December 1st was be the 112 Anniversary of the release of the first western film with a storyline, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It is also the film that, in a roundabout way, introduced us to the first western screen hero, Maxwell H. Aronson aka Gilbert M. Anderson aka Broncho Billy Anderson.
When I think about big screen westerns of the last 30 years Open Range, Tombstone, Silverado, 3:10 to Yuma (remake), and Appaloosa are a few that come to mind. You probably have your own opinion about each of these titles (I do) but one thing is for sure. They tried in their own way to stay true to the spirit of the west.
Last Saturday at our monthly get together at the Scottsdale Museum of Western Art, I was asked a question that I hear a lot – “Why aren’t more westerns made for the theater?” The answer is simple and yet may be hard to comprehend for us western lovers. We just don’t support the ones that make it to the local silver screen complex.
How many western purists saw Cowboys and Aliens? Or the recent Lone Ranger? Or Will Smith’s Wild Wild West? I know, I know, you’re saying, “Those aren’t the type of westerns we want to see!” But, as I told the audience on Saturday, you need to realize that the studios aren’t run by people who care. They look at facts and figures. They weren’t around when westerns were in vogue and dominated before the dreaded “Demographics” began to dictate what they began telling us we ‘wanted’ to see.
These fact and figure corporation types look at the bottom-line – which is necessary to stay solvent since the demise of the halcyon days of the studio system - I had to look ‘halcyon’ up by the way. Let’s take The Lone Ranger for example, if it had been a hit it would have been another feather in the cap of the team of Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer. There would have been a sequel which would have been another western, so to speak. But the film set westerns back. Not because it was a bad film – I actually enjoyed it on its own terms, you have to go in not expecting Clayton Moore (even John Hart) and Jay Silverheels.
But too many western fans refused to support it because of its presentation. It failed miserably although it did well on video, but so do dozens of westerns released directly to the video medium each year. Therefore it wasn’t a win for Depp and Bruckheimer, but a loss for westerns! Disney looked at it as a lack of interest in a big screen western. In other words, theater goers love Depp, but they hate westerns! Everybody loves Depp as a pirate, they should have loved him as Tonto, right?! That’s their thinking, just like Wild Wild West wasn’t successful because of Robert Conrad’s casting, so wouldn’t it be great to give the part of James West to Will Smith and tinker with the plot of a 1960s TV show that was very popular in its day? “Well,” I can hear the studio brass thinking, “It couldn’t have been the casting of Will Smith or the plot! It has to be that no one wants to see westerns anymore.”
We may hate what they do with our westerns but unless we take the castor oil they try to spoon feed us then we’ll just need to be satisfied to stay home and watch some of the quality TV westerns we have coming our way. Now I guess I’ll go finish watching Jonah Hex and then follow it with a chaser of Audie Murphy in Whispering Smith to make ol’ Jonah go down easier.
By 1959, westerns ruled. No fewer than 26 episodic westerns rode supreme on the three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC; DuMont was an early fourth network which started in 1946. DuMont’s programming was very eclectic featuring religion, science, variety, detectives, comedy, and wrestling, but no westerns. The network dissolved in 1956 as the westerns really began their ascension.
By 1968, extreme pressure from the P.T.A. and other anti-violence groups compounded affects the networks were already feeling from the Vietnam War protests and the tragic assassinations Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The westerns didn’t lose viewer popularity the networks simply became skittish and decided to cancel anything that might be blamed for violence on the streets.
High Chaparral was a prime example. In its 4th season, 1970-’71, there were only 18 episodes shot when the average was around 30 per season. This western could be rough and gritty at times, as opposed to its counterpart, Bonanza, but it was popular and was maintaining its ratings. Never-the-less, NBC sent word to the producers that they needed to tone down the violence. “Make sure that if anyone is shot on camera it’s only a wound,” was the order. A fifth season was announced and new characters had been introduced in the fourth season to return; Rudy Ramos as “Wind” was the prime example. Scripts were being prepared and contracts ready to sign, but the show was cancelled. High Chaparral had lost its edginess by being forced to feature more social drama and less of what their audience wanted. They became Bonanza in the desert. The networks were looking for any excuse to rid themselves of programs that didn’t fit their idea of the age group and the suburban audience they wished to cater to. By using the pressure groups as an excuse they were able to achieve their goal.
