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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

TV Sidekick Blogathon: HONDO's Helpers

This is the second of two Horn Section contributions to the TV Sidekick Blogathon, hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe.  This three day blogathon covers Classic (pre-1990) television's greatest sidekicks; be sure to check out all of the entries to read about twenty-two of the memorable characters who never failed to make the top banana look good.

For today's entry, we stay on ABC and in a post-Civil War setting.  But we move from comedy to drama; from the midwest to the southwest; from Fort Courage to Fort Lowell; and from a uniformed Sergeant to a half-Apache army scout wearing buckskins.  Being buried in a killer time slot by ABC meant that Hondo Lane had the misfortune of a short prime time run in 1967, but he was rediscovered and appreciated in reruns.

Hondo Lane got very little help from his network, but he had plenty of assistance onscreen from his faithful dog Sam and an equally loyal fellow scout named Buffalo Baker.  
(L to R) Hondo, Buffalo and Sam

Since Lane's canine companion gets a lot of coverage in every installment of The Horn Section's HONDO episode guide, today's post will start with the formidable, funny yet often overlooked Buffalo. 

Now don't get riled up, Sam. You'll get your chance later!.

In the original 1953 HONDO film starring John Wayne, Buffalo Baker took a back seat to the titular character's canine pal, widow Angie Lowe and her son Johnny.  Sam was at his human's side at all times, and much of the film takes place at the Lowe's ranch.  Played by the burly and bearded Ward Bond (WAGON TRAIN), Buffalo came across like a physically imposing Gabby Hayes in his handful of scenes.

Ward Bond as Buffalo Baker
Producer Andrew J. Fenady moved the action to Fort Lowell for the TV series and sought to make Buffalo Baker more of a traditional sidekick, albeit one who would defy some of our expectations (starting with the loss of the whiskers).  He cast amiable character actor Noah Beery, Jr., who had been playing good-natured friends of the hero for over twenty years when HONDO premiered on September 8, 1967.

Beery's Baker
Baker ended up with a much larger role in the HONDO series.  Angie Dow (Kathie Browne) and Chief Vittoro (Michael Pate, reprising his film role), both appeared in six of the first eight installments, but Angie was missing from seven of the final nine and Vittoro from six.  In contrast, Buffalo was the only character besides Hondo Lane to appear in all 17 segments, gaining screen time as the show jelled.  While this was partly a mechanism of the action moving to the Fort, Beery's charismatic performance and his chemistry with Ralph Taeger were also factors in the expansion of his role after the pilot.

Hey, the man had to be doing something right to take screen time away from Kathie Browne!

In the two part series opener (Hondo and the Eagle Claw and Hondo and the War Cry), Beery's Baker is a fairly straightforward Pat Buttram type: beating sore loser Ed Dow at poker, struggling with his fight (a captured renegade Apache), fiercely loyal to his fellow scout, and persuading the hero to buy their beers--subsequently drinking about half of Hondo's while Lane is defending Sam from irate cowpokes.

To be fair, Buffalo is an equal opportunity mooch who also bums drinks off of Colonel Crook and a traveling medicine show salesman (in Hondo and the Hanging Town).  (Teetotaler Captain Richards is never much help for him in this department.)

Stereotypical comic relief at first look, but Buffalo defies some of the initial expectations.  He proves to be formidable assistance mentally and physically in subsequent episodes.  He's as keen an observer of humans as Hondo: correctly surmising that the telegraph owner they're assigned to protect (Hondo and the Singing Wire) is "lower than the belt buckle on a snake" and setting a crusading reporter straight about the history of Hondo and the Apache Kid

Fierce loyalty is arguably Baker's defining quality.  When Hondo chooses an insubordination charge rather than be the courier to Chief Vittoro for an ill-conceived order by wunderkind Colonel "Buckeye Jack" Smith (Hondo and the War Hawks), Buffalo is next in line--and promptly joins his fellow scout in the guardhouse.  Buffalo sells Colonel Crook on supporting Hondo's risky rescue plan in Hondo and the Comancheros despite facing a return trip.

Lest you think that Buffalo is blindly devoted--well, think again.  A rugged individualist himself, Baker sets Hondo straight when necessary, most memorably in a tense moment during Hondo and the Gladiators.

Most of the time, Buffalo Baker eschewed his fists to provide well-timed sidearm support in the frequent cantina fights  ("You watch--I'll referee" he advises a surly cattleman in War Cry).  But don't be fooled by his seeming reticence to throw punches: Baker is one sidekick more than capable of holding his own at fisticuffs despite seeming slight in stature (Beery was 5'11" compared to Taeger's 6'3").  Two examples: Buffalo capably handles his man in a donnybrook with villainous Tribolet's henchmen in Hondo and the War Hawks and dispatches the larger, younger L.Q. Jones one on one in Hondo and the Death Drive.

