Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Alias Smith & Jones (1971-1973)

Another great classic from the good old 1970s. Alias Smith and Jones was an American Western series that originally aired on ABC from 1971 to 1973. It starred Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes and Ben Murphy as Jedediah "Kid" Curry, a pair of Western cousin outlaws trying to reform. The deal: a promise of conditional amnesty, by a governor who wants to keep the pact under wraps. The dilemma: for now, they'll still be "wanted".

Alias Smith and Jones began with a made-for-TV movie of the previous year called The Young Country, about con artists in the old West. It was produced, written and directed by Roy Huggins, who served as executive producer of Alias Smith & Jones and, under the pseudonym of John Thomas James, at least shared the writing credit on most episodes.
Roger Davis starred as Stephen Foster Moody, and Pete Duel had the secondary but significant role of Honest John Smith, while Joan Hackett played a character called Clementine Hale, the same name as a part played on two Alias Smith & Jones episodes by Sally Field. This pilot was rejected, but Huggins was given a second chance and, joined by Glen A. Larson, developed Alias Smith and Jones. Both The Young Country and the series pilot movie originally aired as ABC Movie of the week entries.
Alias Smith and Jones was made in the same spirit as many other American TV series, from Huggins' own The Fugitive to Renegade, about men on the run crisscrossing America and getting involved in the personal lives of the people they meet. One major difference was that Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were guilty of the crimes that they were accused of committing, but were trying to turn over a new leaf.
The series was inspired by the success of the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman & Robert Redford (Universal contract player Ben Murphy was handed to the producers because he was considered a Paul Newman lookalike.) There were a number of connecting themes: one of the heroes was named Kid Curry which was also the nickname of Harvey Logan, an associate of the real Butch Cassidy, played in that film by Ted Cassidy. (However, unlike the TV version, the real Kid Curry was a cold-blooded killer.) The names "Smith and Jones" originated from a comment in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid when the characters are outside a bank in Bolivia and Sundance says: "I'm Smith and you're Jones."
The series also featured a group of robbers called the Devil's Hole Gang which was based on the Hole in the Wall Gang from where Cassidy recruited most of his outlaws.
However, in order to give them an element of sympathy, Heyes and Curry were presented as men who avoided bloodshed (though Curry did once kill in self-defense) and trying to reform.

Heyes was deemed "cunning", and Curry was "gunning". Heyes/Smith was considered the brains of the duo, and a card sharp. Curry/Jones was the master gun hand, and the brawn. Usually, Heyes figured out ways to make money and save the twosome from precarious situations. After Davis was hired as Heyes, his distictive voice could no longer be used in the theme intro. Ralph Story was brought in to provide narration for the series (he rather than Davis had done so in the pilot). Story's slightly revamped intro partially explained why the renowned duo didn't split to evade capture - they were cousins.
Recurring characters include:
  • Kyle Murtry (Dennis Fimple) and Wheat Carlson (Earl Holliman), members of the Devil's Hole Gang, formerly led by Heyes and Curry;
  • Harry Briscoe (J.D. Cannon), a Bannerman detective who occasionally finds himself on the wrong side of the law;
  • Patrick "Big Mac" McCreedy (Burl Ives) and SeƱor Armendariz (Cesar Romero), two ranchers on opposite sides of the US-Mexico border/Rio Grande waging a feud over a valuable bust which represents land that had been owned by Armendariz until the river temporarily switched course, moving the border with it, allowing MacCreedy to sell the land. Heyes and Curry get stuck in the middle;
  • Clementine "Clem" Hale (Sally Field), an old friend who has no problem with blackmailing the reformed outlaws when necessary. Field had appeared in only one episode before Duel's death, and she declined to return to the program. Several scripts intended for her were rewritten to feature Georgette "George" Sinclair, who was played by Michelle Lee. In the third season, Field did appear as Clem one last time;
Soapy Saunders (Sam Jaffe) and Silky O'Sullivan (Walter Brennan), both retired confidence men that the boys call on when in need of a large sum of cash and a good con to get them out of trouble.

In the early morning hours of Friday, December 31, 1971, series star Pete Duel died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 31. He was reportedly suffering from depression and had been drinking heavily. Upon learning of Duel's death, executive producer Jo Swerling, Jr. initially wanted to end the series but ABC refused. Swerling later stated:
ABC said, "No way!" They said, "You have a contract to deliver this show to us, and you will continue to deliver the show as best you can on schedule or we will sue you." Hearing those words, Universal didn't hesitate for a second to instruct us to stay in production. We were already a little bit behind the eight ball on airdates. So we contacted everybody, including Ben [Murphy], and told them to come back in. The entire company was reassembled and back in production by one o'clock that day shooting scenes that did not involve Peter - only twelve hours after his death.
Series writer, director and producer Roy Huggins contacted actor Roger Davis (who had appeared in episode 19 "Smiler With a Gun" and provided narration for the series) the day of Duel's death to fill the role of Hannibal Heyes. Davis was fitted for costumes the following day, and began re-shooting scenes Duel had previously completed for an unfinished episode the following Monday. According to Swerling, the decision to continue production so soon after Duel's death was heavily criticized in the press at the time.
Roger Davis' original theme voiceover referred to the characters as "latter day heroes". The Ralph Story intro substituted that disciption with the phrase, "Kansas cousins". In the first episode with Davis (season 2, episode 19), "The Biggest Game In the West", Heyes shouts to Curry: "Yes sir! Cousin, you're alright!". In the episode "Don't Get Mad Get Even", Curry and Heyes both make reference to their Irish grandfather Curry.

The series continued for another seventeen episodes, but never regained its popularity after the loss of Duel. This, as well as the fact that the long prominent Western genre was giving way to police dramas, brought the show to an end on January 13, 1973. On January 16, 1973,Bonanza aired its final episode, leaving the eighteen-year-old Gunsmoke, and the syndicated comedy-western, Dusty's Trail as the only Westerns scheduled for 1973.

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