I have to admit that as a baby boomer I’m prejudiced. Though I love a lot of the television series form recent years, Boston Legal, The West Wing and Northern Exposure to name a few, I still have a nostalgia for the 60s and 70s and particularly for a number of series that you never seem to see anywhere either on the the cable or DVD.
1. Nichols 1971-72 This James Garner vehicle was one of the more intriguing things to ever show up on network TV. Set in a small town in 1912 Arizona, Garner played a former cavalry trooper who comes back to his hometown (named after his grandfather, like himself, Nichols) and reluctantly becomes the sheriff as he has no other means of making a living. Although I haven’t seen an episode of Nichols since it went off the air 32 years ago, I still remember how hilariously cowardly Garner’s character was. He was quite happy to knock out drunks from behind and run from a fight at the drop of a hat. He was basically the same character Garner had played in Support Your Local Sheriff, only better. He also rode a vintage motorcycle instead of a horse as it was the end of the Old West and the beginning of the modern era.
Guest stars included Richardo Montalban as a Mexican bandit (al a Pancho Villa) in search of a dentist, Ralph Waite of Waltons fame, Steve Forrest, Tom Skerritt, Paul Winfield, Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Anthony Zerbe to name a few.. One exceptionally memorable episode featured a wacked out baseball game between the people of Nichols and an army team. They also did a tennis match up using https://tennisracquets.com/collections/head-pickleball-paddles and it was equally as funny.
The supporting cast included Stuart Margolin who would rejoin Garner on The Rockford Files playing the wonderfully villainous Angel. His character on Nichols was basically the same guy, just sixty years earlier. Also on hand were Margot Kidder as the local barmaid and John Beck as the town bully. NBC stuck the show in the dead zone of Thursday nights which had killed Star Trek only two years earlier. As the ratings tumbled, NBC began pressuring Garner and his production company to make changes and turn Nichols into a more conventional Western. In the final episode Nichols is killed and his twin brother, a steely eyed, humorless jerk arrives in town to avenge his death, taking over his job as sheriff. Garner said that he purposely killed the character as a way of thumbing his nose at NBC as they knew the show was headed toward cancellation regardless.
If this show has seen the light of day since it first aired 33 years ago, I haven’t seen it and I don’t know of anyone else who has either. Since James Garner’s production company owns it wouldn’t it be spectacular if he put it out on DVD? All 24 episode would easily fit on 6 DVDs. Or how about even a best of set to start with? With all that cable TV time to fill, you’d think someone would find a slot for this short lived classic.
- The Fugitive 1963-1967The original classic starring David Janssen. You’ve heard of it, but when was the last time you saw it? Everyone knows the story, so I won’t go into it. Similar to Route 66 in that Jansen found himself in a new situation every week. The guest star list reads like a who’s who of 60s actor, from Robert Duvall to Charles Bronson. I had the chance to see most of the series a few years ago when A&E; Cable Network reran them. They stood up exceptionally well. But, like the rest of our hard to find shows, where is it now? I see they’re finally releasing it on DVD.
- I Spy 1965-1968 Bill Cosby and Robert Culp joined the legion of secret agents and spies who populated the television and movie landscape in the 1960s. What set this one apart from the rest was its casting and locations as the cast and crew traveled the world. I caught several episodes in rerun back in the 80s on Nick at Night and they really were good. One in particular that stood out, guest starred Boris Karloff as a slightly senile university professor who thinks he’s Don Quixote. It was actually filmed on location in Spain, so Karloff got to charge a few windmills. A great old series that launched the career of Cosby. Also now available on DVD, but it’s already marked down to next to nothing so look for it to go out of print soon!
- Route 66 1960-1964 Excellent writing was this show’s forte. Martin Milner and George Maharis (replaced during the last season by Glenn Corbett) starred as the original guys who go on the road in that cool Corvette and have new adventures every week. Sound familiar? Jack Kerouac threatened to sue, but didn’t. Sterling Silliphant (In The Heat Of The Night & many other films) wrote the pilot and a number of other great episodes, tackling issues from the Ku Klux Klan to abortion in an era when such things were not touched by network television. Forget the fact that these guys rolled into a new town every week and instantly got jobs and made friends, it was fun, entertaining and sometimes enlightening. The guest cast included Robert Redford, Martin Sheen and many more. The series also moved across the country, shooting on location as did The Fugitive and many other ‘road’ series in the 60s. This was the original and everybody got on the bandwagon with variations on the theme, Run For Your Life, The Invaders, The Fugitive. In the 70s Route 66 was reincarnated as Movin’ On with two truckers seeking adventures on the road. You could even say that Quantum Leap was Route 66 rewritten as time tripping. Unfortunately the entire series was shot in black and white and as a result you’re not likely to see it on your local cable network. Nick at Night played them back in the 80s before they figured out that endlessly reruning Laverne and Shirley made for better ratings. The early seasons are now available on DVD.
- Run For Your Life 1965-1968 Ben Gazzara starred as a man whose doctors tell him he has only one or two years to live (the old joke being, it depends on the ratings). It was basically Route 66 solo with Gazzara roaming the country looking up old friends and finding new adventures. Excellent writing and casting (take a look at Route 66 and The Fugitive and you’ll find the same exceptional list of future Academy Award winners here too) made this an exceptional series. Has anyone seen this show since it originally aired?
