As a kid in the Fifties, I used to catch as many TV Westerns as I could with my Dad, as long as they didn't go past my bedtime. I've seen episodes of most, but the two I remember watching regularly are virtually unknown today. One was 'Johnny Ringo' starring Don Durant, and the other was 'Trackdown', the story of Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, portrayed by Robert Culp. Culp was every bit as cool as another TV Western star, Steve McQueen, and if you've seen him in action, you know he worked the part. With his upturned jacket collar and the strutting walk, Culp exuded a unique confidence in his role, standing up to bad guys and delivering justice to the Old West. Ranger Gilman even smoked, rather unusual now as I think of other popular TV characters of the era. I could be wrong, but I don't think I've ever seen guys like Marshal Matt Dillon or Rebel Nick Adams light one up. Now that I mention it, I'll have to be attentive when I catch some of those shows.
Since I bring up Steve McQueen's name, it's worth mentioning that 'Trackdown' first introduced the character of bounty hunter Josh Randall in a first season episode appropriately titled 'The Bounty Hunter', airing on March 7th, 1958. McQueen was brought back ten episodes later as a completely different character, actually two characters, when he portrayed a pair of brothers, one good and one an outlaw. Interestingly, the character of Hoby Gilman was first introduced by Culp in an episode of 'Zane Grey Theater' from May 3rd, 1957.
It wasn't unusual for guest actors to show up in a series back then more than once, almost always in different roles. Nick Adams, Richard Devon, Warren Oates and DeForrest Kelley each made three appearances in 'Trackdown'. Michael Landon, Johnnie Crawford and Don Durant both had two along with McQueen. Other favorites of mine who appeared a single time include Vic Morrow, Pernell Roberts, Elisha Cook Jr., James Best, Strother Martin and Keye Luke.
Watching the series in episode order over the past few months (there were seventy), the only one I remember seeing fifty years ago was one called "The Schoolteacher". That's probably why it's one of my favorites, in which Richard Cornthwaite portrays a non-violent, milquetoast sort of character who's bullied by Harold J. Stone. The teacher trains himself to shoot accurately under the watchful eye of Gilman, who emphasizes that shooting straight and hitting a target is more valuable than being quick on the draw. When the inevitable showdown eventually occurs, the teacher first displays his shooting prowess to his adversary, causing the town bully to back down. It was a neat way to show the audience that violence doesn't always have to be the answer if you use your head.
As a Texas Ranger, Hoby Gilman was called on to fight trouble in various towns, but a good portion of the stories took place in Porter, Texas. There were a handful of regulars supporting Culp, most notably Ellen Corby as Henrietta Porter, the publisher of the town newspaper 'The Enterprise'. Norman Leavitt was Gilman's deputy Ralph, and later shows brought in Peter Leeds as Tenner Smith, owner of the Buckhorn Saloon, and Addison Richards as Doc Calhoun. All had significant roles in various stories, demonstrating their loyalty to the town's peace officer.
Produced by Four Star Films and airing on the CBS network, the show lasted only two seasons, but back then, over thirty episodes per season was pretty standard. The thirty minute episodes began on October 4th, 1957, and ran until September 23rd, 1959. That last episode by the way, guest starred DeForest Kelley and Don Durant as a pair of brothers protecting their mother who was going senile. A week later, Don Durant debuted my other favorite TV Western on October 1st with the initial episode of 'Johnny Ringo'. I'll eventually get to reviewing that one as well.