Wagon Train, produced by Revue Studios, finishing #2 for 1960-61 before ascending to the top spot for 1961-62. While the western was still immensely popular, the sheer number of westerns on the air had pretty much tapped the well dry in terms of new concepts. There were already historically based series such as Bat Masterson and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, wandering gunfighters such as Cheyenne and Bronco, town marshals on Gunsmoke and Lawman, cattle drivers on Rawhide, single parents on The Rifleman and Bonanza, a bounty hunter on Wanted:Dead or Alive, a gun for hire on Have Gun -- Will Travel, an aspiring lawyer on Sugarfoot, card-playing brothers on Maverick, a shotgun-toting detective on Shotgun Slade, and a reluctant deputy on The Deputy. What the western didn't have was animals. So established western novelist Samuel A. Peeples, who the season before had created The Tall Man based on the legendary but historically questionable relationship between Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, came up with the idea of Frontier Circus, which TV Guide in its Fall 1961 Preview issue sarcastically called "Wagon Train with animals."
And, yes, like Wagon Train, the program focuses on a caravan traveling across the west and encountering all sorts of adventures along the way. And many of the plots are driven by characters the circus regulars encounter along the way, rather than telling the story of the regular characters themselves, in this case ringmaster Colonel Casey Thompson, straw boss Ben Travis, and scout and advance man Tony Gentry, with animal handler Duffy added once the season started rolling. For example, we aren't told in the first 10 episodes that aired in 1961 where Thompson's "Colonel" title came from; we only know he has always had a dream of leading a circus across the country. And Ben Travis' backstory is a mystery. Tony Gentry, on the other hand, is a former Confederate soldier from Texas who could have gone astray after the war, as men like Jess Evans in "The Hunter and the Hunted" (November 2, 1961) have done, but was taken in by Thompson. But unlike Wagon Train, the series does not have an umbrella structure that defines each season or an overall premise to unify the disparate, individual episodes. In Wagon Train, each season constitutes one trip across the country from Missouri to California, bringing settlers west to populate an increasingly white western United States. Though there is not a rigid geographical structure for the sequence of episodes, they generally progress across plains, deserts, and mountains before reaching the west coast. Frontier Circus has no such progression. The one episode that alludes to these geographical reference points is "Winter Quarters" (November 23, 1961), which finds the Thompson & Travis Circus at the end of their performing season in Nevada. Usually they would pack up and head back to Missouri to hole up during the winter, repairing damaged equipment and developing new acts for the next season. But Thompson persuades his partners that they should instead press on over the Sierra Mountains to California, which he paints as all sunshine and gold. However, the next week they are near Purgatory, Colorado ("Patriarch of Purgatory," November 30-1961), and the week after that they are near Hamilton, North Dakota ("The Shaggy Kings," December 7, 1961), so there is little rhyme or reason to their peregrinations. And as far as an overall purpose, Thompson essentially admits that his program is piggy-backing on the wagon trains depicted in "that other series" in "The Shaggy Kings" when he explains to Travis that they provide entertainment for all the struggling settlers who are striving to carve out a new nation in the west.
White women, however, are given the most extended treatment in a more varied complex of issues but rarely are they shown as men's equals. In the aforementioned "Dr. Sam," Thompson feels that it isn't natural for a woman to be a doctor and he feels betrayed that Applewhite did not tell him she was female in their correspondence before showing up to work for him. His sexism is treated as being humorous and he is eventually outvoted by the other circus workers to allow Applewhite to stay, or more correctly to be brought back when she leaves in a huff, and after she successfully performs a brain operation on a fallen highwire performer, Thompson comes to accept her in her role. But we also hear her nurse say that she is being held to a higher standard than a man would--should she have failed to save the highwire performer, everyone would have wondered whether a man could have succeeded. And when she rides off with her nurse after her initial insulting exchange with Thompson, she is immediately captured by Indians and must be rescued by Thompson, showing that a woman is unable to fend for herself in the wild west. By episode's end she is offered a residency at a New York hospital that she decides to accept because she will be able to figuratively blaze trails for medicine-minded females who come after her, but it's clear that this path is a safer one than the one she leaves behind with the circus.
