Sunday, January 18, 2009
Walk Softly and Carry a Big Head
Cheyenne (Encore’s Western Channel, Weekdays, 5:30 P.M.) was the first hour long western to hit the small screen, ringing up 108 episodes from 1955-63, and featuring Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, a protoypical Western loner, drifting from territory to territory, an instinctual first class scout/Indian fighter/cattleman/temporary sheriff who was of course good with his fists and his gun, guided only by the ol’ internal moral compass. I’ve logged about 40 episodes so far and I’ve become drawn in mostly because of the star’s weirdly low key acting style (he could make Gary Cooper look like a frothing-at-the-mouth method man) and even stranger combo of squinty sternness and bottled-up-tight persona. Walker is the strangest of Western birds, sort of James Arness-lite (who was sorta John Wayne-lite), a slow walking and slower talking individualist built like a gladiator, sporting a huge head topped off by jet black hair continually falling into his eyes, prone to taking his shirt off and attracting long gazes from bar girls, school marms, and wilderness wives despite the fact that he exudes absolutely no overt sexuality. Walker played Cheyenne as if he was coming from nowhere (outside of a childhood spent being reared by the Indians) and was heading nowhere, an existential range rider both strangely alone and decidedly restless, as the show’s high and lonesome theme song emphasizes:
Where will you be camping tonight
Lonely man, lonely man
Will your heart stay free and bright?
The writing and direction are par for the times, yet the action is executed purty much convincingly and the parade of big-boned baddies (Robert Wilkie, Andrew Duggan, Max Baer, Jr.) and up-and-comers (James Garner, Dennis Hopper, Lee Van Cleef) remains interesting, as does Walker’s deceptively charismatic and strangely somnambulant cowpoke, leaving this poised somewhere between the highs (Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel) and the lows (Bat Masterson, Wanted: Dead or Alive) of TV Westerns.