Monday, May 5, 2014



From Tuesday, April 29th through Thursday, May 1st, thousands of people in all aspects of the cable television industry converged on the Los Angeles Convention Center for The Cable Show.  Over 200 exhibitors filled the exhibit hall promoting their channels, services, hardware, software and other products.  I was the guest of INSP, the channel famous for their daily TV westerns and Saddle-Up Saturday block, and their exclusive airings of THE VIRGINIAN and HIGH CHAPARRAL. 

INSP had arranged to have a pair of stars from two of their most popular series, two of America’s favorite moms, Karen Grassle from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, and Michael Learned from THE WALTONS, present to meet-and-greet and pose for pictures.  Knowing how long it had been since they’d starred in their series – LITTLE HOUSE had their last season in 1983, and THE WALTONS in 1981 – I was delighted to find how charming and vivacious both ladies were.  When I took my turn posing with them, I commented that I was excited to meet them because I’d enjoyed their shows so much, and also because they’d both starred in episodes of GUNSMOKE, something neither one knew about the other.  “I played a whore!” Karen blurted out.

“I played a whore, too!” Michael Learned added with a laugh.  I was delighted to be able to discuss their experiences in Dodge City. 


KAREN GRASSLE:  Well, I came at the very tail end of GUNSMOKE, right after we did the pilot for LITTLE HOUSE.  Victor French, who played Mr. Edwards (on LITTLE HOUSE) was going to direct his first television episode ever (THE WIVING, 1974).  And so he wanted me to come on, and I went on, and I was one of a number of saloon girls.  And at that time I was a big feminist, and I had hair under my arms!  (Laughs)  And so they had to come very politely to me and say, ‘Miss Grassle, do you mind?’  I said of course – that was pretty funny.  We did a show where these boys, who were kind of…missing a few batteries, they were told by their dad, ‘Go find wives, or you’re not going to get any inheritance!’  So they went to town and kidnapped a few saloon girls; brought us out to the farm.  It turned out that the farm where we shot became the location for THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. 

MICHAEL LEARNED:  That’s a really great story.

HENRY:  Now Miss Learned, you did two GUNSMOKE episodes and a movie. 

MICHAEL LEARNED:  Well, in the first one (A GAME OF DEATH…AN ACT OF LOVE, part 2 1973) I played a lady of ill repute in a court scene.  I was a witness, and I only remember because I saw it recently on Youtube.  It was very early (in THE WALTONS run), and they had to clear me; there’s a morals clause when you sign a contract to do a series – I don’t know if you had to sign one, Karen, but I did.  So they had to get clearance from (WALTON’S creator) Earl Hamner and (producer) Lee Rich and Lorimar, and they let me do it.  Then I did something called FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE (later retitled MATT’S LOVE STORY 1973).  Matt’s had a concussion, and he’s lost his memory.  We fall in love, and I’m the only woman that Matt Dillon ever kissed.  And out of that kiss…came a little baby!  (laughs) 

HENRY:  It must have been a great kiss.

MICHAEL LEARNED:  It was, actually.  He called me up and asked me out for a date.  I thought he was a really great guy, and I like him a lot.  Very self-effacing and kind.  I was kind of nervous; (to Karen) like you, I was just starting out.  Then they did follow that up with a move-of-the-week (GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE – 1990), where he doesn’t know he has a child, because he gets his memory back, and he goes back to Miss Kitty, where he should have been in the first place.

HENRY: And he never kissed her.

MICHAEL LEARNED:  He never kissed her – not on screen anyway.  So in the movie-of-the-week, our child is abducted.  And I call on him to find her, to bring her back.  And he discovers that he has a child that he didn’t know he had.  And that’s my history with GUNSMOKE.  And the funny thing is that I never told him, but when I was a child, I used to watch GUNSMOKE with my dad.  And so the first time I did the show with him, I couldn’t speak, I was so shy.  I just sat there looking at him.  But he warmed me up; he was a very nice guy. 

