I was never a big fan of “Bonanza,” though I often watched it with my family on Sunday nights.
When the Cartwright family’s saga made its debut in 1959, NBC made a big fuss about it because it was one of the first shows (and I think the first western) made and telecast in color, and the network pretty much had a monopoly on color, at least for many years. By a strange coincidence, the network also had a parent company, RCA, that was in the business of making color television sets.
So NBC was hoping that people would go out and buy RCA color TVs so they could watch “Bonanza” – and particularly the show’s surroundings – in what NBC loved to call “living color.”
My parents’ attitude toward this prospect could be summed up with another pithy two-word phrase: “fat chance.”
We couldn’t afford a color TV. I don’t think we had color TV until the early 1970s, when I was about to begin college.
Oops – your honor, let me rephrase that: We didn’t have a color TV set until the early 1970s.
For there was one period, in the 1960s, when we did have color TV of a sort.
Some enterprising soul had invented a rectangular plastic sheet that you could place over a black and white TV to make it seem like a color TV. It had a thick strip of blue at the top and green at the bottom, with a more neutral color in between.
My mother bought it, and we six kids played along with it for a while; we knew it was the best my parents could do.
But that didn’t stop us from lusting after the color TVs we saw each week at a local department store. This was also when you could control the colors with knobs on the set, and it was sometimes fun to look at a color TV that had been tampered with (though not, of course by us, oh no). Purple Rice Krispies? Who knew?
So for me, color TV was not a selling point for “Bonanza.”
It also didn’t help that the show was on Sunday nights, which to me often had an ominous feel because I knew another week of school was lurking around the corner.
And although I don’t remember the early “Bonanza” episodes, some of which might have been interesting (Robert Altman was one of the directors, and he later dedicated the “The Long Goodbye” to the memory of Dan “Hoss” Blocker), the episodes I recall often had a leisurely, even sluggish pace. Not to mention the uniquely unsubtle and intrusive music scores by David Rose, who early in his career must have traded his baton for a trowel.
And the characters, for the most part, were at best bland, with the possible exception of Pernell Roberts’ Adam, but even he didn’t stay for very long; Roberts eventually quit the show, figuring he could do better. Years later, he was back on Sunday nights as “Trapper John, M.D.” In 2010 he went to the Great Actors’ Studio in the Sky, where perhaps, at this very moment, he and McLean Stevenson are teaching a seminar on Great Career Moves.
No, “Bonanza” was just another weekend ritual that you had to get through, like my mother’s overcooked rump roast.
But then, in the mid-1960s, came “The Big Valley” and the Barkleys, led by Victoria (Barbara Stanwyck), the widow of rancher Tom Barkley.
The Barkleys were far more interesting than the Cartwrights. What can you say of a western – or any other TV series – whose first episode contains a scene in which the young female star is on horseback, going after someone with a whip?
That young star was Linda Evans, later of “Dynasty,” playing Audra Barkley, and she was batting her lash (but not her eyelashes) at an equally young Lee Majors.
Who was Majors’ character? Well, that was the point of the whole first episode. Matter of fact, I remember how shocking it was when Majors, having finally made it to the family mansion, proclaimed that he was “Tom Barkley’s bastard son!”
Whoa. You never heard language like that on TV. And especially not on “Bonanza,” at least not at that time; some years later, in one of the first episodes written by Michael Landon, someone did utter the B-word in an episode about a dying unwed mother, but the effect just wasn’t the same.
By the end of the first “Big Valley” episode, Majors’ character, Heath, was accepted, if grudgingly, into the Barkley family, which also included three brothers: Nick, a headstrong, take-no-prisoners guy (Peter Breck, at left with Anna Lisa, from his earlier series, "Black Saddle"); Jarrod, a cerebral, cautious lawyer (Richard Long, below); and Eugene, who was such a cipher I’m not even going to look up the name of the actor who played him, especially considering that after a few episodes, Eugene was banished to TV limbo, where I suspect he occasionally ran into what’s-his-name, Richie Cunningham’s brother, after he vanished from “Happy Days.”
“Big Valley” had a number of memorable episodes. One I remember featured a nun played by an actress named Ellen McRae, better known today as Ellen Burstyn. But one episode that especially stands out, and perhaps best shows the refreshing difference between “Big Valley” and “Bonanza,” is “Court Martial."
A former Union general, played by Henry Jones, is visiting the Barkleys; Nick was one of his junior officers during the war. While he’s there with Victoria, Audra and Jarrod (Nick and Heath are away on a cattle drive), five former Confederate soldiers break in, take the three Barkleys hostage, and put the general on trial for alleged war crimes. When Nick and Heath unexpectedly return, they too are taken hostage.
Near the end of the episode, the general breaks down and confesses, and then comes the twist: The whole thing is a sting, arranged by Jarrod, and the ex-soldiers are really government agents.
After the general is hauled away, Jarrod approaches Nick, who is understandably upset.
I’m sorry we had to do this, Jarrod tells him, but it was the only way we could get him to confess.
Now if Adam had said this to Hoss, the big guy would have said, “It’s OK, brother. You’re right – it had to be done.”
Whereas Nick socks Jarrod a good one and stomps off.
Which is a lot more believable.
Of course, “The Big Valley” had its share of less memorable moments. Like “Bonanza,” it did not do comedy well; you know it’s a bad sign when the series’ composer pulls out his repertoire of “cute music” cues to let you know that yes, folks, this is going to be one knee slapper fer sure.
And occasional stunt casting – Milton Berle? Buddy Hackett?! – didn’t work either.
But you could tune in to “The Big Valley” and enjoy the travails of a family whose members were not clean-living goody-two-shoes, but real people whose boots were perpetually caked with the grime of the real world – or at least a world that was as real as 1960s TV would permit.