They sing of Yancy Derringer
On every danger trail,
On riverboat, in manor house
And now and then in jail.
They say that Yancy Derringer
Had ruffles at his wrists,
Brocade and silver buckles
And iron in his fists.
Yancy, Yancy Derringer,
Yancy, Yancy Derringer
In every tale of derring do
They tell of Yancy D.
Nearly a decade before he became Hollywood's oldest Tarzan, Jock Mahoney starred as gentleman adventurer Yancy Derringer in this winning, action-packed series that ran on CBS from October 1958 until June 1959. The brainchild of former pulp magazine writer Richard Sale and his wife Mary Loos (niece of Anita), the series was one of many westerns that virtually monopolized the primetime airwaves in the late 50s and early 60s. Many of these shows had a gimmick of some sort, to try to stand out from the pack (for example, the hero of Tate was a one-armed bounty hunter; Chuck Connors in The Rifleman was a principled single father; Bat Masterson wore a bowler hat and knocked baddies down with his silver-headed cane, and so on). Yancy Derringer doesn't so much sport a gimmick as it does a different take on the genre. It's not your typical sagebrush saga, though it's set in the direct aftermath of the Civil War. It's more of an Eastern, cut from the same cloth as Mississippi Gambler and Frontier Gentleman. Basically, it's mostly an action/ detective drama with some western trappings, set in the backstreets, waterfronts, posh restaurants and gambling dives of New Orleans, or, occasionally, on the decks of the paddleboats traveling the Mississippi waterways nearby.
Everywhere Yancy goes, he's shadowed by his Pawnee compadre, Pahoo-ka-ta-wa ("Wolf who Stands in Water"). All you really need to know about Pahoo can be gleaned from this confrontation between crime boss Toby Cook (Claude Akins) and Yancy, in the second episode, "Gallatin Street" :
Pahoo is a stoic, silent companion, his fierce, unsmiling countenance frightening more than a few men and women who cross his path (a recurring joke). Yancy sometimes humors clueless new acquaintances by referring to Pahoo as a "savage," but it's clear that their friendship is real and one of mutual respect. X Brands, who plays Pahoo, wasn't an actual Native American, but spent a good chunk of his career playing one onscreen. Despite not having any lines, he's a vivid presence in Yancy Derringer and his tandem act with Mahoney is a real highpoint of the show.
Another recurring character is Madame Francine (played with sultry, cool finesse by Frances Bergen, a former model and eventual wife of famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, and mother of Candace). An "old friend" of Yancy's who runs a gambling house (and perhaps a house of ill repute, though this is open to interpretation, much like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke), Madame Francine makes her first of 19 appearances in the fifth episode, "A Bullet for Bridget." That episode reveals that despite her nom de plume, Francine is actually Irish, and her real name Nora - which amuses Yancy greatly.
In the pilot, "Return to New Orleans," ex-Confederate officer Yancy answers a plea from an old flame (Julie Adams) and comes home to reclaim his family mansion from the supposed carpetbagging and reconstructioning of new Yankee city governor, John Colton (Kevin Hagen, who later played Doc Baker on Little House on the Prairie). Turns out his old sweetheart isn't quite all she seems, and instead has designs on his lands herself. Colton is in reality a straight-talking, incorruptible sort of fellow, who recruits Yancy to act as his "inside man," keeping an eye out from within the criminal underworld - places where Yancy, as a gadabout gambler and playboy, can travel freely and without suspicion.
Yancy's patriotic nature, sense of justice and taste for trouble and danger (not to mention pretty women) lead him to accept Colton's agreement. Of course, Yancy's close association with the adminstrator's office doesn't give him carte blanche to ride roughshod all over town. One of the show's running gags is how often Colton throws Yancy into the clink for some minor offense, ostensibly to keep his cover intact, but it often appears that Colton gets a definite satisfaction out of seeing Yancy carted off to jail (even after he's just saved Colton's neck). This doesn't seem to concern Yancy overmuch, as he pretty much makes the stockade his second home, remaining on first name basis with the guards, who can't seem to stop losing their pay to him at cards.
The rest of the series follows Yancy and Pahoo's exploits, as they saunter through the dark underbelly and glitzy nightlife of New Orleans, sniffing out dastardly plots, rescuing ladies and other sundry innocents in distress, taking out crooked gambling establishments, killers and other nefarious evil doers, and otherwise working for the general good of the city...all the while making a nice bit of cash on the side - strictly legally, of course.