Savvy Baker is rarely helpless--it is just as likely that Buffalo will rescue Hondo as vice versa--maybe even moreso.  Baker does it twice in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre.  Baker is the only man who can stop Hondo from literally beating his wife's killer to death (Captain Richards and several troopers fail to stop Lane first) and, as Captain Richards points out, facing a murder charge.  Later Buffalo arrives in the nick of time after renegade Pimas capture Lane, saving the day a second time.  The tough old bird achieves all of this on a cane after suffering a "hollowed-out leg" from a Pima gunshot in the opening minute!

Baker also provides a timely assist in Hondo and the Death Drive when the hero faces a lynch mob led by a corrupt cattleman.  In one of Beery's finest and funniest scenes of the series, he shows Buffalo's aptitude at thinking fast by bamboozling the local authorities and engineering a jailbreak to keep the titular Drive going (and Hondo out of the hangman's noose).

Rest assured, though--while it's clear that Buffalo Baker is no bumbling sidekick, he isn't hypercompetent either.  He provides healthy comic relief on a weekly basis.  Hondo is perpetually put-upon at the cantina, since Baker always has "too much month left" after his pay runs out.  Buffalo is outwardly willing to pay Hondo back "later" for a drink today (or three), but "later" never arrives--at least, not during the seventeen adventures we see.

If Buffalo isn't drinking away his money, he's gambling with it.  He's sharp at poker, but Buffalo can't resist the temptation to make bad bets away from the cards (i.e. on himself at arm wrestling).

Yes, this bottle is on  Hondo, as usual.
Buffalo's literacy is a little shaky--he struggles to read a telegram in Hondo and the Judas but seems to have no problem with the newspaper in Hondo and the Apache Kid.  However, the grizzled scout's devotion to friends, insolvency and fondness for alcoholic beverages are all as reliable as the sunrise.

Occasionally there's a nugget about Buffalo's personal life.  Baker anxiously awaits a letter (which doesn't arrive) from the "little filly" he spent a month's wages on, prefers "carrot topped" ladies, and briefly considers a career change to bounty hunting.  That's about it for Buffalo's life away from the Fort.  For all we know, he spends every moment that he's off duty at one of the southwest's many cantinas.

And that's OK.  Noah Beery Jr.'s animated garrulity provided the perfect contrast to Ralph Taeger's ill tempered stoicism.  Beery gives the sober-faced reactor plenty to react to, providing just the right amount of levity to some rather tense stories.  Beery's signature role was yet to come (THE ROCKFORD FILES, of course, where he supported James Garner just as ably), but he was as responsible as anyone for the cult following that grew when HONDO was given its chance at rediscovery on TNT in the 1990's.

Buffalo Baker wasn't the only helping hand available to Hondo Lane.  Then again, technically he was, since our hero's other sidekick was lending a helping paw.

It's your turn, Sam!

Hondo's non-human sidekick isn't quite as mangy and feral as he looked in the Wayne film, but he's every bit as independent.  "Sam does what he wants to do" as Hondo constantly reminds us--and what he wants to do is go wherever Hondo Lane goes.

Sam doesn't depend on Hondo; his human won't allow it.  While there's talk of Sam getting fat on table scraps, we never see those leftovers coming from Lane.  Sam is consistently told to "get his own" dinner.  That usually means catching a jackrabbit, but Sam sometimes finds other delicacies.  Angie Dow's homemade apple pies, for example:

Finders keepers, right Hondo?

It's apparent from the beginning there's nothing sappy about this relationship between a man and his dog.   When Hondo is captured by renegade Silva in Hondo and the Eagle Claw he simply tells Sam to "beat it"--an order that the faithful canine obeys.   Sam's rare display of affection (he licks his human's hand) during the subsequent Hondo and the War Cry has Lane wondering if the dog has stumbled into some "loco weed".

While Sam is an appealing scene-stealer, he isn't an impossibly Heroic Dog. Sam still contributes whenever possible during a scuffle.  Whether Hondo is battling no good thieves.....

......or renegade Apaches....

.....Sam has a knack for finding that one adversary who is terrified of dogs, and exploiting the weakness.  Sam takes his man out of the action as thoroughly as Deion Sanders ever did.

The scratches on Sam's nose tell you he's taken a licking and kept on ticking, and we see it firsthand when the courageous canine takes the battle to Hondo's fiercest foe, the vicious and psychopathic Apache Kid (Nick Adams):

Sam also rivals Buffalo's ability to come through in the clutch.  Hondo's furrier sidekick has a knack for distracting gunmen who get the drop on Lane (most notably in Hondo and the Mad Dog), and makes the rescue in Hondo and the Superstition Massacre possible by showing up at Fort Lowell with Hondo's eagle claw.

