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“Father Murphy”

Moses Gunn, Katherine Cannon, Merlin Olsen in "Father Murphy".In 1981 when Michael Landon decided to do a new series for NBC, this time working strictly behind the scenes, he hired former NFL L.A. Rams defensive tackle football player and “Little House on the Prairie” alumni Merlin Olsen to star in his one hour Western drama as John Michael Murphy who arrives in the 1870s mining community of Jackson, Dakota Territory, shortly after the end of the Civil War.

Created and executive produced by Michael Landon, the “Father Murphy” story began as Murphy and his prospector friend Moses Gage (Moses Gunn) rally the prospectors against the greedy town boss who then blows up the miner’s camp leaving them all destitute. This creates a new career for Murphy who poses as a priest to establish an orphanage for about two dozen homeless children. He’s befriended and soon marries schoolteacher Mae Woodward (Katherine Cannon). Eventually, when Murphy’s deception is exposed, he and Mae adopt all the orphans as they struggle to hold the family together.

The NBC one hour series began on Tuesday November 3, 1981 in the 8-9pm time period, switching to Sunday 7-8pm in March ‘82, end of season one. As season two began, “Father Murphy” was back on Tuesday evening until its total of 31 episodes ended.

Much of the show was filmed at Old Tucson by Michael Landon who loved the area, “They’ve got great streets here, and the extras we can hire are just fantastic.” The Father Murphy village was at Big Sky Ranch off Tapo Canyon Road in the Simi Valley where the last Little House village was also located, then destroyed as part of the plot for the last “Little House” episode.

Landon’s stunt double for 18 years, Hal Burton, spoke of Landon’s generosity, “On most shows at Christmas they give you a bottle of booze. Michael gave $1,000 gifts. On ‘Father Murphy’ he gave everybody gold coins, TV sets and stereos.

Initially, “Father Murphy” faced ABC’s ratings grabbing “Happy Days”/“Laverne and Shirley” block and CBS’ “Simon and Simon”. In the second season CBS moved “Simon and Simon” to Thursday replacing it on Tuesday with Bruce Boxleitner as Frank Buck in “Bring ‘Em Back Alive”. Still, “Happy Days”/“Laverne and Shirley” won out and “Father Murphy” was cancelled as of December 28, 1982. Reruns surfaced briefly in the Spring of ‘84 as a replacement for NBC’s ill-fated “First Camera”.


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