THE BEST TV WESTERNS ON DVD
TV has made some great westerns now on DVD
By RON MILLER
There was a time when as many as 20 western series were playing on prime time television. That time has passed bigtime. Right now the only prominent first-run western series on television is HBO's profane "Deadwood"--and it's in its final season, though it will continue as occasional made-for-cable movies.
Yet, if the western is close to extinction on television as well as the movies, it is thriving on the home video range. Boxed sets of classic westerns are popping up regularly, selling mostly to aging fans of the original shows--and to a large number of western fans too young to have ever seen them.
If you're among that group--television viewers who like westerns, but are too young to have seen the originals, I have some viewing suggestions for you right here.
First, let's state what ought to be obvious: The best western ever made for television--and one of the greatest westerns in any medium--is the original "Lonesome Dove" miniseries CBS produced from the Pulitzer Prize novel by Larry McMurtry. The six-hour saga starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas rangers who take a cattle drive from Texas to Montana is sublime western entertainment. It has everything--and then some.
The original "Lonesome Dove" miniseries is available on DVD at very reasonable prices nearly everywhere. Its miniseries sequel, "Return to Lonesome Dove," not based on a McMurtry novel and starring Jon Voight in the role played by Jones in the original, is also available as are the two subsequent miniseries, both adapted from McMurtry novels--"Streets of Laredo," with James Garner in the Jones-Voight role, and a prequel to "Lonesome Dove" called "Dead Man's Walk" with David Arquette and Jonny Lee Miller as young versions of the Duvall and Jones characters. Finally, the Canadian-made syndicated weekly series inspired by "Lonesome Dove" is also available.
"Lonesome Dove" is still
the best all-time TV western.
Here are some other worthwhile TV westerns you should look at this summer:
1. GUNSMOKE, the longest-running western TV show ever, is now available in a special "Best of..." boxed DVD collection featuring the original cast headed by James Arness as Marshal Dillon of Tombstone. The modern, color "Gunsmoke" reunion movies, starring Arness and some cast originals, also are available at bargain prices.
The new 50th anniversary
"Gunsmoke" DVD set
contains the best episodes
from several seasons.
2. HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, featuring Richard Boone as Paladin, a San Francisco-based gun-for-hire, is a great series I didn't fully appreciate until I began to watch the original episodes as a mature adult. The stories, done in half-hour episodes, are very good and some of today's big stars are featured in guest roles when they were just starting out. The first three seasons are available in separate boxed DVD sets. Don't wait for the upcoming feature film, in which rap singer Eminem will play Paladin.
3. THE BIG VALLEY was one of the first really big, one-hour western shows done in grand feature film style. I'm now watching the first season, which has just come on the market as a boxed DVD set, and enjoying it immensely. Barbara Stanwyck, the all-time best female western star, is the stern widow running the sprawling Barkley ranch with her sons and daughter Audra. You'll love seeing a slim and handsome Lee Majors as her bastard son, Heath, and you'll barely recognize the slender, radiantly beautiful Linda Evans in her first series role, long before she ever heard of the Carrington clan and that bitch named Alexis.
4. CONAGHER is the best of the made-for-TV adaptations of novels by Louis L'Amour. Lean and laconic Sam Elliott plays the title character, a solitary frontiersman who begins a romantic relationship with isolated farm woman Katharine Ross (his wife in real life), then winds up fighting for both their lives.
5. INTO THE WEST, the 2005 miniseries developed by Steven Spielberg for the TNT cable network, is the most recent truly high quality western miniseries--telling the story of one pioneer family and its complex relationships with the Native American tribesmen and women that they're constantly pushing back across the American western frontier.
Steve McQueen's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" series dates from the 1950s, but Steven
Spielberg's miniseries "Into the West" played just last year on the TNT cable network.
6. THE SACKETTS is a miniseries developed by NBC from two novels by Louis L'Amour--"The Daybreakers" and "Sackett"--about the Sackett family and its place in the American west. The first pairing of Tom Selleck (as Orrin Sackett) and Sam Elliott (as Tell Sackett) in a western. Both would return in several addition westerns based on L'Amour's popular novels. The cast was loaded with western veterans, including Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Gilbert Roland, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Pat Buttram and one-time top Hollywood stars Ruth Roman and Mercedes McCambridge.
7. WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE ran from 1958-61 and made young actor Steve McQueen into a star whose shift to major feature films was a foregone conclusion. (Don't count his initial splash as the star of the original version of "The Blob.")
In this half-hour weekly series, McQueen played frontier bounty hunter Josh Randall. The complete first season is now available as a boxed DVD set.
8. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD is another Louis L'Amour adaptation, made by HBO in 1987. It's not to be confused with the zany 1995 Sam Raimi feature film of the same title with Sharon Stone as a lady gunslinger. In this one, Sam Elliott is the slow-talking gunfighter hired to lead city-bred nouveau range settlers Kate Capshaw and Tom Conti through outlaw territory. This is tense and captivating. Meanwhile, the looks exchanged between Elliott and Capshaw are steamy enough to melt your underpants.
HBO's "Deadwood" is the only weekly western series still on the air. Kenny Rogers'
"Gambler" was the top-rated TV movie of its year and was followed with miniseries
sequels, which are included in the new "Legend of the Gambler" boxed set of DVDs.
9. DEADWOOD is HBO's revisionist, retro western series which suggests the frontier was a filthy, rotten place where every other word spoken was of the four-letter variety. In fact, you will hear more cussing per hour in "Deadwood" than you'll hear in an uncensored Eddie Murphy concert tape. The main reason for watching this is to catch English actor Ian McShane playing a corrupt town boss in a style that's both red-blooded and rank. Th'e first two seasons are available as DVD boxed sets.
10. KENNY ROGERS AS 'THE GAMBLER' is the actual full title of the phenomenally popular 1980 CBS movie in which singer Rogers portrayed Brady Hawkes, the hero he immortalized in song with his earlier hit record "The Gambler," a man who "knows when to hold 'em and knows when to fold 'em." In the story, Hawkes is riding out to find the son he didn't know he had, accompanied by sidekick Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner). This was the highest-rated TV movie of the season and led to three miniseries sequels. Rogers turned out to be a pretty good actor and went on to do other western movies for television.
©2006 by Ron Miller. This column first posted June 19, 2006.
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