Sunday, 16 May 2021

Maverick (TV shows)

Poker Hunters

Airdate: From September 1957
to  July 1962 (Five series)

The New Maverick
(TV Pilot for Young Maverick)
Airdate: 1978

Young Maverick
Airdate: 1979 (8 episodes)

Bret Maverick
Airdate: 1981 - 1982 (One series)

All on Warner Brothers Region 1 DVDs
and Warner Archives Region 1 DVDRs

Maverick was a show I heard about constantly when I was a kid, as my dad used to often talk about it and how he used to watch it with his dad. In the late 1970s/early 80s, I got a brief taste of the later shows trying to cash in on the success of the original, the role which made James Garner a household name and, as far as I can understand, paved his way to many film roles and a successful Hollywood career. So I was pleased when, a decade or so ago, the originals started being released on US Region 1 DVDs. I got these to watch with my dad which we did, sporadically over the years... and we’ve just finished revisiting them.

Now, I’ll say up front that my dad was only interested in the James Garner episodes so, of the original series, we’ve only watched the first three seasons (which feature James Garner and Jack Kelly alternatively playing one of the Maverick brothers... sometimes they would team up). After Garner walked on the show due to, from what I can gather, being treated poorly and underhandedly by Warner Brothers, one third series episode starring both Garner and Kelly was held over to the fourth season (an episode we also watched). So, in the first three series, James Garner played Bret Maverick and Jack Kelly played Bart Maverick. After Garner left, Kelly stayed on for a while and Roger Moore took over alternate weeks as cousin Beau Maverick. Another brother, Brent Maverick, also jumped into the show, played by Robert Colbert who was presumably chosen for his physical resemblance to Garner. I’ve not, at time of writing, seen any of the Moore or Colbert episodes but I have seen the entirety of the first three seasons.

And it was a great show. Every week, one of the Mavericks would enter one town or another in the old west and make their way as a professional gambler, sometimes in the money but more often than not out of it, sometimes having to rely on the very last 1000 dollar note which they kept pinned to the inside of their jackets as a last ditch stake. The shows were not often about gambling on its own but that would more likely become a sub plot or motivation for one or other of the characters to get involved with some scheme or con or caper or what have you. Bret and Bart would rarely resort to gunplay, rather choosing to back away from a fight (or run quickly in the opposite direction) but they could be handy with the Derringers hidden in their sleeves if things got a little too hairy.

It’s a gentle show and doesn’t push violence at all and, in this way perhaps, it marked itself as something much different to the many other westerns carving a name for themselves on the American airwaves in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It also had a host of both well known guest stars such as John Carradine, Buddy Ebsen and future uber producer Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (popping up every now and again as Dandy Jim Buckley)... not to mention a load of appearances by ‘current nobody/future somebody’ actors such as Joel Gray, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, Adam West and Robert Redford... starting out in their first tentative steps in Hollywoodland.

It was great fun while it lasted and pretty much every episode, while devilishly entertaining, also had a strong moral heart at the centre of the story. And, although my dad wasn’t too keen on him, I even liked the Jack Kelly ones too. He was the more romantic Maverick and also got himself into as much trouble as James Garner’s iteration of the role. Perhaps the show was at its most funniest in the two or three times per series when both Bret and Bart would team up and carry a story together... more often than not having them setting up an elaborate con in the name of justice when the two shared an episode.

After series five (a series which was half repeats of previous Garner episodes plundered from earlier seasons, by all accounts), the show was cancelled and Bret and Bart didn’t return again until the TV movie The New Maverick in 1978. This was an uninspired but quite watchable and entertaining movie which had Garner returning as Bret to work the angles on a new caper and newcomer Charles Frank as Ben Maverick, the son of Roger Moore’s cousin Beau. Since the ‘old west’ didn’t last that long as a period of time, I don’t know how you could have multiple generations of Mavericks but who am I to argue. Frank, who I also saw playing a nazi spy in two episodes of Wonder Woman prior to this, does alright in the role and has a certain charm of his own. Susan Blanchard also appeared in both this pilot and the subsequent spin off series, Young Maverick and, it has to be said, this wide eyed wonder of an actress adds a certain entertainment value playing a kind of broad comedy partner to Frank’s more ‘straight up’ Maverick. The chemistry between them is kinda electrical and this might explain why, in real life, they are also husband and wife. Jack Kelly comes into the movie for the last ten minutes or so and its nice to have Bret and Bart playing opposite each other again.

Young Maverick, continuing on from that TV movie, only ran for eight episodes and, while we saw all eight over here in the UK at the time, only the first six were shown in the US before it was cancelled. This was nowhere near as fun as the original James Garner shows but it certainly has its moments and I honestly don’t know why it was cancelled so quickly. The show used a rearranged version of the old theme tune/song from the original show and that was a nice touch. Garner is said to be, on pretty much every internet reference to the show I can find, in a cameo in the first episode but that information is false. Bret is name checked but never actually turns up in the regular series (although I’m sure there must have been plans for him to cameo if it had turned into a longer show). It also, in its few episodes, gets a number of ‘early career appearances’ from well known actors today such a young James Woods (playing a bad guy and bad poker player, obviously) and a not quite ‘seasoned veteran’ appearance by Harry Dean Stanton as a professional gunfighter in one episode. There’s also a double episode which was obviously meant to start the series off (because of the relationship between Frank and Blanchard’s characters) and act as a second pilot but this is just plonked into the middle of the show with no rhyme or reason. Blanchard’s character is actually unnecessary as a regular and each episode seems to have the two bizarrely just running into each other in a new town by coincidence... yeah, that’s pretty bad writing just there. However, I was sad to see the show just disappear off the airwaves at the time with no warning and remember eagerly awaiting its return.

What we got instead, two years later, was James Garner’s triumphant return to the role of Bret in the one and only season of Bret Maverick. This had Bret winning a saloon in a poker game in the first episode and he decides to settle in the sleepy town of Sweetwater as a silent partner of the saloon (with the ex-sherif of the town) and buys a ranch just out of town. So what we had here for the first time in a Maverick show was a strong cast of continually returning regular characters, which was nice. This was a brilliant iteration of the show (almost as good as the original) and I was sad to see this one end. It had a new title song but, honestly, it was pretty catchy and the show completely captured the strengths and morally upright tone of the original (which, to be fair, all the various iterations of the show managed to retain). The chemistry between the various actors was brilliant and, in a nice (possibly obvious twist), in the last episode, the man who turns up who is supposed to be ‘a mark’ but who is actually trying to con Bret is revealed to be Jack Kelly as Bart. The idea for a second series was for him to alternate with Garner again, with Garner going back on the road for adventures outside of Sweetwater while Kelly would run the saloon and take over things at that end. Alas, a second series never materialised but this was not quite to be Garner’s last stand as Maverick... more on that in a review coming up here in a few days. I believe Jack Kelly turned up again in a cameo as Bart in one of the sequels to Kris Kristofferson’s The Gambler TV movies but, I’ve not seen it myself.

All in all, the original Maverick shows are definitely recommended viewing but the follow up series, while not ‘jumping on’ points to start watching, often lived up to the originals and are also worth checking out. It’s a shame the new attempts were curtailed so quickly but this was definitely Garner’s part (and I’m pretty sure a lot of the plots from various episodes of the originals were just recycled into his later big TV show, The Rockford Files, on a regular basis). Luckily, we have these classic episodes of Maverick now resurrected in DVD form so at least they have been, somewhat, rescued from oblivion.

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