The Western television shows that proliferated in prime time on the American television networks in the Fifties and Sixties generally had one thing in common. Their stars were male. Out of all the Westerns that aired during the period there was one notable exception, The Big Valley (which ran on ABC from 1965 to 1969). Indeed, not only did The Big Valley star a woman, but it was also notable for starring a genuine movie star. By the time Barbara Stanwyck starred in The Big Valley she had been acting in film for over 35 years. What is more she had starred in some fairly important films over the years, including The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and many others.
In some ways it should come as no surprise that Barbara Stanwyck would be the star of a television Western. From Annie Oakley in 1939 to Forty Guns in 1957 Miss Stanwyck had starred in eleven different Western movies. What is more, in many of these films she did not play the typical wives, mothers, schoolmarms, or saloon girls who are in some way dependent upon men. Instead, Barbara Stanwyck played independent, self sufficient women (a landowner in Cattle Queen of Montana, a saloon owner in The Maverick Queen, and so on). Barbara Stanwyck's roles in Westerns were largely on par with the independent women she had played in such films as The Lady Eve (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), Christmas in Connecticut (1944), and others. Barbara Stanwyck's role as Victoria Barkley, matriarch of the Barkley family and owner of the Barkley Ranch, was then a natural extension of roles she had played throughout her career.
Of course, in many ways the Western genre was nearly a perfect fit for Barbara Stanwyck, not the least of which is the fact that she once said the Western was probably her favourite genre. She had a real interest in the West and admired those who had opened up the West to settlement. Beyond having a genuine love of Westerns, Barbara Stanwyck was suited to the genre in many other ways. She was a very athletic woman with a love of the outdoors. She and her husband Robert Taylor bought a ranch in the West Los Angeles area. When Mr. Taylor and Miss Stanwyck divorced, it was Miss Stanwyck who retained ownership of the ranch. She was very skilled at riding horses, and it should come as no surprise that she did nearly all of her own stunts. This was even the case when she starred in The Big Valley, even though she was 58 when the series began.
Given that Barbara Stanwyck starred in many Western movies and that she loved the genre, it was perhaps inevitable that she would star in a Western TV show. Indeed, the genesis of The Big Valley can be traced back to the mid-Fifties when Westerns dominated the small screen. It was around this time that Miss Stanwyck turned 50, this in an era when interesting film roles tended to decrease as an actress grew older. With fewer offers of films coming her way, Barbara Stanwyck looked to television for more and more work. Miss Stanwyck made her television debut on an episode of The Ford Television Theatre and went on to guest star on such anthology shows as Alcoa Theatre, Goodyear Theatre, General Electric Theatre, and The Dick Powell Theatre. Not surprisingly, Barbara Stanwyck guest starred on Western TV series, including Zane Gray Theatre, Rawhide, and Wagon Train.
At the time that Barbara Stanwyck made her move into television the networks in the midst of a boom in Western television shows that had begun with the debuts of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne in 1955. By 1959 there was at least one Western television show (usually more) on every night of the week. Nine different Westerns (Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Lawman, Cheyenne, Rawhide, and Maverick) ranked in the top twenty for the 1959-1960 season. It was only natural that Miss Stanwyck decided she could star in her own Western television series. Her idea was that of an anthology show that would centre on frontier women.
Unfortunately neither the agency that represented her, MCA, nor the television networks were particularly keen on the idea of an anthology show devoted to women in the Old West. In the end Barbara Stanwyck would not get her anthology show devoted to the women of the West. Instead NBC offered her an anthology show that would largely be patterned after the highly successful Loretta Young Show. The Loretta Young Show debuted in 1953 and proved to be a huge success, inspiring such similar shows as Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre (essentially a revamp of the old anthology show Fireside Theatre) and The DuPont Show with June Allyson. After many negotiations between NBC and Miss Stanwyck, The Barbara Stanwyck Show debuted on that network on 19 September 1960.
While The Barbara Stanwyck Show did not fulfil Miss Stanwyck's goal of a Western anthology centred on women, she did star in the majority of episodes. The Barbara Stanwyck Show also featured more than its fair share of strong women, not surprising given Miss Stanwyck's film roles in the past. She even got to star in two Western episodes on the show, "Ironbark's Bride" and "Along the Barbary Coast". Unfortunately, The Barbara Stanwyck Show would not prove to be a success. It was cancelled after only one season.
It was with the failure of The Barbara Stanwyck Show that Lou Edelman, who had served as producer on the show, set about developing another vehicle for the actress with A.I. Bezzerides (who had written several episodes of the show). For inspiration Messrs Edelman and Bezzerides looked to the Hill Ranch, a historical ranch that had operated in Calaveras County, California from 1855 to 1931. In 1861 Lawson Hill. owner and operator of the ranch, was murdered, after which his wife Euphemia took over running the ranch. The Hills had three sons, although only one lived to see old age. It was Euphemia Hill and the Hill Ranch, then, that provided the basis for what would become The Big Valley.
Unfortunately Lou Edelman was not able to interest the networks in his prospective new Western series. By 1961 the cycle towards Westerns had ended. At the same time the cycle towards shows starring former leading ladies that had lasted for much of the Fifties also appeared to be over. Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre ended its run in 1958. Both The DuPont Show with June Allyson and The Loretta Young Show had gone off the air at the end of the 1960-1961 season. In early 1964 Lou Edelman gave up trying to get the show on the air and sold the property to the production team of Levy-Gardner-Laven, who had produced both The Rifelman and The Detectives.
