Saturday, November 23, 2013


I loved watching television western shows, especially ones with a bit of comedy. Most had a touch of comedy, whether it was the "boys" teasing Hoss on Bonanza, or the plaintive call of "Mr. Dillon" by the sidekick Festus on Gunsmoke, or Manolito's twinkling eye and jokes on High Chaparral. But I have to say one western show's premise stuck with me - that of Alias Smith & Jones.

What was not to like? Two outlaws, ready to turn over a new leaf, and yet having trouble doing it. Fun!

It's possible I enjoyed it directly because of the Paul Newman and Robert Redford western "buddy" film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -  which portrayed ruthless outlaws as fun-loving guys, who only wanted easy money and didn't really want to kill anyone (yeah, right) while getting it. Hey, I was a young kid when I saw it. I lived "back east" and had no idea of what "the west" - wild or not - really was. All I can say is I loved a great story. And that film, along with the other classic television shows I've mentioned already, plus The Rifleman, The Guns of Will Sonnet, Lancer and countless others, entertained western-lovers with great stories and characters.

Lo and behold, the Butch-Sundance movie actually spawned the idea for the series. Alias Smith and Jones aired only a few years, beginning in the fall season of 1971 - for reasons I'll explore later. Starring Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes and Ben Murphy as Jedediah "Kid" Curry -  they were supposed to be two of the most successful outlaws in the west. But modern times were making things rough - what with safes being built better, train robberies harder to stage and posses tougher to shake.

Murphy and Duel were a great acting team with the right blend of double trouble and self-preservation. The two cousin outlaws wanted to mend their errant ways, so when the governor offers amnesty - on conditions they keep the agreement secret for political reasons - the duo snap it up. However, Smith and Jones (their new monikers) must maintain a low profile - difficult since their reputations and the wanted posters haunt them. They also must keep from sinning again (despite their prowess with dynamite, gun shoot-outs and saloon brawls) until the Governor grants them amnesty - if they reform. But will they?

What did I like the best of Alias Smith and Jones? The two main characters, of course - Pete Duel was perfect as the savvy Heyes, the brains and a card sharp, while Ben Murphy as the baby-faced Kid provided the brawn and fast gun. I enjoyed how they were always tempted by how to make easy money and wriggle out of the risky situations that came up each week since they were supposed to stay on the "right" side of the law. The supporting characters were also great -- Earl Holliman as one of their former Devil's Hole gang (think Butch/Sundance's Hole in the Wall gang); J.D. Cannon as a detective; Burl Ives and Cesar Romero as feuding ranchers, Sally Field (yes, the Flying Nun!) as a friend with a penchant for blackmail and also Walter Brennan as a con man.

I was at the right age for a teenage crush on Pete Duel - and cried when the news came out that the actor committed suicide on December 31. He was only 31 years old. I had no idea why anyone would take their own life or be drinking that heavily. As an adult, I learned the truth about depression. And the consequences took their toll on Duel's family and on the show's future. I had no interest in watching it, although I did try one episode - and determined that Roger Davis did not have the same "magic" teamed with Ben Murphy. I guess most of the audience agreed, since the show was canceled after 17 more episodes. What a shame. Duel had such promise. I used his images to help flesh out my western mystery hero, Ace Diamond, in the Double series.

But Bonanza's final episode aired days after Alias Smith and Jones ended, leaving Gunsmoke alone on TV until Dusty's Trail aired in the fall of 1973 - which ended in March of 1974 (a remake of Gilligan's Island in the old west with Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker.) Western television shows faded away when police dramas began crowding the airwaves. I had to be content with reruns of classic John Wayne western films. Sigh.I'm still waiting for western comedies to return to the airwaves.

In my opinion, Hell on Wheels isn't in that league. Too dark. No real fun. Maybe one day, western comedy will make a comeback. I'll be waiting with impatience.

Meg Mims is an award-winning author with two western mysteries under her Eastern belt. She lives in Michigan, where the hills are like driveway slopes and trees block any type of prairie winds. LIKE her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or check out her books on her website. Double Crossing won the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel and Double or Nothing is the exciting sequel. Her story, "A Savior Is Born," is included in A Wolf Creek Christmas published by Western Fictioneers.


  1. You and I are on the same wave length here Meg. It's not that I turn up my nose at the more realistic western drama, but I miss the humour.

  2. Nice post Meg. I agree about the humor and I do find Hell on Wheels a little disappointing. Lots of blood and filth that, to me, distract from the story. Still, I'll take "Western" any day. My all time fav: Bonanza. My grandmother tuned in every evening it was on and we'd watch it together - just the two of us.

  3. Meg, I remember the day when we heard Pete Duel had killed himself. A very sad day, for sure. But Alias Smith and Jones was such a great series. I think too, that our society anymore is more geared to the "dark" more realistic and gritty westerns (like HOW) rather than the more humorous, family-oriented westerns. In so many places, the idea of watching tv as a family anymore is nonexistent.

  4. Definitely miss the westerns.

    I think my favorite was HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL.

    BONANZA and GUNSMOKE both rank way up there as well.

  5. I thank my lucky stars that Encore Westerns replays the old ones along with other such channels. I think the 'new' Westerns are trying for realism but forget that humor has always been a part of our DNA. What wonders Mark Twain made of that same human nature. We need balance, which I think is the key to truly great stories. Now to follow my own advice.

    Thank you for the great post. I also missed Mr. Duel and remember the talk about why they didn't cast his twin brother in the role after his death. Doris

  6. You and I are kindred souls!

    That was also one of my favorite Westerns as a youngster, though as you say, they were all good shows. I agree that today's shows just don't seem to understand that the humor was just as important as the guns and horses. Maybe if we all keep our fingers crossed, the new trend will attract some better writers who understand that.

    And until the real Old West returns, at least we have Longmire!

  7. I have fond memories of Barbary Coast from that time period, and have never seem it again since.

  8. Or seen, for that matter. All that we see or seem, yadda yadda.

  9. Ah yes, Have Gun, Will Travel. I remember that one. I think the reason the new Maverick movie with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson (AND James Garner) was such a hit was due to the HUMOR!! Think of the original Maverick, plus the James Garner movies of Support Your Local Sheriff, etc. HUMOR and WESTERNS go hand in hand - and I wish I had written *more* humor in my books. Tricky devil, that.

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  11. Does anyone know what year or time period that Alias Smith and Jones is supposed to have been set in? Was there a date mentioned or a calendar on a wall in one of the episodes that would tell us? I know in one episode their friend Georgia sings a song "Love was once a little boy" in a barroom scene - looked up the song and it was published in 1873. So the show, to be accurate in history with this one point, must be after 1873. Any other clear clues on the shows???