Long before his days as an accomplished leading actor and acclaimed director, before his sleek portrayals of Dirty Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name made him an instant star, Clint Eastwood was another Hollywood contract player trying to make ends meet appearing in small unmemorable roles in Hollywood B-movies. However, in 1959 that was all about to change.
When ‘Rawhide’ made it’s television premier on January 9th, Eastwood’s career took off. The series went on to become a major hit giving Eastwood the experience and knowledge of a business that he would ultimately master.
The year was 1958 and in America the tubes were saturated with westerns. The public’s appetite was insatiable. Every night, people were glued to the likes of ‘Cheyenne’, ‘Maverick’, ‘Bronco’, ‘Lawman’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘The Rifleman’, ‘Wyatt Earp’, ‘Sugarfoot’, ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ and the real biggie of the time ‘Wagon Train’ with Ward Bond.
Amidst all this was Charles Marquis Warren, writer, producer, director, especially of Westerns. He had been instrumental in adapting ‘Gunlaw’ (which became ‘Gunsmoke’) from radio to television in 1955. Warren had just finished working on the western film “Cattle Empire” with Joel McCrea when C.B.S. was looking for an answer to ‘Wagon Train’.
Warren was approached and asked to come up with an idea for a Western series to capture the public’s imagination. This of course was a major obstacle in itself, just about every conceivable sort of Western show had been done, or at least was being done right now! However Warren had enjoyed “Cattle Empire” and decided he would depict a show that centered around a long, hazardous cattle drive, featuring the drovers and their daily problems, plus of course, the many characters they would meet along the way.
You could easily see a comparison to ‘Wagon Train’, but whereas that show would often degenerate into a glorified soap opera, ‘Rawhide’ would generally retain a gritty edge and sustain realism, seldom seen on the televisions of that era.
Actually, ‘Rawhide’ had three sources aside from Warren’s contribution. Warren obviously took from the film “Cattle Empire”, but for inspiration, he had a diary written by George C Duffield, who had been a drover in 1866, on a drive from San Antonio to Sedalia. This diary was a major aspect of ‘Rawhide’, especially during Warren’s seasons. In these episodes, Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) would be seen at the beginning of each episode introducing himself, with what could easily be notes from his own diary.
The next source, was Borden Chase’s novel The Chisholm Trail, which in itself inspired the final source and the one most closely associated with ‘Rawhide’. “Red River” was an epic Western with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. To a certain extent (and with some embellishments), Eric Fleming took on the Wayne role and Clint Eastwood, the Clift role.
Neither of these actors were well known at the time. Despite having played the lead in several films, Eric had still not hit the big time, and apart from “Conquest of Space” most of these films were low budget quickies. Clint had been the support or just in brief walk-ons, so at this time the two actors were delighted at the prospect at being the leads in a prime-time show.
Finally C.B.S. gave the go-ahead to film ten episodes and here is where we come to one of the ‘Rawhide’ myths. I will dispel all of these in this article.
Three episodes have been designated as the pilot. The most often quoted is ‘Incident West of Lano’ and this is totally incorrect. In actual fact this was the first episode filmed to have location footage. The next episode has been called the pilot because it was the first one to air but in fact it was not the first one filmed. The episode first to air was ‘Incident of the Tumbleweed Wagon’. Warren picked this one to air first because the real pilot, ‘Incident at Barker Springs’was disappointingly ponderous. ‘Barker Springs’ is however interesting because in the original filmed episode, Robert Carricart appears as Wishbone. He however was quickly replaced and his scenes refilmed with Paul Brinegar taking over the role. Both versions of the pilot are available in the States.
One cannot help but feel sorry for poor Carricart, he really missed his opportunity. C.B.S. wanted a comedy actor and Warren felt that Brinegar filled the part, he had been in Warren’s film “Cattle Empire” as a cook. Previous to ‘Rawhide’ he had been a regular in ‘Wyatt Earp’ for a time.