Fortunately for Barbara Stanwyck the landscape of television would change considerably from 1961 to 1965. One of the last Westerns to debut in the cycle that had lasted from 1955 to 1960, Bonanza, proved to be one of the most successful shows of the Sixties. Its success was followed in 1962 by The Virginian. These two Westerns would spark renewed interest in the genre on the part of the networks. As a result it was in early 1965 that Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions was able to strike a deal with ABC and Four Star Television for the prospective show. Quite naturally, Levy-Gardner-Laven asked Barbara Stanwyck if she was still interested in playing the lead on the series. As they probably expected, her answer was "Yes."
The Big Valley debuted on ABC on 15 September 1965. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley, the owner and operator of the Barkley Ranch and matriarch of the Barkley family. Among the regular cast were two of Victoria's sons. The eldest was Jarrod (played by Richard Long), an attorney who was the more refined of her children. The second eldest of her children was Nick (played by Peter Breck), who managed the day to day operations of the ranch and tended to be more hot tempered than Jarrod. Victoria also had a daughter, Audra (played by Linda Evans), who was gentle and caring, although a bit self-absorbed.
Also on the Barkley Ranch was Heath (played by Lee Majors), the illegitimate son of Victoria's late husband Thomas Barkley. The Barkleys' majordomo was Silas (played by Napoleon Whiting). In the first season a younger son, Eugene Barkley (played by Charles Briles), appeared on and off. Eugene was attending the medical school at Berkeley. Charles Briles was drafted into the U.S. Army before The Big Valley even debuted. As a result, Eugene did not appear after the first season.
The Big Valley would not be a smash hit during its run on ABC. It never ranked in the top 25 shows for the year. Despite receiving only moderate ratings, however, there was no real doubt that The Big Valley was popular. In a readers' poll conducted by the magazine TV Radio Mirror, The Big Valley was voted the favourite new show of the 1965-1966 season. The Big Valley was also nominated for its fair share of awards. Barbara Stanwyck won the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series in 1966 and was nominated again in 1967 and 1968. It also won awards for Best Edited Television Programme from the Cinema Editors, USA in 1966 (for the episode "40 Rifles") and 1968 ("Disappearance"). The Big Valley also received nominations in various categories from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America.
Ultimately The Big Valley ran four seasons on ABC. The show faltered in the ratings in the 1968-1969 season. The cycle towards Westerns in the Sixties that had begun in 1964 was winding down by 1969, with the genre declining in popularity. In its final season the show also had the misfortune of airing opposite the popular Carol Burnett Show (which ranked 24th in the Nielsen ratings for the year) and the second half of NBC Monday Night at the Movies. It ended its network run on 19 May 1969. This was hardly the end for The Big Valley, as reruns of the show went immediately into syndication. There it proved to be even more popular than it had been in its original network run. In fact, it seems quite possible that there has been no point since The Big Valley that it has been off the air in the United States. Not only has it aired on local stations nationwide, but it has also aired on such cable channels as TBS, The Family Channel, and Inspiration, as well as the network ME-TV.
As to why The Big Valley has had such lasting success, there can be no doubt that much of it is due to the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. With The Big Valley Barbara Stanwyck achieved her goal of starring in a Western television show centred on a woman. What is more Victoria Barkley was a strong, independent woman who took an active role in running her ranch. She was not the sort to sit around in her crinolines and let the men do all the work. Shortly before The Big Valley debuted in September 1965, Barbara Stanwyck told reporters, "I wanted to resurrect the old gal we had before and not be born to the manor and the teacup." While Victoria Barkley had two sons (as well as the illegitimate son of her husband) right there on the ranch, there was never any doubt that it was Victoria who was in charge. What is more, she knew how to do everything her sons could do and more.
Even as The Big Valley debuted there were comparisons to Bonanza, It was not unusual for critics in 1965 to describe The Big Valley as “Bonanza in petticoats". In many respects the comparisons were unfair. While the two were similar insofar as both were set on vast ranches run by families in the Old West, it was there where the similarities ended. The Barkleys had a much different family dynamic from the Cartwrights. The Barkleys fought among themselves much more than the Cartwrights ever did, and it was not unusual for Jarrod and Nick to get into very fierce arguments. Even Audra was known to quarrel with her older brothers from time to time. Indeed, for much of the first season a lot of the family did not particularly trust illegitimate son Heath, not that Heath trusted them very much either. What is more The Big Valley differed from Bonanza in the presence of women. In its entire run Bonanza had no female regular characters. Not only did The Big Valley have two regular female characters, but one of them was the lead.
Indeed, The Big Valley was the only primetime Western of the Fifties and Sixties centred upon a woman. What is more, it seems likely that there might have been none had it not been for Barbara Stanwyck. It was largely because of Barbara Stanwyck's desire to star in a Western television show centred upon a woman that led to the creation of The Big Valley. Had it not been for her it seems likely that Lou Edelman and A.I. Bezzerides would have never created The Big Valley. And had Barbara Stanwyck not accepted
Levy-Gardner-Laven's offer to play the lead in the show, it seems likely that The Big Valley would not have lasted four seasons on ABC and nearly fifty years in syndication.
It also seems likely that it was not the simple star power of Barbara Stanwyck that made The Big Valley a success, but the fact that she was once more playing a strong, female character of the sort for which she was known. Barbara Stanwyck would go on to appear in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and the television show The Colbys, but she would never again have as big a success on television as The Big Valley was.