Rawhide -- The Rawhide Story, by Philip Lindley
Television and the home entertainment revolution of the 80's and 90's have made permanently accessible to us their accumulated wealth. Viewers over a certain age ... say forty, have not forgotten and could never abandon the feelings stirred by the small-screen recreations of America's frontier history - the Wild West - and the list of favourites in a popular poll would be likely to contain the same few titles. Among them would be "Rawhide", the brainchild of a man called Charles Marquis Warren.
Though a protege of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, Warren made his own way as a pulp fiction writer and then as a writer and director in Hollywood. He developed, produced and directed early episodes of "Gunsmoke" but left after arguments over his autocratic style. He went on to co-produce and direct a feature, "Cattle Empire" starring Joel McCrea. This told of a loner trail boss returning to the cattle business after five years of wrongful imprisonment. It was this that led to the idea of a new western series to be called "Rawhide". Warren and his Hungarian-born partner Endre Bohem took up an existing script and began work on a pilot for a series for CBS. Warren wanted "The Outrider" as his title but the network preferred "Rawhide", a title already used for a Tyrone Power vehicle in 1950. The accent was to be on greater realism and historical accuracy than in shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Cheyenne" and one source was the diary of a real western cattleman called George C. Druffield who had driven three thousand head of cattle to Sedalia in 1866, the year in which the series is initially set. Another inspiration was the classic Howard Hawks western movie "Red River" with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift starring in roles quite similar to Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates who would be the central characters of the proposed series.
Warren wanted one main character - Favor - but the network had noticed that most of the successful western TV shows centred on relationships between two characters like the young scout Flint McCullough and the crotchety old wagon master Seth Adams in "Wagon Train". Television, in any event, has always been more dialogue than action-led, conversations being easier and cheaper to film than punch-ups and shoot-outs.
Clint Eastwood was a struggling unknown when he made known through a friend his interest in the new series. He improvised the lines for his screen test, concentrating on key words and basic emotion. It clearly worked. Another actor, Bing Russel - later to have an impact in that other long-running series "Bonanza" - had been the preferred candidate but CBS executive Hubbell Robinson wanted the handsome and impassioned newcomer, seeing him as just right for the headstrong and impulsive ramrod. It was true that Eastwood's speaking voice was deemed weak, often little more than a sibilant whisper through clenched teeth. In his later career he was to use this trait to great popular effect. Eric Fleming, despite playing the father figure in the show, was only five years older than Eastwood. He had been a stagehand and had played in small roles on the Broadway stage, then in films and TV. He had not been helped on his way by the after-effects of an accident in his days as a World War II Seabee when a heavy steel weight had fallen on him, requiring plastic surgery which seemed to leave him with a permanently frozen expression.
The "Rawhide" crew was soon off to Arizona to shoot the first episode as well as stock footage of the cattle-herd moving cross-country. Real cowboys were hired to contribute authenticity. These were closely observed and imitated by Clint Eastwood. Other cast members included Paul Brinegar as the trail-cook Wishbone, a role he had more or less already played in Warren's feature film "Cattle Empire" but which two others had tried for in the show before him, including a Chinese actor. A down-to-earth actor, Brinegar was admired by some of the more recent method-style practitioners. His character would provide comic relief as well as the "mother" element in the family formula to which all series TV seemed bound to conform. Favor was Dad, Wishbone was Mom, Rowdy was the rebellious but basically obedient son ... obvious now, really. Also in the cast was Sheb Woolley playing scout Pete Nolan. He had made an impact in "High Noon" and other films, usually as a villain. He had also been a successful singer and songwriter, his biggest hit being "Purple People Eater". Robert Cabal was to be Jesus (pronounced "Hey Soos" and spelled that way on the credits). Steve Rains and Rocky Shahan were bit-players and stuntmen who had also appeared in "Cattle Empire" and were essentially recreating their roles.
