Television's New Frontier: The 1960s: The Westerner (1960)

THE WESTERNER (1960) 13 EPISODES                        

This was a series created by Sam Peckinpah about a cowboy named Dave Blassingame who wanders the American West with his faithful dog ‘Brown’. It may have enjoyed a longer run but for Peckinpah’s insistence that the sets and clothing should reflect gritty realism at a time when TV audiences had become accustomed to their western heroes exuding an element of glamour and make-believe. The series’ chances of success were not helped by its placement opposite the very popular Route 66 and The Flintstones. The lead character in The Westerner is portrayed by Brian Keith, one of my favourite actors; his dog is played by the same animal that played the title pooch in Old Yeller, the iconic Disney feature released in 1957.

The Westerner (TV series) - Wikipedia

Brian Keith & Brown

One of the thirteen episodes of The Westerner titled ‘Line Camp’, was the basis for the 1968 western feature film Will Penny, starring Charlton Heston. In 1991, Keith played the Blassingame character in an intriguing tele-movie called The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. The film also featured a number of 1950s and 1960s television Western series leads reprising their roles in quick cameo appearances. These included (among others) Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp, Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford from The Rifleman and even David Carradine as Kwai-Chang Caine from Kung Fu. James Drury and Doug McClure (formerly in The Virginian) are on-screen for a moment or two. It is fun trying to identify the numerous elderly former stars as they bob up.

Whiplash (TV Series 1960–1961) - IMDb

WHIPLASH (1960-1) 34 EPISODES         

This series was unique in that it was set, not in the American Wild West, but in the Australia of the 1850s Gold Rushes in that country. Peter Graves (the younger brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness), portrays Chris Cobb, a character inspired by Freeman Cobb, the real life founder of the Australian stagecoach line of that era. The similarity between Chris and Freeman, however, ended there. Chris brandishes a pistol and a whip to settle disputes; Freeman did no such thing. Graves was already known to Australian audiences through his portrayal of rancher Jim Newton in the 1955 TV series Fury. In 1967, he would become world famous as Jim Phelps in the CBS television series Mission Impossible, a show that ran until 1973 and spawned a movie franchise that made Tom Cruise a megastar.

10 fascinating facts of Cobb & Co stagecoach history - Outback Pioneers

Freeman Cobb – founder of Cobb & Co

Almost every American Western was shot within thirty miles of Hollywood in terrain that had become extremely familiar to TV viewers. Whiplash provided a refreshing change of scenery because it was shot mostly in New South Wales, Australia. Consequently, it was not exactly a ‘western’ but more an ‘adventure series’. A ten-day sequence was also filmed in central Australia, around Alice Springs, Ayer’s Rock, the MacDonnell Ranges and the Ormiston Gorge, thus adding to the uniqueness of the scenery. Despite these obvious pluses, the set was not a happy one. The finding of supporting Australian actors often proved to be a source of contention. The producers preferred to use radio stars, simply because they generally spoke in British accents and not Australian ones. It was felt that the broad Aussie accent would be difficult to understand for both American and other international viewers. Top recording artist Frank Ifield sang the theme tune.

Whispering Smith (TV Series 1961) - IMDb


On the surface, this series appeared to have the ingredients for a long-running show. But it was 1961 by the time it went to air and audiences were starting to have their fill of cowboy series. The popularity of the Western, it seemed, was living on borrowed time. Based upon the 1948 film of the same name, (starring Alan Ladd), the series starred Audie Murphy, arguably the most popular Western star of the day. It appeared destined for small-screen success yet it was not to be. Matters were not helped when, due to unexpected production issues at NBC, it was not screened until May 1961, even though filming had commenced way back in 1959. Murphy’s character, Tom ‘Whispering’ Smith, is a 19th century police detective operating out of Denver, Colorado, in a show that exhibits elements of both Have Gun – Will Travel and Tales of Wells Fargo, two of the more successful series, although it is clearly set sometime after them – in around 1874. Perhaps, therein lay one problem. It could not make up its mind if it was a Western or a detective show. There was even a problem with Murphy’s horse, Joe Queen. It was forever outrunning all the other mounts, forcing him to use a ‘double’ steed. As it happened, however, there would be other far more serious problems, issues that would ultimately bring about the demise of the show.

File:Guy Mitchell Audie Murphy Whispering Smith 1961.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Guy Mitchell & Audie Murphy

Recording artist, the very popular Guy Mitchell co-starred as Detective George Romack. Unfortunately, he fell from a horse and broke his shoulder seven episodes into the series. He took six weeks to mend. By the time he had recovered Murphy had a film commitment (Hell Bent for Leather) which was to be shot between August and September 1959, so production had to be further postponed. Worse was to follow. Twenty-eight year-old actor Sam Buffington, co-starring as Police Chief John Richards, unexpectedly committed suicide and had to be replaced. ‘I guess he must have seen the rushes’, was Murphy’s sarcastic and most insensitive comment. The premiere was again rescheduled, only to be once more delayed, this time by an NBC news special.

Forgotten Actors: Sam Buffington

Character actor Sam Buffington

Then, following the series’ eventual premiere, the US Senate Juvenile Delinquency sub-committee claimed that it was ‘excessively violent’ and opened a hearing into the issue. The sub-committee hearing dragged on and, by the time it had concluded, Murphy had lost interest in the series and it was soon discontinued. Had Whispering Smith proved to be a success, Murphy informed TV Guide, he would have been ‘hooked to go back. I’m not really looking forward to it being a smashing success’, he added. ‘My contract is firm for something like eighty-six episodes. I just don’t think I could stand that.’ Luckily for him, he did not have to. It was rating poorly against proven ratings winners Surfside Six and The Danny Thomas Show, anyway.


  1. I agree Alan, the oft used outdoor locations of California that we saw constantly on television westerns did become stale visually. It also lacked logic. How could the rolling hills of California pass as Dodge City (Gunsmoke), Virginia City (Bonanza), or the various other westerns set in such diverse states as Colorado, Alaska, and so forth? It really can’t.

    That’s why I always appreciated The High Chaparral (1967 ~ 1971) TV show. It was filmed (mostly) in Arizona where the show was supposed to be set. We finally got to see some different vistas for a change. The Young Riders series would also shoot their series in Arizona and show even different looking scenery than what we saw on Chaparral. The too short lived Lazarus Man with Robert Urich filmed in New Mexico using the western replica town constructed for the entertaining movie Silverado. It was destroyed on purpose for the terrible Wild Wild West movie starring Wil Smith.

    Peter Graves would return years later to beautiful Australia after Fury when the Mission: Impossible TV (1966 ~1973) show was revived and shot entirely location there. He reprised his Jim Phelps
    secret agent character from the original Mission. This version was quite good I thought, but it only had a two years run. I’m a huge fan of Mission and enjoyed both series.

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