11 February 2006 | theowinthrop
Another clever show that never made it
Most fans of the cult sit-com series TAXI think that the next smash success connected to the writers, directors, and producers was CHEERS. They are right - for CHEERS was a greater success than TAXI was. But in between, in 1981, the same group tried a historical western sit-com called BEST OF THE WEST. Although very clever and funny the series only lasted one year. Somehow the forces that made TAXI and CHEERS work just were not in the cards for this series.
There has been, at this time, only two spoof westerns that worked on regular television: MAVERICK in the 1950s and F-TROOP in the 1960s. The former had a marvelous satiric edge, enhanced by it's star James Garner's easy-going characterization. The latter had a good ensemble led by Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, Ken Berry, and Melody Patterson, as well as a healthy amount of slapstick. In between there had been other attempts at westerns mixed with comedy. That great series, BONANZA (on many occasions) demonstrated a wicked comic edge (frequently using the talents of stars Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon to unexpected results). GUNSMOKE had also been funny in some episodes centering on the character of Festus. Although basically serious THE WILD WILD WEST had comic moments connected to Ross Martin's disguised personalities. There was a series (which lasted a year) called PISTOLS AND PETTICOATS, that starred Ann Sheridan as the head of a family - all of whom were expert shots. Unlike BEST OF THE WEST, PISTOLS failed after a year principally because Sheridan died and left a gaping hole in the series. There was also LAREDO with Nevil Brand, and RANGO with Tim Conway in the late 1960
BEST OF THE WEST was the story of how Sam Best (Joel Higgins), his southern belle wife Elvira (Carlene Watkins), and their son Daniel (Meeno Peluce) go settling in a western community (it turns out to be in or near Colorado in one episode) after the American Civil War. Sam was a Union officer who met Elvira when he was forced to burn down her father's (it turns out to be Andy Griffith's) plantation. Now, twelve years or so after the war ended, they are moving to the great plains. The first episode shows how they have been rooked a bit by the man who sold them their homestead, Parker Tillman (Leonard Frey), who is the conniving swindler - rich guy in the series. Tillman's associate and henchman is Frog Rothschild (Tracy Walter). Actually for all his evil intentions, Tillman is somewhat inept. In one episode he is trying to unload a "worthless" gold/silver mine on two Norwegian brothers who are miners. It turns out, after he sells them the property, it is true that the mine has no gold or silver - but it is rich in copper! As for Frog, he tries to help his boss - despite his greatest problem: a lack of brains.
There were two other regular characters in the show: Valerie Bromfeld as Lanie Gibbs, and Tom Ewell as Doc Kullens. Lanie was a "Calamity Jane" type, and Ewell was a somewhat shakier (and more realistic) version of Milburn Stone's "Doc Adams" in GUNSMOKE. One late episode on the show had Ewell awaiting a mail order bride played by Betty White, who turned out to be a perfect match for him - but also turned out to be socially impossible (she was a prostitute). The concluding moments of the episode were wonderful, as they realize they have an hour before she leaves the town, and nothing to do - so why not do a little business with each other? As the episode ended, we see Ewell following White upstairs.
The episodes managed to capture the time period better than some more realistic shows. In one of them a railroad is trying to find the better route and has narrowed it between the town the characters live in, and nearby Denver. Frey keeps belittling Denver, even wondering who ever thought up such a stupid name for a city. In another moment that was particularly funny the four leads (Higgins, Watkins, Bromfeld, and Ewell) have the misfortune to be asked by Peluce, "What was the cause of the Civil War?" It happens to be his history homework.
Higgins starts off about the evils of slavery in the south, angering Watkins who says it was Yankee arrogance. This leads to an argument between them just as Bromfeld and Ewell show up. Bromfeld, born and raised in the west, talks about the rivalry of the older sections for the newly conquered western lands, while Ewell brings up the matter of economics and the high versus low tariff. In the end you have four grown-ups arguing a historical/political matter, and Peluce more confused than ever. So have American historians been since 1865.
An occasional visitor in the series was Christopher Lloyd as a gun slinger (originally hired by Frey to get Higgins), who turned out (fitting the series) to be a gourmet cook. There was also a marvelous moment when Chuck Connors (accidentally insulted by Higgins), demands satisfaction in a gunfight, which ends in the saloon - turned by Frey at that moment into a catered birthday party for a kid, with balloons descending on the heads of Connors and Higgins.
As you can see it was a wild comic show - but like HE AND SHE and other good shows it did not pick up an audience, and if was canceled after a year. I don't even think it has been shown in reruns.