The pilot episode was well received by the CBS executives who quickly commissioned twelve more. The advertising industry, however, was still not sure about westerns. In television's early days they had exclusively been for children, featuring such heroes as the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. The very earliest of these had been bought directly from the cinema. The first adult TV westerns were "Gunsmoke" and "Cheyenne" in 1955. These were followed by "Have Gun, Will Travel", "Tales of Wells Fargo" and, of course, "Wagon Train" among others. "Cheyenne" actually contained leftover footage from feature films for some of its action shots. By the time "Rawhide" was in gestation, other shows had come along to provide further serious competition. By 1959, the peak year for the genre, the networks were programming no fewer than twenty-three westerns every week, taking up a quarter of available prime-time hours. The network concluded that the market had not been saturated, however, and persisted in finding sponsorship. "Rawhide" was slotted into an advantageous Friday night slot on CBS between "Hit Parade" and "The Phil Silvers Show". It premiered at 8.00 p.m. on Friday January 9th, 1959, filling in for another show which had been suddenly cancelled. It made no waves but within three weeks had reached the Top 20 in the Nielsen ratings. CBS fine-tuned by putting the show forward to 7.30 p.m., guaranteeing the family audience it needed. It rose steadily in popularity until, in its second year, it was among America's top ten TV shows. It was destined to become the fourth longest running TV western, beaten only by eight years of "The Virginian", fourteen years of "Bonanza" and twenty years of "Gunsmoke".
Charles Marquis Warren told reporters that he would have preferred ninety minutes per episode if allowed. The small black and white screen tended to mean low budgets and relentless schedules - six days per episode, thirty per year - and a censorship regime to outdo the Hayes Office. These factors impacted on the achievement of a consistent standard on any show. Rampaging cattle always out of sight until edited in, glaringly obvious day-for-night scenes and fight scenes that were not always smooth and convincing are among the aspects of the "Rawhide" series to which devotees must turn a blind eye today. "Rawhide" suffered no more than other shows in these respects. Location footage had to be gathered once a year and then edited into many episodes, with just enough time to film two or three of the more epic stories. The rest of the time was spent on the back lot, the sound stage or a ranch maintained on the outskirts of Los Angeles with its own small herd. The cattle on the show were not, of course, the fearsome longhorns that drovers of the 1860's would have known but this was no more to be commented upon than Indian elephants in Tarzan movies. The producers were able to gamble that most viewers wouldn't notice.
The typical "Rawhide" story involved the drovers coming upon people on the trail and getting drawn into solving whatever problem they presented or were confronting. Sometimes Rowdy or one of the others would venture into a nearby town and encounter some trouble or other from which they needed to be rescued. Such stories were obviously easier in production terms but in peak form the show was convincing and naturalistic, sometimes brutal. Its situations could be apocalyptic - parched plains, anthrax, gypsy curses, ghostly riders, wolves - but the show could often seem contrived and even ridiculous. Actual tragedy was usually avoided and the comedy was mild, even silly. Morality was simplistic and the tendency of TV drama to preach was not always avoided. Bullet wounds never bled and were usually invisible. Women supplied the romantic interest but no sex and no relationship that was going to outlast the fifty minutes of an episode.
Rowdy's contribution to the stories was minimal at first with Favor and the guest characters making most of the running. He would grow in importance and influence as the show continued. Other regulars made the most of their brief opportunities in front of the camera, helping to create a bond between the show and the audience. When Charles Marquis Warren quit the show after the first season, his partner Endre Bohem took over and changes started to occur, especially with regard to Rowdy who was granted the accolade of a "voice-over" on the first episode of Series 2, "Incident of the Day of the Dead". Bohem did not get on well with Eric Fleming, apparently, who was beginning to feel disenchanted by this time, so that episodes without - or largely without - Gil Favor began to appear.
