Celebrate Thanksgiving With The Macahan Family in HOW THE WEST WAS WON

how the west was won - james arness

In 1975, the unthinkable happened: Gunsmoke was canceled after twenty seasons and more than 600 episodes. It was a shock to viewers, but far more so to cast and crew. “The network never told anyone they were thinking of canceling,” star James Arness said. ”We all expected to go on for another season, or two, or three.”

CBS’s loss was ABC’s gain, as the cancellation allowed Arness and key members of the behind-the-scenes team to pursue another project: a TV reboot of the epic MGM Western How The West Was Won (1962) for ABC. Producer Albert S. Ruddy (an Oscar winner for The Godfather) hired Gunsmoke writer Jim Byrnes to write the pilot and Gunsmoke producer John Mantley to run the show. Bernard McEveety, who had helmed 32 episodes of the series between 1967 and 1975, signed on to direct the pilot. And it was only a matter of time before the former Matt Dillon was lured off the unemployment line to play lead character Zebulon Macahan, a rough-hewn mountain man who bore little resemblance to the marshal of Dodge City.  

Less than a year later, the made-for-TV movie The Macahans would become the longest and most expensive pilot in TV history. And, when ABC picked it up for a series, How The West Was Won became a groundbreaker: rather than traditional hour-long episodes, seasons unfolded as a continuing story presented in weekly, feature-length broadcasts. This “event series” format was influenced by the newly popular miniseries genre, with stories unfolding in their entirety over a short period of time, often in two or three-hour installments. The three-episode first season scored record ratings and was renewed for two more. And the aging TV Western format, in decline for years, was back in the saddle in a new and inventive way.

You can see what we mean on November 28, when getTV presents a special Thanksgiving Day marathon of the first four installments of How The West Was Won. The story begins at 10a ET with the 1976 pilot film and continues until 8p ET.

James Arness, Eva Marie Saint, Bruce Boxleitner in THE MACAHANS (1976)

While the 1962 film (co-directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall) weaves multiple narratives unfolding over fifty years, the TV version tells the story of one family at a crossroads in American history: the dawn of the Civil War. Emmy winner Richard Kiley co-stars as Zeb’s brother Tim, with Eva Marie Saint (an Oscar Winner for On The Waterfront) as Tim’s wife Kate. Bruce Boxleitner plays their eldest son Luke (called Seth in the pilot), with Kathryn Holcomb as teenaged Laura and William Kirby Cullen and Vicki Schreck as younger siblings Jed and Jessie.

Like the film version of How The West Was Won, the TV series includes narration that bridges the epic action. Classic TV fans will recognize the voice of William Conrad, who played Matt Dillon on radio from 1952 until 1961 — overlapping with Arness’s tenure on TV. The series returned for two more seasons, continuing the feature-length format for each episode. (You can see those episodes in the show’s regular timeslot: Sundays at 12:30p ET.)

Here’s a look at the episodes airing on getTV on Thanksgiving Day.

1. The Macahans (Pilot — Original Airdate: Jan. 19, 1976)

The story opens in March of 1861, as Zeb — working as an Army scout at Fort Laramie, Wyoming — returns to the Macahan farm in Bull Run, Virginia to get his family out of the war’s path. Tim and Kate decide to move West by wagon, with Zeb and Tim’s parents (Frank Ferguson and Ann Doran) staying behind. When Tim hears about the Battle of Bull Run, he races back to Virginia, only to be shangheid into the Union Army. Luke follows and is also conscripted, fighting at the Battle of Shiloh until he deserts and becomes a fugitive. Meanwhile. Zeb confronts an old friend-turned-foe (Gene Evans) and Kate temporarily settles the family in Nebraska.


 Eva Marie Saint and James Arness in THE MACAHANS (1976)

2. Provost Marshal (Season one, episode one — Airdate: Feb. 6, 1977)

The story jumps ahead three years, as How the West Was Won returns for its first (short) season as a series. After the Civil War, the Macahan family reunites in Nebraska with plans to head to Oregon, but an obstacle stands in their way: Captain Martin Grey (Anthony Zerbe), dispatched to bring Luke to justice for desertion. Luke goes on the run, is shot, and taken in by a community of Christian Simonites. There, he’s nursed back to health by Erika (Britt Lind), who just happens to be young, unmarried and plainly attracted to Luke. Speaking of single people, widow Kate catches the eye of a handsome drifter (Don Murray) who, like Luke, is also on the run. Eva Marie Saint and Murray had co-starred in A Hatful of Rain (1957) and their chemistry is undeniable.

 Don Murray and Anthony Zerbe, guest stars on HOW THE WEST WAS WON

3. Erika (Season one, episode two — Feb. 13, 1977)

Zeb Joins forces with fellow Mountain man Cully Madigan (Jack Elam) in his search for a son abducted by the Indians. Kate has to fend off the Shoshone chief (Richard Angarola), who keeps playing matchmaker with his young braves. And Luke continues his courtship of Erika, which catches the attention of Christy Judson (David Huddleston) — father of a man Luke killed when he was rescuing Erika from his sons.

HOW THE WEST WAS WON Bruce Boxleitner, James Arness

4. Bowie John Christie (Season one, episode three — Feb. 20, 1977)

The first season tells three stories — Zeb’s, Kate’s and Luke’s — and all three converge for this final chapter in surprising ways. Kate is “wed” to an Indian brave, Zeb helps rescue Cully’s son, and Luke leaves the Simonites with tragic results. At age 53, Arness was still an entirely credible action hero and he and Boxleitner made a delightful duo. After this first season — directed by Western specialist Burt Kennedy and Daniel Mann (Our Man Flint) — How The West Was Won would return for two longer seasons, which you can see on getTV every Sunday at 12:30p ET!

HOW THE WEST WAS WON Cast Seasons two and three

The How the West Was Won marathon begins Thanksgiving Day at 10a ET and continues until 8p ET. And the series continues in its regular time slot every Sunday at 12:30p ET on getTV. For more visit the getTV schedule.

 

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