Friday, September 22, 2017

The 60th Anniversary of Maverick

"Who is the tall, dark stranger there?
Maverick is the name. ..."'
( David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster, "The Maverick Theme"

It was 60 years ago today that the TV Western Maverick debuted on ABC. Maverick would prove to be one of the most successful Western TV shows of all time. During its initial run it performed very well in ratings, ranking in the top twenty shows for the year for two of its five years. After it ended its run in 1962 Maverick went onto a highly successful run in syndication. The show would see two revivals and it would be adapted to a feature film. The entire run of Maverick has also been released on DVD.

Maverick was created by legendary writer and producer Roy Huggins, who also created 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files. On more than one occasion Mr. Huggins described Maverick as "an anti-Western", and it was a very apt description. Initially the series centred on professional gambler Bret Maverick (played by James Garner). Bret was a sharp contrast to the many stalwart lawmen and drifters on other Western shows of the time (they often differed from each other in that the lawmen were professionals). He preferred to get out of situations using his wits rather than guns or fists. In fact, Bret generally avoided fighting whenever possible. Despite his chosen profession, Bret was honest to a fault, although he was not below using deception against those who were not particularly honest themselves. Bret often quoted bits of wisdom from his Pappy, who like his sons apparently preferred to avoid violence whenever possible. Midway through the first season another Maverick was added, Bret's brother Bart (played by Jack Kelly). Bart was much like Bret, only slightly more serious. Still later cousin Beau (played by Roger Moore) would appear on the show for a season.

Prior to Maverick Roy Huggins had already done considerable work on Warner Bros.' television shows. A staff writer at Columbia, he moved to Warner Bros. in 1955. He was immediately put to work as producer on the studio's first TV Western, Cheyenne, and charged with overhauling the show. He moved from Cheyenne to the studio's short lived anthology series Conflict. It was in November 1956 that Roy Huggins presented his concept for Maverick to Warner Bros.

As to casting the role of Bret Maverick,  Roy Huggins had already worked with James Garner on both Cheyenne and Conflict (on which he played a con man similar to Bret Maverick in the episode "The Man from 1997"). Mr. Garner had just finished filming what was his first major film role in the movie Sayonara, which would be released on December 3 1957, about three months after the debut of Maverick. It was largely watching the dailies for Sayonara that convinced Roy Huggins to cast Mr. Garner in the role.

It was in August 1957 that ABC found a sponsor for Maverick in the form of Kaiser Steel Company, who paid $6 million for thirty nine original episodes and thirteen reruns. Maverick debuted on September 21 1957. By the show's tenth week it was clear that ABC and Warner Bros. had a hit on their hands. That having been said, Maverick did present both ABC and Warner Bros. with a slight problem. It took eight days to shoot a single episode of Maverick. It seemed clear that with a new episode airing every week, pretty soon ABC would run out of new episodes of Maverick to air before the season had ended.

It was when Maverick had been on the air for eight weeks that a solution was found in the form of giving Bret Maverick a brother, who would alternate weeks with Bret. Warner Bros. auditioned several actors for the role of Bret's brother, who would eventually be called "Bart", including Stuart Whitman, Rod Taylor, and Richard Jaeckel. The role eventually went to Jack Kelly, who had starred in Warner Bros.' ill-fated TV show based on the movie King's Row. Like Bret, Bart avoided violence whenever possible and was honest to a fault, but not below using underhanded methods against conmen and thieves. Unlike Bret, Bart was slightly more serious.

Maverick did well in the ratings in its first season, although it did not rank in the top thirty for the year. Its second season it reached its peak, coming in at number six for the year. At times it even beat its competition on CBS--The Jack Benny Program and The Ed Sullivan Show. Much of the reason that Maverick probably did so well is that it was unlike any other Western on the air. It was not a simple case of the Mavericks being decidedly different from the many courageous and violence-prone lawmen and drifters on other Westerns, but that it also incorporated a good deal of humour. In fact, many episodes of the show were often played entirely for comedy. Maverick would even parody other TV shows from time to time. Among the best known episodes of Maverick was its parody of Gunsmoke, "Gun-Shy", in which Bret encountered parodies of Marshal Dillon, Chester, Miss Kitty, and Doc Adams. Maverick also parodied Dragnet (in the episode  "A Cure for Johnny Rain") and Bonanza ("Three Queens Full").

Maverick also differed from other Westerns featuring heroes who drifted from place to place in that it actually had a large cast of recurring characters. While the Maverick brothers generally travelled alone or with each other, they often encountered many of the same people in their travels. Among these was Samantha Crawford (played by Diane Brewster), a beautiful and charming confidence artist who was one of the few people to get the best of the Mavericks (one has to suspect both Bret and Bart were a little bit in love with her, which might explain how she was able to best them). Samantha Crawford actually first appeared on another Warner Bros. Western, Cheyenne, in the episode "The Dark Rider". Dandy Jim Buckley (played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. ) was a fellow gambler and Bret's friendly rival. Big Mike McComb (played by Leo Gordon) was the Maverick's rather large Irish friend who sometimes helped them. Gentleman Jack Darby (played by Richard Long) was a fellow gambler and Bart's friendly rival. Over the years Maverick featured several other recurring characters. Nearly every recurring character at the time, as well as both Maverick brothers, appeared in what is largely considered the show's best episode (indeed, one of the greatest TV show episodes of all time), "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres".

