Due to rebuilt film sets and scripted action taken from its pilot episode and brilliantly recreated by Quentin Tarantino for a pivotal transition in his film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the overlooked TV Western Lancer has been resurrected in the public consciousness. Lancer originally ran for two seasons on CBS from September 1968, to May 1970, for a total of fifty-one hour-long episodes shot in color. The episodes were rerun on CBS during the summer of 1971 before the series fell into relative obscurity. Despite its quality in both writing and acting Lancer originally failed to find an audience as it premiered under a black cloud of circumstances.
First, the glory days of the television Western had gone the way of the West itself. Gunsmoke and several other stalwart Westerns—such as Bonanza, The Big Valley, and High Chaparral—still had their spurs on, but these shows were established family favorites and delivered ratings sponsors could rely on. New Westerns were no longer guaranteed to be popular hits, even with proven stars twirling their six-guns. Audiences had saddle sores from riding an overabundance of cowboys and recycled plots. Television viewers wanted something new and hip—gritty cop shows, underdog lawyers taking on the establishment, and resolute doctors desperately trying to find a cure for the medical ailment of the week.
Even though the dynamics of the Lancer concept were quite different, on the surface the show appeared to be simply another Western family clan drama. TV critics quickly labeled it a poor man’s Bonanza. This was way off the mark, but the undeserved assessment took its toll on the show even before it aired. Battling sagebrush fatigue, and Lancer’s perceived generic nature kept viewers—already satiated with their favorite comfort Westerns—from tuning in.
The biggest blow to Lancer, however, was its time slot. Knowing the critics were already writing the show off, CBS threw Lancer to the wolves—putting it up against The Mod Squad, which would suck all the air out of the ratings and go on to become a massive hit for ABC. On NBC the antics of Jerry Lewis drew most of the remaining viewers away. Lancer didn’t have a chance, which is a shame as the relative few who did see the show recognized its quality and depth, often remembering it as their favorite Western.
In those less enlightened times, had women been allowed to control the choice of television stations, Lancer might have had a much longer run. The two young male leads, James Stacy and Wayne Maunder, made a large bevy of pre-teen girls swoon as they flipped through Tiger Beat magazine. Even today, the now deceased James Stacy continues to have a loyal retinue consisting of females of a certain age.
Lovingly recreating a hazy memory of scenes from the Lancer pilot—shot through amber colored filters, with film noir lighting, and feature film standards—clearly shows Quintin Tarantino’s appreciation of the series as something special. Other fans without the directorial power and studio cash could never go quite as far, but the land of Lancer fan-fic (if you have to ask, I can’t explain) is not only alive, but blossoming and even filled with scandal and controversy.
Created by Samuel A. Peeples, Lancer starred character actor Andrew Duggan as Murdoch Lancer, a conflicted tyrant trying to keep his 200,000 acre spread in California's San Joaquin Valley out of the hands of land pirates, rustlers, and lower level schemers. When his loyal ramrod is killed and Murdoch himself badly injured, he is forced to reach out to the two sons he never knew—half brothers who are unaware the other even exists. Also in the mix is the murdered ramrod’s beautiful daughter, Teresa O’Brien (Elizabeth Baur), who Murdoch has taken in as his ward.
The two sons couldn’t be more different. Johnny Madrid (James Stacy) is a half-Mexican gunslinger with a deadly reputation. His mother, Maria, was Murdoch’s second wife, and there are conflicting stories about why she left Murdoch and took two year old Johnny with her to Mexico never to return. Raised in border towns, fighting to survive, he’s hostile and hair-tempered and has cut the name Lancer from his identity. As the pilot opens, he is barely saved from a Mexican firing squad by the Pinkerton agent his father sent to track him down.
Scott Lancer (Wayne Maunder) is the educated older son. When his mother died in childbirth, Murdoch placed him with the mother’s wealthy, Bostonian relatives to raise. A veteran of a Union Army cavalry unit, which saw action in the Civil War, he’s upright, sartorially splendid, and has the manners of an officer and a moneyed gentleman. However, he has seen the elephant a time or two and can ride and fight like hell when the need arises.
Through the Pinkerton agents sent to find them, Murdoch offered each son $1000 to meet with him and simply listen to what he has to say. If they wish, they can then take their $1000 and walk away. It’s a stormy encounter, which becomes the trademark of the show. There is no love lost between the three very different men. There’s lot of resentment and anger and absolutely no attempt at understanding or reconciliation. Unlike the wise fatherly Ben Cartwright, Andrew Duggan portrays Murdoch Lancer as an aggressive, unrepentant, tyrant with control issues who has no intention of admitting to any mistakes—even though he desperately needs his sons’ help.
This is the dynamic through-line that makes Lancer different than all the other family clan westerns—Lancer is not about blood ties and family ties. The only reason the resentful Johnny Madrid and the better than you Scott Lancer hang around is because Murdoch Lancer offers them each a one-third share in the Lancer ranch. The bothers have no understanding or feeling toward each other, let alone their father—a man they don’t know or understand, and have no feeling toward beyond antipathy.
Refreshingly for its time, Lancer was about getting and keeping what’s mine at any cost. It was about self-preservation, self-interest, and selfishness. While traditional TV Western family tropes make an occasional appearance in the scripts, it isn’t long before the true colors of the Lancer clan emerge for where they lurk right beneath the surface.
That said, the well written characters do grow and mature as the episodes progress. Begrudgingly, certainly, but the characters are not unintelligent nor two dimensional. But like real people, changes comes to the characters in the form of two steps forward, one step back—sometimes, even a step and a half back.
The look of Lancer was also different. The Spanish inspired Old California stylings and distinct amber color palate of the sets on the 20th Century Fox Studios extended to the exterior scenes, which were filmed in Carmel and Lone Pine, California, as well as on the 20th Century Fox Ranch in Malibu Creek State Park. The exterior sets were also designed to appear more prosperous than the tradition Western Main Street. This mix of Spanish stylings and the tradition Western gave the show an almost exotic ambiance and set it apart from its contemporaries.
Jerome Moross composed a stirring theme song for the show, which supported the episodic stories from top experienced writers who were available as so many other Western series had been cancelled. In fact, the Season Two episode of Lancer with Stephanie Powers as Zee won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for writer Andy Lewis—the first ever designated for a television script.
Lancer was also populated by many top guest stars, including Joe Don Baker, Jack Elam, Sam Elliott, Bruce Dern, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Warren Oates, Agnes Moorehead, Keenan Wynn, Pat Hingle, Pernell Roberts, and Stefanie Powers among others. Added to the cast for Season Two was supporting actor Paul Brinegar. He had previously made a one off appearance in the show as Jelly Hoskins. In resurrecting Jelly, he served the same purpose as the slightly skewed Wishbone character he’d played on Rawhide—a sounding board with occasional wise words.
While many other vintage Western series, even some of dubious quality, have been made widely available on DVD, somehow Lancer has been overlooked. Another mystery is why reruns of Lancer are rarely if ever part of the lineup of vintage TV Westerns constantly showing on nostalgia channels and streaming services. Episodes can be found on YouTube, but the quality of these bootlegs runs the gamut from fair at best to unwatchable. Still, the effort to trackdown and watch Lancer for the first time, or to reacquaint yourself with one of the last and best vintage Western TV series to come out of the halcyon days of the genre, will be entertainingly rewarded.