HONDO (1967 ABC-TV/MGM/Batjac Productions) Starring Ralph Taeger as Hondo Lane, Noah Beery Jr. as Buffalo Baker, Kathie Browne as Angie Dow, Gary Clarke as Captain Richards, Michael Pate as Chief Vittoro, Buddy Foster as Johnny Dow, William Bryant as Colonel Crook. Produced by Andrew J. Fenady.
Warner Archive Instant is a true reservoir of television history, with the likes of DAKTARI, 77 SUNSET STRIP and SURFSIDE SIX among the 1960's hits available. The service also offers a wealth of prime time's unsung--shows like MAYA, LUCAN and THE MAN FROM ATLANTIS, all largely unseen since network cancellation.
One of WA's one season wonders is a little less obscure than the others. Premiering on September 8, 1967, it vanished from prime time for good by New Year's Eve that year. But in between HONDO's brief life in ABC's Friday night lineup forty-eight years ago and its current Roku return, the hour-long western became perhaps the most unlikely syndication success story of all.
In adapting the 1953 John Wayne vehicle for series TV, producer Andrew J. Fenady (THE REBEL) fleshed out Hondo Lane's backstory. Like his big screen counterpart, he's half Apache and once lived with the tribe. However, TV's Hondo had also taken an Apache bride, and after his wife Destarte was killed in a Cavalry raid, the embittered Lane sought revenge against those he held responsible--the U.S. Army. Hondo joined the Confederates and wreaked havoc on Union forces in Texas and Arkansas. ("He spent more time behind our lines than he did his own", a General observes.) The Civil War now over, the still agonizing Hondo travels the southwest, often drunk, disorderly and arrested despite being a man of few words. Lane's only companion is his equally scruffy and independent dog Sam.
It is when Lane drifts into Arizona territory that his old adversary Colonel Crook offers an olive branch, and a job with the cavalry. Lane reluctantly agrees to operate out of Captain Richards' Fort Lowell and assist in peace talks with his former father-in-law who is now Apache Chief--Vittoro (Michael Pate, reprising his film role). Fenady also renamed the Lowes (now the Dows) and moved Angie and her son from a ranch to Fort Lowell's general store. Hondo rescues them from renegades in the pilot episode; Mrs. Dow's abusive husband is ungrateful, but (SPOILER ALERT!) the storekeeper's greed costs him his life by episode's end. A mutual attraction between widower Lane and widow Dow is obvious, though both are still healing.
The task of stepping into John Wayne's shoes went to sturdy Ralph Taeger. Never the most expressive performer, Taeger's understated approach made him very well cast as the brooding, unpoised Hondo Lane. Taeger's stoicism was countered amusingly by Noah Beery's animated take on Buffalo Baker. Baker had been played by burly Ward Bond in the film; for the HONDO series, Fenady sought to make Buffalo more of a traditional sidekick. The physical contrast between 6'3" Taeger and 5'11" Beery assisted this goal as effectively as their respective acting styles.
The series setup isn't without problems--Hondo's CSA past would be off-putting if a viewer missed the pilot (and explanation for it). Still, it enhances the redemption theme, and the premise of gruff loner Lane seeking closure with his past while trying to prevent present (and future) bloodshed lent itself to interesting scenarios. In addition to dealing with the opener's renegades, Hondo and Sam would meet bandits, land grabbers, vigilantes and con men. Would Taeger's third try at headlining a series (after ACAPULCO and KLONDIKE) be the charm for the actor?
|Hey, Gary Clarke DOES look a little like Stuntman Mike!|
Could HONDO have succeeded under different circumstances? In an era that saw the less interesting (IMO) IRON HORSE and LANCER renewed for Sophomore seasons, it certainly seems possible.
Nevertheless, no time slot change came, and the struggling network (ABC had only four of Nielsen's top 30 in '67) put HONDO in mothballs instead, where it largely remained for the next two decades.
Enter the cable explosion of the Eighties. Ted Turner acquired MGM's television library for the launch of his TNT channel on October 3, 1988. Shortly after its premiere, TNT began a three hour block of short-lived classic western series on Saturday mornings, with THE TRAVELS OF JAMIE McPHEETERS (starring Charles Bronson and a preteen Kurt Russell) and HOW THE WEST WAS WON (with James Arness post-GUNSMOKE) joining HONDO.
HONDO had the fewest episodes of the three, and lacked the star power of the others (Taeger had long retired from Hollywood) but it was the show that caught on, attracting a cult following and remaining a staple of TNT's weekend (moving to Sunday mornings in the mid-1990's) for nearly a full decade. Quite a feat with only 17 installments available.
How did HONDO secure such a loyal audience so many years later? My thoughts:
Batjac business. The original John Wayne feature was held out of circulation by his heirs for many years, rarely shown on television and unreleased on VHS until 1994, which only enhanced HONDO's status as a highly sought after Duke classic. The film's scarcity was even central to the plot of two different MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN episodes, and that unavailability probably helped the HONDO series once it began airing for the first time in a generation. Hondo Lane's adventures had an audience that remembered and missed the Wayne original, and that demographic was often in front of the TV for Saturday at the Westerns.
Sam. Kids were also in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, and a live action series with a loyal dog featured on a weekly basis had to help attract the pre-teens. Particularly when Sam was edgier than most. Rough and tough like his owner, self-sufficient, but never far from the action, and not possessing the almost human powers of a Lassie that even older children would find silly. Sam and Hondo's relationship also had more bite (i.e. as in the film, Hondo keeps telling Sam to find his own food!) than the often sappy human/animal bonds depicted in competing shows actually aimed at children.
Or, perhaps it's just because Marie Gomez guest starred once; a six percent chance of seeing her is enough, right?
|Marie Gomez in "Hondo and the Comancheros"|
As mentioned above, HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is streaming via Warner Archive Instant if you'd like to follow along as the episode guide unfolds.