The changes in the 6th season of The Virginian were not intentional, to be sure. They were the direct result of a real-life tragic event. Actor Charles Bickford who was playing John Granger became ill. He was temporarily replaced by John McIntire, who joined the cast as his brother Clay. Clay and his wife Holly, played by McIntire’s real-life wife Jeanette Nolan, were looking after the ranch while John was out of town. Bickford continued in the credits, but was not fated to return. His illness lead to his death, and the characters of Clay and Holly remained. McIntire finally replaced Bickford in the opening credits and nothing more was ever said about John Granger. It’s a bit of a surprise the death was not addressed and left hanging.
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. The Virginian’s right hand was Trampas (McClure). The town’s law and order was kept by sometimes sheriff and sometimes deputy (they couldn’t quite make up their minds) Emmett Ryker (Gulager). Stacey Granger (Quine) was grandson to John Granger (McIntire) who owned the ranch, and there was also granddaughter Elizabeth Granger (Lane).
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 26 episodes on 9 discs.
There were some very strong episodes to be found in the sixth year. The Trampas character got a lot of the solo stories this season and had more screen time on the show than The Virginian himself. In A Bad Place To Die Trampas is, once again, convicted of murder and is close to actually hanging this time. It’s kind of a running joke how many times the character was about to get a noose around his neck, only to be saved at the last minute.
The Barren Ground is one of the show’s emotionally moving episodes. The Virginian has to kill a man in self-defense. He takes the young man’s body back to his father who is at the end of his own life. He wishes to see his daughter before he dies. She had been kidnapped by Indians and raised as an Indian. The Virginian ends up getting involved in a land swindle scheme and even framed for murder.
A Small Taste Of Justice finds The Virginian waylaid by a local thug who terrorizes a small town. The town won’t help him but wish that he would end up killing the thug for them. They make him sheriff. A little girl gets hurt, and when The Virginian attempts to deal justice, he’s not sure the scared townspeople really have his back.
The Deathly Past features Kolchak star Darrin McGavin leading the way in another Trampas-only episode. Trampas is one of a series of strangers who has been getting a series of letters with a list of names. Each letter includes an RIP next to one of the names on the list. The survivors have to find each other and figure out what they have in common and why they are being targeted.
The Lady From Wichita stars Dick Van Dyke star Rose Marie and Joan Collins. A woman is invited to Medicine Bow as the inheritor of an estate. They’re saloon girls but end up liking the small town and try to make a more noble impression. Of course, there’s got to be some blackmail involved. It’s another solid Trampas story.
Ah Sing vs. Wyoming is the last episode to star Charles Bickford as John Granger. Coincidentally it is his best role and performance on the series. Granger’s Chinese cook wants to open his own restaurant but is denied a license because of prejudice. He keeps bucking the system and ends up in jail each time. John Granger pushes an alcoholic lawyer to defend him in a case that goes to Washington and the Supreme Court.
Bitter Autumn introduces McIntire and his character to the show. A cattle driver has put all of his future in a herd he’s driven to sell to Shiloh. But Trampas soon discovers the herd might be infected with a disease that could ruin every cattle ranch in the territory. The luck gets worse when one of his sons kills a woman in a tragic accident. The family is going to resort to desperation.
There was an impressive number of additional guest stars in this sixth year, in addition to those listed above: Tom Skerritt, Anthony Zerbe, Hugh Beaumont, Rockford’s Angel Stuart Margolin, Brenda Scott, Robert Lansing, Hill Street’s Kiel Martin and Charles Bronson.
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 number of episodes dropped to 26, but the production values continued to improve for this long-running television Western. I continue to be impressed by the emotional stories that are still a fresh break from the shootouts of the typical western of the time. I look forward to the last three seasons. “There’s a long road ahead, to be sure.”
Bang it here for Timeless Media