Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman on CBS’ “Trackdown” was known as “the method actor cowboy” on “the thinking man’s western.” Conceived by John Robinson as a western version of “Dragnet”, the deadpan Jack Webb cop series to which Robinson was a contributing writer, “Trackdown” first aired a pilot episode on Four Star’s “Zane Grey Theatre” 5/3/57. In the pilot, Gilman reluctantly rejoins the Texas Rangers following the Civil War. In this episode, disliking violence, instead of a gun, Hoby carries a leather thong with four .30-.30 slugs welded together on the end. With it, Hoby is able to knock a weapon from an adversary’s hand or render him unconscious. This novelty item fit the trend for TV cowboys to have some sort of trick weapon. But realizing the limitations of this gimmick, when the actual 30 minute series began, Culp opted for an authentic-to-the-period Smith and Wesson model #3, .38 Russian revolver with a top break. Culp had an extra piece of metal welded onto the hammer to make it flatter, therefore easier to cock when drawing, and for fanning.
Culp, born in Berkeley, CA, August 16, 1930, the son of an attorney, studied acting in New York and was pursuing a Broadway career. Having appeared in several live dramatic shows in New York (such as “U.S. Steel Hour”), when he was hired by Four Star to do the episode of “Zane Grey Theatre”, he believed it would be a one-time thing. Although reluctant to abandon his burgeoning Broadway career, when the series sold, Culp was contractually obligated to star in the series which debuted October 4, 1957, and ran for two seasons, 71 b/w episodes, through September 23, 1959.
As stated, creator John Robinson envisioned a western “Dragnet”, and there was a similarity with voice-over narration and stories reportedly based on Texas Ranger files, however, the rebellious Culp resisted the “Dragnet”-like staccato-rhythm and developed his own style, including a unique laid back, scuffling, slouchy walk he claims to have picked up watching Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”.
Culp took the series seriously, learning gun work from the best, Arvo Ojala, and spending time educating himself about the real Texas Rangers.
Robinson contributed many of the scripts, along with Daniel Ullman, Sam Peckinpah, Fred Freiberger, Norman Jacob and others, but they were uneven in quality, even under top directors such as Thomas Carr, Donald McDougall, John English and R. G. Springsteen. Adding to the problem was the fact Culp and former Monogram producer Vincent Fennelly (1920-2000) never got along.
By midseason the first year, rather than having Hoby Gilman sent from town to town, the series settled on Porter, TX, as a homebase, having Hoby filling in as sheriff after the death of the town’s previous lawman. This allowed for Hoby to still venture to other towns, but also allowed for a supporting cast of characters in Porter. Joining the recurring cast with episode #22, “The Judge”, were Ellen Corby (1911-1999) as feisty newspaper-woman Henrietta Porter; James Griffith (1916-1993) as bachelor barber Aaron Adams (phased out early in the second season); Gail Kobe (1929- ) as Adam’s sister Penny (phased out after only a few episodes); Norman Leavitt (1913-2005) as dimwitted jail handyman Ralph, and Rusty Wescoatt (1911-1987) as the bartender. In the second season, Peter Leeds (1917-1996) was brought in as gambler Tenner Smith (ep. #40) and old pro Addison Richards (1902-1964) joined the semi-regulars as Dr. Jay Calhoun with episode #47.
In its first season CBS’ “Trackdown” was on Friday’s at 8PM ET, opposite the popular “Jim Bowie” on ABC which had begun in ‘56. By the fall of ‘58, the competition for “Trackdown” was the popular “Walt Disney” on ABC and “Ellery Queen” in color on NBC. In January ‘59, midway through the second season, CBS programmed “Rawhide” into the Friday timeslot and moved “Trackdown” to Wednesday at 8:30PM ET, opposite “Ozzie and Harriett” on ABC and “The Price Is Right” on NBC.
Reflecting on the series, Robert Culp states, “In those days there was a tremendous problem separating one western from another because at one point there were 36 of them on the air. I felt, and still feel, compared to the rest of the westerns on the air, the guy I see in ‘Trackdown’ is more attractive in terms of appeal to an audience than 90% of the rest of what was seen, and yet it was only on two years and we never had numbers (ratings).”