(L to R) Neville Brand, Peter Brown, William Smith, Philip Carey
LAREDO (1965-7) 56 EPISODES
Laredo pretty much transposed the three British soldiers from the hit movie Gunga Din (1939) to the American West and turned them into Texas Rangers. In fact, the producers wanted the series to have that same Gunga Din air about it, so they had the three stars watch the 1939 movie three times to absorb the cameraderie shared by that picture’s principals. Four members of the Laredo cast appeared in all fifty-six episodes – Neville Brand, Peter Brown, William Smith and Philip Carey.
Neville Brand as Reese Bennett
Reese Bennett (played by Neville Brand) was the oldest of the trio, a forty year-old veteran from the American Civil War; Chad Cooper (Peter Brown) was from New Orleans and had been in the Border Patrol during the war and had joined the Texas Rangers to seek out gunrunners who had killed his fellow border patrolmen. The third member of the trio was a gunfighter named Joe Riley (William Smith) who was occasionally on the wrong side of the law and had joined the Rangers to obtain protection from a sheriff. The Rangers are led by a stern disciplinarian named Captain Edward Parmalee (played by Philip Carey).
Brand is an interesting character. For much of his career he was often cited as America’s fourth most decorated soldier of World War Two. That was simply not so, although the origin of the story is difficult to track down. Brand himself denied it shortly before he passed away in 1992 from emphysema. He was, however a hero just the same, having been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in combat. He served in the European/African/Middle Eastern Theatre where he was wounded and received three Battle Stars.
Peter Brown and William Smith
William Smith spoke about Brand, a man considered to be a really tough nut by those who met him. ‘In his own way he was a great guy. Neville did good fight scenes, but he couldn’t ride a horse. He’d get on a horse about 20 yards away from the camera and he’d come a-runnin’…and he’d fall on his face. I don’t think he ever made one shot where he completed a ride in two years. But he was a pretty good guy and he thought he was a tough guy but he couldn’t punch his way through a wet cracker. He had a little problem with alcohol.’
Michael Ansara as Sam Buckhart
LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN (1959-60) 30 EPISODES
This series certainly earns points for using a premise unique to western series, for it had as its principal character a Native American US Deputy Marshal! His name was Sam Buckhart and he was played by Syrian-born actor Michael Ansara. He was an accomplished performer, yet will more than likely be remembered for marrying the beautiful Barbara Eden, star of the popular series I Dream of Jeannie, which doesn’t really seem fair. To convince viewers that a Native American could possibly become a US Marshal back in the Old West, it was necessary for the writers to come up with some kind of explanation. This is what they contrived: Sam Buckhart, an Apache Indian, saves the life of a cavalry officer after an Indian ambush, and when the officer eventually dies, he leaves Sam money that is to be used for an education at private schools and at Harvard University, no less. One can’t help but think that a young Apache’s exploits at private schools and then Harvard at the time of the Old West would have provided enough ammunition for a series all on their own!
Michael & his wife Barbara Eden
The only other member of the cast to appear in more than nine episodes (Ansara is in all thirty), was eight year-old Gina Gillespie who played Tess Wilkins in fifteen of them. Tess is an orphan who is also saved from Indians by Buckhart, this time while he is wearing his Deputy Marshal’s badge. Incidentally, Gina is the sister of actress Darlene Gillespie, a former Mouseketeer in the Mickey Mouse Club. Dayton Lummis, a prolific character actor, appears in nine episodes as Marshal Andy Morrison. The series was on the air for a little over one year.
LAWMAN (1958-62) 156 EPISODES
Whether or not the popularity of this series related to the number of ‘bad guys’ killed by the two stars, it is difficult to say. It is, however, worth noting that in just the first season, Marshal Dan Troop (played by John Russell), shot a total of thirty-one men, twenty-four of whom died! His deputy, Johnny McKay, bowled over a lazy fifteen, a dozen of whom ended up in the Laramie, Wyoming Boot Hill. Just to assure the reader that it was not all one-way traffic, Dan was shot twice and injured a further six times (including being mauled by a bear!); while Johnny, although never stopping a bullet, was injured four times. And all this happened in just the opening season.
Season two saw a slight reduction in the killing – but not much. Troop killed twenty-two and McKay ten. The seemingly accident-prone marshal even managed to step into a bear-trap in one episode! The third season saw Troop kill twenty-two men and McKay an almost benign five! By the time season four rolled around the legalised killing had been reduced yet again. Granted, not exactly to a trickle but reduced, nevertheless. The Marshal only sent nineteen perps to the undertakers and Johnny only put nine others in the ground! Then again, all was not lost because Lily managed to open her account by gunning down some hapless dude in episode nine.
Russell was thirty-seven when the series began and a stickler for authenticity. He felt his character needed to be an older man if his experience as a gun-fighting lawman was to be believable, so he lowered his voice and had the Make-up Department run a grey rinse through his hair! A former US Marine, he based his character on an officer he had served with during World War Two. At the height of the television mania for westerns, a magazine arranged a competition between several of the stars of various series in an effort to determine who was the fastest on the draw. Peter Brown won the title as the fastest draw in American television.
Peggie Castle with Brown & Russell
It may have been just a coincidence, but when the lovely Peggie Castle was cast as saloon owner (Lily Merrill) at the commencement of season two, a relationship with Troop began to be implied, a relationship almost identical to that between Miss Kitty Russell and Marshal Matt Dillon in the hugely popular Gunsmoke series. Any romance in either series was only ever implied, of course, but the similarity was noticeable to fans of both shows. I guess, if you are going to copy, you might as well copy from the best! From 1960 to 1961, a recurring character named Owny O’Reilly popped up a few times. He was played by twenty-eight year-old Joel Grey, a full decade or so before he went on to win an Academy Award for his performance in Cabaret in 1972.
Joel Grey as Owny O’Reilly
Peggie retired from the screen in 1962 when the Lawman series came to an end. Four years later she guest-starred in an episode of The Virginian, after which she definitely called it a day. Sadly, by then she had already developed a chronic alcohol problem. In 1969, she attempted suicide by slashing her wrists and taking an overdose of barbiturates. Committed to California’s Camarillo State Hospital for her alcoholism, she unfortunately regressed on her release. Cirrhosis of the liver claimed her at forty-five in 1973. Russell died in January 1991 and Brown in March 2016.