Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Few Drinks Too Many

Sam Peckinpah was a great director and screenwriter and (though I personally can't get into The Wild Bunch) many of his films are rightfully considered classics. He was also an alcoholic whose drinking brought him to an early death and undoubtedly hurt both the quality and the quantity of his work as a filmmaker.

So its interesting to look back at his perhaps underappreciated career in television and see how he handled drunks in several episodes.

Peckinpah was involved in the creation of The Rifleman, writing the pilot episode (which aired first on the Zane Gray Theatre on March 7, 1958) and sticking around for a few more early episodes. This included. "The Marshal," the series' fourth episode, which aired on October 28, 1958. Peckinpah both wrote and directed this episode, which brought the character of Micah Torrance (played by Paul Fix) to the town of North Port.

Micah was once a great lawman, but a bullet had deprived him of the use of his right arm. Now he's a scared, bitter man who stays perpetually drunk.  When Lucas McCain meets him and finds out who he is, he gives Micah a job on his ranch and a chance to straighten himself out.

Later, when North Port's current marshal is killed, the outlaws lure McCain into town with the intention of killing him. Without the Rifleman hanging around, North Fork would be a wide-open town.

Micah guesses that McCain is walking into a trap. McCain, in fact, is making the same mistake that Micah once made--depending too much on a fast gun and not enough on his brains.

So Micah needs to pull himself together and--instead of facing off against the outlaws in a straight-up fight--use his wits to give himself enough of an advantage to walk away alive.

So here we have alcoholism presented as the life-destroying thing is actually is. When Micah is drinking, he's stripping himself of all dignity and worth. He's only a man again when he sets the bottle aside and starts acting with courage to help his only friend.

It really is a classic episode, with a great script that manages to populate the story with great characters. James Drury, Warren Oates and Robert J. Wilke are especially notable in how their performances give each of the outlaws real personality.

If you're in the U.S., you can watch the episode HERE.

A couple of years later, Peckinpah created the excellent but sadly short-lived series The Westerner, starring Brian Keith as an illiterate drifter who travels from job to job, accompanied by his dog Brown. Like Lucas McCain, Dave also carries a unique rifle, but there's otherwise little similarity between the two characters.

The format allows the show to tell a wide variety of stories ranging from tragic drama to slapstick comedy. Literate scripts and a consistently great performance by Keith as Dave Blassingame make it all the more tragic that The Westerner only lasted 13 episodes and has been largely forgotten.

This show also aired on Zane Gray Theatre before jumping off on its own. It's third episode, "Brown," was written & directed by Peckinpah and, by coincidence, aired exactly two years to the day after "The Marshal."

This one is a comedy--and it really is hilarious. Blassingame meets a fellow named Burgundy Smith, played by the great character actor John Dehner. Burgundy wants to buy Dave's dog and offers a lot of money, planning to turn a profit by eventually re-selling Brown to be a sled dog in the Yukon. Dave won't sell. The two men go off on a bender and, when Dave eventually passes out first, Smith sees an opportunity to stick some money and a bill of sale in Dave's pocket, then ride out of town with Brown.

When Dave wakes up in jail and realizes what is happening, he is not happy.

So we have two wonderfully written TV episodes, one of which condemns alcoholism and the other that is literally just about two men on a bender and that treats this as pure comedy. I'm not making any judgments or conclusions and there is probably no deep insights into Peckinpah to be taken from this. But as far as it goes, it is interesting to see how the filmmaker, whose own life would be destroyed by alcohol, treated the subject early in his career.

Burgundy Smith, by the way, became a reoccurring character on The Westerner. Also, it is fun to note that the town in which "Brown" is set is named South Fork. A shout-out to The Rifleman's town of North Fork, perhaps?

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