The other four episodes are all revenge tales, each with Redford cast as an arrogant hothead. And they are more typical of the massive number of Western TV shows during the 1950s and ’60s, a bit stiff and clichéd, as opposed to the realistic characterizations found in such top-of-the-line series as “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and, yes, “The Virginian.”
“The Deputy” episode, “The Last Gunfight,” with Henry Fonda narrating and appearing in just the opening and closing moments, has Redford as a bullying tough guy determined to prove himself the fastest draw. He is eventually pulled into a competition with a gunslinger (Paul Clarke) as they both attempt to provoke a reformed gunfighter-turned-storekeeper (Charles McGraw) into a showdown. Despite the show’s obvious limitations, Redford is very good and the episode’s climax offers a nice, if abrupt, ironic twist.
The episode of “Whispering Smith” is “The Grudge,” with Redford as a reluctant gunman pushed to be a crack shot by his mother (June Walker), who is blinded by a misguided obsession for revenge against lawman Smith (Murphy), who killed her outlaw husband. A sister (Gloria Talbott) is also in on the scheme as they set up Smith for a frame job, then ultimately lure him into the inevitable Main Street showdown. Again, Redford is nuanced and rises above others in the cast, though Murphy’s natural charisma is also in evidence.
The two episodes of “Tate” have Redford in decidedly smaller roles.
In “The Bounty Hunter,” Redford is shot and killed in the first five minutes after confronting Tate (McLean) with the mistaken notion that he killed his father. (An unrecognizable Robert Culp in heavy character makeup is also in this episode, along with future Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher.)
And in “Comanche Scalps,” Redford doesn’t show up until the last five minutes. Tate’s old friend, now a stone-cold killer (Frank Overton) has been away from his home for two years, but he sees red when he learns that his brother (Redford) has married his girl. In this one Redford has a hothead moment, but in the end takes the pacifistic route, refusing to fight his own brother. (Leonard Nimoy steals the show as a Comanche raider.)
Hey, if you’re a Redford fan and can’t wait for his next big-screen appearance (“The Company You Keep” is on the way but has no firm date yet), these early shows may sate your appetite.
And let’s hope it begins a trend. I’d love to see at set of Robert Duvall's or Gene Hackman’s early TV appearances, among others.
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