Not only did Maverick feature many recurring characters, but it also existed as part of a shared universe that included every single Warner Bros. TV Western and quite possibly their detective shows as well. Bret Maverick appeared in the December 10 1957 episode of Sugarfoot, "Misfire". Bart would appear in the Sugarfoot episode "Price on His Head". Tom "Sugarfoot" Brewster (played by Will Hutchins) of Sugarfoot would in turn appear on Maverick. Every hero on Warner Bros.' Westerns then on the air would have cameos in the Maverick episode "Hadley's Hunters", including Cheyenne Bodie (played by Clint Walker) of Cheyenne, Marshall Dan Troop (played by John Russell) and Deputy Johnny McKay of Lawman, Tom Brewster of Sugarfoot, and Bronco Lane (played by Ty Hardin) of Bronco. Edd Brynes, who played Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip even had a cameo as a stableboy working at "77 Cherokee Strip". One had to wonder that he wasn't Kookie's grandfather....

At the height of the popularity of Maverick (and TV Westerns in general), James Garner had a cameo in the Bob Hope movie Alias Jesse James (1959). Other TV Western heroes with cameos in the film were James Arness as Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke, Gail Davis as Annie Oakley from the show of the same name, Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Western movie actors Gary Cooper and Roy Rogers (with Trigger) also had cameos. Because of concerns over copyright, the various cameos of TV Western heroes are often cut from the film when aired on television.

While Maverick proved to be a hit, things would not always go smoothly for the show. As the show's creator, producer, and one of its writers, Roy Huggins worked long and hard on the show. It was not unusual for him to rewrite episodes by other writers on the show (something he confessed to doing in the case of frequent contributor Marion Hargrove). Often he worked eighteen hour days. Eventually he found himself in hospital with double pneumonia. It was at that point that Roy Huggins decided to leave Maverick. At the end of its second season Maverick was without its creator at its helm.

Maverick continued to be popular in its third season, coming in at no. 19 for the year.  Unfortunately it would see yet another change.  Despite the show's success, James Garner was only being paid $500 a week for the show and any feature films in which he appeared (this was later increased to $600 and then $1250 a week) . Worse yet, any money he made from personal appearances went entirely to Warner Bros. He finally persuaded the studio to make no bookings without his permission and to give him half the money from any appearances he might make. Unfortunately James Garner would still lock horns with the studio now and again. Everything would come to a head with the 1960 Writers Guild of America strike.

Despite the fact that the WGA was on strike, both James Garner and Jack Kelly continued to receive scripts, many of which were credited to W. Hermanos. The writer's credit was essentially a reference to the studio itself--W. for "Warner" and "Hermanos" being Spanish for "brothers". What the studio was doing to continue production on their various shows was taking scripts from episodes on other shows and simply using them for episodes on yet other shows, simply changing a few names and a few details. This did not sit well with James Garner and Jack Kelly, both of who walked out on the show. The two of them hired an attorney to fight Waner Bros. in court. Eventually Jack Kelly met with Jack Warner himself, who offered him a raise in pay if he would come back to Maverick. Mr. Kelly accepted as he did not want to pursue a costly lawsuit. James Garner refused and proceeded with his lawsuit against Warner Bros. over the working conditions at the studio. Mr. Garner won his lawsuit and was released from his contract. He also left Maverick.

James Garner as Bret Maverick would be replaced by Sir Roger Moore as cousin Beau Maverick. Sir Roger Moore had starred on the British TV show Ivanhoe and later the Warner Bros. show The Alaskans. He had already guest starred on Maverick in the episode "The Rivals". Sir Roger Moore would play cousin Beauregard "Beau" Maverick (apparently named for Bret and Bart's Pappy, whose given name was also Beauregard), who had been banished to England by Pappy for becoming a hero and thus tarnishing the Maverick name. It was Beau's time in England that explained his slight English accent. Beau always claimed that he became a hero entirely by accident. Taken as a prisoner by the Union Army during the Civil War, he was playing poker with a Union general when the Confederate Army attacked. After losing yet another hand of poker, the general exclaimed, "Son, I give up!" The Confederates wrongly credited Beau with getting the Union general to surrender.

