The drums roll ominously as Union soldiers march across the parade ground of the cavalry fort. 6'5" Chuck Connors (as Capt. Jason McCord) stands tall and erect, his face expressionless, as a Colonel (played anonymously by John Howard) mercilessly strips McCord’s insignia and buttons from his uniform as the chorus intones the lyrics of Alan Rich—
Court-martialed out of the service, Jason McCord stoops to retrieve the broken sword and walks away into the desert, deciding as the solitary survivor of the massacre to keep silent about it’s real causes and preserve the memory of his revered General Reid, who was the real coward, thereby hoping to prevent further Indian hostility. This is made clear in the second episode aired, “The Vindicator” (directed by Joseph H. Lewis), probably the actual pilot for the series which ran Sunday nights on NBC for two seasons from 1/24/65-4/24/66.
Carrying the broken sabre throughout 48 episodes, McCord is unfairly hated and persecuted, fighting to destroy the misconception that branded him a coward. Creator Larry Cohen said in 1965, “Men admire the captain for the efforts he makes to rehabilitate himself, while the ladies want to mother him and bring him out of the cold.” Cohen hailed McCord as “the tallest underdog in the whole west.”
Cohen created the series and scripted the pilot. “Unfortunately,” Tony Williams explains in his book, LARRY COHEN—RADICAL ALLEGORIES OF AN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER, “later writers of ‘Branded’ never realized the potential contained within the opening episode. The series became routine. Cohen contributed the story to the three-part episode, ‘The Mission’ (released in a theatrical version as ‘Broken Sabre’) which formed a pattern for other episodes in which President Grant uses McCord’s reputation, sending him on dangerous assignments in the service of the state.” Unlike the series, the re-edited theatrical of “The Mission” had McCord regaining his commission and resuming his Army career!
In the beginning Connors said, “I wanted to do everything possible to make this character different from ‘The Rifleman’ character, so I even changed my hair. I’m 12 pounds lighter than when I was doing ‘Rifleman’.”
Cecil Barker was producer when the show began but midway through the first season producer Andrew J. Fenady, who had produced “The Rebel” with Nick Adams, was “asked to come in and rescue the show”, according to David Fury in his biography, CHUCK CONNORS—THE MAN BEHIND THE RIFLE. “(Fenady) was offered a percentage…he fired everyone in the editing department, canceled all the directors they had scheduled and made it clear to everyone—including Chuck—he was the boss. For a half hour show, Fenady recalled Chuck was the highest paid guy on television at that time. Ten grand per episode, plus Chuck not only owned a piece of the show but got a cut on the production end of things ($2,000) as a packaging fee.”
Chuck was responsible in great part for the series’ success—and its demise. According to Connors in TV GUIDE (10/23-29/65), it was about this time he became disgusted with phony cocktail parties, the public appearances and the interviews to promote the show. He released his agent, lawyer and press agent and said, “Nuts to everything but golf.” For Tony Williams’ book, creator Larry Cohen said, “Connors’ behavior became impossible. He finally alienated the sponsors, which was the worst thing you can do. So, even though the show was among the top 10 or 12 shows, (actually #14 in the first season—ed.), it ended up getting canceled after two seasons because the sponsors (Proctor and Gamble) were furious at him. Otherwise, I think ‘Branded’ would have run for five years. We talked about it years later. As Chuck’s career waned he became more friendly. He commiserated with me, ‘If I had just treated the sponsor a little better, I might have had a few more seasons’.”
Some location work was done in Kanab, UT, and much more in Thousand Oaks or Vasquez Rocks, on the series which began in b/w but switched to color for the 8th, 9th and 10th episodes, Cohen’s “Mission” trilogy. The series reverted to b/w for the rest of the first season but was color again by the start of the second season (ep. #17). Connors’ “son” from his previous series, “The Rifleman”, Johnny Crawford, guest starred in #7, “Coward Step Aside”.