My Three Sons episode "Lady Engineer" and the 1960 episode "The Career Woman" from The Donna Reed Show, a successful career woman can never be fulfilled unless she has a home and a family. Stevens' backstory is that she abandoned her husband and newborn son to pursue a career full of adventure, but when she meets her now 10-year-old son during one of the circus' stops, her motherly instincts well up inside her and she can no longer remain separated from her boy. At the show's conclusion, she and her husband have reconciled and she decides to leave the circus and attend to the needs of her family, leaving her prize rifle with Thompson as a memento. The message is clear: a woman might be able to do all the things a man can do, but it won't make her happy unless she sticks to her traditional subservient role.
Thelma Ritter plays another career woman in "Journey From Hannibal" (November 9, 1961) but one forced into running her husband's livery stable after he dies. Despite her independent nature and her refusal to fall for Thompson's sales pitch to pay her later for boarding an elephant he bought 4 months ago, she finally has to go along with his proposal to take her with him back to Bismarck, where the circus will earn enough to settle his account with her, because her hometown of Hannibal, Missouri is drying up and she is headed for bankruptcy if she stays where she is. In other words, she is a damsel in distress and Thompson is her knight in shining armor. Once she has made the long journey with him to Bismarck and is repaid, she says she will probably settle down somewhere and open another livery stable, which is perfectly acceptable within the patronizing framework of Frontier Circus because she is past child-bearing age.
Another damsel in distress is dance hall singer Karina Andrews in the episode "Karina" (November 9, 1961), who has the temerity to shoot her abusive husband after he beats her for refusing to take the stage at his tawdry dance hall. Fearing that she will be hanged for murder, she flees the scene and winds up hiding in the circus prop tent, where she is discovered by Gentry, who immediately falls in love with her and puts her on a pedestal as an angel though he knows nothing about her. However, though Karina has the strength to shoot her own husband, she doesn't have enough to finish the job: Her husband is not dead, and eventually he and his brother catch up with the circus and attempt to spirit her back home. But Travis, Thompson, and Gentry, with an assist from elephant keeper Duffy, successfully rescue her, during which the husband is crushed between two wagons by the elephant. Though she is tempted to remain with the circus and its idyllic family atmosphere, she ultimately decides she must return to "reality" to clear her name, leaving Gentry and Travis with only their idealized memories of who she is.
Other damsels in need of rescue include blind horse trainer Maureen McBride in "Lippizan" (October 19, 1961) whose prize stallion is killed when Travis mounts it to chase a robber who then shoots the horse during his escape. Travis must then find and train a suitable replacement to prevent McBride from being left destitute and heart-broken. In "Depths of Fear" (October 5, 1961) Millie Carno must be rescued from her abusive lion-taming husband by his former boss. And in "Patriarch of Purgatory" (November 30, 1961) Susannah Hedges must be rescued from her slave-owning miner father, who makes the mistake of kidnapping Travis and Gentry but is no match for their daring escape plan. And yet none of these rescued women ever wind up staying with the circus. As Dr. Christopher Sharrett has observed in his treatise on The Rifleman, in the fantasy world of the western the female is generally made unattainable, at least by the main characters, to preserve the freedom of their boys club.
In any case, the knight-in-shining armor theme did not make Frontier Circus a winner. It lasted a mere 26 episodes, ending its brief run in September 1962. Scriptwriter Dorothy Fontana has suggested that one factor in the series' cancellation was the high production costs required by the use of trained animals. Perhaps more consequential is that despite the show's circus razzle dazzle, it had little new to offer to a genre already a bit overworked.
The theme music and individual scores for several episodes of Frontier Circus were composed by David Buttolph, who was profiled in the 1960 post on Maverick.
The complete series has been released on DVD by Timeless Media Group.
