One of the best and most fondly remembered TV westerns has finally brought its first season to DVD in a set devoid of any comments, interviews, making-of’s, or other bonus impedimenta. None of that is missed, because episodes of Maverick are so good from the very beginning, their crystalline presentation here is all most folks will need.
To a jaunty theme with a prominent banjo line that sounds both folksy and sneaky, Bret Maverick (James Garner) rides into town by horse, stage, train, or riverboat, and proceeds to the nearest high-stakes poker game. He’s a professional gambler in a black stetson and bow tie, with a frilly white shirt and a last-resort thousand-dollar-bill pinned under his frock coat. He knows every trick but doesn’t employ them himself unless he’s catching a cheater or making a point. A smooth talker who prefers to avoid confrontation but has no objection to speaking his mind, Maverick cuts a shady figure that townsfolk don’t know whether to trust. A part of his technique is to anticipate and manipulate people, but often he finds himself on the short end, especially when answering the call of a nagging conscience and sense of justice.
Maverick burst upon a delighted audience in the fall of 1957 and quickly became a favorite amid the growing mass of wandering cowpokes, marshalls, wagon drivers, riflemen, and other dust-kickers populating TV. A man who didn’t seek trouble yet inevitably courted it with his self-serving and frankly greedy trade, he was a different shade of grey on the black and white tube. He was willing to back down from any pride-sodden local despot and advise others to do the same, and he needed to feel anger on behalf of the weak before he was willing to display the gun on his hip. Even then, he confessed to not being a good shot. Although better with his fists, he preferred to avoid that too—and he got beaten up a lot.
The line on Maverick is that it started as a serious western and gradually become more comic, even parodic and satirical. It’s true that later seasons emphasized comedy by spoofing other shows and pulling stunts like having Garner do a turn as Bret’s legendary, aphorism-spouting Pappy. However, as this set makes clear, the show had a sly sense of humor from the beginning, and creator-producer Roy Huggins can’t be slighted on this. In his recent memoir, Garner (who admits to not liking Huggins) credits initial director Budd Boetticher and himself with kidding the material and says that Huggins went along with it. However, comedy is already present in the conception of a card sharp named Maverick and the tricky rug-pulling plots (Huggins wrote the second episode, intended as the first) as well as in the theme music.
To finish the 27 hours of the first season, Huggins realized he needed to run two production units at the same time, which required another Maverick. Thus, Bret’s lankier brother Bart (Jack Kelly) was introduced in a team-up episode. Bart is a competent and handsome Maverick whose episodes often seem more physically grueling and less humorous, although it’s a close call.
There were a few more team-ups but most episodes picked one brother or the other, with the non-featured brother often greeting the viewer and introducing the story. One of the team-ups is “Trail West to Fury”, a flashback of how the brothers returned home to Texas after the Civil War but can’t go back again unless they find a mysterious “tall man” who can clear them of a bogus murder charge. That set-up sounds curiously like a later Huggins series, The Fugitive.
A regular feature of the plots is beautiful, slippery women who are capable of matching or outmatching the Mavericks. Two separate episodes have mysterious ladies who pay one of the brothers to accompany them across the country ostensibly to guard them, and both have ulterior motives. One is travelling with $20,000 in counterfeit bills, and the other carries a small jeweled pistol.
On this series, even the most deceitful women cannot be disliked because they are too intelligent and well-motivated. The slipperiest woman of all, and the epitome of the show’s ambivalent attitude to sexual politics, is the recurring character of Samantha Crawford, a larcenous, lovely double-dealer who could drop her magnolia accent at will. Diane Brewster originated this role on an episode of Cheyenne, another Warner Brothers western written and produced by Huggins.
A common narrative strategy on the series is that characters are not only more complicated than they appear, so that allies become enemies and, more strangely, uneasy alliances are forged with openly disreputable people, but that you ultimately can’t easily divide people into one camp or the other. Characters are equally capable of helping or hindering each other as circumstances warrant and for their own understandable reasons, and that’s a more complex attitude than just bringing down bad guys.
With such characters and attitudes, this series anticipates the whole genre of con-game shows, whether westerns (Alias Smith and Jones) or otherwise (The Rogues), and it virtually defines the TV career of Garner, especially the later Huggins production The Rockford Files. The jaded and weary Jim Rockford (like Thomas Magnum after him) was perpetually hired by beautiful clients who turned out to be hornswoggling him, and yet he never seemed to learn better nor lose his innately chivalrous respect. He knew the world too well, every time it sandbagged him.
Like Cheyenne and other Warner westerns, the series derived great production value from cleverly recycled movie footage. This explains all the cattle drives, bustling towns, Indian attacks and stagecoaches that dot the series. Yet Maverick never focuses nor depends on these ornamental details. From the beginning, the stories are refreshingly complicated and unpredictable, with quite a gap between the set-up and the eventual narrative. One reason is that plots are often taken from other sources. The premiere is scripted by George O’Hanlon from a novel to which Warners owned the rights, and Huggins has claimed this was done to cheat him out of creators’ residuals.