- The High Chaparral 1967-1971 Filmed in Old Tucson in Arizona, this Western started out as the most gritty, violent series that network television had ever seen. It was the story of a family homesteading a cattle ranch on the Arizona frontier while fighting off Apache Indians and Mexican marauders. On viewing most of the series a few years ago, its initial episodes look more like feature films than television fare and featured a continuing story line as the characters and situations were developed. But after that original burst of creativity, it settled into the mold that NBC dictated as it became evermore like their other hit Western, Bonanza, turning to comedy and ultra light drama. The casting of feature film actors, Leif Ericson, Cameron Mitchell, Linda Crystal and Frank Silvera were wonderful, powerful presences unlike anything that television of the era offered, a kind of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue of its time. NBC began juggling it around to Friday nights, (also the final resting place of Star Trek) until the series was mercifully put out of its misery in the spring of 1971. At last update this series was being held up from DVD release because of some kind of mish mash concerning distribution rights.
- Alias Smith & Jones 1971-1973 Okay, so I have seen a few of these in recent years and they are pretty light fare, but at the time, (I was thirteen), this was the best show on TV, a real departure from anything I’d seen before. It predated Nichols by a few months and featured similar, non-heroic heroes, two outlaws ala Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, played by Pete Duel and Ben Murhpy, who wanted to go straight, but had to stay out of trouble for five years to prove to the governor that they were really reformed. In the process they had to deal with their old licentious friends and other assorted villains who were determined to draw them back into a life of crime. Guest stars like Lou Gossett and Walter Brennan were the highlight of the series as well as Pete Duel’s solid acting. It was lightweight for the most part, but great fun too. Tragedy struck when Duel killed himself on New Year’s Eve of 1971. He was quickly and unceremoniously replaced by Roger Davis, a former Dark Shadows player and the series quickly went in the dumper, proving that it was Duel’s screen presence that had been carrying the series. Season One is available on DVD but watch for it to disappear soon.
- Harry O 1974-1976 David Janssen returned to series television after an unsuccessful run at feature films following The Fugitive. This series about a non-conformist, offbeat private eye debuted the same year as James Garner’s The Rockford Files, but bit the dust after only two years. The scripts and casting were great, (Anthony Zerbe played Jansen’s buddy on the police force), but Jansen’s dour, nihilistic style of acting wasn’t what people were looking in the 70s.
- Then Came Bronson 1969-1970 Michael Parks was the star of this short lived NBC series which hoped to capitalize on the success of Easy Rider. It was basically Route 66 on a motorcycle. It wasn’t bad and it wasn’t brilliant, but Parks got to do his best James Dean impersonation as well as sing the theme song (remember Goin’ Down That Long Lonesome Highway) while finding women and adventure. The women and the adventures were pretty tame by today’s standards, but it was fun back then and better than anything you’ll find on network television today.
- ABC Movie of the Week Early 1970s Remember back when ABC was cranking out a new 72 minute movie (to fit into a 90 minute time slot) every week? There were some real turkeys like Pray For The Wildcats featuring William Shatner and Robert Reed as over the hill biker wannabes, but there were also some real classics like Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first film. To name a few others there were; Go Ask Alice, a realistic adaptation of the short, tragic life of a Haight Asbury flower child, Brian’s Song, the classic story of Chicago Bears Running Backs, Gale Sayers and Brain Piccolos, The Night Stalker in which a modern day vampire stalks Las Vegas as well as serving as host to the pilots of Kung Fu and The Streets of San Francisco. Some of these movies really did look like mini-feature films as a lot of young filmmakers were turned loose to actually do some creative stuff before the network execs figured out that formula fare like tabloid headlines of the week grabbed better ratings. The ABC Movie of the Week was kind of like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get, but it was bound to be interesting.
- Thicker Than Water 1973 A ludicrous comedy that featured the conniving members of a family that ran a pickle factory. Based on a British television show, this series ran on ABC during the summer of 1973. Malcolm Atterbury was the hilariously nasty patriarch of the family who pretended that he was dying while secretly plotting the family’s fortunes. Julie Harris was the dutiful and boorish spinster daughter and Richard Long played the useless son who wanted Dad’s fortune to feed his profligate lifestyle. I’ve read that 13 episodes were taped, but I doubt that all of them ever saw the light of day. All anyone or I have is a dim memory of this little gem, but it seemed awfully funny and very bizarre at the time. Somebody out there must have a copy of it, fading away in their vault.
- Sunshine 1975 A spinoff from the successful 1973 TV Movie of the same name, it starred Cliff DeYoung as an American musician who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft and ends up raising his young daughter by himself after his wife passes away. Sounds pretty grim, but it wasn’t. The approach wasn’t straight sitcom or drama, but the best part was the supporting cast which included Bill Mumy of Lost In Space and Babylon 5 fame and Corey Fischer of Fiddler on the Roof as his musician friends as well as Meg Foster as DeYoung’s sometime girlfriend. As a musician this series holds a special place in my heart as it to date it’s still the most realistic television ever made about small time barroom musicians. The only film that holds that distinction is The Commitments. Mumy’s character was especially memorable as a bitching, complaining so and so. In other words, a typical musician. Another TV film was made in 1977, Sunshine Christmas, but unfortunately it dwelt mostly with DeYoung’s return to the USA to deal with his father (Pat Hingle) and old flame (Barbara Hershey). A good film, but Mumy and the rest of the series cast were virtually castoff for that one.
When you consider some of the stuff coming out on DVD you’d think that someone would feel like cleaning out their vault and taking a look at some of these shows. And how about WKRP In Cincinnati and St. Elsewhere, two great shows that short shrift with only their first season coming out on DVD and yet you can’t find them anywhere in syndication.