get loose. I went into the water; I had to disappear to make the scene work. I went down deep and damnit; I got caught on one of the limbs. I had a leather scabbard, belt, on my side, and it just got caught in that. I reached down and just tore the limb. Thank God it was not really thick where I couldn’t separate myself and then panic and start drinking the lake dry!”
As Michael Dante, who is of Italian heritage, alluded to, “Custer” provoked the ire of Indian organizations. Even before the first episode, Native American organizations began to assail “Custer” as “detrimental to Indians” alleging the “series will stir up old animosities and revive Indian and cowboy fallacies we have been trying to live down.” It was stated, “The depiction of savage Indians slaughtering white men is offensive to civil rights groups.” Even a bear hunting expedition “offended those sensitive to ecological issues.” Activists claimed the distortions of frontier history in “Custer” were pronounced, and the stress on military glory ran counter to a growing public debate by 1967 over the military role of the U.S. in Viet Nam. Everything seemed to belie the show’s success—civilian protest groups, the war in Viet Nam, strong competition from “The Virginian” on NBC (now in its 6th season) and “Lost in Space” on CBS, and the sudden death of series creator David Weisbart. “Custer” rode into TV history on December 27, 1967, a scant four months after its debut.
Wayne Maunder moved over to CBS for a two year run on “Lancer” and in ‘73-‘74 was on the Jack Webb produced crime show, “Chase”. His last film was a role in “Porky’s” in ‘82. Since then he’s been involved with independent film production.
By the time Michael Dante came to “Custer” he’d been an established guest star on dozens of TV westerns—all the WB westerns as well as “Texan”, “Bonanza” and features like “Fort Dobbs”, “Westbound” and “Arizona Raiders”. A few years after “Custer” he starred in the memorable “Winterhawk”.
Peter Palmer took to a singing career, often appearing in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Slim Pickens, 64, died in 1983. Robert F. Simon, 83, died in 1992.