Monday, September 21, 2015

The 60th Anniversary of Cheyenne

It was sixty years ago yesterday that the Western Cheyenne debuted, on September 20 1955 at 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central. Although today it is probably only remembered by those alive at the time, fans of Western TV shows, classic TV buffs, and television historians, Cheyenne proved to be a very influential show. It was the first hour long Western TV series on American television. It was also the first television show produced by a major film studio that was not based on existing film properties (Disneyland, which debuted in 1954, did draw from Disney's library of short films). It was also the first original television show not based on an existing property produced by Warner Brothers and among the first in a number of collaborations between Hollywood studio Warner Brothers and the television network ABC, collaborations that would last into the Sixties. Alongside The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, it would be responsible for a cycle towards Westerns that would dominate American television for the entirety of the late Fifties.

The origins of Cheyenne can be traced back to the merger between the American Broadcasting Company and United Paramount Theatres in 1953. In 1948 the the Supreme Court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. forced the studios to divest themselves of the theatres they owned. Paramount's former chain then became United Paramount Theatres. The head of the new company, American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, Inc., was Leonard Goldenson. Mr. Goldenson had started his work in the entertainment industry in 1933 as an attorney for Paramount Pictures. Eventually he was appointed by Barney Balaban, the head of Paramount, to manage the theatre chain. Having worked in Hollywood for twenty years, Leonard Goldenson had a good number of connections in the film industry. As might be expected, among those contacts were Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, and Ben Kalmenson, then president of Warner Brothers Distribution in New York City. In 1954 Warner Brothers and ABC then began to work out a deal whereby the studio would enter into television production.

Negotiations between Warner Brothers and ABC did not begin smoothly, as the motion picture studio and the broadcast network were to some degree at cross-purposes. Warner Brothers essentially wanted publicity for its films while devoting as little of the studio's resources to television as possible.  ABC wanted filmed television shows that would draw desperately needed viewers to the struggling network. Negotiations between Warner Brothers and ABC initially fell apart when ABC not only offered Warner Brothers the same amount they had paid Disney in a deal with that studio ($2 million), but requested the rights to show recent Warner Brothers films and not so recent hits (such as Casablanca).

Fortunately Leonard Goldenson did not give up on Warner Brothers so easily. In January 1955 he made a trip to Warner Brothers in Los Angeles where he was able to get a gentleman's agreement as to what the conditions of the proposed deal between the studio and the network would be. In March 1955 Leonard Goldenson met with Jack L. Warner in New York City and Warner Brothers agreed to produce a television series titled Warner Brothers Presents for ABC. Of course, here it must be pointed out that ABC's deal with Warner Brothers was not the network's first deal with a Hollywood studio. In 1954 ABC had entered into a seven year deal with ABC that resulted in the shows Disneyland in 1954, The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, and Zorro in 1957.

While Warner Brothers Presents was given as the title of the studio's new TV series in publicity releases at the time Warner Brothers and ABC entered their agreement,  in reality it was an umbrella title for what would be three different series. Two of the series were based on existing Warner Brothers titles. Kings Row was based on the 1942 film of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1940 novel by Henry Bellamann. It starred Jack Kelly as  Dr. Parris Mitchell (the role played by Bob Cummings in the film) and Robert Horton as Drake McHugh (the role played by Ronald Reagan in the film). It debuted on September 13 1955. The other series based on a Warner Brothers film was Casablanca, which starred Charles McGraw as Rick Blaine and Marcel Dalio as Captain Renaud.  It debuted on September 27 1955. Of course, there was a good deal of promotion for Warner Brothers films on Warner Brothers Presents. Each edition of the show ended with a ten to fifteen minute segment entitled "Behind the Camera", hosted by Gig Young, that promoted such films as The Searchers (1956) and Giant (1956).

While Kings Row and Casablanca were based on existing Warner Brothers properties, Cheyenne would be an original series. It owed its name to the 1947 Warner Brothers film Cheyenne, but nothing else. As originally conceived by Warner Brothers' writers, Cheyenne centred around mapmaker Cheyenne Bodie (played by Clint Walker), whose parents were killed by Cheyenne Indians who then raised him. Cheyenne was accompanied in his travels by his sidekick Smitty (played L. Q. Jones). While Cheyenne was an original television series, particularly in its early days it did draw upon old Warner Brothers feature films for plots. Its first episode "Mountain Fortress" drew heavily upon the 1950 film Rocky Mountain, starring Errol Flynn.

Cast in the lead role in Cheyenne was Clint Walker, who was a relative unknown at the time. In fact prior to Cheyenne he had appeared in two roles: an uncredited, bit part in the "Bowery Boys" movie Jungle Gents (1954) and an appearance in the yet to be released The Ten Commandments (1956) as a Sardinian Captain. Despite his lack of experience, he appeared perfectly suited to the role. He stands 6 foot 6 and has an equally impressive voice.