Hailing from small Seagoville in Dallas County, Texas, Chill Theodore Wills was given his unusual first name by his parents as an ironic twist on the fact that he was born on one of the hottest days of the year in 1903. Wills began his entertainment career as a singer, performing from age 12 in tent shows and vaudeville before forming the vocal group Chill Wills and His Avalon Boys in the 1930s. Spotted by an RKO talent scout during a Hollywood performance, they soon began appearing in low-budget westerns beginning with Bar 20 Rides Again in 1935, though Wills appeared as an uncredited campfire singer in W.C. Fields' classic comedy It's a Gift the year before. After 5 more Avalon Boys appearances, the group appeared in the Laurel & Hardy western farce Way Out West in 1937, in which Wills doubled as Stan Laurel's singing voice. After the success of this film, Wills left the vocal group and struck out on a solo career as an actor, landing background and supporting roles throughout the rest of the 1930s and 1940s in feature films such as Lawless Valley, Boom Town, Tarzan's New York Adventure, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, and The Yearling. In 1950 he was cast as the uncredited speaking voice of Francis the Talking Mule, and appeared in 6 such features over the next 5 years. He had a memorable turn as Uncle Bawley in 1956's Giant, starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the character Beekeeper in John Wayne's 1960 epic The Alamo. However, his over-the-top campaigning for the award turned off many of his Hollywood colleagues, including Wayne. After he ran a series of ads that read, "Win, lose, or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you," Groucho Marx countered with an ad of his own that read, "Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo." Wills started doing guest appearances on television in 1958, with an episode each of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Wagon Train and amassed only a half-dozen such credits before being cast as circus co-owner Col. Casey Thompson on Frontier Circus in the fall of 1961.
After the series' brief run was over, he returned to feature films, appearing in McLintock!, The Wheeler Dealers, and The Cardinal all in 1963. Appearances in a pair of two-part episodes on Route 66 and Rawhide and a single episode of Burke's Law were his only credits in 1964, but the following year he played Jim Ed Love in the Glenn Ford & Henry Fonda feature The Rounders and was cast in the same role when the movie was adapted into a TV series in 1966. Like Frontier Circus, this series last only a single season, after which it was back to sporadic guest appearances and fewer film roles, such as in Fireball 500 and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which included the film debut of Bob Dylan. During this time Wills was also active politically for arch conservative candidates like Barry Goldwater in his 1964 run for U.S. President, and he served as M.C. during the California campaign appearances by segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968. Wills' last appearance on screen was in the TV movie Stubby Pringle's Christmas in 1978. He died that same year from cancer at the age of 76 on December 15th.
During this period Derek would also begin a pattern for which he would be most remembered--marrying starlets and micro-managing their careers. He married French actress Patti Behrs in 1948 and divorced her 8 years later, after which he married the Swiss actress Ursula Andress, who at the time, according to Derek, spoke little English. He also later remarked that he didn't like her hair or eyebrows and that she needed to lose weight, and he prevailed upon her to change to meet his expectations, a controlling characteristic that would later have him called a Svengali. His casting as circus co-owner Ben Travis on Frontier Circus would be his last major role on film, other than co-starring with Andress in the 1966 World War II feature Once Before I Die, which would ironically be set in the Philippines and co-star his Frontier Circus friend Richard Jaeckel.
Once Frontier Circus was canceled, Derek instead turned to photography and directing, in addition to managing the careers of his next three wives. When Andress was called on to do a nude scene in the 1964 feature Nightmare in the Sun, Derek at first agreed but then changed his mind and refused to let her do it, though he would later photograph her nude for a Playboy magazine pictorial for which he was paid $15,000. He divorced Andress in 1965 after she had an affair with French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, though the two remained good friends thereafter. His next wife was actress Linda Evans, whom he married in 1968 (despite the fact that he initially didn't like the way she dressed) and directed in the little-seen Childish Things from 1969. In 1972 while directing a feature film that would eventually be released in 1981 as Fantasies, he fell in love with 16-year-old actress Mary Cathleen Collins, who was then billed as Bo Shane. When Bo's agent threatened to file a morals charge against Derek, he and Bo moved to Germany for two years. Once she turned 18, he divorced Evans and married Bo. Though Derek would later say in a People magazine interview that Evans was very understanding about the whole affair, she later said that she wanted to die and was angry, and yet, like Andress, she remained good friends with him and Andress and Bo through the rest of his life. Bo Derek's career didn't go anywhere for 6 years, until she was cast as the object of Dudley Moore's desire in Blake Edwards' 10. John Derek's career also went nowhere during this period, his only work being a 1979 pornographic feature he co-produced with Bo called Love You! Bo Derek's appearance in 10, which made her an overnight sensation, was only brought about because of Karen Callan, who had met the Dereks at a Hugh Hefner party and recommended Bo to Edwards when he told her he was having trouble finding the right actress for the role. According to Edwards, Bo told him at their first meeting that Callan was acting as her agent, but John Derek cut her out of any compensation from the movie and made unsubstantiated claims that Callan had campaigned for a role in the movie in place of Julie Andrews, Edwards' wife, which Edwards denies. Derek's clashes with directors and anyone else connected with his wife's career eventually led him to reject the entire film industry and vow that from then on, he and Bo would make their own films. The results were disastrous--Tarzan, the Ape Man, Bolero, and Ghosts Can't Do It, all directed by Derek, were widely ridiculed and torpedoed Bo's career, as Edwards had predicted in the February 1980 People profile of the Dereks. Nevertheless, Bo stood by her man until his death at age 71 from heart failure on December 22, 1998.
