“Head ‘em up! Move ‘em out!” “Rawhide”, one of TV’s epic westerns with more of an authentic feel than most others, began its long dusty drive on CBS January 9, 1959, as a one hour Friday night mid-season replacement for “Trackdown” (which moved to Wednesdays) and a short-lived half hour version of the “Jackie Gleason Show”. Producer Charles Marquis Warren (who had been writer/director and producer at the start of “Gunsmoke” in ‘55) had an idea for a show concerning a cattle drive (obviously inspired by John Wayne’s “Red River”) but could get no network interested. The idea was shelved for three years and used as the inspiration for the feature “Cattle Empire” at Fox in ‘58 with Joel McCrea. Among the cast were Paul Brinegar, Charles Gray, Steve Raines and Rocky Shahan, all of whom would become “Rawhide” regulars. This time when Warren pitched the idea of a series to CBS, they accepted.
Eric Fleming, whose career was wavering at the time, was about to quit the business and move to Hawaii to pursue his interest in sculpting and writing. He was asked to test for the role of Gil Favor, “a tough man of action who possessed good judgment, compassion and an iron will.” Fleming was an excellent choice. Another unknown, Clint Eastwood, was chosen as ramrod Rowdy Yates. The role launched him on a career that includes an Academy Award for “The Unforgiven”. Scout Pete Nolan was played by the late Sheb Wooley who had worked in Warren’s “Little Big Horn”. Paul Brinegar as curmudgeonly cook Wishbone and stuntman/actor Steve Raines as drover Jim Quince were the only other two cast members (besides Eastwood) to stay with the series for its full run (1/9/59-12/7/65) of 217 episodes. (Complete cast with participation years at end of article.)
Basically, the series depicted the exploits of the tough cattle drives between San Antonio, TX, and Sedalia, MO, and San Antonio to Abilene, KS. Only the first two drives are episodically shown reaching their conclusion.
The series owes much of its success to the top writers and directors employed over its eight year run as well as a stirring themesong sung by Frankie Laine, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington.
Name guest stars played a prominent role on “Rawhide”, but not at the expense of series regulars as was often the case on “Wagon Train”, a series to which “Rawhide” is often compared. Making appearances on “Rawhide” over the years were such stars as Dan Duryea, Lon Chaney Jr., Brian Donlevy, Margaret O’Brien, Victor Jory, Buddy Ebsen, Bob Steele, Julie London, Debra Paget, Robert Culp, Don Barry, Ralph Bellamy, Audrey Totter, Barbara Stanwyck and many more—as well as all the great character players of the time.
The first episode shot in ‘58 was “Incident at Barker Springs” (filmed around Nogales, AZ, where a lot of cattle stock footage used later was also lensed) although this episode, in a revised version, ended up being aired as the 7th episode. Then, with only 9 episodes filmed, CBS was unable to interest a sponsor. The breakthrough came when CBS needed a mid-season replacement. “Incident of the Tumbleweed Wagon” was the first episode aired, which didn’t rate well—only 42nd. However, within three weeks the show was in the Top 20.
Success often breeds disgruntlement, and, reportedly, problems over cast billing being at the end of the episodes rather than the beginning led to Warren’s departure as producer at the end of the third season. “Rawhide” found itself facing a mid-life crisis. Warren was replaced for the ‘61-‘62 season by story editor Endre Bohem. When the series slid in the ratings, Bohem was replaced for seasons 5, 6 (‘62-‘64) by former Monogram B-picture producer Vincent M. Fennelly who watched the ratings slide even more. Each season now saw changes in emphasis. Play up the guest star. Play down the guest star. Stick to the cattle. Get away from the cattle. More action. Less action, more drama. The tandem team of Bernard Kowalski and Bruce Geller took over for the 7th season only to be replaced midway in ‘65 by Bohem, brought back to revive the slowly eroding ratings of the once powerful series, which had been moved to Thursday for the ‘63-‘64 season, then back to Fridays for ‘64-‘65. None of these changes worked to restore “Rawhide” to its former glory. CBS made one more try, hiring producer Robert Thompson for season 7 (‘65) under orders to put the series back in the saddle. Thompson only succeeded in driving “Rawhide” into the dust by firing Eric Fleming, Sheb Wooley, James (Mushy) Murdock, Robert (Hey Soos) Cabal and Rocky (Joe Scarlet) Shahan. In their place he hired black actor Raymond St. Jacques and Englishman David Watson (both of whom knew nothing about westerns). Old pro John Ireland was also brought on board, receiving second billing to Eastwood who was now trail boss. The mix did not work and a once great TV western ended in Dec. ‘65.
Paul Brinegar: “I started acting in high school and college. After WWII I started doing Little Theatre around Hollywood and picked up a few jobs. Then I landed in ‘Wyatt Earp’ in ‘55 for two years. I’d done ‘Cattle Empire’ for Charles Marquis Warren. Later, when CBS made the pilot for ‘Rawhide’ they made it with a Mexican cook. For some reason or other, the studio didn’t feel the Mexican cook was working out very well. Warren remembered me and brought me in. So I spent 7 happy years as Wishbone, having a ball with all of the guys, traveling the country making personal appearances. I was not the least bit surprised by Clint’s later success. In the early days of ‘Rawhide’, Clint went right along with the character he was asked to play. After a couple of years, he used the term ‘cherry’. He didn’t like that ‘cherry’ character which was a naive young guy that just didn’t suit Clint’s personality. So he began to get a little vocal about it in terms of getting better stories. The result was he went to Spain and made some of those spaghetti westerns that turned him into the great star he is now. Sheb Wooley is a good friend. When we first started ‘Rawhide’ he’d just had his big success with ‘The Purple People Eater’. When we’d go out on personal appearances, Sheb would always have Clint or I do the funny little noises he’d done himself on the record. We both screwed it up. (Laughs)”
Eric Fleming died at 41 on September 28, 1966. While filming in Peru on a tributary of the Amazon, the Huallaga River, the canoe he and actor Nico Minardos were in capsized in rough water. Minardos made it to shore, Fleming did not. He crashed his head on some rocks. His body was recovered four days later. Clint Eastwood made several Euro-westerns during “Rawhide” and went on to become a major star and director. Paul Brinegar died at 77 on March 27, 1995, of emphysema. Sheb Wooley, 82, died September 16, 2003, of leukemia. Steve Raines, 79, died Jan. 4, 1996. James Murdock, 50, died of pneumonia Dec. 24, 1981. Rocky Shahan, in his ‘50s, died Dec. 8, 1981. Hal Baylor, 79, died Jan. 5, 1998. Don Harvey, 50, died April 24, 1963. John Hart, 91, died Sept. 20, 2009. Charles Gray, 86, died August 2, 2008. John Ireland, 78, died March 21, 1992. Raymond St. Jacques, 60, died August 27, 1990. William Thompkins died in a car wreck on Whidbey Island near Coupeville, WA, in 1971. Also deceased, date unconfirmed, is Robert Cabal. Thankfully, John Erwin, John Cole, Paul Comi, L. Q. Jones are still with us. (Thanx in part to Terry Cutts, Randy Erdman, Gary Yoggy, Harris Lentz, Everett Aaker, Richard K. Tharp, Melissa Teague, Laura Campbell.)