The Virginian set itself apart from the others in two ways. The first was found in the source material. The series was based on a 1902 novel by Owen Winsler, a man who actually lived in the Wyoming badlands during the time the series was set. The source material helps to add a sense of authenticity that might well have been a slight step ahead of the rest. It wasn’t as violent as the others, again reflecting a more realistic sense of direction.
Thus was the heart of the original novel. The stories were less about gunfights and more about the obstacles and challenges that these earlier settlers faced. Each, with different interests, tried to carve out a home in the vast wilderness of the open West. These challenges came from many places, and often from his fellow man, but not always. That’s the type of tale captured in this long-running western series.
The second unique aspect of this series was its length. This was one of the few 90-minute series in television history (the first Western). Each episode was really a western movie that starred many of the same characters. True to the example set by the original novel, the series often developed western stories that were not originally written as episodes, but rather classic western novels, converted to fit the show.
The series was named after the main character in the series. The Virginian (Drury) had no other name. He was the foreman on the extensive Shiloh Ranch. The ranch took up fully half of the Wyoming territory. It was owned during the first seasons by retired Judge Garth (Cobb), who lived with his 15-year-old adopted daughter Betsy (Shore). The Virginian had two close friends who he spent almost all of his time running around with. Although he was their boss, they were inseparable buddies, to be sure. Trampas (McClure) was the older and more reckless of the two. Randy (Boone) was the guitar-playing youngster on the ranch.
Another way this show was different was the ease with which the supporting characters got themselves episodes where they were the focus. There are even episodes where The Virginian himself was either not in the episode or relegated to a cameo, often at the beginning or end. There are another 30 episodes on 10 discs.
Betsy was growing up, and she had a few romantic stories in this season. There was less of Judge Garth. The truth was that Cobb was never really happy with the show and thought of it as a step down for him. Many of his cast-mates have talked about his displeasure but were always quick to point out that he was professional at all times and made the best of the situation. It’s obvious to anyone watching that his performance never suffered. It’s likely the lighter workload was an attempt to keep him happy. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t save the day. After the fourth season Cobb left the show, and new owners would take over at Shiloh. While Gary Clarke had left the show after two seasons, he did return for three episodes on this year. He would then be gone with no explanation.
In the first episode entitled Ryker, we’re introduced to the season’s new regular. Clu Gulager had been approached to join the series from the beginning but turned it down to go to New York and attempt to work in the theater. By the third season he was ready to join the cast as Ryker, the town’s new deputy sheriff. Kurt Russell guest stars as a little boy in A Father For Toby. To make the show even more interesting, Kurt’s father would also appear in the episode. He played an orphan who made up tall tales about his father that brought ridicule from the other boys, until he passes Trampas off as his secret-agent dad. But his real Pa was in jail for ten years. Now he’s out, but his fellow thieves think he knows where the loot is from the job, but it had been lost in the getaway. The boy, Toby, would end up in the middle of the blood feud. In All Nice And Legal, Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis arrives in Medicine Bow as an attorney. Of course, everyone, including The Virginian, is skeptical of a woman lawyer. That is until The Virginian gets sued and needs help fast to keep from going to jail for contempt. Singing sensation Fabian guest stars in Two Men Named Laredo. This episode is ahead of its time. Fabian’s character is accused of murder but doesn’t seem to remember the crime. The episode delves into mental illness and its place in the courtroom. It was a concept not only ahead of its day in 1880’s but in the 1960’s when the episode aired. This was the kind of groundbreaking drama the series was known for. Fabian was a Philadelphia sensation who was a staple on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The Devil went down to Wyoming in another quality episode, Timberland. But he isn’t packing a violin. Charlie Daniels is running a timber company that threatens the watershed by removing too many trees too quickly. It’s a rare environmental story from the day. Again the show reaches for subject matter that wasn’t really touched upon on television in the 1960’s. Finally, the season ends with We’ve Lost A Train. It’s a backdoor pilot for the series Laredo. Trampas is sent to Texas and then Mexico to pick up a prize bull Judge Garth has bought. In the Texas town of Laredo he runs afoul of three Texas Rangers and ends up joining them on an amusing adventure. The three rangers and their boss Captain Edward Parmalee (Carey) are the stars of the spin-off series that chronicles the adventures of the Texas Rangers.
There were an impressive number of guest stars in this third year: Ida Lupino, Leonard Nimoy, Bill Mumy, Simon Oakland, Martin Milner, Adam West, Jack Warden, Warren Oates, Forrest Tucker, Andrew Prine, Bruce Dern, Vera Miles, George Kennedy, Ellen Corby, Slim Pickens, Barbara Eden, Robert Culp, Katharine Ross, Leslie Nielsen and Raquel Welch.Video
Each episode of The Virginian is presented in its original broadcast full-frame format. The series was shot in color. The detail is actually pretty nice, and the prints are pretty solid, allowing for age. Black levels fluctuate quite a bit but are usually fair. I still don’t like the idea of the amount of time on the disc, but I will say the compression issues are not nearly what they were in the first season. Color is usually quite good. There are some nice bright colorful details. Reds look particularly good and rich with this image presentation. From dresses to woodgrains, the color pops.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is as about what you’d expect from a 50-year-old source. There is distortion at times. The volume changes occasionally. I’m not sure what’s up with that. The dialog is fine, and hiss is kept to a minimum.
You still get a very cool full-color tin and the plastic case where all ten discs sit quite safely. They didn’t even resort to overlapped discs.
There’s a nice booklet that contains a ton of classic shows you can order from Timeless Media. You should check them out. Bang it here for Timeless Media
Interview With L.Q. Jones: (28:21)
There were a ton of Westerns during this period. That’s not what makes this one special. At one time there were over 20 hours of new Westerns on each week. And remember, there were only three channels in those days. Some of those shows were just as good as this one. A couple even ran twice as long. What makes this show special is that they delivered a new movie every week for 30 weeks out of the year. Not a single show in history can make that claim. Were there any better? I haven’t seen every Western ever made, so “I wouldn’t know for sure, but I doubt it”.