Born in Long Beach, New York, Richard Hanley Jaeckel's family moved to California when he was a teenager. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he went to work in the mail room at 20th Century Fox, where he was spotted in 1943 by a casting director who wanted him to play a young Marine in Guadalcanal Diary. At first Jaeckel said he wasn't interested and eventually agreed to play the role only on the condition that he could then return to work in the mail room. But he next appeared in the Navy flyer drama Wing and a Prayer before serving in the real Navy from 1944-48. After his service he returned to acting in a pair of John Wayne war features The Sands of Iwo Jima and Battleground. He would be gunned down by Gregory Peck in the opening scene of The Gunfighter and play a lusty young boarder after Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952. Two years later he would make his television debut playing Billy the Kid in an episode of Stories of the Century, the first of many appearances on drama anthologies throughout the 1950s. Nor did his feature film work diminish throughout the decade, appearing in such top-flight films as Attack, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Naked and the Dead. Being cast as scout Tony Gentry on Frontier Circus in 1961 was the first of many recurring TV roles.
After the series' 26-episode run, he continued to find occasional TV guest spots on shows such as Wagon Train, Combat!, and The Virginian, but it was his feature film work that won him the most accolades, appearing in Town Without Pity, 4 for Texas, and most notably in The Dirty Dozen as tough Sgt. Bowman, followed by the similarly themed The Devil's Brigade the following year. He received his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor playing Paul Newman's brother in 1970's Sometimes a Great Notion. Newman picked him for the role after observing Jaeckel interacting with his family at Malibu Beach and felt he was just the right actor to play his on-screen brother. In 1972 he was cast as Lt. Pete McNeil in the detective series Banyon and after appearing in the 1973 TV movie Firehouse as Hank Meyers, he was kept on in the same role when the premise was moved to TV in 1974. Other than Clint Eastwood's The Drowning Pool in 1975, the quality of his feature films declined in the 1970s to such fare as Walking Tall II and Mako: The Jaws of Death, but his television work was steady, including another recurring role as Jack Klinger in Andy Griffith's 1979 series Salvage 1. He played Major Hawkins in the 1983 series At Ease and then found steady work for 3 years playing Lt. Martin Quirk on Spenser: For Hire. His last regular role and acting credits were playing rescue operation leader Captain Ben Edwards on Baywatch from 1989-94. In 1994 he was forced to file for bankruptcy and lost his home and most of his possessions. He was also diagnosed with melanoma and moved into the Motion Picture and Television Retirement Center in Woodland Hills, California, where he stayed until his death at age 70 on June 14, 1997.
J. Pat O'Malley
Maverick. He appeared 7 times as Judge Caleb Marsh in the western series Black Saddle in 1959-60 and played the character Sgt.O'Reilly in the 7-part Disney serial The Swamp Fox in 1960-61 before being cast as animal handler Duffy on Frontier Circus in the fall of 1961.
After the series ended his workload continued to be heavy on scores of TV series and occasional feature film roles. He played Dick Van Dyke's father Sam in two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and would later play Carol Brady's father on the first episode of The Brady Bunch. In 1963-64 he had a recurring role as Harry Burns on My Favorite Martian, followed by the role of Mr. Bundy on George Burns' Wendy and Me in 1964-65. Despite multiple appearances on everything from Gunsmoke to Batman to Ironside, he didn't find his next regular role until he was cast as Herbert Morrison on Touch of Grace in 1973, then appeared 9 times as Bert Beasley on Maude between 1975-77. As the 1970s turned over to the 1980s, he continued to find work on series such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Barney Miller, and Fantasy Island, with his last credits coming in a pair of Taxi episodes in 1982. He died from heart disease at the age of 80 on February 27, 1985.
