There were a ton of changes in the 5th season. There would be a rather large cast shake-up. Lee Cobb and Roberta Shore were now completely gone. It was only a matter of time for Cobb, who was never really happy doing the show but never let it get in the way of his performance or attitude toward the rest of the cast and crew. Enter Charles Bickford in his only season as the Granger family head, John. He brings his grandchildren Elizabeth, played by Sara Lane, and Stacy, played by Don Quine.
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). Later the ranch was bought by the Granger family. Then there was Trampas (McClure). Although Garth was his boss, they were inseparable buddies, to be sure.
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 29 episodes on 10 discs.
There were some very strong episodes to be found in the fifth year. In the pilot episode we’re introduced to the Granger family and the start of a lot of trouble for the character of Stacy Granger. In just this season alone, he’s charged with murder at least three times. He’s shanghaied by the Army, and accused of murder yet again. He’ll have the son of a robber he killed looking for him at least twice. Not a happy character at all.
The Outcast stars teen singing idol of the time Fabian as Charlie, an outlaw. He manages to sweet-talk himself into people’s hearts, including Elizabeth. She takes quite a shine to the young looker, but he’s trouble all the way.
Jack Lord stars as another outlaw in High Stakes. When The Virginian tries to help a young friend to get a fair price on his horses at market, it ends up more trouble than he bargained for. The young buck falls in love with a saloon girl and ends up dead. Now The Virginian is out to track his killer by posing as an outlaw himself to infiltrate the man’s gang.
Linda is more film noir than western. The story follows The Virginian on an eventful stage journey where he unwittingly plays a part in a mystery that involves crooks, feds, and even a classic femme fatale in Diane Baker’s titular Linda. It a wonderful showcase for the talents of star James Drury, who gets to do more than play with cattle and a six-gun. It’s one of his best episodes, to be sure. It’s also a nice change of routine in story.
Pernell Roberts stars in The Long Way Home as yet another outlaw. He is trying to turn his life around even though he has a price on his head for bustin’ out. He wants to win back his wife and son who have now made a life for themselves in Medicine Bow.
Harrison Ford makes his acting debut in The Medoc Kid. He’s part of a gang led by John Saxon. When one of the gang members is badly injured in a bank heist they hole up at Shiloh, taking the Granger family hostage.
Finally, there’s more than a little Dr. Quinn in the episode Doctor Pat. A young woman doctor arrives in Medicine Bow to work with the town’s doctor, but he and the town where expecting Dr. Pat to be a man. Instead they get Dr. Patricia, who must prove she’s as good as any man in the job.
There was an impressive number of additional guest stars in this fifth year: Angie Dickinson, Warren Oates, Bernie Hamilton, Susan Strasberg, Martin Milner, George Kennedy, William Schallert, Michael Ansara, Noah Beery, Jr., Hugh Beaumont, Patty Duke, Cloris Leachman, James Gregory, Susan Clark, Clint Howard, Robert Fuller, Linda Day George and Andrew Prine.
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.
The new cast works, and the series never really missed a beat with the new lineup. More changes were in store, and the series just kept right on telling quality western stories that went far beyond the traditional shoot ’em-ups of the day. The releases continue to be “Something we can all take pride in”.
Bang it here for Timeless Media