WESTERN TV SHOWS
Gunslinger, Gunslinger where do you ride, what do you fight for today? When folks need a hand you’re on their side. Gunslinger ride away. You let someone else be the first one to draw, on your speed you depend. And there are times when your gun’s the only law, fighting to help a friend. Gunslinger, will you return or meet your end. Gunslinger ride on, Gunslinger ride away.
The above theme sung by The Voice of the West, Frankie Laine, introduced the very short-lived TV Western, Gunslinger. A midseason replacement for Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, Gunslinger lasted only twelve episodes, airing on CBS Thursday nights at 9 p.m. between February and May 1961. Despite Gunslinger’s short run, the dark and brooding presence of the loner known only as Cord (Tony Young) proved extremely popular with female viewers. Many a juvenile, and a few middle-aged hearts were broken when show unceremoniously disappeared from the network schedule.
The show’s premise was intriguing for its time. The young gunfighter named Cord has a dangerous reputation, which makes him valuable to army garrison commander Captain Zachary Wingate (Preston Foster). Seeing his potential, Wingate recruits Cord to be an undercover troubleshooter for the Cavalry stationed at Fort Scott in Los Flores, NM, during the post-Civil War 1860s. Cord is helped in his assignments by the naïve, but eager Billy Urchin (Dee Pollock) and the Mexican/Irish half-caste Pico McGuire (Charles Gray). Other characters included Sgt. Major John Murdock (John Pickard) and Amby Hollister (Midge Ware) who runs the Fort Scott general store. Director John Ford’s well regarded Cavalry technical advisor, Jack Pennick, was brought in to be the consultant on Gunslinger and also played a small role as a Calvary sergeant.
The Gunslinger pilot episode was surprisingly effective and broke new ground for Westerns with its dark overtones and conflicting moral underpinnings. The ongoing discovery of atrocities committed during the Civil War remain both shocking and shaming to a nation trying to reunite. The concept of war crimes—prosecution individuals for barbaric actions committed during the conflict—is an unexplored political and penal minefield. When Captain Wingate assigns Cord to capture a Confederate army doctor who performed medical experiments on the Union POWs in the infamous Andersonville prison camp, a gripping social tableau comes into play.
This was strong stuff verging on noir, which held promise for the show becoming something special. Unfortunately, the network balked expecting a backlash from viewers, and the remaining eleven episodes sunk into the mire of traditional Western tropes—rescuing ranchers' daughters, saving towns from gangs, rounding up bad guys. The only thing left to differentiate the show from any other TV oater was Cord, the dark, brooding, and edgy anti-hero (played to the hilt by Tony Young) who made the ladies tingle in their nether regions.
CBS network executives also made other egregious decisions. Not wanting to waste film, CBS insisted the actor’s screen tests be inserted into the episodes without regard to plot or storytelling considerations. A fort was built to use as a set, but beyond the first episode there had been no further scripts written , but CBS insisted on getting the show on the air in less than a month. There were occasions when three days of shooting had been completed on an episode, but nobody had any idea how the story was going to be resolved. At one point the writers, actors and directors would sit together on the set and figure out the ending together.
In an interview on the Western Clippings website, Gunslinger’s Tony Young states—I got the role in Gunslinger because I tested for another series, Malibu Run. At the same time, I was asked to walk across the hall and read a speech from Rawhide, wherein Gil Favor roasts Rowdy Yates for something he did. Charles Marquis Warren, who at that time was producing Rawhide for TV and had the responsibility of putting this little interesting western in black and white on the air in 30 days, said, ‘I want him!’ And the other guys said, ‘we want him for Malibu Run.’ Warren said, ‘No, I want him for Cord!’ And he got me. I was 23 years old—thank God for Preston Foster, he was terrific. Really kind to me—patted me on the head when I needed it. At that time I was very green and about as ready to do the lead in a series as the man in the moon.
We worked 14-16 hours a day to meet our air dates. We were a mid-season replacement and were behind in production, so they had to re-run several episodes within weeks of their original airing. Everyone worked hard and all my co-stars, Charles Gray, Dee Pollock, John Pickard, pitched in to get it done. We had fun working together and there were no egos among us.
Gunslinger would unfortunately become the only show produced by Charles Marquis Warren that didn’t become successful. The show developed something of a cult status—mostly due to Tony Young as Cord. While four of the show’s episodes can be found on DVD, the other episodes have ridden off into the sunset never to be viewed again.
GUNSLINGER EPISODE GUIDE
The Border Incident
The Hostage Fort
Appointment in Cascabel
Road of the Dead
The Death of Yellow Singer
The New Savannah Story
CONTRIBUTOR ~ PAUL BISHOP