A half century ago, a new Western arrived on NBC, and four seasons later, it was gone, leaving a legacy of just under 100 episodes—less than a fourth of the Bonanzas or a sixth of the Gunsmokes. Yet this show’s popularity grows, here and abroad, with daily airings on INSP.
Last September, the remaining cast and crew—and 150 fans—of The High Chaparral gathered one last time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the rugged and romantic Western series that Director-Writer Quentin Tarantino credits as an inspiration for 2015’s The Hateful Eight. The hosts for this opulent affair were series Production Manager Kent McCray and his wife, Susan, who helped cast the show.
The late David Dortort was an already incredibly successful creator of Bonanza when he branched off from the almost too-perfect Cartwrights to create what he’d later call a “dysfunctional Western family.”
Kent, who also managed the production of Bonanza, enjoyed the older show, but preferred the newer one, recalling, “In Bonanza, they had money, so people came to them; the stories were in and around the Ponderosa. The High Chaparral was a location [Old Tucson in Arizona] and had a lot of action.”
Not only action, but also a palpable sense of danger, and that rarity—unpredictability. It started with the pilot, when John Cannon (Leif Erickson) brings his lovely wife Annalee (Joan Caulfield), rebellious son Billy Blue (Mark Slade) and disreputable brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell) to the Arizona ranchland he’s bought. Incredibly, Annalee is immediately killed by Apaches and, almost as quickly, John Cannon acquires a new Mexican wife!
“We had the Mexican family of high esteem south of the border, and then we had the Tucson family, the (socially lower) Cannons,” recalls Henry Darrow, the ladies’ favorite as lovable wastrel Manolito, of the elegant Montoya clan. “And the man who played my father, Frank Silvera, negotiated a romance between his daughter [Victoria, played by Linda Cristal] and the old man, John Cannon.”
The quick marriage doesn’t sit well with Billy Blue, who has just lost his mother and was attracted to Victoria himself. And that’s just the pilot!
One revolutionary element for the series that aired from 1967-1971 was the number of Hispanic actors who appeared in it. “The people in Latin America, people all over the world, love it. They all can relate to it,” Susan says.
Darrow agrees. “Dortort had such an affinity for Latin actors, and he used us. He hired almost every Latin who I had ever known of, about 100-odd people a year.”
The High Chaparral surely came along at the right time for the late actor Cameron Mitchell, who was represented at the reunion by his children, fellow actors Chip and Camille Mitchell, who said, “I think it saved his life.”
Cameron had acted with the best in the business—John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe—but the Hollywood studio system collapsed. He was busy making European Westerns and horror films, but Camille remembers, “He was almost 50, and in those days, 50 was old for an actor.”
While flying to Rome to act in a movie, Cameron found himself sitting next to Dortort. Chip remembers, “They’d done The Ox-Bow Incident on TV together [for The 20th Century-Fox Hour], which got David an Emmy nomination.”
Dortort gave Cameron a copy of The High Chaparral script: “‘I thought you might want [to play] John Cannon.’ But Dad read the script and he immediately fell in love with the role of Buck,” Chip says.
“Cameron Mitchell was a character. He’d eat [while] wearing gloves. Show up blond without warning,” Kent remembers.
His costumes were made of black velour. “After a take, he’d jump in a water trough to cool off. With the velour, it didn’t show. But I thought he was the best actor on the show,” Kent says.
Deep-voiced Don Collier, who played foreman Sam Butler, had already performed in three films with John Wayne. His favorite episode on The High Chaparral was “Follow Your Heart,” where Butler finally gets a romance. “Though they killed my wife off,” Collier adds. “My favorite writer wrote that show, Denne Petitclerc.”
Petitclerc, who also wrote the pilot episode, was a protégé of author Ernest Hemingway.
With stories so dependent on action, a strong stunt crew was indispensable. The stunts were overseen by Henry Wills, who had spent two decades performing stunts on Republic serials and B-Westerns before becoming stunt coordinator on 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
Stuntman Steve DeFrance, who calls Wills “my best mentor,” remembers the job as a 52-episode blur of action: “It was like working in a real ranch; every day was a day of work. In one [episode], we were Chaparral guys, running from the Comancheros, shooting back at them. Then we traded hats, rode back shooting this way as Comancheros. But in the afternoon, we changed into cavalry uniforms and came to our rescue.”
What killed the series? Assassinations.
Kent believes the “death of Robert Kennedy changed the attitude of television. They didn’t want to see people get killed, and that hurt us terribly.”
For what had been a life-and-death action series, adopting a “no-kill” policy became a credibility nightmare. Jackie Fuller, Cristal’s stunt double, recalls, “You’d have an Indian attack. A stunt man could act like he was shot, fall off the horse, but then you had to show him getting up and running off-screen.”
Soon, viewers were running away as well. The final episode, “A Man to Match the Land,” aired on March 12, 1971.
Most High Chaparral folks who are still around have retired. But Kent has just written his autobiography, and Susan says the couple is looking for a way to revive the series. That suits Collier fine: “It was fun to do. Sure wish we had time to do it again.”
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com.