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Riverboat starring every week Darren McGavin, Burt Reynolds. TV GUIDE ad. Guest stars Vera Miles, Robert Vaughn.“Riverboat”

Created during the heyday of TV westerns, “Riverboat” aspired to be a bit different. Set in the mid to late 1840s, stories revolved around the 100 foot-long stern-wheeler The Enterprise, steaming up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Produced by Revue/Universal, “Riverboat” was a black and white one hour series that began on NBC on Sunday September 13, 1959, from 7-8pm EST and ran for 44 episodes (a season and a half) through January 2, 1961. However, as you’ll see, due to star rivalry, constant cast, producer and writer changes, format changes, plus scheduling changes, “Riverboat” never quite found its audience.

Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds.In the beginning Darren McGavin, a Universal star who was concurrently playing the title role of “Mike Hammer” when “Riverboat” began, was cast as Grey Holden, Captain and owner of the Enterprise. Newcomer Burt Reynolds played the boat’s pilot Ben Fraser. Dick Wessell played engineer Carney and William Gordon was Joe Travis, a crewman and occasional pilot.

Gordon Kay produced several episodes of “Riverboat” and once told WC, “Darren McGavin was a nut. A wonderful Irishman. A very good actor. I liked him very much as a person. He was, if anything, too honest for his own good. Burt Reynolds was brought in at studio head Lew Wasserman’s request, who said, ‘This is a new actor we just hired. Please use him.’ They even wanted some lines. We were halfway through filming and didn’t know where the hell we were going to use him. Darren said, ‘We gotta shoot me up in the wheelhouse. Put him in as the helmsman. I’ll tell him to come right full rudder and let him say, aye aye sir.’”

From the get-go there was an acrimonious relationship between established star McGavin and newcomer Reynolds. McGavin assumed he was hired as the star of the show while Reynolds hoped the series would give him an opportunity to ultimately make a name for himself. It was an immediate clashing of egos.

Perhaps the series was rushed into production, it certainly offered a different concept but too often the Enterprise was only used as a backdrop or prop rather than a controlling factor while the stories were simply tried and true western plots. Little was done to introduce or give any background to the series regulars and Grey Holden’s character often changed week to week to fit in with the plots.

Besides the on-screen and off-screen antagonistic relationship between McGavin and Reynolds, producer and cast changes began to emerge midway through season one. As of episode 15, crewman Travis was unceremoniously killed off and Jack Lambert as crewman (soon pilot) Joshua McGregor was introduced. This episode also brings aboard 11 year old Michael McGreevy whom Grey Holden appoints as his cabin boy, orphaned Chip (and his dog Andy Jackson). McGreevy was in every episode til the end of season one, particularly “Treasure of Hawk Hill” and “Night of the Faceless Man”. Still more changes, with episode #16 John Mitchum was suddenly aboard as cook Pickalong (often called Piccolo by Lambert). He never made much of an impression so his character was abandoned as of episode #26.

TV GUIDE ad giving new day..new time for "Riverboat".Always up against strong opposition from CBS (“Lassie”/“Ed Sullivan”) and ABC (“You Asked for It”/“Maverick”), things came to a head between McGavin and Reynolds with episode #20. Reynolds was gone, replaced by Bart Patton as Terry Blake. Signaling these changes, after a final Sunday night episode (1/31/60) one day later (2/1/60) the series moved to Monday night from 7:30-8:30 EST. The move didn’t benefit the ratings much, as now “Riverboat” was programmed against the powerful “Cheyenne” on ABC and “Kate Smith” on CBS.

Even worse, after only three episodes on Monday night, McGavin, in a contract dispute over salary threatened to walk out. When Revue/Universal threatened to replace him, McGavin called their bluff and went home! Producers hired Dan Duryea to temporarily take over the helm of the Enterprise as Captain Turner (Ep. #24, 25), explaining Captain Holden had gone to scrounge for cargo upriver. As negotiations lumbered on, Duryea was asked to retain the role of Captain Turner but he refused, unwilling to get in the way of contract discussions between McGavin and the studio. As to the “public why” of McGavin’s disappearance, TV GUIDE reported McGavin had been injured in an auto accident. As terms were worked out, McGavin returned with episode #26…which also saw the exit of Bart Patton as Terry Blake.

Constantly plagued by star rivalry, cast changes, producer changes (six over 31 episodes), various directors (14) and writers (24) besides night and time scheduling changes, you’d need a scorecard to keep up with “Riverboat”’s first season. Surprisingly, it was renewed for a second season with, again, a new producer (Boris Kaplan) who instigated sweeping changes. McGreevy was gone with no explanation,
Noah Beery Jr. and Darren McGavin. Lambert’s role was severely diminished and Noah Beery Jr. (left) was hired to play Captain Bill Blake who buys a 50% ownership in the Enterprise. Kaplan also insisted on McGavin’s Grey Holden to present more of a hard-nosed, often womanizing character and the series final episodes suffered because of this decision. Even the theme music was altered.

The second season was aborted after 13 episodes—and again too many directors and writers. Sadly, after 44 episodes with a vague original concept, no single strong hand to oversee production, tension and rivalry on the set and too many cast changes all served to sink the Enterprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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