“Zane Grey Theatre”
In the ‘50s, Dick Powell, always with an intense devotion to business and unlike many movie stars who refused to accept the new medium of television, embraced it. He moved into TV in a big way when he formed Four Star Television in ‘52. His partners were three other former movie stars, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino, but Powell was the head of the operation and its driving force. Powell started with “Four Star Playhouse”, a weekly half-hour anthology series which began in September ‘52. All of the “four stars” appeared in the 129 episodes with Powell himself starring in 31 of them.
Powell, a devotee of Zane Grey novels since he was a boy, began “Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre” on CBS on October 5, 1956, Friday night from 8:30-9pm EST. Little competition was provided at first by ABC (“Crossroads”) or NBC (“Walter Winchell” variety show), but soon NBC programmed “Life of Riley” against “Zane Grey” and ABC moved “Colt .45” into that timeslot. After two successful seasons, for its third season CBS moved “Zane Grey Theatre” to Thursday night from 9 to 9:30 where it faced the forgettable “Behind Closed Doors” spy drama on NBC and teen heart-throb “Pat Boone” on ABC. NBC replaced “Behind Closed Doors” with “Bachelor Father” for the 4th season of “Zane Grey” so CBS moved Dick Powell up a half hour, 8:30-9, still on Thursday for season five which began Oct. 6, 1960. But now the anthology faced even stronger competition with the established and popular “Bat Masterson” on NBC and “The Real McCoys” on ABC. Ratings for “Zane Grey Theatre” waned and Powell ceased production with the last episode airing May 18, 1961. (Later, in syndication, reruns aired as “Frontier Justice”.)
Although he obtained the rights to all the Grey novels and stories, the problem was trying to adapt Grey’s works into a 30 minute TV format. Instead, the writers devised characters and incidents from Grey’s stories and wrote tightly scripted new material that captured the essence of Grey’s western writings.
Because of Powell’s stature in the business, actors knew they would be appearing on a well scripted, well directed quality program; therefore Powell was able to attract formidable top level performers to star on “Zane Grey Theatre”. The five seasons of 147 episodes included such topflight stars as Robert Ryan, Cloris Leachman, James Whitmore, Ida Lupino, Lew Ayres, Jack Palance, Lee J. Cobb, Eddie Albert, Mona Freeman, Wendell Corey, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Audrey Totter, Beverly Garland, Rory Calhoun, David Janssen, James Garner, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Lemmon, Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, John Payne, Sterling Hayden, David Niven, Ernest Borgnine, Scott Brady, Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Barbara Stanwyck, Dan Duryea, Tex Ritter, David Janssen, Julie Adams, Van Johnson, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Burt Reynolds, Guy Madison and so many more. Powell himself starred in many episodes. Fleshing out the excellent screenplays were the cream of the crop among well known and respected western character players.
Another unique thing about “Zane Grey Theatre” was, being an anthology series, it became a perfect “testing ground” for other western series Powell’s Four Star Television wished to produce. Over the five year run, “Zane Grey Theatre” became the pilot show springboard for “Trackdown” (“Badge of Honor” 5/3/57), “Black Saddle” (“Threat of Violence” 5/23/58), “The Westerner” (“Trouble at Tres Cruces” 3/26/59), “Rifleman” (“The Sharpshooter” 3/7/58) and “Johnny Ringo” (“Man Alone” 3/5/59), all successful western TV series in their own right—thanks to Dick Powell.
Several other pilots were tested as well, but did not sell. (“Man of Fear”—a Doc Holliday pilot w/Dewey Martin; “Trail Incident” w/John Ericson; “Sunday Man”—a “Hard Case” pilot with Dean Jones; “Seed of Evil”—a pilot for “Brady” w/Myron Healey; “Jericho” w/Guy Madison.)
Each episode of “Zane Grey Theatre” began with a western-garbed Powell strolling around a western backlot informing the audience of some aspect of western lore that would lead into the current week’s episode. What set these introductions apart from anything else on television was Powell’s tongue-in-cheek humor. The introductions alone are usually worth the price of admission.