Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wanted: Dead or Alive

There was a time when movie stars emerged from the ranks of actors on stage or were simply discovered by some talent agent. This changed in the United States with the emergence of regular, network television broadcasts. From that time forward there would be movie stars who would emerge from the small screen. Paul Newman, James Dean, and Warren Beatty all got their start on television. Among these actors also numbers the King of Cool, Steve McQueen himself. The show that made him a star was Wanted: Dead or Alive.

The story of Wanted: Dead or Alive actually began with another show. Trackdown was a Western starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gillman. It was on the twenty first episode of its first season, entitled "The Bounty Hunter," that Gillman teamed up with a bounty hunter named Josh Randall and played by Steve McQueen. At the time McQueen had been trying to break into feature films, an area in which his prospects seemed to be disappearing fast. Fortunately, Jack H. Harris, producer of The Blob (1958), highly recommended him to Dick Powell (the chief at Four Star Productions, the company which produced Trackdown). Powell asked to see a rough cut of The Blob and afterwards McQueen was hired.

"The Bounty Hunter" would prove to be the most popular episode of Trackdown, so much so that Four Star Productions decided to spin John Randall off into his own series. Despite the success of "The Bounty Hunter," Four Star had some difficulty selling the show. Movies and later television series had long portrayed bounty hunters as unsavoury characters, making the networks look askance at any show which featured a bounty hunter as it hero. It was then decided that Randall would give most and sometimes even all of his earnings to people in need, more often than not families of the murder victims of the criminals he captured. This made Wanted: Dead or Alive much more palatable to CBS, who bought the series. It debuted on September 6, 1958.

Wanted: Dead or Alive followed the adventures of Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the Old West. His weapon of choice was a sawed off Winchester 1892 Model carbine known as "the Mare's Leg." During the War Between the States, Randall served in the Army of the Confederate States of America. Unlike many bounty hunters, Josh Randall had his own code of honour. He would not kill unless he was absolutely forced to do so, preferring to bring in even the most vicious killers alive. What is more, he would actively try to prevent other hunters from killing their bounties. Randall would even help those he went to capture if they had been wrongly accused. He never judged people on their appearances and was always willing to give anyone a chance. And as mentioned above, Randall donated much of his earnings to the needy.

Wanted: Dead or Alive was not an intelligent Western in the same way that Have Gun--Will Travel was (Josh Randall did not quote Shakespeare and Shelley the way that Paladin did), but it was an intelligent Western nonetheless. While there was never a shortage of action on Wanted: Dead or Alive, characters on the show were always well developed and never caricatures or stereotypes. It was very much a character driven show. What is more, at a time when many Westerns tended to stereotype both Mexicans and Native Americans, Wanted: Dead or Alive treated them as dignified human beings. In many ways this should not be surprising. Like most shows produced by Four Star Productions, Wanted: Dead or Alive was written by some of the best writers in television: Tony Barrett (a veteran of Peter Gunn), Charles Beaumont (who would go onto become one of the writers on The Twilight Zone, Fred Freiberger (who would go onto produce Ben Casey and The Wild Wild West), Frank D. Gilroy (who would go onto create Burke's Law), and Samuel A. Peeples (a veteran of many TV Westerns who would go on to write for Star Trek).

Wanted: Dead or Alive would prove to be a smash hit, becoming one of the few spinoffs in American television history which would be more successful than the show from which it was spun off. Steven McQueen became one of the most popular television stars of the day and, as a result, began getting movie offers. Unfortunately, coordinating the shooting of movies with the shooting schedule of Wanted: Dead or Alive would prove difficult. When McQueen was offered the role of Vin in The Magnificent Seven, he was initially unable to because of the show's schedule. Fate intervened when McQueen crashed his car, allowing him to shoot the film while he was out "sick."

It would effectively be The Magnificent Seven which would bring an end to Wanted: Dead or Alive. The film turned Steve McQueen into a movie star, and as a result he was getting several offers for motion pictures. After three seasons and ninety four episodes, Steve McQueen left the show to pursue his motion picture career. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although today it is known primarily as the show which turned Steven McQueen into a star, Wanted: Dead or Alive was a very well crafted show worth remembering on its own merit. Indeed, it must be pointed out that while other movie stars would get their start in television, their shows would not be nearly as well remembered. Wanted: Dead or Alive would go onto a healthy run in syndication. All three seasons would eventually be released on DVD. Wanted: Dead or Alive would also inspire a movie sequel. In the 1987 movie Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rutger Hauer played Nick Randall, the grandson of Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in Los Angeles in the Eighties.

Wanted: Dead or Alive turned Steve McQueen into a star. Much of this was because McQueen's acting talent was already on display in the series, endowing Josh Randall with a personality that few heroes in television Westerns had. At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that McQueen's performances on the show would not have been nearly so good if he had nothing to work with. It was ultimately the show's writers, directors,and producers who gave McQueen the perfect vehicle on which to display his talent. While it was probably inevitable that Steve McQueen would be a star, he probably would not have become one so soon without Wanted: Dead or Alive.


Millie said...


I too, think that Wanted: Dead or Alive is such a special show...and an excellent western.

I also thought it was interesting what you said, "McQueen's acting talent was already on display in the series, endowing Josh Randall with a personality that few heroes in television Westerns had". He really was a fascinating character. And Steve McQueen played him so well. Along with the dramatic episodes there were also the occasional comedic episodes (especially the ones with the super-annoying Jason...ugh!) which showed off McQueen great skill at comedy.

I also find it interesting when people say (about his few comedic films) that it's so unusual for Steve McQueen. I beg to differ! He was hilarious in several of the episodes, along with the great dramatic acting!

Anyways, sorry about the long comment! This is just a show I really love, and I thought that this was a great post!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have to agree, Millie. I think between Steve McQueen and the writers on the show, they created one of the best, most well rounded characters in Josh Randall. I also have to agree that Wanted: Dead or Alive is proof that McQueen could do well with comedy, as the more humorous episodes prove. I never could figure out why people thought McQueen playing in comedies was so odd!