While Beau may have "tarnished" the Maverick name, he was cut from much the same cloth as the other Mavericks. He avoided violence. While honest he was not below conning those who were dishonest themselves. He perhaps differed from Bret and Bart in having a bit more of an eye for the ladies. Sir Roger Moore would not remain with Maverick for long. Beau Maverick first appeared in the first episode of the fourth season, "The Bundle from Britain". As the season progressed Sir Roger Moore became increasing dissatisfied with the deteriorating quality of the scripts. He was able to leave the show without suing Warner Bros. as James Garner did. Mr. Moore would later remark that had he received the same quality of scripts that James Garner had, he would have stayed with the show.

One last Maverick would appear before the show ended its run. Late in the fourth season Robert Colbert, who later starred in the TV series The Time Tunnel, was cast as brother Brent Maverick. Warner Bros. meant for Brent Maverick to essentially be a substitute for Bret. Robert Colbert resembled James Garner, although he did not sound like him. Robert Colbert's costume also duplicated the one most frequently worn by James Garner as Bret. Mr. Colbert was under contract to Warner Bros. and had already guest starred on Maverick in the episode "Hadley's Hunters". Robert Colbert was not particularly eager to play Brent, knowing that he would be compared to James Garner. He complained to the studio, "Put me in a dress and call me Brenda, but don't do this to me!"

Warner Bros. apparently had big plans for Brent. Before Sir Roger Moore left, publicity photos of Bart, Beau, and Brent were taken. In the end, Brent would only appear in two episodes of Maverick, both airing in March 1961: "The Forbidden City" and "Benefit of the Doubt". Warner Bros. apparently decided that Brent Maverick simply wasn't working, and Robert Colbert was never called back for the show. For the fifth season of Maverick, new episodes starring Jack Kelly as Bart would rotate with reruns starring James Garner as Bret.

Ratings for Maverick began a decline from which it never recovered following James Garner's departure at the end of the third season. It was then at the end of its fifth season that Maverick was cancelled. Its last original episode aired on April 22 1962.

That is not to say that Maverick was over. The show entered syndication that fall as a rerun, and it proved extremely successful there. In fact, the show proved so successful in syndication that it would spawn two sequel series. The first of these was Young Maverick. It was in 1978 that a TV movie entitled The New Maverick aired on CBS. The movie featured James Garner as Bret, Jack Kelly as Bart, and Charles Frank as Ben Maverick, the son of their cousin Beau. The movie proved successful enough that it led to a new series entitled Young Maverick. Young Maverick followed the adventures of Ben and his girlfriend Nell (played by Susan Blanchard). The show debuted on November 28 1978 and would not last long. It ended its run after only eight episodes.

Slightly more successful was Bret Maverick, which starred James Garner once more in the role that had made him famous. In Bret Maverick, Bret had finally settled down in the Arizona Territory, where he owned a ranch and co-owned the Red Ox Saloon in Sweetwater. Bret's partner at the Red Ox Saloon was Sweetwater's former sheriff Tom Guthrie (played by Ed Bruce). The cast also included  Richard Hamilton as Bret's ranch foreman Cy Whitaker, Ramon Bieri as the town's banker Elijah Crow, and Darleen Carr as newspaper editor Mary Lou "M.L." Springer. Jack Kelly appeared as Bart towards the end of the season and was set to become a regular in the show's second season. Unfortunately, NBC would unexpectedly cancel Bret Maverick at the end of its first season. While its ratings were respectable, they were apparently not high enough for the Peacock Network.

Jack Kelly would make one last appearance as Bart Maverick in the 1991 TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw featured Western TV show heroes from Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp to David Carradine as Caine from Kung Fu.

Regardless of the failures of Young Maverick and Bret Maverick, Maverick would continue to be popular in syndication. In 1994 a big budget adaptation of the series was released starring Mel Gibson as Bret Maverick and James Garner as Marshal Zane Cooper. In interviews Mr. Garner maintained he was playing Bret Maverick and Mel Gibson was playing his son, although the film leaves this open to debate.

Maverick continues to be popular to this day. It currently airs on both the Heroes and Icons channel and the nostalgia broadcast network ME-TV. Despite having appeared in several highly successful films over nearly six decades, when James Garner died on July 19 2014, it was more often than not the TV show Maverick that was cited in headlines regarding his death. Although it might not have run as long as Gunsmoke or Bonanza, Maverick still numbers among the most successful TV Westerns of all time. With heroes that were a far cry from the usual lawmen, drifters, and ranchers of most Westerns, and episodes that often included humour alongside the action, it should be little wonder if Maverick isn't still being watched 60 years from now.


Caftan Woman said...

Maverick has the distinction of being the one and only winner of the Emmy for Best Western Series. The category was created in 1959 to cover the proliferation of westerns on the air, but dropped the following season.

This is a post I wrote on the topic a while back:

Terence Towles Canote said...

I wish I had remembered that when I wrote the post! I was aware of it. I always thought I would have a real problem voting in that category. Maverick is one of my favourite shows and that was its best season, but then Have Gun--Will Travel is also one of my favourite shows and it had a very good season too!