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.