In 1970, there were no new episodic westerns introduced to television for the first time since 1949. The one possible exception would be the drastic change in format for The Virginian which had been a mainstay on television since 1962 despite several cast changes over the years except for the two “money actors,” the ones the audience watched the show for, namely James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas. In season eight the show took a dip in the ratings and fell out of the top 30 programs for the first time. What could have been an excuse for NBC to cancel the western instead became a reason to change the name of the show, the format, the familiar clothing, the theme song, and add or subtract a few characters. Stewart Granger as Colonel Alan MacKenzie became the owner of the ranch and popular western mainstay, Lee Majors, was added to the cast. The format now became a rotation with stars Granger, Drury, McClure, and Majors becoming the solo focus from week to week. Surprisingly, the rating climbed back into the top 30 to 18 maintaining it as only one of four westerns still left in prime time, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and High Chapparal being the other three; Death Valley Days had been on the air with new syndicated episodes since 1952 and ending in 1970, but many historians ignore its longevity due to it being a “syndicated” series. Despite the rating jump, due likely in curiosity more than anything, this bastardized version of The Virginian was canceled after its ninth season. Granger could be the answer to the cancellation due to his being so hard to work with, letting everyone know that he was a screen star who was slumming.
Surprisingly Gunsmoke, the most popular and longest running western of all time, 1955 – 1975, had actually been canceled in 1967 at the height of its popularity. While having dinner a few years back with the show’s former head writer Paul Savage, he told me that Gunsmoke was Babe Paley’s favorite show; Babe was CBS President William Paley’s wife. “When Babe heard that her favorite show had been canceled she went ballistic,” Paul told me. In order for Gunsmoke to be placed back on the schedule, per Paley’s orders (William or Babe), they had to come up with 30 minutes for the hour long show to fit back in its time-slot. One of their returning half hour shows had to be sacrificed and that was the end of Gilligan’s Island.
The extremely popular, Bonanza, a peripheral western at best, lost steam in May of 1972 with the death of Dan Blocker from post operative complications. The show limped on for one more season but it was obvious the show had no heart without Hoss. The show fell out of the top 30 in its 14th season and was canceled; if Blocker had lived so might have the show.
Gunsmoke would hold down the fort, so to speak, with one exceptional episodic western, Alias Smith and Jones, making its debut in 1971 only to be cut off at the pass with the suicide of Pete Duel in December of 1971. Universal wanted to cancel the popular series but ABC had a western hit and threatened legal action. Without missing a beat, Roger Davis, the narrator of the series, was cast to replace Duel as Hannibal Hayes. The chemistry between Ben Murphy and Duel was missing and the replacement was not accepted by the home viewer.
The Rural Purge of the episodic television western had clearly left it’s mark and westerns would never rule the video airwaves as they did when only three networks dictated what we watched. Today, however, those very same demographics work in the favor of western lovers. With what seems like hundreds of television stations and streaming services available it’s not feasible for every station to cater to the same specific audience and stay relevant. Every year new formats are offered for those who are partial to romance, sci-fi, horror, drama, comedy…and yes our beloved westerns.
Although Dub Taylor had a fantastically long career, after starting with Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You (1948) at Columbia Pictures, he was relegated to B westerns as the character "Cannonball" for the next 10 years. Despite this, he was in high demand riding with "Wild Bill" Elliott, Russell Hayden, Tex Ritter, and Charles Starrett before moving to Monogram to close out his sidekick days as "Cannonball," with Jimmy Wakely. What many fans don't realize is that for seven of those Columbia westerns another actor replaced Dub as Cannonball in 1941 and 1942. Here is an excerpt from The Western Legends Live On; Tales, and Interviews with the Cowboys of the Silver Screen: When asked why Dub was called “Cannonball,” Charles Starrett, one of Dub’s later co-stars, put it succinctly. “He looked like a Cannonball After Dub left the “Wild Bill” series his moniker of “Cannonball” was given to a leaner comic by the name of Frank Mitchell, formerly of the comedy team of Mitchell and Durant, who replaced him in the Elliott programmers. Later, Dub would reclaim his “Cannonball” character and take it with him for the Jimmy Wakely series at Monogram. Dub’s last western series film for Columbia, Frontier Gunlaw was released in January of 1946. It wouldn’t be until October 1947 that Dub returned to sidekick duties alongside Jimmy Wakely at the much lower budget studio, Monogram. Unlike Smiley Burnette who was forced to surrender his “Frog Millhouse” character name upon leaving Republic Pictures, Columbia had no more use for the sidekick name, “Cannonball.” Dub was so identified with the name that it would have been superfluous for Columbia to give it to any other sidekick; they were more magnanimous than Republic was with Smiley. Wakely’s reaction to his new sidekick was just the opposite of Starrett’s for ole’ Dub. Wakley was quoted as saying that he felt Dub’s humor was “too broad” for his films; it’s interesting to note that neither Starrett nor Wakely were happy with the switch. All in all, Dub Taylor should be considered one of the most successful B western sidekicks of all time riding with "Wild Bill" Elliott, Tex Ritter, Russell Hayden, and Charles Starrett at Columbia, Don “Red” Barry at Republic, and Jimmy Wakely at Monogram; as well as being one of the chosen few (like Slim Pickens) who went one to have a very healthy career after riding the Hollywood B Trail.
