Monday, February 3, 2020

Maverick: "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres"

James Garner and Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart
James Garner would be one of the few television stars to achieve success as a movie star, appearing in such films as Boys' Night Out (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), and Marlowe (1969). Despite this, he may well be best remembered for the television role that made him a star to begin with, that of Bret Maverick on the TV show Maverick. Maverick was a sharp break from previous TV Westerns that centred on stalwart lawmen and drifters. Instead Maverick centred on members of the Maverick family (originally James Garner as Bret Maverick and Jack Kelly as his brother Bart Maverick), professional gamblers who preferred to get out of situations using their wits rather than using their guns or fists. Although the Mavericks were honest for the most part, they were not below using dishonest means to bring to justice those who were dishonest themselves. As might be expected, Maverick had a tongue-in-cheek tone that also separated it from other Westerns on television on at the time. Maverick proved successful, doing well in the ratings and receiving critical acclaim as well. It won the Emmy for Best Western Series the only year that category was offered (1959) and was nominated for yet other Emmy Awards. Having debuted on September 22 1957, the last original episode of Maverick aired on April 22 1962. It has remained in syndication ever since.

While fans of other shows might debate what the best episodes of those shows are, in the case of Maverick there seems to be a clear consensus of what was the show's best episode. That episode is "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," which originally aired on November 23 1958. Not only does it appear to be the favourite episode of the majority of Maverick fans, but it was the favourite episode of James Garner himself, who discussed it at length in The Garner Files: A Memoir. James Kelly regarded the episode highly as well.

In "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" Bret Maverick wins a large amount of money in a poker game in the small town of Sunny Acres. Nervous about having such a large amount of money on his person, Bret asks the head of the local bank, Bates (played by John Dehner), to open up the bank after hours so he can deposit the money there. Unfortunately, when Bret goes to get his money in the morning, Bates not only denies ever having deposited the money, but ever having met Bret. Since it is obvious that Bates has swindled him out of his money, Bret concocts a long con to get his money back and bring the banker to justice. Bret then spends his days sitting and whittling in front of the hotel across the street from the bank while his plan unfolds. 

"Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" was based on a story by Douglas Heyes, with a teleplay by series creator and producer Roy Huggins. Mr. Huggins told James Garner the idea behind the episode, in which one Maverick brother, who has been swindled out of his money, sits on a porch and whittles all day while the other Maverick brother executes the complex sting operation to get the money back. He gave Mr. Garner his choice of roles, and he decided that Bret should be the brother who sits on the porch and whittles. 

What makes "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" particularly special is that every single recurring character on the show at that time appears in the episode. Among them are Bret's frenemies Dandy Jim Buckley (played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) and Samantha Crawford (played by Diane Brewster), and Bret and Bart's friend Big Mike McComb (played by Leo Gordon). Sadly, it would be last appearance on Maverick of both Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Diane Brewster (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.began appearing in 77 Sunset Strip that same season). Bart's friends, Gentleman Jim Darby (played by Richard Long) and Cindy Lou Brown (played by Arlene Howell), also helped with the con, although they dealt only with Bart and shared no scenes with Bret. It was because "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" involved every single recurring character on the show that it holds the record for the longest opening credits sequence of any Maverick episode with each actor receiving his or her own individual credit.

Amazingly enough for what may be the most beloved episode of Maverick, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" was nominated for only one award, the Emmy for Best Cinematography for Television for Harold E. Stine. Despite this, the episode is clearly more highly regarded than many episodes of television shows that did win awards, at least as far as fans are concerned. What is more, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" has had lasting influence. It seems possible that the TV shows Hustle and Leverage, in which confidence artists stage long cons against those who have cheated others out of money, not only owe a good deal to the TV show Maverick, but to "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres." In fact, it seems possible that the first half of the movie The Sting (1973) could have been inspired by the episode. Roy Huggins told how, in his Archive of American Television interview, he arrived at Universal one morning only to have Max Baer, Jr. ask if he was going to sue. When Mr. Huggins asked him why, Mr. Baer replied, "You didn't see The Sting?" Mr. Huggins said that he hadn't, to which Mr. Baer said, "Well see it, because the first half of it is 'Shady Deal at Sunny Acres'!" 

If "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" is so highly regarded, it is perhaps because it was simply so well done. Roy Huggins's script is filled not only with the humour viewers had come to expect from the show, but suspense as well. James Garner gives what might have been his best performance as Bret Maverick, as he sits on the porch of the Hotel Sunny Acres, seemingly unconcerned that he had just been swindled out of a large sum of money. Jack Kelly as Bart also gives a great performance as the man who actually executes the scheme. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Diane Brewster, Leo Gordon, Richard Long, and Arlene Howell are all in top form. John Dehner as Bates the banker may be one of the show's very best villains, a man as unscrupulous as they come. In many ways "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" seems less like an episode of a television show than it does a short film or featurette made for cinemas. If there is only one drawback to "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," it is best appreciated if one has seen several other episodes of Maverick beforehand. After all, much of the fun of the episodes comes from knowledge of Bret's relationships with Dandy Jim, Samantha, and Big Mike, and Bart's relationships with Gentleman Jim and Cindy Lou.

While Star Trek fans may argue over whether "City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," or some entirely different episode is the best of that show, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" remains the most highly regarded Maverick episode. It is not simply because viewers get to see every single recurring character on the show acting in tandem, but because it is so well done. In the end, "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" isn't simply the greatest episode of Maverick, but one of the greatest episodes of any show ever made.


Caftan Woman said...

Marvelous! James Garner chose perfectly for Bret to be the whittler.

They had me at John Dehner! The first viewing of Shady Deal at Sunny Acres had me cheering and picking my jaw up off the floor. I used to wonder if repeated viewing would take the shine of the thing. It hasn't yet and I don't expect it to anymore.

PS: "If you can't trust your banker, who can you trust?"

Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Thanks for joining my blogathon with this wonderful post. This sounds a fabulous episode.

Laura said...

The best hour of TV ever! Thanks for a great write-up, Terry. :)

Best wishes,