By 1958, George Montgomery was making his last big screen westerns, “Toughest Gun in Tombstone” (‘58) and “King of the Wild Stallions” (‘59—made in ‘58). He’d already gotten his feet wet in television on western themed episodes of “Stage 7”, “Ford Theatre”, “G. E. Theatre” and “Wagon Train” as well as some non-western drama programs. In 1957, he was offered the role of Flint McCullough on “Wagon Train” and turned it down.
George says in his book, THE YEARS OF GEORGE MONTGOMERY, that producer Charles Marquis Warren called him about “Gunsmoke”. “The title sounded corny so I said no. How wrong can one be?” Naturally, this must have been as early as 1955, the year “Gunsmoke” debuted, and as George states, “I was still doing (several) films a year earning $35-$50,000 each, plus percentage, which was far more than television was paying at the time.”
In the ‘50s, the giant talent agency, MCA, formed its television arm, Revue Prod., acquired space at Republic, and in 1958 convinced George to make the series leap. He’d always liked the characters in MGM’s “Boom Town” with Gable and Tracy. MCA said they’d do such a series, building oil field sets on the backlot and all else needed. George said okay and in his book writes, “It would be called ‘Cimarron City’. I owned 50% of the negative with MCA; they, NBC and I would divide the profits equally. I was also to be paid a reduced weekly salary, about a tenth of my normal.”
The 60 min. “Cimarron City” debuted on NBC at 9:30pm Eastern on Saturday, October 11, 1958. It never had a chance. The highly rated “Have Gun Will Travel” was opposite its first half hour on CBS followed by “Gunsmoke” going into its fourth season.
George continues, “Once into production (my) character of mayor (Matt Rockford) was running contrary to our agreement and my conception. It started to smell and I started to be heard, saying the story format wasn’t what they had agreed to. MCA made excuses, like they would work on the format later as the series progressed. It never happened. I began kicking more, saying I’d leave if it wasn’t changed. Promises and excuses were made daily, MCA knowing full-well they had no intention of changing the format or character. Series television was difficult, scripts were constantly being changed. You’d learn the lines and the following day when you got to work they’d hand you a fist-full of rewrites. You’d have to forget what you’d learned and re-learn, which is tough. Adding to that, Dinah’s television cast parties late into the night didn’t help my memory. I got to a point I couldn’t remember the simplest lines. I told my agent, who was still part of MCA, I wouldn’t go on with the show under such conditions. I left the series after 26 shows. NBC and I together sued MCA for overcharges and double bookkeeping, winning a judgment for $240,000 split three ways. There was one winner and loser—both me. I was told I’d be blackballed in the business, and for the next 15 years I was, at Universal.”
The series ended on April 4, 1959, but was briefly re-run on Friday nights from June 24 to Sept. 16, 1960.
The series depicted the growth of a town in Oklahoma Territory (circa 1880s) as seen by its cattle baron and mayor (George Montgomery). Audrey Totter played Beth Purcell, the no-nonsense boardinghouse owner. “One of the things that went with the deal,” Audrey told me for our book, WESTERNS WOMEN, “I said, ‘I don’t want to work that much. I don’t mind wandering in and out now and then, but for my sake, once in a while, give me something to do.’” Therefore, several of the episodes—“Beast of the Cimarron”, “Return of the Dead”, “Beauty and the Sorrow”, “The Unaccepted”—revolved around her character. “I enjoyed working with George Montgomery. He’s very western, very macho,” Audrey continued. “But (the series) didn’t turn out to be a big success. I don’t know why because it was a pretty good series.”
Dan Blocker had played heavies on “Cheyenne”, “Restless Gun”, “Have Gun Will Travel” and others before he landed the running part of Montgomery’s friend, Tiny Budinger, on “Cimarron City” beginning with the 4th episode, “12 Guns”. When “Cimarron City” wrapped, he was immediately cast as Hoss on “Bonanza” for the ‘59-‘60 season.
John Smith, who essayed the part of the town’s sheriff, Lane Temple, had begun in the ‘40s as a member of the Bob Mitchell Boys Choir. After college, where he studied to be an engineer, he decided to be an actor instead. Roles in “Carbine Williams”, “The High and the Mighty”, “Ghost Town”, “Lawless Eighties” and others followed before he became a regular on “Cimarron City”. Like Blocker, when “City” failed, he went directly into “Laramie” beginning in Sept. ‘59.
Montgomery died December 12, 2000. Smith died in ‘95 at 63, Blocker in ‘72 at only 43. Other semi-regular townspeople were played by stalwarts such as Stuart Randall, Claire Carleton, Wally Brown, Addison Richards and Tom Fadden. George’s real-life wife, Dinah Shore, appeared on the Christmas episode, “Cimarron Holiday”.