Notable Guest Stars
The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, Gino on To Rome With Love, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays circus clown Jaybo. Frank Ferguson (Gus Broeberg on My Friend Flicka, Eli Carson on Peyton Place, and Dr. Barton Stuart on Petticoat Junction)plays circus wagon driver Fred. Bern Hoffman (Sam the bartender on Bonanza) plays bully Bannister. Clegg Hoyt (Mac on Dr. Kildare) plays a mountain man.
Gunsmoke) plays his ranch-hand Pete Andrews.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) plays roustabout Rousty. H.M. Wynant (Frosty on Batman and Ed Chapman on Dallas) plays bandit Talby. Kay E. Kuter (Newt Kiley on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres) plays train agent Will Cutler. Otto Kruger (appeared in Treasure Island, Dracula's Daughter, Saboteur, Murder, My Sweet, and High Noon) plays former Austrian horse soldier Gen. Frederic Jellich. Joan Staley (Playboy Playmate who appeared in Cape Fear, Roustabout, Valley of the Dragons, Johnny Cool, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and played Hannah on 77 Sunset Strip and Roberta Love on Broadside) plays circus girl Anna-Marie. Dick Wessel (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Riverboat) plays a blacksmith named Smith.
Season 1, Episode 6, "Karina": Elizabeth Montgomery (shown on the right, played Samantha Stephens on Bewitched) plays runaway dance-hall singer Karina Andrews. Tod Andrews (Maj. John Singleton Mosby on The Gray Ghost) plays her husband Jeff. Nora Marlowe (Martha Commager on Law of the Plainsman, Sara Andrews on The Governor and J.J., and Mrs. Flossie Brimmer on The Waltons) plays fortune teller Madame Sonya. Barbara Stuart (Bessie on The Great Gildersleeve, Alice on Pete and Gladys, Bunny on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Peggy Ferguson on The McLean Stevenson Show, Marianne Danzig on Our Family Honor, and Alice on Huff) plays knife-thrower's assistant Melda.
Season 1, Episode 7, "Journey From Hannibal": Thelma Ritter (starred in All About Eve, Pickup on South Street, Rear Window, Pillow Talk, The Misfits, Birdman of Alcatraz, and How the West Was Won) plays stable owner Bertha Beecher. Arte Johnson (a regular performer on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In who played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr. on Sally, Cpl. Lefkowitz on Don't Call Me Charlie, Clive Richlin on Glitter) plays train agent Charles Gippner. Clem Bevans (appeared in Sergeant York, Saboteur, The Yearling, Mourning Becomes Electra, and Harvey) plays train agent McPhee. James Flavin (Lt. Donovan on Man With a Camera and Robert Howard on The Roaring 20's) plays train conductor Boyle. Bill Zuckert (Arthur Bradwell on Mr. Novak and Chief Segal on Captain Nice) plays small-town Sheriff Barrett.
Season 1, Episode 8, "Winter Quarters": Robert J. Wilke (appeared in Best of the Badmen, High Noon, The Far Country, and Night Passage and played Capt. Mendoza on Zorro) plays disgruntled wagon driver Jack Gance. Alex Cord (Jack Kiley on W.E.B., Mike Holland on Cassie & Co., and Michael Coldsmith Briggs III on Airwolf) plays horse thief Nino Sanchez. Walter Sande (appeared in To Have and Have Not, A Place in the Sun, and Bad Day at Black Rock and played Capt. Horatio Bullwinkle on The Adventures of Tugboat Annie and Papa Holstrum on The Farmer's Daughter) plays roustabout Jake. Roy Barcroft (see "The Smallest Target" above) plays rancher Gore.
Season 1, Episode 9, "Patriarch of Purgatory": Royal Dano (appeared in The Far Country, Moby Dick, and The Outlaw Josey Wales) plays mine owner Jethro Hedges. Robert Sampson (Sgt. Walsh on Steve Canyon, Father Mike Fitzgerald on Bridget Love Bernie, and Sheriff Turk Tobias on Falcon Crest) plays his son Mark.
The Untouchables) plays sharp-shooter Karl Maynard. Jack Lambert (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Riverboat) plays gunman Hark Baker. Paul Newlan (Police Capt. Grey on M Squad and Lt. Gen. Pritchard on 12 O'Clock High) plays circus physician Doc Turner. Alan Carney (Mike Strager in a series of RKO comedies in the 1940s and appeared in The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Herbie Rides Again) plays the circus cook. Dennis Cross (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Blue Angels) plays Comanche Chief Shining Knife.