Some of the requirements of television could be comical. Clint Eastwood wryly observed that horse droppings would be removed from the set whenever they appeared. The familiar cry was "Get out the nine iron!" meaning a shovel. Actually, in one episode, "Incident of the Golden Calf", a horse-apple does seem to get left behind. When a bull attempted to mount a cow, as sometimes happened on camera, the editors would have their work to do. Less comical was the work schedule which Warren's autocratic style did not help. The long hours infuriated Eric Fleming in particular. When he demanded and got a six p.m. home time, the others took their cue. Clint Eastwood observed that the horses and cattle were better treated than the actors who had no equivalent of the S. P. C. A. to look out for them.
Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood never became close friends but they did learn to be comfortable colleagues. On their first location shoot in Arizona they came to blows when Fleming openly criticized Eastwood for being slow with some dialogue. When the noise became too great they went behind a trailer to settle matters. Eastwood later denied this story but the scuttlebutt was otherwise. He also claimed that a better relationship existed between the two men than other stars had on other shows.
Various biographers have not been kind to Eric Fleming and "Rawhide" insiders have been quoted unflatteringly. Yet Fleming certainly had his strengths - an air of command, a booming baritone voice and the ability, which Eastwood envied, to memorize a page of dialogue at a glance and rattle it off without hesitation. As for Eastwood, he was known on the set as "the kid" despite being only a few years younger than Fleming. Endre Bohem and Paul Brinegar both adopted a fatherly attitude towards him. At the same time, Eastwood was observing and absorbing all the aspects of film-making. When not on the set himself, he spent time with the technical crew. He noted which directors succeeded, which didn't and why. There were also the great and sometimes legendary guest-stars for him to study such as Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Walter Pidgeon, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Victor McClaglen, Burgess Meredith, E. G. Marshall and Kim Hunter.
Eastwood never really liked the character of Rowdy Yates, embarrassed by his immaturity and cloddishness. Rowdy for him was "The Idiot of the Plains". Yet Rowdy was allowed to develop and mature from season to season. He was even allowed to drop the deferential "Mr. Favor" in his scenes with Fleming and to refer to him simply as "Boss". This reflected the relationship between the cast and Charles Marquis Warren who was "Mr. Warren" to most but "Bill" to the chosen few. Some directors and production staff were not so taken by Eastwood. It was said that he didn't work hard enough, that he coasted on his good looks and was resistant to emotional demands in the scripts. Paul Brinegar felt that "he underplayed too much". Eastwood for his part knew his talents and was bolstered by the high opinion of Ted Post, an experienced and intelligent director and teacher. He also cited Gary Cooper - an actor with whom he has been compared over the years - who had not been "afraid to do nothing". His fan mail, anyway, began catching up with Fleming's.
"Rawhide" ended its first season at sixth position in the Nielsen ratings. Under Endre Bohem it began irreversibly to slide. It was thirteenth in 1961-62. The following year it was twenty-second, the year after the forty-fourth. It never rallied appreciably and none of the network's tinkerings with the show had much effect. Play up the guest stars. Play down the guest stars. Stick more closely to the cattle drive. Get away from the cattle drive. Have more comedy. Have less comedy. There were additions to and subtractions from the cast. Production became dark, broody and arty in the later seasons. None of it worked in terms of ratings.
The show itself could not be blamed entirely. Its quality varied but no more than other long-running series. Viewing it today one finds as many episodes of quality, in terms of story, character and production, as less successful ones. There are some memorable guest performances and the regulars are not always hampered from turning in their own best work. On the other hand the show did strain at times for contemporary relevance and its attempts at comedy could be disastrous. There were some limp and unconvincing conclusions to particular episodes. Worst of all, as the years wore on, the show became repetitive as Favor, Rowdy and the rest re-encountered all the standard western cliches. Some plots may have seemed slightly familiar and the parallels stand out in the present video age.
In February and March of 1962 Eastwood and Fleming, together with Paul Brinegar, undertook a publicity tour of Japan where "Rawhide" had become a No.1 sensation. The trip was as newsworthy in Japan as the Beatles were to be in America. Eight thousand fans greeted the "Rawhide" trio at one airport and public parades planned for them had to be cancelled at the request of the local police. There was much jocularity at press interviews, smiling, throwing kisses and gossip.