Unfortunately for Warner Brothers and ABC, Warner Brothers Presents and its series would not be well received. All three shows on Warner Brothers Presents (Kings Row, Cheyenne,and Casablanca) received largely negative reviews and many saw the "Behind the Camera" segments as commercialism at its crassest. Audiences were apparently not very impressed with Warner Brothers Presents either. Ratings for the umbrella title were low even by ABC's standards.

Not even the sponsors (which included such giants as Monsanto, General Electric, and Liggett & Myers) for Warner Brothers Presents were happy with the programme. They thought the episodes of the shows themselves were poorly made and they viewed the "Behind the Camera" segments as little more than a ten to fifteen minute commercial for Warner Brothers. The sponsors threatened to pull their advertising from the show if changes were not made immediately.

As a result from the sponsors' complaints, Kings Row, Cheyenne, and Casablanca all three were overhauled. In the case of Cheyenne, the series was revamped after only three episodes. To overhaul Cheyenne Warner Brothers brought in writer Roy Huggins. Roy Huggins was a published novelist who had written screenplays for such films as The Lady Gambles (1949) and Gun Fury (1953). His novel The Double Take had been adapted as the film I Love Trouble (1948).  Mr Huggins dropped Cheyenne's sidekick Smitty and also dropped the idea of Cheyenne as a map maker. While it was established that Cheyenne was a former cavalry scout, he would have no regular occupation. Instead, Cheyenne would simply drift from place to place. At times he might be a lawman, at other times he might be a scout, at yet other times he might be working on a ranch. Following Cheyenne Roy Huggins would have a highly successful career in television. Indeed, he created the shows Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip (which drew, in part, from his novel Double Take for inspiration), The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, and The Rockford Files.

Despite the changes made to the show, both Kings Row and Casablanca continued to struggle in the ratings. Kings Row did not even make it the whole season; its last episode aired on January 17 1956. Casablana managed to last the whole season, but was cancelled at the season's end. Cheyenne would be the only show from Warner Brothers Presents that would survive. In fact, it not only survived, but following Roy Huggins's revamp of the show it was thriving. It proved to be the only hit to emerge from Warner Brothers Presents.

For the second season of Cheyenne the whole idea of Warner Brothers Presents was scrapped. That having been said, Cheyenne would still rotate with another series. For the 1956-1957 season it rotated with an anthology series entitled Conflict (the title having been chosen by ABC rather than Warner Brothers). Conflict proved to be a failure, but  Cheyenne continued to be a success.Conflict was cancelled at the end of the 1956-1957 season.

The success of Cheyenne led to an offer from ABC to Warner Brothers to buy thirty nine, hour long episodes of the show, a full season. Unfortunately it took Warner Brothers a full six days of principle photography to produce each episode of Cheyenne. This was complicated by the fact that its star Clint Walker appeared in every single episode. Since Warner Brothers could not produce 39 episodes of Cheyenne, then, they gave ABC another Western, Sugarfoot. During the 1957-1958 season, then, Cheyenne rotated with  Sugarfoot.
Sugarfoot centred on Tom "Sugarfoot" Brewster. Sugarfoot was a drifter much like Cheyenne, but unlike Cheyenne he was a lawyer by trade who preferred to settle things using his wits and words rather a gun. Sugarfoot would not be the only Western to debut in the 1956-1957 season. The success of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyennei had led to a boom in Westerns that season. Also debuting that season were such Westerns as The Restless Gun, Wagon Train, and, the most successful Western TV show produced by Warner Brothers, Maverick.

During the 1957-1958 season Cheyenne did very well in the ratings, ranking no. 12 in the ratings. Sugarfoot also did very well in the ratings, ranking no 16 in the ratings. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers, there would be trouble ahead for Cheyenne.

Particularly by today's standards, Clint Walker's contract with Warner Brothers was not exactly desirable for an actor. The studio demanded 50% of any money he made from personal appearances. It also restricted him to recording only for Warner Brothers' record label. In addition to increased residuals, Clint Walker demanded a reduction in the amount of money from personal appearances that he had to give to Warner Brothers, as well as the freedom to record with any recording company he chose. The actor and the studio soon found themselves at an impasse and as a result Mr. Walker walked out on the show in protest.

Amazingly enough, Warner Brothers went forward with Cheyenne anyway. For the 1958-1959 season Cheyenne centred on Confederate veteran Bronco Layne (played by Ty Hardin). Clint Walker eventually returned to Cheyenne, at which point Cheyenne Bodie once more became the main character on the show. As to Bronco Layne, he was given his own show, Bronco. In syndication the episodes of Cheyenne featuring Bronco Layne would be included with the series Bronco rather than Cheyenne, even though they had originally aired under that title.