By 1959, there were no fewer than 26 episodic westerns per week on ABC, CBS and NBC; discounting syndicated programs, independent local stations and Saturday morning reruns of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Sky King, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Fury, et al.
By 1968, the networks began to lose interest in westerns allegedly due to protests against the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and intense pressure from the PTA's war against violence. In actuality, the westerns hadn't lost that much popularity with their viewers but the networks, wanting nothing more than to rid themselves of "rural" programming sited the pressure groups as an excuse for the cancellation of the western programs. The main reason was that, while westerns had indeed lost some of the veneer over the years, "demographics" were now becoming the main source for ratings and sponsor appeal instead of the popularity of a program. Sponsors wanted to hit a target audience under 35 years of age - the Baby Boomers.
Other highly rated non-violet programs appealing to the wrong demos included, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hee Haw, The Jim Nabor's Show and Mayberry R.F.D.; even shows like The Red Skelton Show, still in the top ten for CBS, got the ax. Red moved to NBC for one season 1970-'71 where he wasn't treated any better before calling it quits. By 1970, for the first time in 21 years, there were no westerns announced on the regular Fall schedule for the networks.
The PTA had been powerful enough to soften the violence on the remaining westerns such as Gunsmoke, The Virginian (The Men from Shiloh)-Bonanza was tame enough already - and possibly the roughest of them all The High Chaparral, but the intrusion of pressure groups only gave the networks the impetus to cancel the shows that wouldn't fit their agenda.
The "Rural Purge," as it would come to be known, would cripple the western genre and cause the common variety show to cease prospering much past Sonny and Cher and the very popular Carol Burnette Show. Cutting edge humor like The Smother's Brothers Comedy Hour would become a victim of the new counter-culture simply by becoming an outlet for it on national television. The violence and protesting would continue, but nobody wanted to bring attention to it, thus the 35 plus group became excluded; as well as any disgruntled 18 to 25 viewers who wanted something more than the make-believe establishment protests on display on programs like, The Mod Squad.
But the westerns, which had been riding high in network ratings for almost 20 years, were defanged and by 1975, for the most-part, remained of little importance to network brass. The final demise of Gunsmoke, arguably the biggest western of them all, brought to a close the era of westerns as a main staple of primetime TV; Gunsmoke had originally been cancelled back in 1967; the demand for the program's return was so great CBS couldn't ignore this fact and returned it to the 1968 schedule. The weekly Gunsmoke opening of the showdown between Matt Dillon and an unknown gunfighter may not have beaten the marshal in 20 years, but demographics finally did.
However, within 30 years, the very same reason for the "Rural Purge," demographics, would play a major role in bringing western programming back in style for the now aging Baby Boomers...
Celebrating the Life and Legend of Hugh O' Brian: Part of Universal's New Comedy Team of Bud & Hugh.
In the "dog days" of major film studio control your soul was theirs if you were a 2nd and 3rd tier contract player. At Universal-International things were changing in a big from the '30s and '40s. The studio was signing younger men and women who could be groomed for a stardom that for most of them never happened. If it did happen it was more than likely not from what a contractee did at U-I but from a loan-out, a major independent, or a television show.
Gone was the cheap Universal globe logo which occasionally had the plane flying around it. The new streamlined redefined U-I logo was spashy, more defined, letting everyone know they were one of the "big kids" now and not just a studio of monsters, slapstick comedy and Deanna Durbin. The name change happened in a merger with International Pictures but it would once again become Universal Pictures in 1962 through another merger otherwise we might be taking the kids to Universal-International Theme Parks.