Coming to Yancy Derringer fresh via the recently released DVD set, Jock Mahoney was something of a revelation to me. Most of my previous exposure to the actor was as a typical stalwart hero in the 50s sci-fi rubber monster "classic," The Land Unknown (actually, quite a fun creature feature). He was also effective as the smarmy villain in Tarzan the Magnificent, (reviewed on this site previously here), and of course later played the Ape Man himself, taking over the loincloth from Gordon Scott in Tarzan Goes to India and Tarzan's Three Challenges. There was never any doubt as to Mahoney's physical skill and authority, as a former athlete, WWII fighter pilot and experienced stuntman. No, what surprised me most is his very effective performance here as a smooth, courtly Southern gentleman whose amiable, dandy-ish exterior masks a steely nerve and deadly fighting skills. Mahoney really excels in Yancy Derringer, fully convincing as a charming rogue with a quick mind and strong sense of honor, soft spoken until riled, suave and sure with the ladies, yet nobody's fool. Before Yancy Derringer, Mahoney headlined another, more conventional western TV series, Range Rider, which I haven't seen. But on the strength of his work here, I really want to catch him in his other western feature film roles, such as Overland Pacific, what appears to be a Columbia Mountie serial, Gunfighters of the Northwest (with Clayton "Lone Ranger" Moore!), A Day of Fury, Showdown at Abilene, Joe Dakota and the contemporary western Slim Carter (playing a singing cowboy and voicing his own songs), among others.
As mentioned above, one of the things that's so much fun about the series is Yancy's friendship with his Indian pal Pahoo, and just how badass of a team they make. Mahoney and X Brands work together like a well-oiled, bad guy toasting machine; nary an episode goes by without both men dealing out implacable, brutal justice to the various miscreants they encounter. In short, old Pahoo does not mess around. He's got Yancy's back and woe betide anyone who tries to harm his friend. Pahoo doesn't seem to believe much in warning shots...just one big BOOM! from his sawed-off shotgun, or lightning-fast throw of his knife, and it's adios, amigo. Yancy's just as dangerous, between his twin derringers (one up his sleeve, another hidden under his hat), sword cane and fists. Behind the scenes, Mahoney and X Brands worked hard to develop little bits of business to show how close the two characters are, how one anticipates the other as they leap into action, side by side, whether through assorted hand signals or choreography they planned out on set. In one particularly nifty sequence, Brands tosses a knife to Mahoney, whose back is turned; Mahoney snatches the knife out of the air from behind his back and brandishes it towards an advancing enemy, all in one rapid, smooth series of movements.
The more I watch these half-hour adventure programs from the 50s and 60s, the more I find myself preferring the shorter format. While hour-long dramas have more time for deeper character development, they can also become victim to too much padding in the scripts. Not so with Yancy Derringer; the show moves like a freight train, the scripts are tight and yet there's still plenty of time for color and nice bits of character building. Per usual for most programs of the time, the guest star lineups are a supporting player fan's dream: Julie Adams, Beverly Garland, Claude Akins, Charles Bronson, Richard Arlen, John Qualen, Ray Danton, Nick Adams, Grant Williams, John Dehner, Louise Fletcher, Marie Windsor, Lee Van Cleef, Leo Gordon, John Vivyan (TV's Mr. Lucky), Leo Gordon, Robert Cornthwaite, Ruta Lee, Victor Sen Young, John Anderson, Brad Dexter, Jack Albertson, Yvette Mimeiux, Dick Foran, John Larch, Karin Sharpe, Virginia Grey, Jim Davis and many more.
This really is a first-rate show and it's rather surprising that it only lasted for a single season. The prevailing theory is that the program was actually a hit in its first year, so much so that CBS wanted to buy it from its producers, Derringer Productions (which included show creators Sale and Loos, executive producers Warren Lewis and Don Sharpe, plus quarter-owner Mahoney). They gambled and turned down CBS' offer, and as a result, CBS promptly cancelled the series and Mahoney, Brands and the rest were out of a job. A pity really, but there's something highly appealing these days about picking up a one-and-done TV show on DVD and being able to happily gorge your way through it without having to find the time and money for umpteen subsequent seasons. And in the 50s, even limited run TV series really churned out the episodes: 34 episodes is a very satisfying number as far as I'm concerned.
Bottom line - if you're a western fan, pick this puppy up, pronto. You won't regret it.
DVD Note: Timeless Media Group released Yancy Derringer in a 4-disc set back in 2012. Despite the normal disclaimer of how they "used the best source available," often a warning of some subpar video quality to come, the transfers of the various episodes I viewed were all in extremely good shape, some of the best I've ever seen from the company (obviously good quality masters were available). The only real debit is that the show's original theme song is not included on any of the episodes, for whatever reason. Other than that caveat, this is a tasty little set, and fans of this kind of TV series should snatch it up, especially as it generally goes pretty cheap ($20 or less) on Amazon.
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