THE MONROES (1966-7) 26 EPISODES
Ma and Pa Monroe die in an accident in the first episode, leaving their five orphaned children to survive as a family on the frontier, in the area that is now Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming. Clay is eighteen, the oldest of the five, and is played by Michael Anderson Jr. Barbara Hershey portrays his oldest sister, Kathy, Keith and Kevin Schultz play the twins, Jefferson and Fenimore. The youngest in the family is Amy (Tammy Locke).
The series benefited from the lead-in of ABC’s popular Batman series, but it struck problems when it clashed with the last hour of NBC’s The Virginian and the second half of CBS’s Lost in Space and The Beverly Hillbillies. The series was not a ratings success; being unable to attract sufficient audience numbers to remain on the air. After just twenty-six episodes it was canned in March 1967, despite its two leads winning American Heritage Awards for their work.
Michael Anderson Jr & Barbara Hershey
I first saw Michael Anderson Jr in the 1965 John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder, when he portrayed the youngest brother. Then came The Monroes. It came, therefore, as a surprise to learn that he was actually born in Middlesex, England, although he later studied Drama & Ballet in New York City at the Centre for Arts Education. Singer/actress Doris Day took Barbara Hershey under her wing when the girl was twenty. Both fervent Animal Rights activists, their friendship lasted for fifty-one years until Doris’s death in 2019.
MY FRIEND FLICKA (1956-7) 39 EPISODES
Johnny Washbrook, Flicka, Anita Louise & Gene Evans
This series was based on the novels by Mary O’Hara and the 1943 film of the same name that starred Roddy McDowall. The TV show was shot in colour but released by CBS in black and white (few people had colour TV in those days), between February 1956 and August 1957, although it enjoyed syndicated re-runs for several years afterwards. The story was set around 1900 on the fictional Goose Bar Ranch near Coulee Springs, Wyoming, focusing on the rancher Rob McLaughlin (played by Gene Evans), his wife Nell (Anita Louise), their son Ken (Johnny Washbrook), and his relationship with his horse Flicka. Incidentally, Flicka is a Swedish name that means ‘little girl’. Exteriors were shot at the 20th Century Fox Movie Ranch, now part of Malibu State Park.
NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1958-9) 26 EPISODES
This is a spin-off from the successful 1940 film of the same name that starred Spencer Tracy and Robert Young. Set during the French and Indian War (1754-9), the series follows the exploits of ‘Rogers Rangers’, with particular focus on three individuals – Major Robert Rogers, explorer/Indian fighter Hunk Marriner, and Harvard graduate and map-maker Langdon Towne – played respectively by Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett. Although they are ostensibly seeking the ‘Northwest Passage’, the alleged waterway across North America, they spend most of their time fighting both the French and the Indians.
(L to R) Keith Larsen, Don Burnett & Buddy Ebsen
Larsen was a native of Salt Lake City, Utah who, unknowingly, started a trend in TV western series. In one episode of Northwest Passage, he was stripped of his shirt, stood against a post and flogged. In effect, he paved the way for Robert Horton in Wagon Train, Ty Hardin in Bronco, and Lee Majors in The Big Valley to suffer similar ordeals in their shows. For a while, it seems, being ‘stripped and whipped’ became a highlight that many viewers looked forward to watching. To each his own, I guess. More importantly, it was Larsen who was cast in the title role in Brave Eagle (1955-6), the first series in which an American Indian was the lead character. The series reflected the Native American viewpoint in the settlement of the American West. Sadly, it only survived a solitary 26 episode season. Larsen was married to Vera Miles for eleven years (1960-71). He passed away in 2006, aged eighty-two.
Vera Miles, former wife of Keith Larsen
Buddy Ebsen’s career, both in film and on television, was a long and distinguished one. An accomplished dancer, he hoofed it with some famous partners on celluloid – Eleanor Powell, Frances Langford, Judy Garland and Shirley Temple – to name but a few. His movie career had been in eclipse for about twenty years when Walt Disney cast him as Davy Crockett’s off-sider Georgie Russell in a few episodes of Disneyland; episodes that Walt joined together to make into a couple of phenomenally successful feature films about the legendary frontiersman. Ebsen’s stint in Northwest Passage came next, followed by his role as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962, another huge success. Barnaby Jones (1973) was yet another successful series for him. Buddy passed away in 2003. He was ninety-five.
Gia Scala, former wife of Don Burnett
Don Burnett met beautiful but troubled Italian actress Gia Scala on the set of Don’t Go near the Water (1957) and they wed in ’57. They divorced in September 1970, two years before Gia took her own life at thirty-eight with an overdose of barbiturates. Fans of The Guns of Navarone (1961), will remember her playing Anna the traitor. Burnett married Barbara Anderson (the blonde cop in TV’s Ironside) in February 1971, and they have remained husband and wife to this day (April 2021). He met Rock Hudson in Malibu and they became fast friends through their shared love of swimming and sailing.
THE OREGON TRAIL (1976-8) 14 EPISODES
A last minute alteration to the storyline saw the character of Evan Thorpe (the hero played by Rod Taylor) change from a married man with three children to a widower with three children. In the series they leave their Illinois farm in 1842 and join a wagon train on the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest. Deleting Thorpe’s wife from the script actually suited Taylor quite nicely. ‘We’ll have a lot of beautiful guest stars’, he quipped with a grin, ‘which is what I like.’ His reputation as a ladies man was well and truly established by that time. Charles Napier became a series regular playing a trail guide named Luther Sprague. He and Taylor immediately hit it off as drinking buddies, often playing practical jokes on each other on the set.
Rod Taylor as Evan Thorpe
NBC initially spared no expense on the series. The crew went on location to Flagstaff, Arizona and each episode was budgeted at $380,000, a sizeable sum. Unfortunately, it was also decided to place it in the same time-slot as the fourth highest ranking show in the country – Charlie’s Angels. It was a bad idea. The Oregon Trail and its star received very positive reviews but it arrived on TV screens at the end of the era in which Westerns had held sway. In short, it was about ten years too late. The American viewing public had had their fill of cowboy shows by 1976, preferring cop or private investigator shows – and comedies. When The Oregon Trail ratings only averaged 14.3 (as opposed to Charlie’s Angels’ 25.5), the money dried up and the cast and crew were brought back from Arizona to Los Angeles where final episodes were shot indoors on sound stages. NBC cancelled the show after only six episodes, although the remaining eight were later aired on BBC2 in the UK.