Audie Murphy in WHISPERING SMITH – 10 Facts About The 1960s Western Series

WHISPERING SMITH on getTV

Dragnet on horseback.” That’s how star Audie Murphy described Whispering Smith when the series debuted on NBC in 1961. It’s an appropriate analogy. Many of the episodes in this post-Civil War police procedural set in Denver are based on real cases, and Murphy narrates them Joe Friday-style.

Today Whispering Smith is remembered as the only TV series starring the war hero-turned-actor. But during its original broadcast, it inspired controversy – and headlines – for violent content and adult themes. This led to a quick cancellation for a show that, more than half a century later, feels like a delightfully dark alternative to the sanitized TV Westerns of the era.

You can see what we mean when getTV presents an overnight binge of Whispering Smith on Sunday, March 25 at midnight ET. Our nine-episode marathon includes familiar faces like Western icon Harry Carey Jr., Dallas patriarch Jim Davis, Gilligan’s Island Skipper Alan Hale Jr., James Best (Rosco on The Dukes Of Hazzard), and Get Smart’s “Chief” Edward Platt playing…a chief of police. The principal cast also includes Guy Mitchell as Smith’s partner George Romack and Sam Buffington as their shouty boss John Richards.

Fair warning! Whispering Smith is addictive, especially if you like your cowboy stories with a dash of noir. If you get hooked, getTV feeds your fix with weekday broadcasts at 5:20 am ET (moving to 6:00 am ET on April 2) as part of our “Wake Up Out West” programming block. So saddle up and enjoy some surprising facts about this underrated Western series and the real-life hero who was its star.  

1. Audie Murphy was a child of the West.

Murphy was born in 1925 in rural Kingston, Texas, the seventh of twelve children. When his sharecropper father deserted the family in the late ‘30s, Audie dropped out of school and began working as a day laborer. His mother died of an infection when he was just 16, a loss he never fully recovered from. “When she passed away, she took something of me with her,” he said decades later.

2. Murphy was a decorated soldier who conquered Hollywood.  

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, sixteen-year-old Murphy falsified his records and enlisted in the U.S. Army. In three years of service as a combat soldier, he fought in nine major campaigns and was wounded three times. Murphy earned 33 awards and decorations and, when he left active service in September of 1945, he did so as the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. After the war, James Cagney was struck by Murphy’s effortless charisma and put him under contract. While studying with acting coaches, he co-wrote To Hell And Back, a memoir which was made into a movie in 1955. Murphy – by then a star – played himself.

3.  Whispering Smith was also the subject of a book and 8 movies. 

Whispering Smith began life as a 1906 novel by Frank H. Spearman, an adaptation of the true-life adventures of Union Pacific Railroad detective James “Whispering” Smith. The character became a film staple, inspiring four different silent movies (1916, 1917, 1926, and 1927) and four sound films (1930, 1935, 1948, and 1952). The best known of these was Whispering Smith (1948), the first Western for star Alan Ladd (who bears a striking resemblance to Audie Murphy). While the hero of the book and movies was a railroad cop, TV’s Smith (now named Tom) was a more traditional Old West lawman.

4. One of the cast members died. And another was seriously injured.

Whispering Smith began production during the summer of 1959 but didn’t premiere until two years later due to catastrophic production delays. Guy Mitchell – an inexperienced actor who had never really played an action hero – broke his shoulder after ten episodes. Production was delayed as scripts were re-written to limit George’s screen time, and the character is seen wearing an extensive cast for two shows. Not long after, co-star Sam Buffington committed suicide (reportedly over financial issues) after filming just 16 of the season’s 26 episodes. Though he appeared far older due to his balding pate and gruff demeanor, Buffington was just 28. The series premiered a year after his death.

5. Guy Mitchell was a chart-topping singer.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Mitchell became a singer with bandleader Carmen Cavallaro. His first charting record was “My Heart Cries For You,” recorded in 1950 with Mitch Miller and his orchestra. He also had hits with “Singing The Blues” in 1956 and “Heartaches By The Number” in 1959. Mitchell sold more than 40 million records over the course of his career, which may explain George’s tendency to break into song in the Denver police station.

6. Robert Redford and Richard Chamberlain played early roles on the series.

In The Grudge, the second episode of the series, 23-year-old Robert Redford plays a young man out to kill Smith as payback for his father’s death. A few episodes later, Richard Chamberlain (at age 25) plays the son of a judge (Patric Knowles) wrongly accused of murdering his father’s mistress. Both actors demonstrate the talent and charisma that would soon make them superstars. 

7. Oh, mother! The Psycho house guest stars in an episode.

In The Quest, the eighth episode of the series, a young woman comes to town in search of her mother. As they investigate the case, Smith and Romack visit the home of a woman who is believed to be dead but is actually alive. If her house looks familiar, it should; it’s the iconic Bates home from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Whispering Smith was produced by Revue Productions on the Universal backlot at the same time Psycho was in production, and the two shared some crew members (including Oscar-nominated cinematographer John L. Russell). Psycho author Robert Bloch even wrote an episode of Whispering Smith.

8. The series was investigated by the Senate for violent content.

Despite a lead character who avoids shooting to kill in favor of non-lethal conflict resolution, Whispering Smith was controversial from the get-go. “Not only bad for children, it’s bad for adults,” Sen. John Carroll of Colorado proclaimed in hearings before the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee. The negative publicity hurt ratings, and discouraged Murphy, an American hero who was not used to bad press. He defended the show’s “high moral value,” but was not unhappy when it was cancelled. “I fought with them constantly,” he said, of the show’s merry-go-round of producers (four in just one season).

9. Six episodes never aired.

NBC silenced Whispering Smith after the September 18, 1961 broadcast. Only 20 of the 26 produced episodes aired on the network during its brief four-month run. One of the remaining six un-aired shows (The Interpreter) subsequently went missing and was excluded from the DVD release in 2010. It was later found in the Library of Congress.

10. Murphy died at age 45.

On May 8, 1971, a private plane Murphy was a passenger in crashed in Virginia, killing all on board. The war hero was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and future president George H.W. Bush (then the U.N. ambassador) in attendance. A monument was erected at the crash site in 1974. Sadly, Audie Murphy died on the tenth anniversary of Whispering Smith’s debut.

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