By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
ABC Sundays (1960-1961)
6:30 Walt Disney Presents
9:00 The Rebel
9:30 The Islanders
10:00 Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years
For a lot of viewers, Sunday is the most prestigious night of television. On cable, it’s the night that AMC and HBO air their classiest and most critically-acclaimed serialized dramas. On broadcast channels, it’s the home of decades-old institutions like 60 Minutes, The Simpsons, and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Sometimes NBC runs football games, depending on what month it is. The point is, there’s a lot of TV to watch on Sunday nights.
That was equally true fifty-three years ago in the fall of 1960. Over the next few months, I’ll be featuring the Sunday nights presented by all three networks that fall, showing how each one aimed to put its best foot forward. Today we look at ABC, whose Sunday lineup was all about history and myth-making and America’s legendary past (a past that includes allying with Britain during World War II, of course). All of the shows were set in the past or in exotic locations, making the evening as a whole an escape from the realities of modern life.
For three of the shows, that escape was into America’s most exciting era, the old West. This isn’t at all surprising, given that Westerns dominated the TV landscape at the time. Four of the season’s top six shows fell under that category (and the other two were rural sitcoms). That’s not to say that these shows were very similar. Indeed, each of the three offered a very different type of program.
Lawman‘s generic name was reflected in its premise, which combined elements of Gunsmoke (the main character, Dan Troop is the marshal of a frontier town, and his love interest Lily Merrill is the pretty female owner of a saloon) and The Rifleman (Dan spends the series teaching his deputy Johnny a variety of life lessons.) Johnny was an adult, unlike the young son on The Rifleman, but he had been orphaned as a child, and the two characters shared a father/son-style bond.
Like Gunsmoke, Lawman was a serious-minded show for adults. Dan was installed as marshal of Laramie after the previous one was killed, and the murderer’s brothers (played by Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam!) periodically showed up to menace Dan for arresting their brother. Also like Gunsmoke, the stories often revolved around the guest stars (who this season included DeForest Kelley and Sammy Davis Jr.), with Dan and Johnny playing a supporting role. This meant that characters often died, and the series featured a high level of gun play. Additionally, Johnny developed into a more confident deputy as the seasons passed, and Dan grew more comfortable as well. On Lawman, the stakes were very real, and Laramie had a sense of continuity.
While Lawman spent time developing its world, The Rebel, which followed it, was essentially an anthology series. Nick Adams played Johnny Yuma, a Civil War veteran (a Confederate, hence the title of the series) who wandered around the country meeting folks and fighting evil. The show ran for two seasons (76 episodes!), but it never did much to distinguish itself among the more successful “wandering cowboy” shows of the day, such as Have Gun, Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Still, for people who enjoyed that format, it was another show they could watch.
The two-hour Western block began with its most distinguished show by far. It’s easy to compare both Lawman and The Rebel to other hits of the day. But there was nothing else quite like Maverick, a free-wheeling, light-hearted, comedy-action drama starring James Garner as cocky, charming gambler Bret Maverick. I mentioned earlier that this lineup was concerned with myth-making. In the other shows, that’s true in the sense that Westerns are among the most beloved of American myths. Here’s it’s much straight-forward. Bret Maverick is a legend in his own right; one of the most indelible characters in TV history.
Unfortunately for viewers, he was all but gone by 1960. For most of the series, Garner actually alternated lead episodes with Jack Kelly as Bret’s similar (but less interesting) brother Bart. By this season (the show’s 4th), Garner had left the show. He starred in one episode, but it had been shot the previous year. He was replaced by, of all people, Roger Moore as British cousin Beau Maverick. Now, Moore is amazing at light action-comedy, but it just wasn’t the same. You don’t hear too many people mention Beau Maverick fifty years later.
The Westerns were followed by The Islanders, a new series cashing in on America’s fascination with its newest state, Hawaii. The show was actually set in the Maluku Islands near Indonesia, and it focused on a small single-plane airline run by two American men and their female business manager. It purported to offer escape to a distant land, where beautiful Americans got into all kinds of exciting scrapes – each new island offering a different thrilling adventure. It didn’t hold much interest with viewers, however. The show was canceled at the end of its first season.
Book-ending the evening were shows focused on genuine legends – two of the 20th Century’s most towering figures, Walt Disney and Winston Churchill. The night’s final show, Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years was a 27-part documentary about the Prime Minister during WWII. The show had a very impressive pedigree It was directed in part by John Schlesinger, had an Emmy-winning score by Richard Rodgers, and featured Richard Burton as the voice of Churchill’s memoirs. It also won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in the Documentary Field. I didn’t know the series existed before I started researching this column, and now I want very badly to see it.
Walt Disney’s anthology TV series went through many titles, but during this season (its seventh), it was called Walt Disney Presents. Through a variety of DVD releases, Disney buffs are familiar with the show’s format, which featured Walt himself talking directly to the viewer, introducing some sort of programming – dramatic presentations, Disney movies and shorts, peeks behind the scenes at the studio, etc. Often the show promoted a new Disney project (this year featured extended teasers for both The Parent Trap and Swiss Family Robinson), but other times it promoted only the Disney brand.
Walt Disney was never one to ignore a trend when he could make money from it instead. So, like everything else on TV, this season of Disney was heavily focused on Westerns, with multiple episodes devoted to Zorro, The Swamp Fox, Texas John Slaughter, Daniel Boone, and reruns of Davy Crockett (which had been a huge success on the show in the mid-1950s. It also featured airings (over weeks each) of the theatrical Disney films The Great Locomotive Chase and Westward Ho the Wagons. It was exciting stuff for the kids of the time, and it was the perfect beginning to a night focused on the epic and the legendary. The other shows had (at most) one epic figure. Walt Disney rotated among a half-dozen, and promised you could see even more if you went to the theater.
Or you could just stay at home and enjoy the pleasures of modern-day life on CBS. Join us next month for more on that.
Next: We continue our three-part look at Sundays during 1960-1961 with CBS.
Previously on Right On Schedule: NBC Wednesdays (1981-1982)