Friday, December 04, 2009

Peckinpah on the small screen

The Rifleman

'The Rifleman' ran from 1958 to 1963 and chronicled the adventures of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors). Although a spin-off from "The Sharpshooter", a one-off episode of 'Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre' written by Sam Peckinpah, and although Peckinpah was the creative driving force behind the first season, the producers only retained him as a story consultant and there was soon a parting of ways. This owed to a (predictable) difference of opinion between Peckinpah and the producers as to the direction they envisaged the show taking. Peckinpah wanted to develop the character of Lucas's son Mark (Johnny Crawford), subsequent seasons charting his growth towards manhood, the series gradually edging into darker, grittier territory as Mark matures and the scales fall from his eyes and he witnesses the realities of life.

If Peckinpah had had his way, the five-year run of 'The Rifleman' might have played out as a cohesive rites-of-passage story plotted against a profound and emotionally honest character arc. The producers, concerned with ratings and sponsorship and advertising, wanted something more suited to family viewing.

A total of 168 'Rifleman' episodes were produced, with a staggering 40 comprising the first season alone. A complete and comprehensive episode guide can be found here. The episodes Peckinpah was directly involved in are as follows (first appearances of actors later cast in the films noted where appropriate):

"The Sharpshooter" (writer) - a slightly re-edited version of the earlier 'Zane Grey Theatre' episode.

"Home Ranch" (writer).

"The Marshal" (writer/director) - featuring Warren Oates, R.G. Armstrong and James Drury.

"The Boarding House" (writer/director) - featuring Katy Jurado.

"The Money Gun" (co-writer/director).

"The Baby Sitter" (co-writer/director) - Peckinpah's only season two contribution.

Other series writers included N.B. Stone (whose screenplay 'Guns in the Afternoon' Peckinpah would significantly overhaul for 'Ride the High Country') and Harry Julian Fink (whose 'And Then Came the Tiger' was the genesis for 'Major Dundee'). Appearing in non-Peckinpah episodes, but destined to work with the director a little further down the line, were Dennis Hopper, Edgar Buchanan, James Coburn (in an episode entitled "The High Country"), L.Q. Jones and John Davis Chandler. Other directors who worked on the show included Arthur Hiller, Richard Donner, James Clavell and Ted Post; season three episode "The Assault" was directed by Ida Lupino, who Peckinpah later cast in 'Junior Bonner'.

The Westerner

'The Westerner' ran for only one season, comprising 13 episodes, between September and December 1960. Again, it developed from a one-off 'Zane Grey Theatre' episode, "Trouble at Tres Cruces". The, ahem, "hero" Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith) was a world-weary saddletramp, a man with a marked predisposition to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peckinpah went for a more authentic aesthetic than he had been permitted on 'The Rifleman', incorporating story elements such as mob violence, prostitution, attempted rape, alcoholism and anti-heroism. Blassingame makes mistakes, hesitates at the crucial moment. Kind of like a frontier version of 'The Sweeney', full of moral ambiguity and endings that weren't afraid to be untidy and challenging to the audience, 'The Westerner' was something audiences hadn't seen before - and probably weren't prepared for, hence the non-appearance of subsequent seasons. Peckinpah's contributions:

"Jeff" (co-writer/director) - featuring Warren Oates and marking Peckinpah's first collaboration with director of photography Lucien Ballard.

"School Day" (co-writer) - featuring R.G. Armstrong and Dub Taylor.

"Brown" (director).

"Mrs Kennedy" (co-writer).

"The Courting of Libby" (director).

"The Old Man" (writer).

"Hand on the Gun" (director).

"The Painting" (director).

Peckinpah Irregulars Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens make appearances in non-Peckinpah episodes. Other directors included Andre de Toth, Elliot Silverstein and Ted Post.

Noon Wine

Peckinpah was rescued from his spell in the wilderness, following the box office failure of 'Major Dundee' and his firing from 'The Cincinnati Kid', by producer Daniel Melnick. Melnick approached him to adapt and direct Katherine Anne Porter's short novel 'Noon Wine' for the 'ABC Stage 67' drama series. Its critical success, earning Peckinpah Writers' and Directors' Guild nominations, set him on the path back to film directing - and 'The Wild Bunch'.

'Noon Wine' is the only one of Peckinpah's features I haven't seen, by dint of it being basically unavailable. In his biography of Peckinpah, published in 1994, David Weddle highlighted the problem: "By the mid-1970s ABC had destroyed all the master tapes for the 'Stage 67' series to make room for storage space in its vaults ... Today it's possible to see mint-condition copies of the show, in colour, in only three places: the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City, and Jason Robards' house in Connecticut." (Since Robards' death in 2000, I wonder what's happened to that third copy.)

Robards starred alongside OIivia de Havilland, Per Oscarsson, Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones. Evocative analyses of the production are offered in Weddle and Seydor's books, neither of which I can read without gnashing my teeth that 'Noon Wine' isn't available on video or DVD. There's also a lovely piece on Moon in the Gutter, Jeremy describing 'Noon Wine' as "Peckinpah's forgotten masterpiece".

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