Monday, April 8, 2019

Back in the Day of the Special Guest Star: Bonanza

Though Bonanza was often the #1 show on television during its 14-year run (1959 - 1974), I probably need to introduce the show to many readers. When the show began, Westerns dominated television and the show lasted into the era when detectives dominated. It was one of the first color shows on television and featured beautiful location scenery filmed at Lake Tahoe (along with very obvious studio filming).

The show is the story of a father, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), whose ranch, the Ponderosa, is on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. His three grown sons; Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon) run the ranch with him. Every week members of the family face a different adventure, usually combined with a moral dilemma.

As you watch the "Mighty is the Word" episode, you can’t help noticing how television has changed through the decades. This episode's former gunslinger turned pastor made me think about the way TV used to feature “special guest stars.” While modern shows tend to have recognized actors added as new characters somehow related to the central cast, old shows often had one-shot featured guests -- actors who sometimes appeared again and again on the same show as different characters.

On this particular episode, guest star Glenn Corbett plays the Rev. Paul Watson, a former gunslinger who entered the ministry. Watson talks about how the Cartwrights have been his biggest supporters, providing financial and moral support -- though Watson is never mentioned or seen in any other episode of the program. 

Even odder, Paul’s wife, Sue (played by Susan Randall), is said to be the daughter of the foreman of the Ponderosa. Little Joe says that as he and Sue grew up together, they were like brother and sister. And yet she also never appeared on the show before and never appears again. In a modern show, such characters would probably continue to be at least mentioned in the continuity, but not in the old world of television.

We first see the Rev. Paul in a Virginia City bar, arm wrestling all comers. He's betting contenders to earn money to build a church. Little Joe and Hoss come in the bar and find him winning match after match, but the preacher declares, “I never bet more than a dollar.” We later learn from Paul’s wife, Sue, that the Reverend has been spending more time at the bar than at the church. (As someone who wrote a book about hanging out in churches and bars, I appreciate this philosophy of ministry.)

Another person in the bar doesn’t see the preacher, though. Cliff, one of the Cartwrights' hired hands is introduced to the Rev. Paul and says “There’s a gunfighter by that name.” Paul admits he is one and the same, a former gunfighter. 

Cliff says, “The next time you see me, have that collar off, and a gun on.” We later learn that in the Reverend’s gunfighting days, Paul killed Cliff’s twin brother.

Paul admits as much to Little Joe and Hoss, but tells them the fight was fair. He didn't murder Cliff's brother -- which settles thing for the Cartwrights. I do think that if a church search committee these days heard that a pastoral candidate had shot someone dead, it would most likely disqualify them from the position, even if it was a “fair fight.” But Paul didn’t have a search committee to deal with. 

He came on his own to Virginia City plant a church, though he did have help. We learn the Cartwrights have been supporting him financially, including promising to buy an organ for the church.

Hoss and Little Joe also work alongside Rev. Paul as he builds the church building. Paul is a good carpenter, acknowledging that he is following the example of the carpenter from Galilee. He is also a hard worker, driving the Cartwright brothers to work harder. Hoss says Paul’s hard work is so convincing, “You’ll almost get me to convert.” (Which made me wonder why Hoss was helping if he wasn’t a Christian. Is he an atheist, perhaps Jewish? Or maybe just doesn’t belong to Paul’s denomination, which is never named?) 

Paul talks about the Cartwrights as being his biggest supporter and his best friends. (Though according to IMDB and as mentioned above, the Reverend Paul never appears on the show again.) As the men work on the church, Cliff the hired hand approaches Paul and asks why he isn’t wearing his gun. Paul responds he no longer fights that way. 

Cliff slaps Paul, calls him a coward and says he will make Paul again strap on his gun. Cliff begins a campaign of harassment to force Paul to fight him. Cliff bad mouths Paul as a killer in town, tears down the frame of the new church, and tears apart the store run by Paul’s wife, Sue.
Throughout these attacks, Paul refuses LIttle Joe's encouragement to take up his gun. He says, “It’s our duty to walk in our Lord’s footsteps, who faced indignities.” But when Cliff hits Sue, Paul does take up his gun. 

He shoots Cliff in a gunfight, but purposely only with a flesh wound. He refuses to kill Cliff, though the man asks to be killed. Cliff is won over and comes to Paul as he is rebuilding the church saying, “What I’m trying to say is, I’m a pretty good carpenter. And I’d like to attend services.”
Apparently, in the Westerns of this time, every man must eventually take up a gun, because that’s what real men do, you know. And after Paul’s nonfatal gunfight with Cliff, the church prospers. I still don’t see gunfighting becoming a part of any modern church growth plan.

Still, for his admirable efforts to reach out to others for the Gospel in this pioneering community, we’re giving the Reverend Paul Watson our TV Church rating of 3 out of 4 steeples.

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