It was during the 1963-64 season that "Rawhide" slipped out of the Top 25 in the Nielsen ratings. Endre Bohem had left to be replaced by a succession of producers. Vincent M. Fennelly produced seasons 5 and 6. The team of Bernard L. Kowalski and Bruce Geller produced season 7. Ben Brady and Robert E. Thompson produced season 8. New cast members had appeared, notably the suave and rather-too-immaculate Charles Gray as the morally ambivalent Clay Forester. At first a colourful distraction with an eye to Rowdy's job, Clay eventually settled to replace Sheb Wooley's Pete Nolan as scout. Gray appeared for just one series. Another new face was Bill Thompkins, though he had served as Clint Eastwood's stunt double throughout the previous seasons and was a friend. Eastwood encouraged Thompkins to try acting and he was given the character "Toothless", for which he was eminently qualified by virtue of wearing dentures which he could remove. High profile guests like Dean Martin were also booked as the network scanned the ratings. However, the show was deemed to be inconsistent and to be losing focus, freshness and popularity.
Vincent Fennelly resigned after the 1963-64 season over the network's decision to change the "Rawhide" stories to an anthology concept. Rocky Shahan and Robert Cabal were dropped from the cast and two new producers, Kowalski and Geller, were hired to co-produce the 1964-65 season. After filming twenty-one episodes, CBS decided this wasn't working and rehired Endre Bohem as producer. Nine further episodes were delivered between January and March 1965. Bohem brought back Sheb Wooley, who had left half way through the 1961-62 season to pursue his musical career, as well as Rocky Shahan and Robert Cabal.
It was in the winter of 1963-64 that Clint Eastwood was approached to play the leading role in a low-budget western with the working title of "El Magnifico Stragnero", an Italian-German-Spanish production. Despite the list of arthouse Italian directors, Italian movies then were generally derided and were not considered a shrewd move for American actors. Others had turned the part down, among them Eric Fleming. It's intriguing to speculate on how things might have gone for Fleming if he had taken it. Having felt restless and dissatisfied with "Rawhide" for some time, Eastwood signed without meeting director Sergio Leone and took with him the guns, gun belt, boots and spurs he had worn on the "Rawhide" set. "A Fistful of Dollars", as it became known, and its superior sequels were the first in a magnificent succession of Clint Eastwood movies which were to turn him into one of the greatest post-war movie stars. Emerging from his first success with Leone, he felt he had found his stride and that he could now flex his creative muscles. Producer Ben Brady was ready to accommodate him, first of all firing Eric Fleming and then promoting Rowdy Yates to trail boss. Eastwood could see his future beckoning, however, and Season 8 was a tough sell for Brady. Eastwood urged Brady to release him instead and keep Fleming but the reluctant star eventually settled for a reported $119, 000.
Yet before the 1965-66 season, "Rawhide" was in trouble. It had bottomed out at No. 44 in the ratings and only the affection of CBS chairman William Paley for the show was keeping it from the axe. A possible switch to colour photography was mooted but the added investment seemed unsound in the circumstances. Sheb Wooley was out again as was James Murdoch. Veteran John Ireland was recruited, after several guest appearances on the show. English actor David Watson mysteriously appeared in the saddle and former Shakespearian actor Raymond St. Jacques became the first black actor to have a regular role on a TV western. Unfortunately, none of the changes made any difference to the ratings and the possibilities were never explored. Paul Brinegar complained that the show had been decimated.
With Eric Fleming gone, Clint Eastwood grew increasingly dissatisfied and resentful over his involvement with the show. He complained he was carrying all the shows instead of half. Then the network announced that the popular Sheb Wooley would return to the series only to back-pedal on the announcement. Lingering thoughts of switching to colour were scuppered when it was found there was no opportunity to film colour stock of the cattle, forcing another series in black and white.
