Sunday, September 15, 2019

Laramie Debuted 60 Years Ago Today

Today Laramie is not as well known as such contemporaneous TV Westerns as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, or Bonanza . That having been said, it was fairly successful in its day and even influential as well. The show launched the career of Robert Fuller, who would later star on both Wagon Train and Emergency!, and was a showcase for several future stars who were guests on the series. It was Sixty years ago today, on September 15 1959, that Laramie debuted on NBC.

Laramie centred on the Sherman Ranch, which was also a stage stop for the Great Central Overland Mail Company. The Sherman Ranch was operated by Slim Sherman (played by John Smith), a young man whose father had been murdered by a land grabber, and Jess Harper (played by Robert Fuller), a drifter who adopted the ranch as his home. In the first season Slim's younger brother Andy (played by Robert L. Crawford, Jr.) lived on the ranch, while the housekeeping and general maintenance was performed by Jonesy (played by Hoagy Carmichael). Except for John Smith and Jess Harper, the cast would change over the course of the series.

Sixty years later it is difficult to find information on the history of Laramie. The show's titles do not include a "created by" or "developed by" credit, so it is difficult to say who created the show. The pilot for the show, "Stage Stop," was written by Robert Pirosh, who had written on such classic movies as A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), and I Married a Witch (1942). He also produced the first two episodes. John C. Champion took over as producer afterwards and remained the show's producer for the rest of its run.

Initially John Smith was cast as Jess Harper. Robert Fuller was offered the role of Slim Sherman. Reading the script, however, Mr. Fuller became fascinated with the role of Jess. John Smith and Robert Fuller then switched roles, so that Mr. Smith played Slim and Mr. Fuller played Jess. Robert L. Crawford, Jr., who was cast as Andy, had already guest starred on several TV shows, including The Donna Reed Show, Zorro, and Playhouse 90 (for which he received an Emmy nomination for Best Single Performance by an Actor). He is the son of Robert Crawford, Sr., film editor Robert Crawford, Sr. and his wife Betty, a concert pianist and actress. His younger brother is Johnny Crawford, best remembered as Mark on The Rifelman. Of course, Hoagy Carmichael was the most famous member of the original cast of Laramie. A hit songwriter since the late Twenties, Mr. Carmichael made his film debut in an uncredited role as a piano player in Topper (1937) and had appeared in various films since then.

Beyond the four leads, there would be semi-regular characters introduced in the first season. Stuart Randall was introduced as Mort Cory, the sheriff in Laramie. There were also various stagecoach drivers who appeared on a semi-regular basis, most notably Eddy Waller as Mose.

While Laramie did not rank in the top thirty shows in the Nielsen ratings for the 1959-1960 season, it still did well, regularly winning its time slot. Despite this, there would be changes to the cast.  For reasons that do not seem to be known today, Robert L. Crawford, Jr. as Andy was written out of the show. It was explained that he had gone away to school. He appeared in only three episodes of the second season. Hoagy Carmichael would also leave the show, for reasons today that are unclear. According to Robert Fuller in an interview with the website Western Clippings, Hoagy Carmichael actually had to commute from Palm Springs to the set every day. It was then Mr. Carmichael's idea to leave the show, as he ultimately decided he would rather play golf. According to the biography Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael by Richard M. Sudhalter, however, it was NBC who decided not to renew Mr. Carmichael's contract for the following season. Either way, he was no longer with the show.

The departures of Robert L. Crawford, Jr. and Hoagy Carmichael not only changed the dynamic on Laramie, but more or less the format of the show as well. Whereas the bulk of the first season's episodes took place on or around the relay station, several episodes during the second season took place away from the stage stop. In fact, there were enough episodes in which Slim and Jess were away from the Sherman Ranch that it seems possible that viewers might have wondered who was running the stage stop. Along with the shift in the show's dynamic, for the first part of the season Laramie featured a different title sequence that consisted of a line drawing rather than the filmed title sequence of the first season. It returned to a filmed title sequence later in the season. Regardless, Laramie still won its time slot on a regular basis.

While the second season featuring only John Smith and Robert Fuller in the lead did well in the ratings, the third season would see changes to the show. For one thing, it was with the start of the 1961-1962 season that Laramie made the change to colour. Previously only the pilot, "Stage Stop," had been shot in colour, with the entirety of the first and second season being shot in black and white. For another, there would be new additions to the cast. Spring Byington joined the cast as Daisy Cooper, a widow who became the Sherman Ranch's new housekeeper. Dennis Holmes was added to the cast as Mike Williams, an orphan staying at the ranch until any next of kin could be found. This returned Laramie to its first season format, although with different characters. At the same time there were fewer episodes that took place away from the Sherman Ranch.

