Saturday, October 15, 2022

The High Chaparral

Even today Latinos are underrrepresented in the media. While Latinos make up 18.7% of the population in the United States according to the last census, they account for only 3.1% of all leading roles on television. In the Sixties Latino representation was much worse. Latinos rarely appeared on television and when they did, it was usually in Westerns where they were often portrayed as stereotypical Mexican bandidos or hot-tempered señoritas. When the Western television series The High Chaparral debuted, it was then positively revolutionary. Half of the lead characters were Mexican (even though they weren't played by actors of Mexican descent), and some of the supporting characters were as well. What is more, they were not presented as stereotypes, but as three-dimensional characters whose personalities were not entirely defined by preconceived notions about their ethnicity.

The High Chaparral
centred on the ranch of the same name, so named for the chaparral that grew in the area. In the pilot John Cannon (Leif Erickson), his wife  Anna-Lee (Joan Caulfield), his son Billy Blue (often called "Blue Boy," he was played by Mark Slade), and his brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell) settled the ranch, located near the border between Arizona Territory and Mexico. Anna-Lee was killed not long after they settled there in an attack by the Apaches. With the Apaches a constant threat, John Cannon had to enter into an alliance with Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera), who owned a large ranch on the Mexican side of the border. As a condition of the alliance, Don Sebastian required John to marry his daughter, Victoria (Linda Cristal).  Victoria's brother, Manolito (Henry Darrow), who did not get along particularly well with her father, accompanied his sister to her new home. Blue Boy initially did not approve of the marriage, although he grew to appreciate it in time. Although they married for reasons other than love and there was 30 years difference in their ages, John and Victoria grew to love each other as well.

The High Chaparral was the creation of David Dortort, who had also created what may be the most famous ranch Western of them all, Bonanza. David Dortort wanted to produce a Western where a son did not get along with his father, which would make it quite different from Bonanza. At the same time he thought Latinos did not get enough exposure on television and, when they did, too often they were portrayed as stereotypes. The end result of these two ideas was The High Chaparral, on which Blue did not particularly get along well with his father John and Mexican characters played large roles.

The pilot for The High Chaparral was shot in the summer of 1966. What set the pilot for The High Chaparral apart from any pilots before it is that it was meant to air in two parts, each an hour long with commercials. According to news reports at the time, it was the first two-part pilot ever. As might be expected, the pilot was expensive for television at the time. It cost $600,000. At the time David Dortort thought that if the pilot did not sell, then he could release it as a feature film.

At the time he assumed the role of Big John Cannon, Leif Erickson already had a long career. He had been appearing in movies since the Thirties and had appeared in such movies as On the Waterfront (1954) and Strait-Jacket (1964). Before playing Buck Cannon on The High Chaparral, Cameron Mitchell had also had a long career in film and television. He had starred on the short-lived British series The Beachcomber. Prior to playing Billy Blue, Mark Slade had been a regular on the short-lived show The Wackiest Ship in the Army and had guest starred on such shows as Gomer Pyle: USMC and Mr. Novak.

Despite the fact that their characters were Mexican, some of the actors playing members of the Montoya family were not even Latino. Although she grew up in Argentina, Linda Cristal was either born to a French father and an Italian mother or to Spanish parents. She had an impressive film career prior to playing Victoria on The High Chaparral, appearing in such films as The Perfect Furlough (1958) and The Alamo (1960). Frank Silvera, who played the recurring role of Don Sebastian Montoya, was Jamaican in ancestry. Throughout his career he had played a variety of ethnicities, although more often than not he played Latin characters. Of the Montoyas, the one character played by a Latino was Manolito Montoya. Henry Darrow was born Enrique Tomás Delgado in New York City to Puerto Rican parents. Initially using the stage name "Henry Delgado," he switched to the name "Henry Darrow" to avoid typecasting. Prior to The High Chaparral, he had made several guest appearances on television from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to Gunsmoke.

On many ranch Westerns on television it was often the case that ranch hands rarely appeared. Indeed, on David Dortort's own Bonanza it sometimes seemed as if the vast Ponderosa was ran by only four men. This was not the case with The High Chaparral, on which one of the lead characters was a ranch hand and several of the recurring characters were also ranch hands. Don Collier played the foreman of the High Chaparral, Sam Butler. Don Collier had been one of the leads on the Western television series Outlaws and had made several guest appearances on television shows.

While Sam Butler was a regular character on The High Chaparral, there were several other ranch hands who appeared in several episodes and appeared from the beginning of the show to its very end. Among these was Sam's brother Joe (Bob Hoy). Prior to The High Chaparral Bob Hoy had made several guest appearances on Bonanza and The Wild Wild West. Pedro was another ranch hand at the High Chaparral who appeared frequently on the show. He was also played by one of the only two semi-regular actors on the show who were actually Mexican in descent. Roberto Contreras was the son of director Jaime Contreras, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Prior to The High Chaparral, Roberto Contreras had guest starred on several TV Westerns. The other semi-regular actor on The High Chaparral who was Mexican in descent was Rodolfo Acosta, who played Vaquero on the show. Like Roberto Contreras, Rodolfo Acosta had appeared on several TV Westerns prior to The High Chaparral. Among the other ranch hands who appeared on The High Chaparral from time to time were Reno (Ted Markland) and Ira (Jerry Summers).

The High Chaparral was filmed on location at Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, as well as  Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Shooting in Arizona presented some problems, as in the summer temperatures could easily rise above 100 degrees. Other exteriors were shot around California, in such places as Red Rock Canyon State Park and Bronson Canyon. All interiors and some of the exteriors were shot at Warner Bros. in Burbank, with scenes shot on Laramie Street on the back lot and Studios 20 and 25 at Warner Bros.