In the end it was not audience response to the changes which mattered for "Rawhide" but a catastrophic scheduling decision at CBS. The show was switched from its regular Friday night slot to Tuesday opposite "Combat", a series starring Vic Morrow which, though not a western, appealed very much to the same audience. Paul Brinegar agreed with Raymond St. Jacques a couple of episodes before the end that the show was finished. The redesigned "Rawhide" languished for thirteen episodes in its new slot and was then cancelled permanently. The last original broadcast was on December 7th 1965. No attempt was made to bring Rowdy's or anybody else's story to a conclusion, just as there had been no explanation for the changes at the start of the season. The abrupt decision left a four-week hole in the schedules which were filled with repeated episodes. The last of these was aired in the new regular spot on January 4, 1966 and "Rawhide" came to an end.
A year later, after his plane had landed at New York, Clint Eastwood was shocked and saddened to read of the death of Eric Fleming who had been filming in Peru, co-starring with the English actress Anne Heywood in a made-for-TV movie to be called "High Jungle". With the film half-completed the company was shooting on the Huagana River in a remote region three hundred miles north of Lima when a canoe in which Fleming was riding with a local actor capsized. The local man was able to swim to shore but Fleming was swept away and his body not found for two days. In their book, "Clint Eastwood" published by W. H. Allen in 1983, Gerald Cole and Peter Williams suggest that Clint Eastwood had a recognizable model for the Man With No Name in his old sparring partner. Gil Favor, trail boss, was always as upright and noble-minded as the finest conventional hero but at the same time totally professional and innately ruthless. Eric Fleming achieved this with a minimal display of emotion and a vocal delivery which could be clipped and menacing. One final suggestion to note is that Fleming might have been under consideration for the leading role in "Star Trek", then in development, but there has been no corroboration of this.
Paul Brinegar died on March 27th, 1995, a victim of the pipe tobacco he loved, at the age of 77. James Murdoch appeared in one or two TV westerns after his time on "Rawhide" but nothing is known of him thereafter save that he died in December 1981, a few weeks after Rocky Shahan passed away in Texas. Paul Brinegar once confided to a fan that Murdoch had in fact been playing a part not much different from his own personality. Sheb Wooley was still keeping in touch with his fans in 2002 via his Internet website. Clint Eastwood, of course, maintains his position as one of the world's greatest movie stars and is always news. "The Unforgiven", just a few years ago, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece and one of the best westerns ever made. His recent film "Space Cowboys", which saw him launching off into space, reunited him with James Garner on whose original "Maverick" series he once guested. It was a big hit. It's noticeable that storylines for Eastwood movies tend more these days to concede that the years have piled up on this still bankable star.
The proliferation of TV channels, video and other home entertainment formats has ensured that the best of the past will continue to find an audience. The appeal of nostalgia in those who recall its first airing has never been better served. "Rawhide" was a real western - at least most of the time - in that it was about the west, the cowboy and his backbreaking work on the trail. It was more often filmed outdoors than on the lot. It told absorbing stories, most of which were successfully resolved within the forty-plus minutes of an episode. It created three unforgettable characters, Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates and Wishbone the cook. It launched the career of Clint Eastwood. It offered a glimpse of the best qualities of its other leading actor Eric Fleming and now begs the question of what he might have achieved had he lived. When the prevailing opinion of current television is so negative and dismissive, "Rawhide" is an example of what the medium could once achieve. The critical acclaim it received during its mid-nineties run on the UK's Channel 4 seems like proof of that.
CLINT EASTWOOD: a biography by Richard Schickel - 1996
CLINT EASTWOOD: by Gerald Cole and Peter Williams - 1983
AMERICA: An Illustrated Diary of its Most Exciting Years - Various - 1972 CLINT: by Patrick McGilligan - 1999
CLINT EASTWOOD: a biography by Minty Clinch - 1994
CLINT EASTWOOD - Hollywood's Loner: by Michael Munn - 1992
CLINT EASTWOOD - Film Maker: by Daniel O'Brien
Of course, I am indebted to the accumulated knowledge within the website message-board and elsewhere on the site. The websites devoted to Clint Eastwood, Eric Fleming and Sheb Wooley have also been helpful.