HENRY:  Now Karen, you also did WYATT EARP with Kevin Costner.  What was that experience like?

Karen Grassle relaxing

KAREN GRASSLE:  That was a lot of fun.  I was living in New Mexico at the time, and they came there to shoot.  They had done some casting in L.A.  Then they tried to fill out some of the roles in Santa Fe.  I was teaching at the time, at the College of Santa Fe, teaching acting for the camera.  There was a great studio there; that’s why they were there.  And so I got to do this little part, as the mother of Kevin Costner’s bride.  And I worked with some great people: Gene Hackman, Kevin of course – he was amazing.  Gene Hackman was so terrific.  And then the camera would cut, and he was, ‘Well, that wasn’t any good.’  You know, we’re so self-critical, actors.  It was a lot of fun.

HENRY:  What is WALTONS creator Earl Hamner like?

MICHAEL LEARNED:  He’s just one of the greatest guys in the world.  Sweet, kind, and everything you think he would be.  He’s got a raunchy sense of humor, which saves the day; otherwise you’d get diabetes.  He likes to drink; he’s just a great all-around guy. He and his wife have been together for I don’t know how many years; theirs is a real love story.  I think somebody’s trying to do a documentary on him, but somebody should do a story about their love story.  Recently I talked to him, and he said, “My wife is at the beach for the weekend, and I’m just sitting around crying, I miss her so much.”  So sweet, after all those years – sixty, I think. 

Incidentally, Ralph Waite, who played John Walton Sr. opposite Michael Learned, died this past February at the age of 85.  Active until the end, in 2013 he was playing continuing characters in BONES, NCIS, and between 2009 and 2013, he did 94 episodes of DAYS OF OUR LIVES.  One of his last performances was in a dramatic short for INSP called OLD HENRY.  You can see the entire 21-minute film HERE.  

Visiting exhibits of other channels, I learned what is on the horizon for Western fans, and discerning viewers in general.  The STARZ/ENCORE folks told me that the highest viewership of any of their many channels, right after STARZ, is ENCORE WESTERNS.  At present they don’t have plans to create any original Western programming. 

At HALLMARK CHANNEL and HALLMARK MOVIE CHANNEL, WHEN CALLS THE HEART, the Western Canadian romance series, has ended its first season, and cameras have already rolled on season two.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the two HALLMARK channels have announced a slate of about thirty TV movies, and not one is a Western.  This would not be a surprise with any other network, but HALLMARK has staunchly supported the genre when no one else did, and averaged at least two Westerns per year.  The popular GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE franchise produced three features starring and co-produced by Luke Perry, and last year’s QUEEN OF HEARTS is by far the best of the group.  As of now, there are no plans to make more.  HALLMARK has decided to shift its focus to mysteries, and in fact, the HALLMARK MOVIE CHANNEL will be re-branded THE HALLMARK MYSTERY CHANNEL in October.

For those of us who worry that younger viewers aren’t discovering classic films, some heartening news: according to TCM, two thirds of their 62 million viewers are between the ages of 18 and 49.   

AMC is in the middle of its first season of TURN, the Revolutionary War spy series, and this summer will be bringing back HELL ON WHEELS for its fourth season.

THE HISTORY CHANNEL will soon be presenting its own Revolutionary War series, SONS OF LIBERTY, focusing on such characters as John Adams, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Benedict Arnold. 

A&E will deliver a new season of LONGMIRE starting on June 2nd, and FX will bring us one more season of JUSTIFIED, but then they’re pulling the plug.  Over the last couple of years, the Round-up has been following a number of proposed series at all the major networks, and some pilots have been shot, but not one, Disney’s BIG THUNDER prominent among them, has gotten a go-ahead.

