Jeffrey Hunter as Temple Houston
TEMPLE HOUSTON (1963-4) 26 EPISODES
This series starred Jeffrey Hunter as the real-life 19th century Texas lawyer Temple Lea Houston, son of the legendary Sam Houston. Unfortunately, the producers seemed unsure of just how they would approach the format. It only ran for a single season on NBC from 1963 to 1964. Perhaps, it could have lasted longer if the network had been able to settle on a format that was at least consistent. The show is considered to have been the first attempt to produce an hour-long western series with its main character being an attorney, a kind of ‘Perry Mason out West’, so to speak.
Temple Lea Houston (1860-1905)
The real Temple Lea Houston (1860-1905) was a circuit-riding lawyer but there was little to bind the episodes together under a common framework. One episode might be played out in a courtroom (along Perry Mason lines); the next might see Temple gathering evidence, more like a detective than a lawyer; a third might have a totally humorous, light-hearted theme like, for instance, an episode titled ‘The Law and Big Annie’, in which our hero uses his legal expertise to help a friend decide what to do after he inherits an elephant! Because two of Houston’s children were still living when the series went to air, the producers tried to avoid storylines that might embarrass them. No wonder it lasted only one season. Producers could not make up their minds what they wanted it to be.
The series was also hastily conceived from the start and thrown together in a slip-shod manner. The pilot episode was deemed unusable as an introduction to the series because James Coburn, (who played a secondary character, a gunslinger turned US Marshal), refused to accept a role in the series that might tie him down. His character was hence assumed by Jack Elam as George Taggart. Jack Webb was Head of Production at Warner Brothers Television when he issued orders that episodes were to be put together in two or three days each, a time frame generally considered impossible in the industry at that time.
As the series star Jeffrey Hunter would recall years later: ‘In the first place, we had no time to prepare for it. I was notified on July 17 to be ready to start on August 7 for an October air date. When we reached the screen we did not have a single segment ready. It was done so fast the writers never got a chance to know what it was all about. We all wanted to follow the line indicated by the pilot film, which we thought would make a charming series. NBC, however, favoured making it serious.’ Consequently, by December 1963, the series was rated 31st of the 32 new shows that season. NBC belatedly ordered a switch back to a more humorous format but it was too late to save the show.
The real life fates of both Temple Lea Houston and the actor who portrayed him here were tragically similar. Houston had celebrated his forty-fifth birthday a mere three days before he succumbed to a brain haemorrhage in 1905. Jeff Hunter was just forty-two when he suffered a fall at home in 1969. The fall apparently triggered a stroke that resulted in him having to undergo brain surgery that proved to be unsuccessful.
THE TEXAN (1958-60) 79 EPISODES
The surprising aspect of The Texan was that, despite its commonplace storyline, it lasted seventy-nine episodes. The hero of the series is a gentleman named Bill Longley, a Civil War veteran who just happens to be the fastest gun in the West. He roams from town to town, not looking for trouble yet finding it week after week. Hardly an original premise. Longley is a former captain in the Army of the Confederacy who rides around on his pinto horse named ‘Domino’, and helps people in distress, not just in Texas but all over the West. Rory Calhoun portrays him here.
It should be pointed out that the fictional Bill Longley has nothing to do with the real life Longley. The real guy killed his first man in 1866 when he was just fifteen years of age. The American Civil War ended in 1865, so unless Bill was the youngest captain in history, we are talking about two different people. In fact, the Longley of history was hanged in Giddings, Texas in 1878. Calhoun’s fictional Longley is a man of many parts – boss of a cattle drive in one adventure; a railroad construction supervisor in another and in pursuit of a Mexican bandit in yet another. The show could have returned for another season but Calhoun wished to get back to starring in ‘B’ movies and withdrew from the series.
TOMBSTONE TERRITORY (1957-60) 91 EPISODES
I can still recall the theme song to this series:
Whistle me up a memory;
Whistle me back where I want to be;
Whistle a tune that’ll carry me – to Tombstone Territory.
