Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Television: Early Sam Peckinpah

Sometimes an ancient TV series gives up some surprising gifts. One such program was Zane Gray Theater.

The show, which ran from Fall 1956 to Spring 1961, was an anthology series with weekly stories featuring different actors and scripted by different writers. This show is currently re-running on a cable channel called Grit TV.

Easily half the episodes of the series are really good. Unfortunately, the other half are pretty ordinary.

First-rate veteran movie actors, like Robert Ryan, who appeared in several, and first-rate veteran movie directors, like Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth were responsible for making the good ones so good. But even the not-so-good ones usually had interesting stories, even if the acting or directing fell flat.

On a rare occasion, an episode had a first-rate young actor and a first-rate young director. This combo came up in an episode called, “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” written and directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Brian Keith. At that time, 1959, Peckinpah was honing his craft by writing and directing for television.

In “Trouble at Tres Cruces,” Keith, as wandering cowpoke Dave Blasingame, receives a letter from his uncle inviting him to his ranch for a visit and a look at new model of high-powered repeating rifle. But when he arrives, he finds his uncle killed and the rifle stolen by local strong-arm man, Nick Karafus, played by Neville Brand. Brand, another good actor, played the heavy in a lot of noir films, notably “D.O.A."

Blasingame and Karafus have a great showdown in which Brand plays the scene with such an evident code of conduct that despite being the villain of the piece he is completely understandable and almost sympathetic. It is pure Peckinpah.

The episode served as a pilot for Peckinpah’s series, The Westerner, also starring Keith as Blasingame. The Westerner went on the air in 1960 and was one of the most interesting and unusual westerns ever aired, which may be the reason it lasted a mere 13 episodes.

Peckinpah had better luck with a 1958 episode he wrote for Zane Gray Theater called "The Sharpshooter." This story, starring Chuck Connors and directed by Arnold Laven, was the pilot for the hit show The Rifleman, which ran for five seasons. 


  1. I can only recall seeing Straw Dogs. I'll have to look up some of his other stuff.

    1. Col - I would say THE WILD BUNCH is required viewing. THE GETAWAY with Steve McQueen based on a Jim Thompson novel is a good one. McQueen also starred in my favorite Peckinpah movie, JUNIOR BONNER, about a modern-day rodeo rider.

  2. Elgin, I have seen a couple of his films, CROSS OF IRON and STRAW DOGS, and probably THE WILD BUNCH but I'm not sure. I'm not familiar with his television ventures which look interesting, particularly ZANE GRAY THEATER.