Today maybe this western television series — filmed through its seven-year run (1959-66) in black and white — is best remembered for its theme song, and not even for its classic rendition by Frankie Laine but by nonsingers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers (1980). It seems a shameful travesty, as seen today — and I’ve been watching the entire run semi-religiously on the Turner Channel daily, sometimes twice a day for the especially good episodes — it easily holds its quality after all these years as the best western rerun, just shading Gunsmoke but utterly destroying the color extravaganzas Bonanza, High Chaparral and The Big Valley; with a nod to The Wild Wild West, very well done but as an interesting foray into a camp, period-set crime show that had more in common with The Man From Uncle, even Star Trek.
Like virtually all successful American tv series that don’t drag through repetition for a whole season, Rawhide relied on seven or eight regulars to carry the stories as genuine ensemble efforts. Fleming and Eastwood dominated, often alternating, though the older man commanded the screen as well as the drovers. The top-billed star’s personal story is a haunting one, from a boyhood filled with vicious physical abuse from his father, to military service and facial reconstruction surgery, to early accidental death filming on location in South America. Sheb Wooley as trail scout Pete Nolan was a reliable third wheel with screen presence, almost as tall as the 6ft-3-to-4 Fleming and Eastwood and fit for romantic leads, but leaving in 1962 to further his considerable country & western career — though he had been a recognisable screen face from his role as the third doomed badguy in High Noon (1952) and made most money from disc novelties like “The Purple People Eater”. Steve Raines (as Jim Quince) and Rocky Shahan (as Joe Scarlett) had started as stuntmen and background expert horsemen and wranglers, but Raines shone in an often demanding role and early on performed as central character a number of times, a convincing westerner in the Fordesque mold and a more than competent actor. Even Mushy, the young naive (slow) “cook’s louse”, played appealingly but without mushy sentiment by James Murdock, was treated as an important character, having several stories built around him. A year or so younger than Clint in real life, Murdock was handsome too and over six feet, yet another slimline hunk to ensure covering every possible combination and permutation of demographic. In keeping with the historical veracity of cattle drives held paramount for the theme of the series throughout, little Robert Cabal as “Hey Soos” (Jesus, spelt phonetically) was in charge of the ramuda (corral of working horses) and added many a fine coloring of Mexican folklore and trail superstition to the atmosphere. In his eyes, packs of wolves, rogue bulls roaming solo, patent medicine pedlars and travelling entertainment shows of Gypsies were never quite what they seemed, allowing for interpretation by the supernaturally inclined — much to the taste of the drovers but the constant derision of ever tough, level-headed trail boss Gil Favor. Far less conspicuous and never featured was John Hart, a semi-regular over two early seasons but trusted with few lines though yet another who was tall with movie-star looks and not without talent: on the slow road of neglect after having been tv’s fill-in Lone Ranger for two seasons while Clayton Moore ruminated over a pay dispute with the producers, and then again every boy’s small-screen hero in the Canadian-produced Hawkeye/Last of the Mohicans.
Bewhiskered Paul Brinegar (Wishbone the cook), always good value as comedy relief in westerns — seen in the Fifties as a regular sidekick of Hugh O’Brian on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp — and whose avuncular codger appeal a sizable section of Rawhide fans swore by, was a recognised star by 1964 and he and the two established principals toured Japan, where the series was number one in the ratings. In the States it was not as overwhelmingly popular as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza (1959-73), ratings toppers in turn for several years and in color for most, latterly, and all of its run, respectively; or a number of lesser western entries for that matter. Rawhide, a mid-season entry in the New Year of 1959, was an instant top 20 hit, peaking at no.6 for 1961, but then on a slow fade in domestic popularity despite a constant year-by-year improvement in overall production standards. And in the face of the fact that it was by far the most authentic western on tv through the Sixties including other vaunted candidates such as Gunsmoke, a revelation as the first adult western in 1955 and darkly stylish in its early years (running to 1975), Wagon Train (1957-64), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-60) with Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter.
Repeat guests of the suitably gritty quality of Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Simon Oakland, Claude Akins, R. G. Armstrong, Lola Albright, Ted De Corsia and L. Q. Jones had served the series’ long run well, along with bravura character thespians James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith, Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Patricia Medina and others. Rawhide‘s production company, Revue-CBS, which in 1962 had finished with Laramie and begun the full-color, 90-minute blockbuster The Virginian/Men of Shiloh as a longrunning flagship project, by the end of 1964 was ploughing more resources into bolstering a failing series that was arguably better than ever. One episode from this period, “Canliss” directed by former sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) features Dean Martin as the titular gunfighter, surrounded by up-and-coming leading lady Laura Devon and prestige character stars Michael Ansara (famous from tv as Cochise), Theodore Bikel and silent-movie veteran Ramon Novarro. The recruitment of Martin — best-selling crooner and moreover bona fide tv star with his own popular variety series having started that September — was a sure sign of status, the first “special guest star” to be featured upfront in the opening titles, though the series was to survive barely a year more till the New Year of 1966, just half a season after the decamp of Eric Fleming with Clint Eastwood left as the sole regular star.
The episode did without Rowdy altogether, Eastwood on hiatus making A Fistful of Dollars with Leone. Clint had guested in a pre-Rawhide Maverick episode, co-starred with David Janssen and Darren McGavin in an ill-starred remake of Lafayette Escadrille (1958) from William Wellman, and gone on to guest star in Mr Ed — a modest peak in American tv. Starting as a $600-a-week tv “star”, he had probably made it to a couple of thou by the end of the run — and received $15,000 for his first Leone outing; $50,000 for the second, For a Few Dollars More, filmed 1965; $250,000 for the third, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (’66). Eric Fleming said, leaving after the 1964-65 series, the producers had let him go because he was costing them a million dollars a year — good indication of Fleming’s centrality and appeal to fans of the show. For as long as he lasted, Gil Favor’s “Head ‘em up! [six-beat pause] Move ‘em out!” was an icon and probably the widest known feature of the series apart from its evergreen theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin. And when the show finally wound up the unforgettable personification of Favor, Eric Fleming, had just ten months to live (drowning in a raging river).
While Charles Gray had filled in as scout Clay Forrester with charismatic performances (though on the back foot competing with scout Flint McCullough played by Robert Horton on Wagon Train) for a good while after the departure of Sheb Wooley, only for Wooley to return for a few episodes when it was almost all over, things were never the same when for the season opening of spring 1965 Rawhide recruited John Ireland and Raymond St Jacques for its final series — as fill-ins, as Wagon Train and Bonanza would try too for longevity. A collective landmark was crossed with St Jacques joining Bill Cosby (I Spy) and Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as the first black actors as regulars in a tv series, all in 1965, to be followed by Nichelle Nichols as Uhura the following season for Star Trek.