They had the same elements, they were just update and repackaged. Their horror franchises were still going strong with Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man and Mummy were now replaced with things that were caused by things more pertinent to the modern 1950s, usually radiation or some such warning. Now there were giant spiders, ever expanding monoliths, a man with a shrinking problem, things that came from outer space, mole men and the 'Gill Man' (Creature from the Black Lagoon. The comic stylings of W.C Fields, Olsen and Johnson, and The Ritz Brothers were now replaced with hipper series films like Frances the Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle. Less slapstick and more situation.
There were still Arabian Adventures but with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie instead of Jon Hall and Maria Montez. The comic stylings of W.C Fields, Olsen and Johnson and The Ritz Brothers were now replaced with comedy that had less slapstick and more situation comedy like Frances the Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle.
The one major holdover was the comedy duo that saved the studio from bankruptcy in 1948 with what is likely the most perfect send-up of the horror monster icons ever put on film without making them look foolish, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. By combining the Monster, with the Wolfman and Dracula, having them play it completely straight while Bud and Lou did their usual fast paced comedy makes for a film that never gets old. One of the main reasons for this is that the boys were talked into eschewing most of their usual word and sight games in favor of letting the story play out in a natural manner. When they do add a variant on their usual gags, like the moving candle gag from Hold that Ghost, it's very natural. The film was a huge hit causing the duo to have a tremendous surge in popularity; the film did indeed save the struggling studio from going into receivership.
Abbott and Costello had already helped Universal Pictures out when the studio signed them to a one picture deal with supporting roles in One Night in the Tropics (1940). The radio duo stole the movie from stars Allan Jones, Robert Cummings and Nancy Kelly; already huge radio star they now were able to utilize their popular radio routines visually including "Who's on First." On the radio the comedy team needed to make sure the audience could tell the difference in their voices due to the quick patter tied to their routines. The gimmick was simple, Lou simply raised his voice to give it a more childlike quality much like Curly Howard of The Three Stooge's; Curly's brother, Moe said in his memoirs that the young aspiring comic Lou (Crisstillo) would stand back stage and study Curly's when they were on the same theatre bill. What's interesting about their first screen introduction is they are heard before being seen. To heighten the recognition and anticipation of the audience used to hearing them on radio is Lou's high whinny voice and Bud's stern admonition. Once signed to a regular contract with the studio Lou began to tone down the high voice, a wise move due to the fact that he could now do with his body visually what could only be achieved with his voice on radio. He would still bring the high vocal quality out when needed at just the right moment to remind the audience. that welcomes the theater goers and he sounds more like he did on radio in this film then he would when they became major stars and he only need to pull the vocal trick out when needed.
They couldn't have come along at a better time for Universal who was having an identity crisis in 1940. The theater audience had grown tired of their bread and butter creature features and started signing radio acts like Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy along with W.C. Fields who had been a big star at Paramount Pictures a few years before; the Ritz Brothers were also under contract as the last resting place for their acquired taste type of comedy.
Bud and Lou were getting a bit long in the tooth; Bud Abbott was born in 1897, Lou Costello in 1906. Since then the duo had been strong contenders at the box office despite what has been written about their careers as the 1950s approached. From 1948 until leaving the studio they made films released through Warner Bros., and independent Eagle-Lion, while earlier in the decade they had a separate contract with MGM for a series of successful films, and then there was their home studio, Universal International. Add to all this that in 1950 the boys began on a rotating basis with others stars to co-host The Colgate Comedy Hour on the NBC Network and in 1952 The Abbott and Costello Show, originally on CBS, moving to NBC for the second and final season. If anything they were becoming over exposed.
By 1952 and the release of the decisively juvenile Jack and the Beanstalk a film the Costello family produced for Warner Bros. their comedy and theater goers began to think of them more as wholesome but juvenile and more in line with the kiddie crowd. The parents would come along to take the kids, but they would also come because it was Abbott and Costello. More and more, however, you could get a more undiluted Bud and Lou from their television shows, which worked against them as moneymakers.
While other major studios were worried about the threat television posed, Universal (International) were still making films with their stable of solid stars that had been with them over the years. U-I had never had the stature of stars like MGM or Twentieth Century Fox and so this streamlined approach would make them a leader in the new era; MGM would follow when it shifted towards television. Soon entertaining westerns with Audie Murphy and Jock Mahoney once he moved from Columbia. There were still some holdovers from the "Old Days" like the Arabian night adventures from the 1940s with Jon Hall and Maria Montez, now replaced by Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. And they didn't forsake their creature features, but they did modernize. Once known for Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, the word horror was replaced by science fiction, no matter how science as opposed to fiction there was. Now U-I had Mole People, a giant Tarantula, Monolith Monsters, and 3D like It Camefrom Outer Space and of course The Creature from the Black Lagoon. All this done as if these productions had been placed on a conveyor belt gliding from station to station as each component is placed just as it should be.
