In the early days of television, even into the Seventies, many movie stars made the transition to the new medium. Loretta Young hosted her own anthology show, The Loretta Young Show. Donna Reed had her own sitcom, The Donna Reed Show. Barbara Stanwyck hosted her own anthology show, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, and in the Sixties was the star of the Western The Big Valley. Even Jimmy Stewart would eventually make the transition to television, starring in the sitcom The Jimmy Stewart Show and the mystery series Hawkins in the Seventies.
It has been somewhat rarer for television stars to make the transition to film. At best it seems most television stars could hope for a career in B-movies or, as the case seems to be today, poorly made rom coms. Even today it is rare for a television star to become a movie star. In the past few years George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Will Smith (who also had a music career in addition to being a TV star) have been among the lucky few who have made the transition.
Indeed, it actually seems to me as if it was much more common in the Fifties and Sixties for an actor to make the transition from television to film. From the late Fifties into the mid-Sixties alone James Garner, Steven McQueen, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood went from successful television shows to film roles. Charles Bronson and James Cobun made the transition from television to film without the benefit of a hit TV programme. It would seem that if there was ever a time for an actor to make the move from television to film, it was the Fifties and Sixties.
It was in 1957 that James Garner was cast in the role that would make him a star, that of gambler Bret Maverick on the television show Maverick. The tongue in cheek Western proved highly successful. In its second season (1958-1959) the show ranked #6 in the ratings out of all the shows on the air for the year. For its third season Maverick ranked #20 in the ratings for the year. Of course, James Garner was not the only star of Maverick. With the demanding shooting schedule of the show (it could take over a week to film just one episode), the producers realised the need for another lead. Jack Kelly then joined the show as Bret's brother Bart Maverick. Bart Maverick first appeared in the eighth episode of the show, "Hostage!", and then rotated with Bret as the lead character of the show, with a few episodes that featured both. While Jack Kelly as Bart developed his own following, there was no doubt that James Garner as Brett remained the star of the show.
Given the success of Maverick, James Garner became an actor who was very much in demand. When Charlton Heston refused the lead role in the film Darby's Rangers (1958), it went to James Garner. Mr. Garner followed Darby's Rangers with the films Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960). Although not smash hits, both films did well at the box office, enough to show that James Garner could play the lead in a feature film. While Maverick was still on the air, then, James Garner had become a movie star.
James Garner left Maverick in its third season because of a dispute with Warner Brothers. Thereafter the role of co-lead role on the show was assumed by other members of the Maverick family, first Beau Maverick (played by Roger Moore) and then Brent Maverick (played byRobert Colbert). Without James Garner Maverick fell in the ratings. It ended its run in 1962. As to James Garner, after Maverick he continued to be a bona fide movie star. Throughout the Sixties he appeared in such films as The Children's Hour (1961), Boys' Night Out (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), and Marlowe (1969).
James Garner would return to television. He stared in the short lived Seventies series Nichols and then the much more successful Rockford Files. He appeared as Bret in the pilot for the Maverick spin off Young Maverick, which centred on Beau Maverick's son Ben. In the Eighties he would even return to the role of Bret Maverick in the short lived show Bret Maverick. Despite having returned to television, however, James Garner would remain a movie star. Over the years he appeared in such films as Skin Game (1971), Victor Victoria (1982), Murphy's Romance (1985), Space Cowboys (2000) , and The Notebook (2004).
It was in 1955 that Steve McQueen made his television debut in an episode of Goodyear Television Playhouse, "The Chivington Raid". The next few years he would make some very high profile appearances on television, including such shows as The United States Steel Hour, Studio One, The 20th Century Fox Hour, and Tales of Well Fargo. Mr. McQueen also appeared in movies, most notably in the cult classic The Blob (1958). He also had an uncredited role in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and a somewhat larger part in Never Love a Stranger (1958). It would be the Western television series Trackdown that would lead to Steve McQueen receiving his own television show and hence achieving stardom.
Trackdown starred Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. It was one of an number of Westerns, including Tales of Wells Fargo and The Rifleman, produced by Four Star Television. It was during the first season of Trackdown that its producer, Vincent M. Fennelly, decided he wanted a companion series for the show. He developed the idea for a show that would centre upon a bounty hunter who generally tried to bring criminals alive. It was also decided that the pilot for the new show, eventually titled Wanted: Dead or Alive, would air as an episode of Trackdown. It was the star of Trackdown, Robert Culp, who suggested Steve McQueen for the role of bounty hunter Josh Randall. The pilot for Wanted: Dead or Alive, simply entitled "The Bounty Hunter", aired on CBS on 7 March 1958. Audience reaction to Steve McQueen as Josh Randall was overwhelmingly positive, and CBS placed Wanted: Dead or Alive on its fall schedule for the 1958-1959 schedule.
Wanted: Dead or Alive proved extremely popular. In its first season it ranked #16 in the ratings out of all the shows on the air. In turn, Steve McQueen became one of the most popular and recognisable new stars of the 1958-1959 season. The money made from Wanted: Dead or Alive reflected this. Initially he was paid $750 an episode. In no time this rose to $100,000 a year. Mr. McQueen's popularity would also lead to film roles. He appeared in a major role in Never So Few (1959) with Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida. He played the lead in The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959). In addition to these two movie roles, Steve McQueen also made memorable guest appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the episodes "Human Interest Story" and "Man From the South".
