BluRay/DVD Reviews

BRONCO: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (WB Archives)

By • Aug 21st, 2014 •

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Ty Hardin has a big, friendly, noble face. Concealed within it – like the Junior Scholastic magazine game where you had to find hidden animals in a deceptively simple pen and ink of an empty barnyard – is Elvis Presley. Not always – his look appears more chiseled at times – but if you catch it just right, you’ll see Elvis lurking in there, and if you listen, you might even hear the King’s clipped, flat delivery. Since this was around the time of Elvis’s debut in the western drama LOVE ME TENDER (November, 1956), maybe there was a bit of that in their choice of Hardin for the role, even if it was subliminal.

Like Clint Walker in CHEYENNE, he’s not really a well–trained actor, and relies on a limited palette of expressions and reactions to pull him through. But this narrow thespian ability may have been part of his appeal. His technical inadequacies make him sympathetically vulnerable.

Episode One (always fascinating to see how the studio endeavors to carve an image on the first show) has Bronco protecting a group of religious settlers heading West from three gunmen out to rob and kill them. Our protagonist doesn’t quite get their unwillingness to bear arms, nor their criticism of him, he being all that stands between them and the killers, but it does open many dramatic possibilities, all of which the screenwriters take full advantage. As one of the bad guys, the script gives floating-eyed Jack Elam a lot to do, and he delivers with gusto. The music for the show’s main and end title themes momentarily evokes the spaghetti westerns to come. The lyrics, however, are the worst of all the 50s TV western title songs.

‘Quest of the Thirty Dead’ is an ambitious episode. Set for most of its length on a moving train, it’s as if the writers fulfilled a yearning to invade Hitchcock territory. The barreling cars are chock full of plots and subplots, with wonderful character actors like Jay Novello (who the director seems to adore, letting him milk every close-up with twitches, sly smiles, and other bits of business), Tol Avery – a less bulky Raymond Burr who provides gravitas, Willis Bouchey in a small but effective role as a railroad bigwig, and Ray Danton, who dominates the frame with his stiff-but-effective delivery and Brylcreemed hair. [He reminds me so much of someone current, and until I’m certain who it is, I’ll have to guess Anderson Cooper] Even Ty Hardin rises to a level above his slender achievement in the premiere episode. He and Danton play former Civil War troop comrades, now on opposite sides of the law, and after all the double-dealings are unwound and the main plot resolved, there’re still the two former friends drawing down on each other. The only actor who is completely adrift is Beverly Tyler, lost in a cluster of emotional expectations that she’s unable to deliver.

You must take my word for it and watch episode three, wherein Bronco Layne befriends John Wesley Hardin (reportedly Warner Bros gave their new TV star that stage name in homage to the real life gunfighter), and tries to help him patch up things with his preacher father, played by Peckinpah stalwart R.G. Armstrong (four years before Armstrong essayed a highly similar role in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY). This is a solid, emotional episode within which loyalties shift like the ocean tide. But consider the sign prominently displayed in the first act: “Evangelist Meeting. Reverend Leslie Hardin.”

If you’ve seen the episode, you may read below and take a stroll in revelationville:

NOT A SPOILER, BUT QUITE A SHOCKER

Although Hardin is a likeable presence in this four-year series, and although he had a subsequent light career in other westerns (including Spaghetti), TV series, etc., what will involuntarily make your jaw drop is the real-life trajectory of this Warner TV pretty boy star.

Born in New York City on New Year’s Day, 1930, with a name that rivals Archibald (Cary Grant) Leach’s, Jr. Orison Whipple Hungerford was raised in Texas, grew to 6’ 2”, and was the original choice to play ‘Batman’ on the 60s TV series.

From there we follow him along a trail littered with 8 wives (# 3 was 1961’s Miss Universe), and then to a stint as an ultra-fundamentalist evangelical preacher (note the odd similarities in the above episode, not to mention the religious content of the pilot) aiming his hateful rhetoric against Jews, Catholics, Blacks…and the IRS?

He also led a radical right-wing group called ‘The Arizona Patriots’ which, in addition to the aforementioned rhetoric, was also vehemently anti-immigrant, and was known to stockpile weapons. All of this and more is reported on IMDB, Wikipedia, etc.

On his official website, updated at least through 2010, he makes sure that all the filmmakers out there are aware that he’s still up for whatever roles they might have for him. “If you are looking for a real “pro” who takes his work seriously, while enjoying the challenge of bringing reality to his screen performances, unique to this actor, consider using my services. As an octogenarian, I’m ‘6’2”, grey haired, 180 lbs. of “solid” muscle and can still straddle a horse.”

He also references Obama: “What if our Black President cannot unite our nation, restore the Constitution. All Hell Will Break Loose.”

I dare you to watch one of the Bronco episodes now, and not look at him in a very different way.

Hardin is still among us, and probably shows up, now in his late 80s, at memorabilia conventions. Despite what I’d characterize as a major chasm between our belief systems, I’d really like to meet the guy. He must be quite a character in person, and he must have some great stories to tell.

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