Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked TV: The Macahans/How the West was Won

THE MACAHANS is a TV miniseries from 1976, the heyday of that format. It’s a big, sprawling Western about Timothy Macahan (Richard Kiley) who is moving his family, including wife Eva Marie Saint and their three children, to a new home in the West as the Civil War is about to break out in the East. This move is aided by John’s mountain man brother Zeb (James Arness). It’s a good yarn, full of colorful characters and action and dominated by Arness’s gritty portrayal of Zeb Macahan, who’s a lot rougher and every bit as dangerous as Matt Dillon.


The ratings for THE MACAHANS must have been pretty good, because the mini-series became a regular series the next year, retitled HOW THE WEST WAS WON (no relation to the 1962 epic movie of the same name, except in subject matter). Richard Kiley’s character had died in the war, leaving his plucky widow and three children (one of whom, Luke, was played by Bruce Boxleitner in his first major role) to survive on the frontier, still with the occasional helping hand from the old-timer Zeb. The series was launched with a 3-hour TV movie with a slew of guest stars and a vast tale of the Indian Wars.


What really sets HOW THE WEST WAS WON apart, other than the high production values and the greatness of Arness, is the fact that during its first and second seasons it was the only Western nighttime soap opera in history. Storylines continued from week to week, and episodes often ended on cliffhangers. Livia and I watched this regularly during the early days of our marriage, and we were riveted. This was great stuff.


When the series returned for a third season, someone at the network must have monkeyed with it, because the soap opera format was gone for the most part. Nearly all the stories were stand-alones, and while they were still very good, the series had lost something, in my opinion. Many of the viewers must have shared that opinion, because ratings declined and the series came to an end. It was a great run, though, especially during the first two regular seasons.


Now, here’s something you don’t know. Livia and I were both James Arness fans from his long run on GUNSMOKE, and we were really taken with his portrayal of Zeb Macahan. So one day a few years later, Livia called me at the bookstore where I was working and said she wanted to write about a character who was an old cowboy who worked as a private eye in 1920s Hollywood. Great concept, and what sealed the deal for me was when she said, “And he looks like James Arness in HOW THE WEST WAS WON.”


The character was Lucas Hallam, of course, and if you think about how he’s described in the books (all of which are available on Amazon for the Kindle, he said in a not-so-subtle plug) and watch the YouTube clip, you can see the resemblance. When Hallam’s working on Western movies, he always looks like Zeb Macahan. Of course, when he’s sleuthing, he usually doesn’t wear the buckskins . . . in which case he still looks like James Arness. That’s something that’s never been revealed before now, as far as I remember.


Which doesn’t have all that much to do with THE MACAHANS/HOW THE WEST WAS WON. The series isn’t available on DVD, but hopefully it will be someday. If you’re a Western fan and ever get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It’s one of my favorite Western TV series ever.

19 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Well, the contemporary Australian outback "western" MCLEOD'S DAUGHTERS had some soap continuity, but not always, either...and that's several provisi! Remarkable that this hasn't made its way onto disc.

David Cranmer said...

I remember watching and enjoying this with my dad. It would be interesting to see how it has aged.

Western Fictioneers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Livia J (Washburn) Reasoner said...

And if I'm remembering right, when I told you about my idea you said, "Sounds like it would be fun to write, but you'll never sell it.

James Reasoner said...

Yeah, that's exactly what I said, and I've never been happier to be proven wrong.

Kjetil Johnsen said...

The series - all seasons - are available on DVD in Scandinavia. (It was a huge hit here.)

http://cdon.no/film/familien_macahan_-_sesong_1_%285_disc%29-7113974

It's region 2, but there are ways around that.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Lou Cameron either wrote the script, or the paperback based on the script

http://www.amazon.com/How-West-Was-Won-Cameron/dp/0345274016

James Reasoner said...

Cameron wrote the paperback novelization. I don't think he had anything to do with the script.

Fred Blosser said...

Two other "family saga Western" series:

THE ROAD WEST, with Barry Sullivan as a widower headed West with son Andrew Prine and daughter Brenda Scott. It debuted in 1966, not sure it lasted a full season, although the pilot that guest-starred George C. Scott was edited into a feature film. Prine and Scott were a married couple in real life.

THE CHISHOLMS, starring Robert Preston. This one aired around the same time as the Arness series. As I remember, it was either adopted from an Evan Hunter novel or maybe it was a series/novel package.

Fred Blosser said...

Woops -- Prine and BRENDA Scott were a couple.

Walker Martin said...

The entire series in available from amazon.co.uk on dvd. True it is region 2 and won't play on North American region 1 dvd players, but if you are a big movie buff, then you have to get a multi region dvd player. I have a couple and they play all dvds from around the world.

Mel Odom said...

Gotta agree, James. I remember being hooked at the end of each show, wondering what was going to happen to all the characters.

James Reasoner said...

Fred,
I think I recall watching THE ROAD WEST, but that's all I remember about it. I was aware of THE CHISHOLMS but never watched it. Hunter definitely wrote the book (I think Bill Crider reviewed it on his blog a year or so ago), but I don't know which came first.

Walker,
I've thought about getting an all-region DVD player, just haven't gotten around to it yet. I really need to.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, James. I really liked JA on Gunsmoke. Your blog reminded me of something. Do you remember a TV Western called The Monroes? I think a young Barbara Hershey starred in it. I recall liking it, too.

Ed Lynskey

James Reasoner said...

Ed,
I remember THE MONROES and remember Barbara Hershey being in it, but that's all I recall. That's a series I haven't thought about in at least 30 years.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Forgive me for deviating from this post, Mr. Reasoner, but have you read or written about Wayne D. Overholser? I happened to pick up a couple of his books that includes The Dry Gulcher.

James Reasoner said...

I've read some of Overholser's work, but I have to admit, I'm not much of a fan. Not his fault -- enough people whose opinions I respect like his books that I know they're good -- but I suspect he's just one of those writers whose work doesn't resonate with me.

Troy D. Smith said...

Man, I love me some McCahans. I'd love to have the whole thing on dvd so I could inflict it on my family (they struggle at first, but they always come around.)

And I never recall Matt Dillon threatening to cut someone's tongue out and feed it to 'em for breakfast, but it sounded plumb natural coming from Zeb McCahan.

And as long as we're combining secrets with shameless plugs, I closely modeled retired marshal Luke Temple (in Riding to Sundown, with cameos in various novels and short stories) on James Arness -it was more of a blend between Matt and Zeb, but Zeb was the physical model.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

The overholser books were not bad, but he sounded like a guy who didn't quite know the west. Very generic books with a layer of local color splashed on.