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Opening credit for "The Westerner".“The Westerner”

Perhaps the most underrated, overlooked and shortest-run TV Western is “The Westerner”, created by Sam Peckinpah and starring Brian Keith as laidback cowhand/drifter Dave Blassin-game who roamed from job to job with his mongrel dog Brown.

The pilot for “The Westerner”, “Trouble at Tres Cruces”, was telecast on Dick Powell’s “Zane Grey Theatre” on March 26, 1959. NBC-TV liked the concept and bought the Four Star produced b/w half hour series for its Friday night lineup from 8:30-9PM EST beginning September 30, 1960. Blassingame was realistically portrayed as a basically decent, ordinary man.

Peckinpah began the series with an extremely adult oriented episode, “Jeff”, which caused quite a stir as Peckinpah recalled, “It was about a guy who goes to take this young whore, who he knew as a kid, home. Some of the network affiliates absolutely refused to air it; at least until (current head of NBC-TV) David Levy and Dick Powell got to them and worked it out.” Nevertheless, the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER tradepaper review called “Jeff” “thoughtful and electric” and said, “It’s made by people more interested in telling a story than aping a formula in the naïve hope that guiltless plagiary will make them rich. ‘The Westerner’ is a great show, a stand-out series.” Indeed, “The Westerner” had the same edge Peckinpah, who created the idea and wrote and directed several episodes, would show in his features. Blassingame’s dog, Brown, was left to pretty much fend for himself unless someone tried to harm him. Brown was played by Spike who was trained by Frank Weatherwax. Spike is best recognized as playing the title role of “Old Yeller”.

The third episode, “Brown”, introduced fast-talking conman Burgundy Smith (John Dehner) who takes a liking to Brown and attempts to buy him. When Blassingame refuses to sell, at any price, Smith tries to cheat Dave out of the dog—unsuccessfully, of course. The character of Burgundy Smith reappeared in “The courting of Libby” (ep. 6) and “The Painting” (ep. 13).

Brian Keith as Dave Blassingame with his dog Brown (Spike).Although critically acclaimed, “The Westerner” was cancelled after 13 episodes, some say due to its violence—although several episodes are strictly comedic. Perhaps the unglamorized portrait of the West was not what audiences accustomed to “Cheyenne”, “Sugarfoot”, “Wyatt Earp” were quite ready to accept. Peckinpah told TV GUIDE, “The show is evidently too adult. Advertisers are afraid of it.” More to the point is the fact ratings were low opposite “The Flintstones” on ABC and “Route 66” on CBS.

Brian Keith later stated, “So much fuss was raised when we went off the air that CBS came running with an offer to put ‘The Westerner’ back on. Then we found out they wanted to stretch it to an hour and put it on at 7 o’clock at night which meant we’d have to cut the realism, everything that made it good. We told ‘em to go fly a kite.”

John Dehner as Burgundy Smith tries to talk Brian Keith (Dave Blassingame) out of his dog Brown (Spike).But “The Westerner” lived on—an attempt to update and revive the series aired as a January 1963 episode of “The Dick Powell Theatre”…“The Losers” featured Lee Marvin as Dave Blassingame and Keenan Wynn as Burgundy Smith, set in the modern west. “The Westerner” episode “Line Camp” was the basis for “Will Penny” (‘68) written and directed by Tom Gries. Brian Keith revived Blassingame in ‘91’s “The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw” which also featured other western series leads reprising their roles. Brian Keith once summed it up, “Playing Dave was the most satisfying job I ever had.” We agree!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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