Though long since vanished from the television landscape, the anthology show was a staple of the airwaves back in the 1950s and 60s. Starting with the likes of Playhouse 90, Alcoa Premiere, and Kraft Television Theater in the early days of TV's so-called "Golden Age," and on to more fantastical fare like Science Fiction Theater, The Twilight Zone, Thriller and The Outer Limits, anthology shows at their best offered a limitless range of stories to be told. Since the western genre dominated TV screens in that era, it's no surprise that a number of westerns adopted the anthology format, including Wagon Train (despite its recurring cast, to all intents and purposes an anthology show), Death Valley Days and Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater.
Your host, Dick Powell
Created by Luke Short and Charles A. Wallace and produced by Powell's Four Star Productions, Zane Grey Theater ran for five seasons and 149 half-hour episodes. The affable Powell - who famously started out as a callow crooner in musicals before revamping his image as a Hollywood tough guy, in such films as Murder, My Sweet, Cornered and Station West - appeared as host each week, as well as donning cowboy hat and holster to star as various characters in 15 episodes throughout the series' run. Powell's intros usually revolved around some historical facts about frontier life, generally about something that featured in a given week's story, whether it be voting, cattle branding, the "drummer's bag" of the traveling salesman, weapons, etc.
The series started out with adaptations of miscellaneous Zane Grey stories, but as it went on the producers were forced to come up with original stories and scenarios (several episodes were written by Aaron Spelling!) The episodes, more often than not, focused on more realistic characters and situations, rather than the typical (and all so enjoyable) stalwart, loner heroes that populated most western series of the time. Generally, the scripts featured very human, fallible men and women in tough, dire situations, in over their heads and wracked by doubts, fears and personal troubles. Oftentimes, plots take some interesting and unpredictable left turns, and the dialogue and acting are uniformly first-rate. The flexibility of the anthology format, as well as the deceptively-simple yet oh-so-malleable nature of the western genre itself, resulted in a wide variety of stories and adventures to suit all manner of tastes.
Like other Four Star shows, Powell's clout and connections with other actors and behind-the-scenes talent ensured high caliber casts and crew for most Zane Grey Theater outings. The first season alone saw guest turns from such big names as Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, James Whitmore, Walter Brennan, Robert Vaughn, Wendell Corey, Rory Calhoun, James Garner, Ralph Bellamy, Jack Lemmon, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Sterling Hayden, David Niven, Ernest Borgnine, David Janssen, Ralph Meeker, Julie London, Robert Culp, John Dehner, Scott Brady, and many others. Later seasons also starred Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Ronald Reagan.
Besides its quality scripts, stellar acting and crisp storytelling, Zane Grey Theater was notable for launching several successful spin-off series, including The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo, The Westerner, Black Saddle and Trackdown (which itself produced its own famous spin-off, Wanted: Dead or Alive, with Steve McQueen).
A typically taut, well-acted episode is season one's “Stage for Tucson,” starring Eddie Albert (in a performance likely to surprise casual viewers who only know him from the sitcom Green Acres), John Ericson, Mona Freeman and a pre- "Dr. McCoy" DeForest Kelley.
The eponymous stagecoach arrives at a remote stopover station run by widow Sandy Neal (Freeman). Among the passengers are genial traveling salesman Bide Turley (Albert), surly, one-armed Confederate veteran Will Ruston (Ericson), Les Porter (Kelley) and his married lover, who are running away from her husband with $400 of his money, a doctor who has turned his back on his profession and the crusty stagecoach driver. Assisting Sandy around the station is Marshall Thorpe (Rusty Lane), who's really there to apprehend a notorious bank robber and killer who he's convinced is one of the passengers on the stage. As Sandy tries to reach out to the gloomy Ruston, the situation comes to a dangerous head, as the killer is unmasked and holds the various occupants of the station at gunpoint while he awaits a rendezvous with his outlaw band. Tension mounts as the viewer waits to see if the capable yet self-pitying Ruston will decide to take a stand against the bad guys.
David Niven in "Village of Fear"
Other notable episodes from season one include the very first episode, "You Only Run Once," with Robert Ryan giving a fine performance as a man standing up against frontier justice; "Lariat," in which an ex-con played by Jack Palance comes seeking vengeance on the judge who sentenced him, only to fall for the judge's daughter; "Three Graves," which features Jack Lemmon in an offbeat, lighthearted outing; "Badge of Honor," with Robert Culp as Hoby Gilman, the character he would later play for 65 episodes on his own spin-off series, Trackdown; "Village of Fear" sees David Niven get a chance to shine as a man forced to outwit a gang of killers; and "Courage is a Gun," one of several episodes in season one where Powell steps in as the main character, here a marshall up against young gunslinger Robert Vaughn (Beverly Garland and Claude Akins also star).
Alas, only the first season has made its way onto DVD so far (courtesy of a tasty release from those fine folks at VCI Entertainment). This series is yet another of those mostly forgotten gems that are slowly circling the drain hole of television history. Luckily, there are enough fans of cowboy action still standing to make such releases at least marginally profitable, and thankfully there are still a few boutique labels releasing similarly little-seen western series on disc, led by the estimable Timeless Media Group. I plan to do my modest part in acquiring these nifty shows and championing them on this site, in the hopes of spreading the love of this very special genre to new, younger fans who can carry the torch on to future generations.
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