(L to R) Pat Conway & Richard Eastham
The star of the show was Pat Conway (the grandson of silent screen star Francis X. Bushman), who played Sheriff Clay Hollister. Richard Eastham portrayed Harris Claibourne, the fictional editor of the local newspaper The Tombstone Epitaph. The producers, it seems, were not overly concerned with history, as is evidenced by the narrator (Eastham) claiming at the start of each episode that we are about to see a re-enactment of: ‘An actual account from the pages of my newspaper, The Tombstone Epitaph. This is the way it happened…in the town too tough to die.’ Not so. Each episode dealt with fictional individuals despite the town of Tombstone being the site of the famous ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in 1881 when the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday took on members of the Clanton Gang. Just to confuse us even more, at the end of every episode they state ‘any resemblance to any character, living or dead, is coincidental.’ It would be nice if they could make up their minds one way or the other.
By most accounts it appears that Pat Conway was a pretty nice guy. My childhood chums and I, however, almost unanimously arrived at the conclusion he was ‘up himself’. I mean, he was the cleanest western hero on television – and he wore his six-guns slung low and his holsters tied to his legs! We thought he was an ‘imposter’ and so far removed from our number one western TV hero – the one and only Bret Maverick (James Garner). Tragically, Pat died aged fifty in 1981. Cause of death was attributed to renal failure and dehydration, as a consequence of chronic alcoholism.
I wonder if Jeff Hunter’s disastrous experience with Temple Houston played a part in his decision to not accept the role of Captain Christopher Pike on Star Trek (1966~1969)? The story has it that Hunter’s then-wife, not Jeff, showed up for the screening of the first Trek pilot “The Cage.” Afterwards she proceeded to make numerous demands upon the producers for Jeff to accept the role of the starship captain. Some of the demands could be met, but not all of them. When they were unable to do so, his wife said that Jeff was a movie star and not a television star. This was back in the days when film actors looked at TV as beneath them. It was an unworthy medium. Jeff did guest-star on TV in the 60’s, on shows like The F.B.I., Daniel Boone, and on The Green Hornet with his good friend Van Williams who played the lead on that series. Jeff did do films in the 60’s, but they were generally of mediocre quality compared to his prestigious movie career earlier where he worked with John Ford in The Searchers, and other high profile films. Jeff apparently did not see what his co-star in five films, Robert Wagner, did, or Wagner’s advisors did. His thriving movie career was coming to an end in the 1960’s. Wagner wisely got into television and starred on the hit series It Takes a Thief, and later, Hart To Hart. Wagner also got into the production end of things and was one of the producers of the big hit Charlie’s Angels. It was a career move that Jeff should have followed. That’s not to say that his accepting of the Trek role was going to translate into a big deal at that time. The series was only a middling success in the ratings and was canceled by NBC after its second season, only to be renewed for a third season after a huge letter writing campaign by fans imploring NBC not to end the show. So those same circumstances could have well happened to Jeff. However, he could have kept working (and producing) in television even after the demise of Trek. In 1979, ten years after Star Trek had ended, an expensive Trek motion picture was produced with the original cast. They went on to make five more feature films. Jeff (if he hadn’t tragically passed away so young) would have been a part of all that, and he would be a movie star again. At least for the run of the Trek movies. Rory Calhoun was the intended lead for The Wild Wild West television show. For whatever reasons, he did not end up performing the role of Secret Service Agent Jim West. Robert Conrad got the role and I cannot imagine anyone else in that part that would have done it as well as Conrad. So sad to read about Pat Conway’s alcoholism, I never knew that about him. Alcohol, drugs, and heavy smoking have been the downfall of many male and female performers. Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, to name but a few, all suffered from some or all of those vices and all died earlier than they should have. Did you know, Alan, there is a site called the Female Celebrity Smoking List? It lists those who smoke and those who don’t. Spoiler: 95% of the female actresses in this day and age are smokers!