The second episode, scripted by Huggins, remakes an obscure film called Rocky Mountain. Another episode is adapted from a Louis L’Amour story, while another is based on a story by Horace McCoy. Most surprisingly, “The Wrecker” is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s seafaring novel of that name. That’s one of several episodes by Russell Hughes, fresh from big-screen westerns for Anthony Mann and Delmer Daves.
The fact that this show was willing to take to the high seas tells you this is one western that didn’t always look or sound like one. It often stayed as far as possible from horses, just as the Mavericks didn’t much care to use guns or fists except when necessary to remind everyone that this really was supposed to be a western. Several episodes take place on Mississippi riverboats, where the Mavericks can best ply their trade, which isn’t a game of chance when they play it.
Even original episodes took their cue from the first batch and told their stories with twisty, complicated set-ups. An example is “The Long Hunt”, which begins with Bret in full chase from an angry pack of losers, then throws him together with an ingratiating robber, then pulls another reversal of fortune before finally settling into a tale about tracking down some men to free an innocent man scheduled to hang. This material could have filled a two-part episode without lagging. It was written by DeVallon Scott, who did a lot of action-packed B pics before moving on to the Broken Arrow TV series.
“Rope of Cards”, scripted by R. Wright Campbell (later a successful mystery novelist), is basically a variant on Twelve Angry Men, with Bret serving on a jury as the lone man who votes Not Guilty and uses his card-sharp skills to convince the others they might be wrong. Even while mostly remaining in one or two rooms, the story manages to be complicated, helped along by courtroom flashbacks that give a mild Rashomon quality to the proceedings.
“Ghost Rider” begins as a mystifying ghost story, and “Black Fire” is an old-dark-house tale where someone is killing off the heirs to a rich old varmint (Will Wright). As an example of how Bret’s behavior often disorients the viewer, he shows up in disguise as one of the heirs under an assumed name. It’s his favor to the real ne’er-do-well artist, played with delicious acerbity by Hans Conried. These are two of several entries scripted by bestselling humorist Marion Hargrove (See Here, Private Hargrove), who wrote for Garner again on Nichols (a forgotten, unconventional one-season western from 1972) and Bret Maverick (a 1981 sequel series).
Other writers include pulp novelist Howard Browne; Douglas Heyes, who usually also directed his episodes and later worked for The Twilight Zone and Thriller as well as making the campy Ann-Margret epic Kitten with a Whip; Gerald Drayson Adams, George Slavin, Gene Levitt (who later created Fantasy Island), Carey Wilber, Montgomery Pittman, and Jerry Davis.
Huggins brought in now-legendary western director Budd Boetticher to direct the first three episodes and establish the tone of easy-going flim-flammery combined with pacy action. Another important director was Richard L. Bare, who cut his teeth on the wacky Joe McDoakes comedy shorts and later harnessed the surrealism of Green Acres; that such a director fit perfectly into Maverick tells us much. Also on hand this season are Leslie H. Martinson, Abner Biberman, Franklin Adreon, Howard W. Koch, Alan Crosland Jr., and Gordon Douglas.
Among its innovations, Maverick was one of the earliest series to employ recurring roles who drop by as a pleasant surprise and give the notion that the entire west is like a small town, with the same drifters and rogues tripping over each with regularity. Such roles this season, besides the aforementioned Samantha Crawford, were Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as the even more duplicitous Dandy Jim Buckley; Leo Gordon (later a series writer) as Big Mike McComb, an Irishman in a derby hat; and Gerald Mohr as the black-clad, consumptive Doc Holliday, a real historical figure.
Guests this season include Mike Connors, Edmund Lowe, Karen Steele, Joanna Barnes, Edd Byrnes, Maxine Cooper, James Anderson, Kathleen Crowley, Chris Alcaide, Sherry Jackson, Marie Windsor, Fay Spain, Jeanne Cooper, Ruta Lee, Werner Klemperor, Barbara Nichols, John Russell, Frank Cady, Sig Ruman, Whitney Blake, Gene Nelson, Jay Novello, Jane Darwell, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Joi Lansing, Adele Mara (Huggins’ wife), Dick Foran, Myron Healey, Frank Ferguson, and former Saturday matinee western star Bob Steele.
Huggins, who left the show after two seasons, wasn’t the only one to feel cheated by Warner. The series ran five seasons but Garner left after three. In his memoir, he recounts his successful breach-of-contract suit against Warner and his salary issues, and why he was glad to walk away despite lucrative offers to continue. He explains why he identified with the character of Maverick, whose persona came to define him as an actor who went his own way. The series eventually suffered for it, but both Huggins and Garner were still at the start of what proved long, successful careers.