One of the longest running and most beloved westerns in TV history celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Photography: Courtesy James Drury Website/www.thevirginian.net
In an era when cable networks produce eight or 12 shows and call it a season, what The Virginian achieved over nine years seems almost unimaginable. Between 1962 and 1971, the groundbreaking western series produced 249 episodes, each 75 minutes long. It was the equivalent of shooting — in color — a feature-length movie every eight days.
“We were always behind schedule, so sometimes we’d shoot two shows at a time,” recalls Roberta Shore, who played Betsy Garth. “I’d finish one scene, then run to another set, change clothes, and shoot another scene.”
The Virginian At The Autry
On September 22, celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Virginian at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles with James Drury and Roberta Shore (Betsy Garth). Other cast members scheduled to appear include Randy Boone (Randy Benton), Gary Clarke (Steve Hill), Sara Lane (Elizabeth Grainger), Diane Roter (Jennifer Sommers), and Don Quine (Stacey Grainger). There will be a panel discussion, episode screenings, an autograph session, and a chuck wagon dinner with the cast.
Seasons 1 – 6 and 9 of The Virginian are available on DVD from Timeless Media Group.
“No one thought we could do it,” says James Drury, who played the title character for the entire run. “It was nose to the grindstone for nine years, and we were doing our best to make the best damn western we could make. But it was always a joy. I would have done nine more years.”
Proposed as a replacement show when Wagon Train moved from NBC to ABC, The Virginian became the country’s third longest running western, after Gunsmoke and Bonanza. It made stars of Drury and Doug McClure (as Trampas) and featured such guest stars as George C. Scott, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Colleen Dewhurst, and Vera Miles. The 1963 episode “The Evil That Men Do,” about an embittered ex-con who attempts to resocialize at Shiloh Ranch, featured a young actor on the ascent named Robert Redford.
The TV series was based on the famed Owen Wister novel of the same name. Published in 1902 and generally credited as the first true western, The Virginian described the life of a noble cattleman — “the horseman of the plains” — on the fictional Shiloh Ranch in Wyoming. Before the TV series debuted in 1962, the book had given rise to four movies, two with sound: one with Gary Cooper (1929), the other with Joel McCrea (1946) in the role of the mysterious, nameless drifter with unshakeable ethics. In James Drury, television producers found an actor worthy of the mantle for the small screen — with the added bonus of a photographic memory. “I could look at a 10-page scene and then shoot it verbatim,” Drury recalls.
Still, there was a problem. “They kept screen-testing me and saying I was too fat. So I worked in the gym and rowed in the Los Angeles River and ate a head of lettuce every day,” he says. “I lost 30 pounds in 30 days. I really wanted to play that part.”
Drury and six other cast members will be on hand at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles for a 50th anniversary tribute to the show this September. Maxine Hansen, Gene Autry’s former assistant, has heard from enthusiastic fans — both original and more recent converts — coming in from England, Australia, and across the United States to be part of the celebration. “The response has been absolutely amazing,” she says.
So, we might add, was the show.