An interesting note to “Cattle Empire” is the fact that a good observer could spot Steve Raines (Jim Quince), Rocky Shahan (Joe Scarlet), and Robert Cabal (Jesus). Another interesting fact about the original version of the pilot is that there is no Frankie Laine song, just a basic theme which resurfaced over the end credits of ‘Rawhide’s’ last season.
Originally the show was to be titled “Cattle Drive” but wisely Warren amended this to ‘Rawhide’. The rest of the cast aside from Eric Fleming, Clint Eastwood and Paul Brinegar consisted of Sheb Wooley as Pete Nolan, Rocky Shahan as Joe Scarlet, Steve Raines as Jim Quince, James Murdock as Mushy and occasionally John Erwin as Teddy, Don C. Harvey as Collins and John Cole as Bailey, (in fact John Cole can be seen in several other episodes as an Indian, rustler etc.). Robert Cabal as Hey Soos only appeared sporadically at first, his part grew later in the series. Later in the series others were to appear and this will be discussed later.
After ten episodes, C.B.S. got cold feet and decided there were too many westerns on the tube so ‘Rawhide’ was shelved. Naturally disappointed Eric and Clint moved on to other things. Clint appeared in a humorous ‘Maverick’ episode. Then just a month or two later C.B.S. reconsidered, ‘Rawhide’ would after all go ahead.
Warren himself had created one of the most famous lines in television history. “Head ’em up, move ’em out” became the catch phrase of the early sixties. Warren also had a hand in creating some of the positions worked by drovers on the herd, although most of these such as ramrod, drag and trail boss, were authentic.
Warren then set about casting for his show and quickly selected Eric Fleming after a screen test. He was the perfect choice for the part, as the rough trail boss. Tall, handsome and possessing a remarkable deep voice, he certainly had all the qualities required for the part. The second lead, of course, was to be Clint, and after a screen test with Eric, Warren decided they worked extremely well together.
It would be a mid-season replacement and would air on January 9th 1959. It’s popularity was slow to come, it struggled for most of the first season however some excellent episodes in the second season ensured a rapid gain in popularity. It reached the number one slot several times in Britain and in the States it achieved a way high sixth during the 1960-61 season. Even the critics seemed to be won over.
During the show’s first three seasons Charles Marquis Warren remained at the helm and he set out to provide a rigid format, gritty realism, great characters, great stories, nearly all centered around the cattle drive. From the beginning there was no doubt Eric was the lead as the tough, taciturn trail boss. He possessed an awesome inner strength that came out in the character of Gil Favor. In fact as the seasons progresses his character was to toughen up even more.
Second in command was Rowdy. Clint’s role matured from the hot headed punk who originally was not featured much, but became an integral part of many story lines. Actually, some of Clint’s finest moments on film can be seen in some of these shows.
Sheb Wooley also proved adept and featured prominently until 1962 when he left to purse his music career. He was sorely missed and did return for a short while during the 1964-65 season as well as an appearance or two in between years. He was replaced for some time by Charles Gray as Clay Forrester who never inspired the affection one felt for Pete Nolan.
Several years later when producer Warren left the show it was to signal the beginning of many changes. Some of the feel of authenticity was to be left behind. For example no more readings from Gil Favor’s diary. However there was still many good episodes, some of them rather violent and some outrageous comedy. Endre Bohem was to take over as producer. It was promotion really, as he had been working with Warren on the show for some years. Therefore the characters remained much the same. However, the writing, storyline, and scheduling did not.
Clint eventually went on to become trail boss and the leading star of the series. Clint ‘s salary improved, reaching the neighborhood of about $100,000 a year toward the end of the run. C.B.S. even offered to defer part of his salary, which he took them up on. It saved taxes, and the money accrued interest while the network held it for his. Yet Clint has been quoted as saying that towards the end, he grew tired of portraying Rowdy Yates due to the fact that he never got to play a character with him that he wanted. There was no darkness in him, not even some odd quirks.
When the series was finally officially cancelled in 1966, Clint was ready for change – any change. Little did he know at the time that a small budgeted Italian western he had made during ‘Rawhides’offseason was about to launch him into superstardom. That film of course, A Fistful of Dollars.