The theme of The High Chaparral was composed by David Rose, who served as the composer on Bonanza (although its famous original theme was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans). In fact, he drew upon the score he had composed for the fifth season Bonanza episode "The Pressure Game" in writing the theme to The High Chaparral.

For a show that had a large ensemble, The High Chaparral had very few changes in its cast. Mark Slade left at the end of the third season. He was 28 when the show began and was over thirty by the third season. Quite simply, he was too old to convincingly play a teenager. Frank Silvera died shortly after the end of the third season. Don Sebastian was written out of the show as having died. He willed Rancho Monotya to his brother, Don Domingo (played by Mexican acting legend Gilbert Roland).

While The High Chaparral never ranked in the top thirty shows for the year, it did relatively well in the ratings for most of its run. It proved phenomenally successful in Europe, where it was the number one show there for a time. In Sweden a song titled "Manolito," about the character from The High Chaparral, was even written and recorded by singer/songwriter Thore Skogman. The High Chaparral can still be found in syndication in Europe.

The High Chaparral would end its run with its fourth season. Its last original episode aired on March 12 1971. The reasons for the cancellation of The High Chaparral seem to have been manifold. Its ratings were no longer as high as they had once been. It was also an expensive show to produce. The average episode cost $225,000 to produce.

Another possible factor in the cancellation of The High Chaparral may have been the fact that the 1970-1971 season was the year of the Rural Purge, at which time the networks purged themselves of shows that appealed primarily to rural audiences, older audiences, or both. It was mostly CBS that cancelled rural shows and shows that appealed to older audiences, although both NBC and ABC did their share of cancellations of such shows. NBC cancelled The Men from Shiloh (the new title of the long running Western The Virginian) because its audience was too old. Given Westerns have traditionally appealed to an older audience, it is possible that The High Chaparral fell victim to the networks' obsession with the 18-49 demographic.

Finally, it is possible that The High Chaparral fell victim to a moral panic over violence on television that had emerged after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. During the 1968-1969 season CBS had cancelled The Wild Wild West as a scapegoat in the moral panic over television violence. Sadly, the networks tended to identify the Western genre with violence. In an article published in the Pittsfield Berkshire Eagle, the Corpus Christi Caller Times, and other newspapers in mid-March of 1969, an ABC executive uses the fact that the network had eliminated all Westerns from their schedule as an example of their efforts to reduce violence on television. It is possible that NBC saw cancelling The High Chaparral as a means of reducing television violence on the network.

While The High Chaparral ended after four seasons, it would remain popular through the years. In addition to local television stations, it has been shown on such TV outlets as the Family Channel, the Hallmark Channel, INSP, and Heroes & Icons. The first three seasons have been released on DVD in the United States, and the entire run has been released on DVD in Europe. Although not as well known as such ranch Westerns as Bonanza and The Big Valley, The High Chaparral maintains a large following to this day.

Much of the reason The High Chaparral remains popular is that it was different from any other ranch Western on the air. The very fact that many of its characters were Mexican and were not played as stereotypes would set it apart from other Westerns of the time. While Victoria was strong-willed and had a temper, she was no stereotypical, fiery señorita. Indeed, she was responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the High Chaparral. And unlike a certain other ranch Western, when Victoria was captured she would not wait for the men to rescue her, but would figure out her own way to escape her captors. Similarly, Manolito was no stereotype either. Manolito was brave, intensely loyal to his friends and family, and he would always come down on the side of the oppressed. Even the Mexican ranch hands, such as Pedro and Vaquero, were not portrayed as stereotypes. Contrary to the "lazy Mexican" stereotype, they not only work hard, but they enjoy their work. Here it must be pointed out that Big John and Victoria had one of the few mixed marriages on television at the time. At a time when Latinos were rarely seen on television, The High Chaparral was positively revolutionary at the time in its portrayal of Latinos.

Even more so than Bonanza, The High Chaparral was sympathetic towards Native Americans. While the Apache were presented as a threat to both the High Chaparral and Rancho Montoya, they were treated with respect and as characters with their own motivations. For the most part, they were not portrayed as simple stereotypes, a sharp contrast to many of the Western television series of the Fifties.

Of course, another way in which The High Chaparral differed from other ranch Westerns is that it was much a grittier show. The characters on The High Chaparral did not always get along. Particularly in its early seasons, it was not unusual for Blue to fight with his father John, something the sons on Bonanza or The Big Valley rarely did. Even Victoria and Manolito, who were usually devoted to each other, would have arguments. In comparison to Bonanza and The Big Valley, The High Chaparral could be a very violent show. While the show was always centred around its characters (both the regulars and guest stars), it was at its core an action show. Gunfights and fisticuffs were not unknown in its earlier seasons.

The High Chaparral was one of the last Westerns on American television and it was a groundbreaking one at that. It featured Latinos in non-stereotypical roles at a time when Latinos were rarely seen on television. It also treated other ethnicities, from the Apache to Irish miners, with sympathy. At the same time, it was very effective as an action/adventure show. The High Chaparral may not be as well known as The Big Valley, let alone Bonanza, but there is every reason it should be.


Hal said...

It was a popular rerun on local KTVT even when I was a kid in the 1970s, but it usually ran on weekends only (Sunday night). I agree, the show has aged very well, much better than its contemporaries. Excellent show even during the somewhat maligned and shortened final season IMO.

Unknown said...

I am of Mexican-American descent and I agree with most of what is said in the article. It represented a world where racism was not the motivation. A world that we have yet to achieve.