Saturday, October 16, 2010


In the late 1950's and early 1960's, the western genre dominated television to an extent that no other genre has since. In the 1958-1959 season there were 31 western series on the air, which is really amazing when you remember there were only three networks back then. Some of those shows like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Cheyenne and Maverick are well remembered today. Others have fallen through the cracks of history. That brings me to one old show I've just been watching that I had never even heard of until recently, Tate.

     Tate wasn't around for long. It was a summer replacement series that ran on NBC for 13 weeks in 1960. Its creator was writer Harry Julian Fink who, among other things, wrote several excellent episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel.  Tate, the show's hero, comes off as a less courtly and crafty version of Paladin. He is a gunman who lost the use of his arm during a Civil War battle and now roams the West as a bounty hunter.     Just going by the five episodes I've seen, the show had a severe and brutal view of the Old West without even the humor or warmth of other adult Westerns like Gunsmoke and Have Gun. Tate seemed to be invariably on the trail of someone who had committed some kind of brutal crime, usually involving the killing of women and children but that plot was always secondary to other trouble he would face like the killer's family trying to break him out of jail or entire towns refusing to give the bad guy up.  In one episode Tate runs into another bounty hunter who mistakes him for a killer and is nonchalant about bringing him in alive or dead even after he gets word that Tate is innocent.

     The most powerful episode I saw, "Stopover", was even more hard-bitten. In that one Tate finds his quarry, a legendary old fast gun, in a small town and shoots him in a gunfight in the first five minutes. His problem then is, while waiting to get his reward money wired to him, a younger gunfighter keeps hanging threateningly around him. It turns out he had been trailing the old man to face him in a fight and prove he was a faster draw, but now that's he dead, he wants the man who killed him...Tate. 

And that's still not all. There is one more main character in this episode, a young "saloon girl" who charges five dollars just for conversation. She makes friends with Tate and when he asks her why she doesn't go back home, she tells him home was a shack where she was one of fifteen children and she suffered some kind of unspecified abuse.  She's much happier in her current life where people are at least nice to her. That's pretty heavy territory for a 1960 TV show and I'm amazed the saloon girl stuff got past the censors, even as ambiguous as it was.

     As on just about any show from this era there are several actors in these episodes in the early stages of their career who would go on greater success, like Robert Culp, Robert Redford, Louise Fletcher and James Coburn as well as former child star Peggy Ann Garner as the saloon girl and Royal Dano as a sheriff caught in a Rio Bravo-like standoff against the family of a man about to hang for murder.  Tate himself was played by an actor named David McLean who was a new name to me. According to IMDB, though, he did gain later fame as one of the actors who played the Marlboro Man, the rugged cigarette smoking cowboy in the famous Marlboro TV commercials. He was also one of several actors in those commercials who eventually died of lung cancer.

    In its short thirteen week life Tate doesn't seem to have developed the breadth of the more successful adult Westerns, but it was an uniquely tough-minded show closer in tone to the original radio version of Gunsmoke than any of its TV contemporaries that I've seen so far.

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