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 6 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 rarely seen since network cancellation.
One of WA's one season wonders is a little less obscure than the rest. 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 48 years ago and its current Roku return, the hour-long western became perhaps the most unusual success story in U.S. television history.
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 a widower who once lived with the tribe and his bride, Destarte. However, TV's Hondo saw his wife killed in a Cavalry raid, and afterward the embittered Lane sought revenge against those he held responsible--the U.S. Army. Hondo joined the Confederates and wreaked havoc on Union forces--as General Sheridan observed in the pilot, Lane "spent more time behind our lines than he did his own". After the war's end Hondo wanders the southwest, still mourning his personal loss and often drunk, disorderly and arrested. Lane's lone traveling companion is his equally scruffy and independent dog Sam.
It is when Hondo drifts back into Arizona territory that his old adversary Colonel Crook offers an olive branch, and a job with the U.S. 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 the Apache Chief--Vittoro (Michael Pate, reprising his film role).
In other changes, Fenady 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, but Mrs. Dow's abusive husband Ed is shockingly ungrateful. However, Mr. Dow's surliness is short-lived, and (SPOILER ALERT!) so is he--the storekeeper's greed costs him his life by episode's end. A mutual attraction between widower Lane and widow Dow is soon obvious, but slow to develop since both are still in stages of the grieving process (obviously, "anger" took awhile for Hondo).
The task of following legendary John Wayne in the title role 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 made Buffalo a more traditional sidekick. The physical contrast between 6'3" Taeger and 5'11" Beery assisted this goal as effectively as their respective acting styles.
Healing, redemption and revenge were recurring themes of the scripts, and the premise of gruff loner Lane seeking closure with his past while trying to prevent present (and future) bloodshed lent itself to many interesting scenarios. In addition to dealing with Apache renegades and would-be bounty hunters in the opener, Hondo and Sam would meet bandits, land grabbers, crooked politicians, vigilantes and con men. Would Taeger's third try (after KLONDIKE and ACAPULCO) at headlining in prime time be the charm for the actor?
|Hey, Gary Clarke DOES look a little like Stuntman Mike!|
Could HONDO have succeeded in a better time slot? In an era that saw the less interesting IRON HORSE (also on ABC) and LANCER make it to sophomore seasons, it seems very possible. Slow builds weren't that uncommon--MANNIX was a mere 65th out of 91 shows in that same report. Despite the subpar early Nielsens, HONDO seemed to be well received by the few who were watching in the fall of 1967.
Broadcasting's November 6, 1967 issue reported HONDO was among the top five new programs in TVQ ranking. Viewers also voiced strong support to syndicated columnist Clarke Williamson. In the February 8, 1968 edition of Top View Williamson remarked that "the axed HONDO scored the highest (approval) rating of all Westerns (82.5), even topping venerable favorites GUNSMOKE (79.6) and BONANZA (78.5)"! The column featured a number of letters received from viewers across the country praising the show as one of TV's best and panning ABC's cancellation.
|CANCELLED??? Lemme at 'em!!!!|
|They'd better study it!|
Even before the series left the air there were indications that word of mouth was favorable for this Friday night underdog. Syndicated columnist Ernie Kreiling reported in his December 21, 1967 A Closer Look at Television that "ironically, once ABC cancelled HONDO its ratings started to rise"; Kreiling opined that the network's cancellation "might have been hasty".
The December Nielsen ratings supported Kreiling's contention. The previous week's installment (12/15/67) Hondo and the Gladiators, had improved from the opener's 12.7 rating and 22.3 share to a 14.7 and 25.3 respectively. The subsequent series finale (Hondo and the Rebel Hat) posted a 16.1 rating and 27.3 share on December 29th, moving into second place ahead of STAR TREK during the 8-8:30 half hour (28.6 share to 28.4).
HONDO's rating had increased by 27% since the first September report, and its share was up by 22%. The series had shown weekly improvement throughout December and at year's end seemed on the verge of moving into second place in its time slot. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late--no reprieve was forthcoming. Instead, the struggling network (which claimed only four of Nielsen's top 30 at the time) put HONDO in mothballs, where it remained for the next two decades.
|From Hondo and the Sudden Town|
HONDO had the fewest episodes of the three, and lacked the star power of the others (Taeger was retired from acting and running a firewood business) but it was the show that caught on, attracting a loyal cult following that merited notice from the Wall Street Journal. In the August 9, 1991 issue, a Journal article on TNT cited HONDO as "one of cable's most successful resurrections", ranking as the network's fifth-most watched regular program.
HONDO didn't stop there, remaining a staple of TNT's weekend for a full decade. On occasion, TNT aired two episodes back to back. Quite a feat with only 17 installments available for viewing. Four years after the Wall Street Journal article, Noel Holston wrote about the show's longevity in its second life in his Minneapolis Star Tribune column on May 26, 1995, citing the 500,000 viewers who were "getting up at 7 A.M. and watching every Saturday morning". Holston estimated that the show was in its twentieth cycle--and even then, HONDO still had four more years left to run.
By May 28, 1999, when HONDO finally left the network's Saturday lineup, each segment had been shown on TNT thirty-one times.
|Started him up, and he just wouldn't stop......|
How did HONDO secure such a devoted audience so many years later? My thoughts:
Batjac's business practices. 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 a ready-made audience that remembered and missed the Wayne original, and that demographic was often in front of the TV watching westerns on Saturdays.
Sam. Kids were also in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, and a live action series with a loyal, scene stealing dog helped attract pre-teens. Particularly when Sam was edgier than most. Rough, tough and self-sufficient like his owner, never far from the action, but not possessing the almost human powers of a Lassie that older children would find silly. Sam and Hondo's relationship also had more bite (as in the original film, Hondo keeps telling Sam to find his own food!) than the often sappy human/animal bonds depicted in competing shows intentionally aimed at that age group.
Or, perhaps it's just because Marie Gomez guest starred on one of the 17 episodes; hey, a six percent chance of seeing her is reason enough to shake off your Saturday morning hangover and tune in, right?
|Marie Gomez in "Hondo and the Comancheros"|
HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is streaming via Warner Archive Instant if you'd like to follow along as the episode guide unfolds.