The fourth season of The Virginian was a milestone year for the groundbreaking western. Four of the show’s regular characters would be appearing in their final episodes. Lee J. Cobb was never completely happy doing the show, and while he always acted professionally, his castmates all knew he wanted to leave. Cobb finally left halfway through this season even though he would remain on the opening credits for the entire year. This would also be the first and last year for Diane Roter as Jennifer Sommers, the Judge’s niece. She was a replacement for Roberta Shore’s Betsy, who left the previous year but would return for one episode in year four to offer the character closure. Roter was a kind of Annette Funicello lookalike and only really appeared strongly in a handful of episodes. Finally, this was the last season for Randy Boone as Randy Benton. It’s your last chance to hear a riff from the young character’s guitar.
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 one’s 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 with whom he spent almost all of his time running around. 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.
There were some very strong episodes to be found in the fourth year. The Awakening would be the final appearance of Betsy. She finds a romantic interest and gets married and moves to Philadelphia with her new husband. Jennifer introduces Diane Roter’s niece character to the series. Her parents are killed and Judge Garth takes her in. She isn’t all that fond of her uncle at first, but learns to respect and love him just the same. The Laramie Road finds Deputy Ryker promoted to the town’s full sheriff, but it isn’t going to be easy when he has to stop the town from employing vigilante justice. They want to lynch his prisoners, and Ryker must decide if Medicine Bow is going to continue to have law and order or not. Judge Garth leaves for good in Nobody Said Hello. Garth must confront his past when one of his first cases comes back to haunt him. He kept a cruel military officer from being executed. The man got 20 years instead. Now he figures the judge owes him something for that 20 years he spent in jail. The Claim is hands down one of the best episodes of the series. Trampas finds himself fed up with ranch life and decides to leave when an old friend drifts into town. The old friend happens to be Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. This is really a very close “homage” to the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In jail the two friends meet an old prospector who knows where there is gold ripe for the taking. The strike leads to betrayal and hardship for the trio in the end. If you’ve seen the Bogart film, then you know exactly what happens here. Judge Garth’s temporary replacement is introduced in Morgan Starr. It appears that The Virginian has been passed over when the Judge hires Starr, played by John Dehner, to run Shiloh. The Judge has been appointed territory governor of Wyoming. Finally, in Long Ride To Wind River Drury delivers one powerful performance, perhaps his best on the show. A friend is wrongly convicted of murder and is scheduled to hang. The Virginian must strike out across the desert to bring in the guilty man. John Cassavetes stars as the mountain man The Virginian must bring in. The man’s entire clan will try to stop him. There’s a moment when The Virginian is delirious from exhaustion and dehydration and he begins to hallucinate. It’s a wonderful performance that is worth the price of the set alone.
There were an impressive number of guest stars in this fourth year: Robert Lansing, Kurt Russell, John Anderson, Bruce Dern, Susan Oliver, Albert Salmi, William Shatner, Joyce van Patten, John Hoyt, Charles Bronson, George Kennedy, Leonard Nimoy, Sherry Jackson, Michael Constantine, Leslie Nielsen, Claude Akins, Simon Oakland, James Best, James Doohan, James Whitmore, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Ed Begley, George Mitchell, Nita Talbot, Clint Howard, Warren Oates, Gary Walberg, Victor Jury, James Farentino, Peggy Lipton, Julie Adams, Andrew Prine, and Brook Bundy.
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. 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. It is improving quite noticeably from season to season.
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.
In the first season I had a ton of complaints about the packaging. The cardboard sleeves were horrible. Timeless Media was listening. They went from some of the worst packaging to some of the best. You still get a very cool full-color tin. Now you get a plastic case where all ten discs sit quite safely. They didn’t even resort to overlapped discs. Now that’s listening to the fans.
A Conversation With Patricia Day Mitchum: (38:08) It’s really a history of horses in the western genre.
The Virginian was about to change significantly. In season five a new family will take over Shiloh ranch and Ryker will get demoted once again. These first four seasons can be considered the first era of the series. You really want to have them all as a set, and Timeless Media has done everything that they can to make it an attractive set. Now I’m ready for the next era of The Virginian. If they would get us season five in short order, “I’d have to say I’d be most obliged”.
Bang it here for Timeless Media