Despite Clint Walker's absence from Cheyenne, the series continued to do well in the ratings. It ranked no. 18 for the season. Sugarfoot ranked no. 21.

For part of the 1959-1960 season the time slot of Cheyenne was filled with reruns of  Shirley Temple's Storybook. It was the first time the show did not rotate with another show produced by Warner Brothers (Shirley Temple's Storybook was produced by Screen Gems).  The show continued to do well in the ratings, ranking no. 17 for the year.

With the 1960-1961 Cheyenne would once more become part of an umbrella title, in this case The Cheyenne Show. The Cheyenne Show consisted of rotating episodes of Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, and Bronco. Of the three shows, only Cheyenne ranked in the top thirty of the year, although it had dropped considerably. It only ranked no. 28 out of all of the shows on the air.

By the 1961-1962 season, like many Westerns, the heyday of Cheyenne was over. Sugarfoot had been cancelled at the end of the 1960-1961 season, but Cheyenne still rotated with Bronco for the 1961-1962 season. Neither show ranked in the top thirty shows for the season and Cheyenne would never again rank in the top thirty shows for the year. As to Bronco, it ended its run at the end of the 1961-1962 season. 

For the 1962-1963 season Cheyenne aired thirteen consecutive episodes from September 24 1962 to December 17 1962. Its time slot afterwards was filled by another Warner Brothers Western, The Dakotas. The Dakota was ostensibly a spinoff of Cheyenne, its pilot having aired as an episode of the show ("A Man Called Ragan", airing in April 1962). That having been said, Cheyenne Bodie did not even appear in "A Man Called Ragan", making claims that it was a spinoff dubious at best. While The Dakotas finished out the season, it was perhaps doomed by the controversial episode "Sanctuary at Crystal Springs", in which violence was actually committed in a church. Neither Cheyenne nor The Dakotas would return for the 1963-1964 season.

While Cheyenne ran for seven seasons, having spent its entire run rotating with other shows it only produced 108 episodes. Despite having spurred the cycle towards Westerns in the late Fifties (along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke), its run in syndication would not be as good as that of other classic Westerns, such as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, or Bonanza. Despite this it has remained popular with fans of classic Western TV shows. It currently airs on Encore Westerns. The Warner Archive has released the entire run of the show on DVD.

Today it seems likely that Cheyenne is largely unknown save for those over 60, fans of TV Westerns, classic television buffs, and television historians. Despite this Cheyenne was a very influential show. While it was not the first hour long series with continuing characters as often claimed (that was actually Kings Row, which debuted the week before), it was the first hour long series with continuing characters to see any success. It was also the first hour long series not based on an existing property (Kings Row having been based on the movie of the same name) and the first hour long Western. Within a few years more hour long dramas would debut, including such classic hour long shows as Maverick, Perry Mason, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Bonanza. By the early Sixties the hour long format would be the one preferred for dramas.

Cheyenne  was also be the first show produced by a major studio that was not based on an existing property. Along with Disneyland and the two other shows that comprised Warner Brothers Presents, it represented Hollywood's entry into television. By the Sixties many of the major studios, including MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Universal were responsible for providing much of the programming for the broadcast networks. In the case of Warner Brothers, it marked the beginning of a long collaboration with ABC that would result in such shows as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, F Troop, and The F.B.I.

Along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, Cheyenne would also be responsible for the boom in Westerns on the broadcast networks in the late Fifties. The networks began adding more Westerns as early as the 1956-1957 season and yet more with the 1957-1958 season. By the 1958-1959 season there was at least one Western on every night of the week, sometimes more. Following the success of Cheyenne, Warner Brothers would produce their share of Westerns, including Sugarfoot, Maverick, Colt .45, Bronco, Lawman, and The Alaskans. Had it not been for Cheyenne, none of these shows might have ever come into being.

Cheyenne would also be responsible for starting Roy Huggins's career in television. It was because of the work he did in revamping Cheyenne that he was able to create Maverick, the most successful Warner Brothers Western of them all. He went onto to create the shows 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, and The Rockford Files, and wrote several hours worth of television for yet other shows.

While Cheyenne may be largely forgotten now, it long ago secured its place in television history. It is arguably one of the most influential shows of all time and, of the three Westerns that debuted in 1955, its influence may only be exceeded by Gunsmoke. As the second hour long show with continuing characters (and the first to see any success) and the first entirely original show produced by Warner Brothers, it paved the way for practically every hour long drama produced by a major studio to come.

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