I didn't watch Alias Smith and Jones when I was a kid because it was on against some heavyweight competition (first The Flip Wilson Show and then All in the Family). I vaguely remember hearing about the suicide of Pete Duel, the young co-star of the show, but I wasn't a regular viewer so it didn't really register with me. Watching Universal's four-disc Alias Smith and Jones: Season One now, it's a shame that the death of Duel pretty much ended what was a lighthearted, well written, acted and directed, spirited TV western romp, conceived and executed very much in the tradition of the then-hugely popular movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Premiering as an ABC midseason replacement for decidedly un-hip medical drama Matt Lincoln in January, 1971, Alias Smith and Jones never managed to crack the Top Thirty in the Nielsen ratings, but its handsome young co-stars, Ben Murphy and particularly, Pete Duel, generated enough buzz with the younger demographics - especially young girls who read magazines like Teen Beat and Tiger Beat, where Duel was frequently featured - that hit-hungry ABC kept the show around, hoping to let it build with its much-prized young audience. The media attention paid to Duel was mounting, and he looked like he might be headed towards bigger things. However, there were also reports that the likeable young actor, who had reoccurring problems with alcohol and depression, was dissatisfied with the idea that Alias Smith and Jones could go on for several more years, with the dedicated, intense actor reportedly chaffing at the severe time limitations of grinding out a weekly TV series. For whatever reasons, on December 31, 1971, Peter Duel took his own handgun and ended his life. His part as Hannibal Heyes/Joshua Smith was immediately recast with Roger Davis, but after the morbid curiosity of watching the remaining Duel episodes wore off, the show dropped even further in the ratings, and was canceled midseason the following year.
The premise of the show was quite ingenious -- and based on true events and characters. Hannibal Heyes and Jed "Kid" Curry/Thaddeus Jones (Ben Murphy) are the two most successful outlaws in the West. Not only have they robbed the most trains and banks, they've never had to shoot anybody in the process -- a gimmick that the network no doubt demanded to make sure the audience saw the characters as charming rogues and not vicious killers. But Heyes and Curry are beginning to run out of room to hide from the various posses and lawmen that want to cash in on their prominent wanted posters, calling for the capture of the duo dead or alive. Reading a poster that advertises an amnesty program sponsored by the governor, Heyes and Curry strike a deal with the politician, who wants his two biggest headaches to stop robbing banks. His deal is that if Heyes and Curry can stay on the right side of the law for twelve months, he'll grant them amnesty. The only catch? The deal is secret (so no one knows the governor is bartering with criminals), and the boys will still have to elude all the lawmen and other criminals who want to profit from turning in the famous outlaws. The fun of the show then becomes not watching the outlaws break the rules every week, but watching their efforts to resist their own criminal tendencies, while staying out of gunfights and barroom brawls all over the West.
Watching the pilot episode of Alias Smith and Jones: Season One was a little misleading for me, in that its tone is somewhat different than the regular series episodes that follow. The pilot episode, which is 75 minutes long (which I would assume was intended first as an ABC made-for-TV movie of the week?), has a more overtly humorous feel that deliberately copies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is definitely "buddy picture" territory, made ubiquitous on movie and TV screens during the early 1970s due to the mammoth critical and box office success of Butch. And the pilot episode perfectly captures that beautifully modulated film, which expertly mixed action, romance, and almost daffy physical comedy. Duel excels here in the pilot; his comedic timing is near-perfect, and he's obviously enjoying himself, sending up the stereotypical western gunslinger image quite nicely - much the way Newman and Redford did in Butch. Murphy, who in profile could be Paul Newman's double (and who's nicknamed "Kid" - another reference to that film), has a laid back charm - and a barely suppressed murderous streak -- that plays well against Duel's more animated, violence-avoiding character. I particularly like how the producers keep Smith and Jones nice guys - even when they're mistreated each and every episode. They don't hold grudges, buying drinks and making friends with outlaws who tried to kill them the day before. It's an unusual approach to these stock characters, and makes Alias Smith and Jones: Season One very special. Duel and Murphy are a great comedy team, and the pilot episode, full of humourous plot twists and turns, as well as clever lines for the actors to read, bodes well for the forthcoming series.
What follows in the regular season doesn't match the humor level of the pilot, but they're still solidly produced episodes. An emphasis on intriguing stories now predominates, with the humor element more subdued, relegated to an occasional grim crack between the buddies during the course of their adventures. The regular season is still a lot of fun, with many finely crafted episodes that now resemble Maverick more than Butch (Maverick contributor Douglas Heyes worked on Alias), with the boys often caught in elaborate schemes to not only pull off a job legally, but to also keep their identities secret. Duel's more subdued here, flashing his Jack Nicholson grin less often, but his quiet, thoughtful line readings are still appealing and sometimes engagingly quirky, and he now more closely matches in temperament the easy-going Murphy. Some very good TV writers and directors worked on Alias Smith and Jones: Season One, gathered together by one of television's greats, producer/creator Glen A. Larson. As well as Larson, who co-wrote the pilot with Matthew Howard (a pen name for Douglas Heyes, the mastermind behind Maverick), screenwriters Sy Salkowitz, Robert Hamner, Stephen Kandel, Howard Browne (whose screenplay was based on a story by Gene Roddenberry), Knut Swenson, Dick Nelson, John Thomas James, and Phil DeGuere knock out some terrific western stories, with directors Gene Levitt, Jeannot Szwarc, Jeffrey Hayden, Leslie H. Martinson, Richard Benedict, Bruce Kessler, and Barry Shear keeping the series moving along swiftly.
Alias Smith and Jones: Season One also sports an unusually talented roster of supporting players this season, including Forrest Tucker, Susan Saint James, James Drury, Jeanette Nolan, Earl Holliman, Dennis Fimple, Bill Fletcher, John Russell, Bill McKinney, Sid Haig, Harry Hickox, Burl Ives, Cesar Romero, Edward Andrews, Mills Watson, Susan Strasberg, Parnell Roberts, Slim Pickens, Mark Lenard, Ford Rainey, J. D. Cannon, William Windom, J. Pat O'Malley, Willam Mims, William Christopher, John Larch, Alan Hale, Jr., Heather Menzies, Royal Dano, Liam Dunn, Diana Muldaur, Sam Jaffe, Peter Breck, Fernando Lamas, Diana Hyland, Brett Halsey, Vaughn Taylor, John McGiver, Mike Road, Ken Scott, Keenan Wynn, Steve Ihnat, L. Q. Jones, Dana Elcar, John Kellogg, Randolph Mantooth, Patrick Macnee, Juliet Mills, Charles Davis, Don Keefer, Judy Carne, Tom Ewell, Logan Ramsey, Joe Campanella, Sharon Acker, Ramon Bieri, Sean Garrison, Barbara Rhoades, Woodrow Parfrey, Claudine Longet, Susan Oliver, Nico Minardos, Dub Taylor, Gregory Sierra, Severn Darden, Richard Anderson, Robert Donner, Joan Hackett, Guy Raymond, Billy "Green" Bush, and of course, Burt Mustin. You just don't see quality performers like these on TV today, and more's the pity.
Here are the 15, one hour episodes of Alias Smith and Jones: Season One:
Alisa Smith and Jones Pilot
The McCreedy Bust
Exit from Wickenburg
Wrong Train to Brimstone
The Girl in Boxcar #3
The Great Shell Game
Return to Devil's Hole
A Fistful of Diamonds
The Man Who Murdered Himself
The Root of it All
The 5th Victim
Journey from San Juan
Never Trust an Honest Man
The Legacy of Charlie O'Rourke
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.