If you could be utilized in this atmosphere your life would be busy if not monetarily reimbursed under contract. This was the life of actors such as George Nader, Gregg Palmer (Palmer Lee), Lance Fuller, James Best, Charles Drake, Grant Williams and Hugh O' Brian. These were a few of the Universal hunks hoping for the big role to stardom. Best would make it years later on television as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard and A move to Europe for Nader made him a success there but it would be a bitter success due to the fact it was forced exile after U-I and a powerful agent outed his private life to save a bigger star's reputation. Nader would later be remembered in the bigger star's will.
Gregg Palmer would forego the leading man look after a while, putting on a few pounds and becoming a stellar character actor, usually as a hulking brute. Fuller, who actually was part French and Cherokee, worked steady but today is more of a cult actor for his roles in films like This island Earth, Bride of the Beast, She Creature, and Voodoo Woman, only one of which was made by U-I. Charles Drake would go on and be a working journeyman actor never making much of a splash, while the other token tow head, Grant Williams, had success in the '50s with the sci-fi genre at U-I and in the '60s upon his move to Warner Bros. television.
Best, Fuller, Palmer, Nader and O' Brian were exotic enough looking in less politically correct times they could play characters from anywhere in the world, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American and then any one of them could turn right around and play the hero's best friend or worst enemy in their next film.
By 1954, Hugh O' Brian had been a working actor for seven years, slowly building up his resume working at RKO, Lippert, Republic, a Gene Autry western at Columbia Pictures and a number of early television productions. At 29, Hugh had a good start and signing with Universal-International might have been a good move for an up and coming actor, not to mention his agent probably who wanted that steady income; but unless you where Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and to an extent Audie Murphy, you were a supporting hunk until you could prove otherwise.
Like any streamlined which is believed to be down to a science sometimes a monkey wrench can get thrown into the works, much like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. When that happens the saying "time means money" really takes on a new level of importance. Especially when it involves a "B" movie which is guaranteed to make the studio money. The very bread and money type of movie that affords the occasional glossy overwrought cheesy "prestige" melodrama so popular at the time. With a large part of the production already in the can decisions had to be made about what to do? Shutting down production and taking losses would just never do, even if it means taking desperate measures. Desperate or not it is a bit puzzling when after playing mainly hard ass westerners, medieval Persian villains, and proud Native American warriors, that Universal-International would cast Hugh O' Brian as a wacky fireman with a rotund even wackier partner. After-all, didn't they already have Abbott and Costello?
Arguably, Abbott and Costello are the most successful comedy team of all time. Their critics will point out that they were always using the same tried and true routines in their films whether they were making them for Universal, MGM, Warner Bros. or Eagle Lion. However, it worked and people loved them; when they did drop the routine riddled venue like in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein a classic was born.
The duo had saved Universal (International) from bankruptcy and were the most successful thing they had going for them in the 1940's, but heading into the 1950's an audience and their viewing habits were changing. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis brought a vitality and a budget to their Paramount offerings. They were goofy, but it was a youthful goofy with the "crooner and the monkey." Bud and Lou were still extremely popular but their audience was getting younger as their humor seemed more juvenile and the budgets dropped on their films. Just a few years before Abbott and Costello had saved U-I from bankruptcy but to the studio 1948 was a long time ago. Deanna Durbin, another Universal breadwinner had left the studio as had W.C. Fields, although he couldn't help it as he died on Christmas day, 1946. After meeting Frankenstein, the boys would meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man and the Mummy, each worse than the one before it, not to mention the ones in between. They also had the Costello produced Abbott and Costello television show which is fun to watch but it was originally just an excuse for Lou to get all their popular routines on film for ownership rights. They also were revolving hosts on the Colgate Comedy Hour as was Martin and Lewis. To say that Bud and Lou were overexposed going into the 1950's after 10 years of being big film stars was an understatement. To give a little bit of insight as to how Abbott and Costello were being used to finance the bigger budget studio films can be shown in the little difference between the budget for Meet Frankenstein in 1948 for $800,000 and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953 of $738,000. Six years apart and the later film was brought in for less! The whole point is that the comedy duo was now the funding for other films, and how do you guarantee that money? Making sure their budgets for Bud and Lou's films never vary. The fast pace of their films had really taken a toll.Lou had been through some very rough stages since 1943, when a recurrence of his childhood illness rheumatic fever kept him down for 6 months. As a result, despite his pratfalls and slapstick, he would suffer from a weakened heart.
but the team would say good-bye to each other. Lou would be dead at the age of only 52 in 1959, shortly before his only solo film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock was to be released.