Sam the therapy dog.  Where's his vest?
Sam has a lot more to offer than just faithful companionship and courage in battle; he's no Lassie, but he is versatile in his own right.  In Hondo and the Death Drive he offers adept assistance to herding dog Maria during a sheep drive, and might well have himself a girlfriend by episode's end.  Sam also proves to be a great therapy dog for Johnny Dow after his mother Angie is kidnapped by banditos in Hondo and the Comancheros.

And like most dogs, he likes to play fetch.  Difference is, Sam is always fetching Hondo's horse.

A lovable dog is always going to steal scenes from even the funniest humans.  Storylines too.  Buffalo was never the focal point of a plot during HONDO's brief run, while Sam was twiceHondo and the Mad Dog saw him as the only witness to a murder, which led the killer to use a hydrophobia scare in an attempt to eliminate the canine before he can lead Lane to the body.  Hondo and Sam end up getting each other out of jams by segment's end, but forget about our rough hero getting maudlin after the close call--Sam is still hunting his own dinner as we fade out.  Unlike Buffalo, Sam never asks for anything, except to share in his owner's adventures.

Did I say his owner?  I almost forgot--Hondo consistently disavows ownership of Sam.  Not because he doesn't want the responsibility.  No, Lane explains that he treasures Sam's independence.   Hondo and the Gladiators gives us clarity before the series wrapped up (only two episodes remained).  After Hondo's statement that Sam "belongs to no one but himself" is taken at face value outside the comfortable confines of Fort Lowell, the canine is drugged and dognapped by a sadistic showman intent on turning Sam into a pit fighter.  For once, the tough exterior cracks just a bit and we see how Hondo really feels about his four legged friend.  I haven't reviewed this one yet in my episode guide, so--no spoilers.  I'll just say that for a show about a gruff loner, HONDO could sure produce emotionally resonant moments.

Sam had a lot to do with HONDO developing its TNT following.  A show with a smart, brave dog had to be appealing to the Saturday morning audience.  Particularly older kids, since Fenady was careful not to exaggerate either quality.

With a mere seventeen episodes, HONDO is one show that leaves you wanting more.  Buffalo and Sam both helped make those segments that we do have highly rewatchable.

If you'd like to catch HONDO, you're in luck if you have Dish Network or a Roku:  HONDO: THE COMPLETE SERIES is currently streaming at Warner Archive Instant and also airs every Saturday afternoon at 3:30 PM Central on GetTV.  


Rick29 said...

Hal, this was a terrific tribute to both sidekicks in the sadly short-lived HONDO TV series. Noah Beery, Jr. was always a gifted supporting player (see his later role as Rocky in THE ROCKFORD FILES). He was at his best playing parts like Buffalo, loyal sidekicks who were nonetheless independent and feisty. As for Sam, well, I have a soft spot for canine companions. I love all your pics, but the particularly the ones with the lowered head (obviously Sam got into trouble for something) and the one where he is absconding with the apple pie. Wish we'd get GetTV in my area so I can watch HONDO again!

Lisa said...

Now I TOTALLY understand why "Hondo" was so successful on our TNT schedule. I was head of Programming and believe me, when we had virtually NOTHING to run that had a chance of getting viewers to tune in, we were thrilled to find that Hondo was capturing eyeballs and consistently so! Though some at the net didn't want to see Westerns on the network at all, Programming loved them for their lasting appeal.

That is one un-glamorous dog, isn't it? But what a star!!

Great blog post!!!

David Hofstede said...

This is a show I need to get to know. You have certainly made it sound like one that deserved a better fate. Thanks for the post!

Mitchell Hadley said...

Another show I've heard about, but never seen myself. This is a terrific piece, not only about Hondo's Helpers, but the show itself. Thanks for showing us why we ought to watch it!

Hal said...

Rick: Thanks; Noah Beery Jr. was a very good actor. He was memorable in INHERIT THE WIND despite only having one line of dialogue. If you have Warner Archive Instant (can watch it on computer as well as Roku), they have had, at various times, 77 SUNSET STRIP, FLO, JERICHO, SAM BENEDICT, SURFSIDE SIX and numerous other TV series streaming in addition to HONDO.

Lisa: thanks for the kind words, and for making HONDO available to us for rediscovery to begin with! Sam could sure tug at one's heartstrings.

David, Mitchell, thanks for the kind words and for reading!

Joanna said...

Your essay is exactly why I love these blogathons--I get inspired to look for classic TV shows that I've somehow never seen before. Thanks for this--and keep up the good work.

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Unknown said...

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