At the seminars that I attended, and in talking to many of the exhibitors, the main topic of conversation, of concern, was making TV content easily and instantly available on all possible devices.  This is absolutely sensible; this is their livelihood.  And yet, as an outsider, it seems to me that such content is too available already.  Just a few years ago, any group of people standing around waiting, at a post office or bank or about to board a plane, would feature a substantial number of people reading newspapers or books, or doing crossword puzzles, or talking to each other.  The reading and conversation was gradually replaced by people talking loudly in their cell phones, and kids with annoying loud portable video games – the same kids who have wheels on the bottom of their sneakers.  Now nobody reads or talks at all; they text, or they stare at videos on their iPhone and check Tweets – reading Tweets is not actual reading.  At a high school last week, I observed a class waiting for a late teacher : I counted sixteen kids sitting on the floor, side by side, none talking, none acknowledging each other, all staring at their smartphones.  They were waiting for a drama class to begin, and not one was communicating with another.  And for all the constant updating, if you can pry a minute or two of conversation out of them, you will find only a tiny percentage has any idea of what is going on in the world.  They don’t need to have watching TV any easier.  They need to watch less, read more, listen more, and then talk more.    


This newest silent Western release from Grapevine Video was made in 1926 by Sunset Productions, just a year before sound would turn the movie industry upside down.  One of the particularly appealing aspects of the film is that paralleling the coming changes to the movie industry are the progress-borne changes in the lives of Buffalo Bill Cody and other characters.  The U. P. in the title is the Union Pacific Railroad, and the film concerns a time when the Pony Express, once Cody’s employer, is disappearing, and the wagon train is soon to be replaced by the transcontinental railroad. 

Just as the specificity of the time is unusual, so are many of the characters and plot elements.  In a surprisingly plot-heavy opening, we are quickly introduced to Cody, an Indian whom Cody rescues and befriends (played by actual Indian Felix Whitefeather), a wagon train whose passengers include a runaway wife and her paramour, and a runaway slave (played by apparent white guy Eddie Harris).  They are pursued by a lawman, and a parson, who happens to be the abandoned husband of the runaway wife. 

The wagon train reaches the fort, and soon Cody and a friend, seeing the coming of the rails as inevitable, become land speculators.   Reasoning that the rails must go through a certain pass, Cody and company commence to build a town along the route, but are soon up against the railroad’s corrupt head surveyor, who says he will either be made an equal partner in the town, or he’ll find another route, regardless of what it costs the railroad. 

There’s a good deal of action here, much of it involving the Indians, and a purposely stampeded herd of buffalo.  There are even more subplots – the Major, his daughter and her suitor; the crooked gambler devoted to his beautiful little daughter – and all of them are paid by the end: surprising in a 53 minute film.  One of the curious effects of so much happening is that Cody is only nominally the lead – much time is devoted to other characters.

Portraying Buffalo Bill Cody, star Roy Stewart is not a familiar name today, but he was a big star in silent films, co-starring with Mary Pickford in SPARROWS that same year.  Most of his roles were in Westerns, and when sound came in, he was gradually relegated to bit parts, often unbilled, but he managed to compile nearly 140 film appearances.  He’s big and likable and good with the camera.  He makes an acceptable Buffalo Bill Cody, especially once he starts wearing the familiar fringed buckskin jacket.  The one odd choice was keeping the long brown hair, but not the mustache and goatee.  To look right as Cody, you have to go full hair-and-whiskers, ala Joel McCrea, or abandon the fuzz entirely, ala Charlton Heston.  The hair alone triggers distracting comparisons to Barrymore’s MR. HYDE, and Tiny Tim. 

The movie is well-acted and entertaining, and some elements of the story are very progressive for their time.  The first sighting of Indians is preceded by this title-card: ‘The scouts of the original Americans kept watchful eyes on all white invaders.’  Contrast this with the words from the original poster: ‘DO YOU LIKE ACTION AND HAIR-RAISING THRILLS? You will see Indians attacking the whites --- Indian warfare in all its horrors - action - fights - and the most thrilling suspense you have ever witnessed!’  Obviously not the same writer.