This is all a way of explaining where the team was in the caste system at Universal-International Pictures by 1954. They were older, Bud was much older than Lou at 59. There would be no 1954 release for the team and only two more at the studio, Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy both in 1955. A & C Meet the Mummy is interesting to watch simply for the fact that Abbott appears heavier than Costello due to Lou's ill health.
By this time their television show had been cancelled and they were facing the same fate as the juvenile cowboy heroes of television. The audience was growing up and wanted something a bit more glossy. Never-the-less, the film that would come to be known as Fireman, Save My Child, not to be confused with the 1918 Harold Lloyd or 1932 Joe E. Brown films of the same name, was going to be another of the boy's films to satisfy their multitude of fans still filling the theaters. But like all programmers, it needed to be done quickly and cheaply. Nice salaries. They were contracted for $75,000 apiece (plus 20% of net profits) for "Fireman, Save My Child" before they dropped out--per the production files at USC.
Abbott and Costello had already done a few long shots and the stunt doubles had been filmed to match them in the harder set-ups. Then came time for the stuntmen to do the tricky stunt work, again expediently to save time and prevent paying more for each stunt then they had to.
Things were running rather smoothly until Lou took ill with heart problems and just couldn't go on. This left the studio and Bud high and dry. There was all that footage in the can, something could surely be done with it? That's where are story actually begins.
One of the very people who would be at the forefront of the mature western surge of 1955, Hugh O' Brian, would now enter the story. He would be one of those who helped the "less mature" antics of A & C make an exit from the silver screen, although in a round about way, by replacing Bud Abbott. Hugh looked nothing like Bud, except he was thin and would fit the bill in a pinch. Hugh was under contract, meaning he worked cheap.
Hugh O' Brian, without a doubt, will be forever etched in western fans minds as Wyatt Earp. Forget that he, nor his program, bears much resemblance to the character or fact (well maybe if you watch while indulging in your latest prescription of medical cannabis gummy bears) but it served its purpose exposing many of us for the first time to this legendary man of the west.
It also elevated Hugh to star status, taking the television western out of the hands of the old guard cowboys that rode in from film, like Gene, Roy, and Hoppy, bringing in the more adult heroics of Matt, Cheyenne, and Wyatt.
We need to understand that just one year before The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Hugh O' Brian was toiling away in any role the studio gave him. I asked him how exactly he recalls replacing Bud Abbott in Fireman Save My Child (1954), while Buddy Hackett took over for Lou Costello. "Lou fell ill after they filmed some initial shots, but the majority of the stunt double work had been done to match up with Bud and Lou later on. This being a programmer, Universal-International didn't want to go back and spend money on re-shooting those scenes. They sent out word that they were looking for two of their contract players who could play the parts to match what had been shot. Essentially they were looking for someone to match the stunt player's footage more than the stars."
"They added Spike Jones and his City Slickers to the mix to make sure the audience knew it was a comedy," Hugh would tell me. Spike and his band were riding high with their own popular show on NBC at the time and really have to be seen to be believed. Kind of an early "Weird Al" Yankovic.
In reality, Spike and his group had already signed to appear in the film, but only for a couple of their specialty numbers. With Bud and Lou out of the picture the film basically became the only starring vehicle for Spike Jones.
One big surprise Hugh revealed to me was that the studio had plans for the new duo. "The film actually made money for them. They planned to make more comedies with Buddy and me replacing Abbott and Costello but they never got around to it." So would they have been known as "Bud and Hugh?"
Fireman SaveMy Child was released on May 2nd, 1954, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp debuted the next year, September 6th, 1955, thankfully preventing anymore teamings of O' Brian and Hackett.
Not so much a loss to the comedy world, but a great gain to the history of TV westerns.
Charlie LeSueur is AZ's Official Western Film Historian, Encore Fellow @ Spirit of the West; Scottsdale's Museum of the West.