The format of Laramie remained stable until it ended its run in 1963. Just as it is difficult to determine how Laramie began, it is difficult to determine why it ended. While I have read that the show won its time slot even in its fourth season, it seems possible that a decline in its ratings caused NBC to cancel it. In the 1962-1963 season Laramie had new competition in the form of a show developed by Robert Pirosh, who had also written the pilot for Laramie. While Combat! did not rank in the top thirty shows for the 1962-1963 season, it did prove popular. It seems possible that it proved popular enough to affect the ratings of Laramie.

Following its cancellation, Laramie entered syndication as a rerun. It would be seen on television stations across the United States until the late Seventies, when it gradually began to seen in fewer and fewer markets. The show would be largely unknown to generations born since it has aired on network and in its initial syndication run until Encore Western picked it up in July 2015. Since then it has aired on Grit TV.  Laramie is also available on various streaming services.

While Laramie would be seen very little in the past several decades, it would have a lasting impact on television. In fact, the show would lend its name to the best known version of the NBC peacock, "the Laramie peacock." The Laramie peacock would be so named because it made its debut in an episode of Laramie. Many online sources give the date of the debut of the Laramie Peacock as January 1 1962, but that seems highly unlikely. Laramie did not air on January 1 1962, which was a Monday (Laramie aired on Tuesday nights for the entirety of its network run). It seems more likely that the Laramie Peacock made its debut on Tuesday, January 2 1962, which means it would have aired before the Laramie episode "The Perfect Gift."  NBC would continue to use the Laramie Peacock until 1975. Since then NBC has used the Laramie Peacock for various special occasions.

Beyond lending its name to NBC's most famous logo, Laramie would have a lasting influence in other ways. The Western cycle of the late Fifties and early Sixties was dominated for the most part by drifters and gunslingers who roamed from town to town (the only difference between the two being that the gunslingers were professionals). Even when the protagonist of a TV Western wasn't a drifter or gunslinger, he often had a job that required travel, such as the Maverick family on Maverick (who were gamblers), Jim Hardie on Tales of Wells Fargo (who was a special agent for Wells Fargo), Paladin on Have Gun--Will Travel (who was a troubleshooter for hire), and Josh Randall on Wanted: Dead or Alive (who was a bounty hunter). The only real exceptions were the various marshals and sheriffs who were the heroes of TV Westerns during the era, such as Wyatt Earp on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.

It was in the 1958-1959 season that a Western debuted that was focused on a father and son on a homestead. The Rifleman was a sharp contrast to the many drifters and wandering gunfighters on the air at the time. The following season saw the debuts of Bonanza, set on the sprawling Ponderosa Ranch, and Laramie, set on the Sherman Ranch and relay station. Laramie was then among the earliest of a new breed of Western in which the characters were settled down. Like Bonanza, then, it was the forerunner of such Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, and Lancer.

Laramie would also be influential in providing early roles for many future stars. Most notably, it was the first major role of Robert Fuller, who would not only guest star on many other shows, but would go onto star on Wagon Train and Emergency!. Three of the stars of The Magnificent Seven (1960) would have early guest roles on the show. Charles Bronson would go onto fame in movies, as would James Coburn. Robert Vaughn would gain eternal fame as Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Harry Dean Stanton, who would go onto fame as a character actor in movies, made a guest appearance on Laramie. Lee Van Cleef, who would appear in several spaghetti Westerns, appeared on Laramie as well. Both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, later of Star Trek, and Adam West, later of Batman, guest starred on Laramie. Laramie proved to be a showcase for several young actors who would later have a good deal of success.

While Laramie would not have the success in syndication that such Westerns as Bonanza and Gunsmoke, it would have a lasting impact on television. And it was never entirely forgotten. Airing on Encore Western, Grit TV, and other channels, Laramie has not only been re-introduced to those who saw in its initial network run or reruns, but to a whole new generation of Western fans.

1 comment:

slimsherman said...

Thanks for lending some insight on this great show.Being born in 61 I didn't even remember seeing it in re-runs or in syndication over The yrs. Don't know how I missed it. Then started watching it on Grit a few yrs. back.Love all 4 yrs. thou i kind of liked Jonesy and Andy. Too bad they never made a Return to Laramie back in the day with all cast members that would have been cool. Again, thanks for the info.