Also progressive, in spite of the white actor portrayal, and some standard-for-the-time toadying, is the runaway slave.  When he is discovered, not even the lowest characters in the story ever consider returning him to his owners.  The film is well directed, handsomely shot and generally well-edited – though a herd-of-buffalo shot that does not match the action is featured much too often – and the print, though scratchy in places, is quite crisp and clear, with sharp lines, dark blacks, and a wide range of grays.  Priced at $12.99, with a piano score by David Knudston, it is available from Grapevine Video, which has about 600 films currently available, and frequently brings out more.  THIS LINK will take you to the WITH BUFFALO BILL page. 


Walter Hill’s 1980 film about outlaw families has an irresistible gimmick: brother outlaws were played by actual brothers.  Thus the Youngers are portrayed by David, Keith and Robert Carradine (their father John had scenes, sadly deleted), the Millers by Dennis and Randy Quaid,  the miserable Ford brothers by Christopher and Nicholas Guest, and the James boys by James and Stacy Keach, who also co-wrote the script with Bill Bryden and Steven Smith.  I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as very entertaining, with memorable action scenes. 

Presented as part of the Autry’s ongoing monthly ‘What is a Western?’ series, it will be preceded by a discussion lead by Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms.


The Round-up is sorry to note the passing of actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr.  The son of concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and opera star Alma Gluck, he was awarded a Purple Heart for his military service, and first garnered wide attention playing private eye Stu Bailey on the Warner Brothers 1960s detective series 77 SUNSET STRIP.  He later starred in about 250 episodes of THE F.B.I.  Though not particularly known for Western roles – his easy sophistication made him more natural in big city stories – he did appear early in his career in the Civil War drama BAND OF ANGELS, with Clark Gable.  And in his SUNSET STRIP days he did all of the WB westerns series: five MAVERICKS, and one each of BRONCO, SUGARFOOT, plus a RAWHIDE, and in 1982 played Michael Horse’s father in the impressive and often overlooked THE AVENGING.  In the frst season of the 1990s ZORRO series he played Zorro’s father Don Alejandro de la Vega, before handing the role over to Henry Darrow.  A busy voice actor late in his career, Zimbalist was the voice of Batman’s butler, Alfred, in a half dozen series.  Among his finest work was playing L.A. Police Sgt. Harry Hansen in the only good movie on the subject, WHO IS THE BLACK DAHLIA? starring Lucie Arnaz. 


Norman Rockwell's portrait of Ann-Margret

I’m a little late, but happy birthday to Ann-Margret, whose birthday was April 28th.  In 1966 she starred in the remake of STAGECOACH, playing Claire Trevor’s role of Dallas, opposite Alex Cord in John Wayne’s role of The Ringo Kid.  Seven years later she was starring opposite the real Duke in Burt Kennedy’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS.  Then in 1994 she played Belle Watling in the miniseries sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND, SCARLETT.  


Willie in BARABOSA

Born on April 30th, 1933, Willie has continued the tradition of the singing cowboy started by Gene Autry, but has done it in his own way.  Starting in THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN in 1979, Willie has appeared in many westerns, often as the lead, sometimes as a cameo.  Among them are BARABOSA, THE LAST DAYS OF FRANK AND JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH, REDHEADED STRANGER, ONCE UPON A TEXAS TRAIN, WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD?, and several DR. QUINN episodes.  And though it’s been often said that, with his chinful of whiskers, he could save studios money by being his own sidekick, there’s something about him, perhaps his voice, that makes ladies respond in a way that few ever did for Al St. John, or even Gabby Hayes.  


Next week I’ll definitely finish up my coverage of the TCM Festival, and either the WILD BUNCH LUNCH at the Autry, or THE SANTA CLARITA COWBOY FESTIVAL at Gene’s Melody Ranch.  

Have a great week!

Happy Trails,


All Original Material Copyright May 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

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