Currently airing weekdays at 7 p.m. EST on Starz’s Encore Westerns premium cable-satellite channel, Death Valley Days was a 30-minute program sponsored by Borax. Syndicated across America for 18 years, it is the second longest running Western series, sandwiched snugly between Gunsmoke (20) and Bonanza (14).
Anthologized stand alone segments, narrated in chronological succession by the “Old Ranger” (Stanley Andrews), Ronald Reagan, matinee idol Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, depicted the settling of the Western frontier utilizing real life historical accounts. The location shooting and guest stars merited positive results even though the writing and direction wasn’t always up to par particularly in the later seasons.
Each host also starred in certain episodes. A notable one featuring Reagan center stage is “No Gun Behind His Badge ,” a tragic 1965 story focusing on a hard-headed city policeman whose brand of law and order finds resistance in a cutthroat cowboy border town. It’s been said that the series played a significant role in securing Reagan’s win as governor of California. What cannot be disputed is that he resigned prematurely just before the conclusion of the 14th season in 1966 and never acted again.
An example of Taylor’s moment in the sun is 1967’s “The Lone Grave.” Portraying a grief-stricken husband hell bent on marking his recently deceased wife’s final resting place in the face of relentless mocking from “concerned” townspeople, the original teleplay finds the naturally gifted actor traipsing through the middle of nowhere with nothing except a burdensome headstone, wheelbarrow, canteen, and the sweltering clothes on his back.
Reruns apparently stalled by 1975, five years after Death Valley Days ceased produced. Why? The Borax corporation directly marketed the series as commercial programs to individual TV stations, so no television network was ever granted syndication rights. By the late 1980s Rhino Entertainment, a retro pop culture company based in Southern California perhaps best known for spearheading the Monkees’ revival campaign, released a limited run of VHS copies that are now collectors’ items.
Death Valley Days was pretty much forgotten for 40-odd years—barring scratchy fan uploads on YouTube—until New Year’s Day 2015 when Encore Westerns resurrected a completely restored and revitalized group of color episodes taken from the last seven years of the series.
Unfortunately, the aspect ratio was awful for the first six months of syndication—annoying black bars obscured the top and bottom of TV screens. Likely distracting potential viewers from investigating the series further, that malady has now been remedied so all Western aficionados can see what they’ve been missing.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Bonanza is still going strong in syndication some 55 years after its uncertain debut on NBC as television’s first 60-minute western filmed in color. A new article, “50 Years and Counting: Revisiting Bonanza, TV’s Second Longest Running Western,” gives a detailed synopsis of the show and argues why Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker gained pop culture immortality for their definitive portrayal of America’s favorite frontier family. And in case you prefer the arguably more authentic Gunsmoke, consider pulling up a chair to devour “Get Outta Dodge: Toasting ‘Gunsmoke,’ TV’s Most Critically Acclaimed Western.”
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Exclusive Interview: With tongue planted firmly in cheek, actor Charles Bronson once mused, “I guess I look like a rock quarry that someone has dynamited.” Appearing in an astounding 160 television and film productions [e.g. Death Wish, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape—the latter two classics costarring Steve McQueen], Bronson rarely received any credit for his minimalist acting style and formidable screen presence. To read an extensive birthday profile detailing exactly who the strikingly stone-faced star was behind his tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Jack Kelly had an undeniable knack for making the ladies swoon. Possessing a svelte figure, the charming cowboy became a household name when he costarred with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. His biographer, Linda Alexander, recently took it upon herself to expose the actor’s body of work to a new generation, and an interview seemed like the perfect place to start. In “More Than Bret Maverick’s Brother: Remembering Jack Kelly On His 85th Birthday”], Alexander reveals Kelly’s entry into show business at the insistence of a bona fide stage mother, his quintessential Maverick episodes, the ongoing Bret versus Bart debate, how Garner’s contract negotiations with the network affected his costar, and whether the two were friends in real life.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Starring James Drury in the title role, The Virginian is the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. A humble, genuine cowboy in real life with intense passions for writing and flying, the octogenarian speaks eloquently in a new feature about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne, whether he had a role model in mind for his characterization of the Virginian, the 50th anniversary of his namesake series, and why he will always appreciate his fans. Click on either installment link above to begin the enlightening ride.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, Big Jake contains Palmer’s best work with the towering legend. In the action-packed 1971 Western, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Big Jake’s grandson with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever tangle with the Duke. In a quite rare two-part interview with the 86-year-old thespian [e.g. “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog”], the gentle giant relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots, including drinking pal John Wayne in The Comancheros and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a refreshing conversation [i.e. “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”], author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the venerable tough guy’s surprising connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, why one of his favorite projects, Hell in the Pacific, is a bold, experimental failure, and the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital.
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