It would be Steve McQueen's next film that would not only establish him as a movie star. The Mirisch Company had bought the rights to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and offered director John Sturges to remake the samurai movie as a Western. Having worked with Steve McQueen on Never So Few, Mr. Sturges offered the role of Vin to Steve McQueen. Although he was given third billing after lead actor Yul Brynner and villain Eli Wallach, there can be no doubt that Steve McQueen was the star of The Magnificent Seven. In fact, Mr. Brynner was a bit annoyed that Mr. McQueen seemed to be able to steal virtually any scene that he was in. If Wanted: Dead or Alive had made Steve McQueen a television star, The Magnificent Seven (1960) turned him into a movie star.
Steve McQueen returned to Wanted: Dead or Alive for a third season, but he was pleased with it. He had become unhappy with the show, particularly with its current scripts and the directors it was employing. He was eager to get off the show and back into major motion pictures. Fortunately for Mr. McQueen, Wanted: Dead or Alive had been scheduled in a new time slot on Wednesday night between a new show, a Sea Hunt rip off entitled The Aquanauts, and the comedy My Sister Eileen. Having ranked #9 in the ratings out of all the shows on the air for its second season, its ratings crashed in its third. The once successful Wanted: Dead or Alive was cancelled in its third season after 94 episodes.
This was fortunate for Steve McQueen, who would go onto a highly successful film career. He starred in such films as The Honeymoon Machine (1961) and Hell Is for Heroes (1962) before starring in another iconic motion picture, again directed by John Sturges. If The Magnificent Seven had not made Steve McQueen a star, The Great Escape (1963) most certainly would have. Indeed, his role as Hilts "The Cooler King", may be his best known role. For the rest of the Sixties Mr. McQueen starred in such films as Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Bullitt (1968). He career continued to prosper in the Seventies, when he starred in such films as The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Tom Horn (1980). Had he not died in 1979, it seems quite possible that his career as a film star could have continued well into the Naughts and the Teens.
Afterwards James Coburn appeared frequently on television. He guest starred on such shows as Suspicion, G.E. Theatre, and Wagon Train. He made his film debut in Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, playing the sidekick to an actor who would soon achieve television stardom (Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on Bonanza). Following Ride Lonesome he appeared on many more television shows, including Black Saddle, The Restless Gun, M Squad (starring Lee Marvin), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bat Masterson, Peter Gunn, Have Gun--Will Travel, Bonanza, and Wanted: Dead or Alive (on which he befriended Steve McQueen). He also appeared in the film Face of a Fugitive (1959).
James Coburn would eventually receive his own series, starring in Klondike in the 1960-1961 season. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, the show did not prove successful. It ended its run in less than a season, going off the air on 13 February 1961. Despite the failure of Klondike, 1960 would be a very good year for James Coburn. He learned from his friend Robert Vaughn that Mr. Vaughn had been cast in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of a film with which Mr. Coburn had been particularly impressed, Seven Samurai. Told by Robert Vaughn that some of the roles had not yet been cast, he visited director John Sturges and within hours found him cast as master knife thrower Britt. With only 11 lines James Coburn made a strong impression on viewers, so that Britt easily became one of the most popular characters in The Magnificent Seven. While the film would not turn James Coburn into a movie star, it certainly set the stage for his ascent to film stardom.
Following The Magnificent Seven James Coburn made yet more guest appearances on television, including such shows as Lawman, The Detectives, The Untouchables, and Laramie. During the 1960-1961 television season he had yet another show, Acapulco, which even starred his co-lead from Klondike, Ralph Traeger. If anything, however, Acapulco proved even less successful than Klondike. It only lasted eight episodes. James Coburn guest starred on yet more shows, including more appearances on Bonanza and appearances on shows such as Perry Mason and Naked City.
Having appeared in The Magnificent Seven, however, James Coburn was not longer simply a television star. He appeared in the film Hell is for Heroes in 1962. In 1963 he would appear in no less than three films: The Great Escape, Charade, and The Man From Galveston. Also directed by John Sturges, like The Magnificent Seven would be a star making film, with Mr. Coburn playing Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick RAAF, "The Manufacturer". He also had large roles in Charade and The Man From Galveston. These roles would be followed by large parts in The Americanization of Emily (1964), Major Dundee (1965), and A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), as well as a cameo in The Loved One (1965).
It would be James Coburn's role as Derek Flint in the 1966 spy spoof Our Man Flint that would arguably turn him into a bona fide film star. It was Mr. Coburn's first leading role and the film proved to be a smash hit. James Coburn's days as a frequent guest star on television were over. For the remainder of the Sixties he appeared in such films as What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), In Like Flint (1967), The President's Analyst (1967), Duffy (1968), Candy (1968), and Hard Contract (1969). In the Seventies he appeared in such films as Duck, You Sucker (1971), The Carey Treatment (1972), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Jackpot (1975), The Last Hard Men (1976), Midway (1976), Cross of Iron (1977), and The Baltimore Bullet (1980). On television he appeared in the mini-series The Dain Curse.
By the Eighties James Coburn's career would transition from leading man to character actor. He appeared in such films as High Risk (1981), Looker (1981), Martin's Day (1985), Call from Space (1989), Hudson Hawk (1991), The Hit List (1993), Maverick (1994), The Nutty Professor (1996), Keys to Tulsa (1996), The Good Doctor (2000), Intrepid (2000), Snow Dogs (2002), and American Gun (2002). He also returned to television, appearing in various TV movies (Draw! and Silverfox among them), as well as the TV shows The Fifth Corner, Murder She Wrote, and Arli$$. James Coburn died of a heart attack on 18 November 2002, still very much a movie star.
James Garner, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn were hardly the only television stars who made the transition from television to film. What is more, some of them were like James Coburn, in that they did not have the benefit of a hit series to help promote their career. It would seem that the Fifties and Sixties were an ideal time for an actor to move from television to film. In Part Two I'll explore more such stars.