CIMARRON CITY – 10 Facts About The Western Series Starring George Montgomery, Audrey Totter, And John Smith
More than 50,000 people claimed two million acres of homestead land in the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1880s. Cities were born virtually overnight as settlers sought oil, gold, and a new life in the American West. Cimarron City tells the story of one of those boom towns, populated with a mix of pioneers, opportunists, and old school gunslingers.
Rancher Matt Rockford (George Montgomery) is the son of the city’s founder and mayor of the town. Helping to keep the peace is Lane Temple (John Smith), Cimarron City’s brash young deputy. Also in the cast are Audrey Totter as rooming house owner Beth Purcell and Dan Blocker as ranch hand and comic relief Tiny Budinger.
Produced by MCA’s Revue Studios, Cimarron City launched with a unique three-star structure (Mongomery-Smith-Totter), with stories intended to feature the trio of lead actors equally. The series also relied heavily on guest stars to motivate the weekly action, with familiar faces like Fred MacMurray, Peter Graves, and Leonard Nimoy making their way through town. Montgomery occasionally narrated episodes from the Cimarron City of the future, assuring audiences that everything turned out okay.
Cimarron City celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year, and getTV is proud to bring this underrated gem out of the vaults for longtime fans and new viewers. Here are ten facts about this classic series.
1. George Montgomery was a movie star.
After a year studying architecture at the University of Montana, Montgomery moved to California to pursue a boxing career in 1935. His height (6’ 3”), athletic prowess, and horsemanship (thanks to a childhood spent in rural Montana) caught the eye of the movie studios, and he began doing stunt work in Western films and serials. He soon graduated to speaking parts, appearing in The Lone Ranger (1938) and in movies with cowboy crooners Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In 1939, he became a contract player at 20th Century Fox using the name “George Montgomery” for the first time. At Fox he starred opposite future icons like Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, and Betty Grable.
2. Montgomery played a role Bogart made famous.
Following a tour of duty in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Montgomery was cast as Philip Marlowe in Fox’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Brasher Doubloon (1947). He became the fourth actor to play the iconic private eye in three years, after superstars Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery (no relation). Sadly, the film wasn’t the break Montgomery had hoped for and, frustrated by the roles being offered, he left Fox and went freelance. When he was cast in Cimarron City in 1958, the 42-year-old had been a familiar face for more than two decades, with most of the 1950s spent in Westerns.
3. John Smith began his career as a boy singer.
Born Robert Errol Van Orden in Los Angeles in 1931, Smith was 27 when Cimarron City debuted. He began his performing career at age 13 as a member of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, singing in films like Going My Way (1944) and The Bells Of Saint Mary’s (1945) with Bing Crosby. He was christened “John Smith” by talent agent Henry Willson, who also renamed (and helped popularize) other 1950s heartthrobs like Rock Hudson.
4. Audrey Totter was a film noir icon.
Illinois native Totter got her start as a radio actress before signing with MGM in 1944. She made her mark in film noir, with appearances in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lady In The Lake, and The Set-Up, among others. Totter – who married in 1953 – was initially attracted to the reduced workload of a shared starring role in Cimarron City, but would live to regret that decision.
5. Montgomery wasn’t just the star of the show.
To entice Montgomery to move from feature films to the small screen, Revue Productions offered the actor a 50% ownership stake in the series. In return for equity participation, Montgomery agreed to take a pay cut. “I was (paid) a reduced weekly salary, about a tenth of my normal,” he wrote in his 1981 autobiography The Years Of George Montgomery.
6. The series had stiff competition.
Cimarron City debuted on NBC on October 11, 1958. Airing Saturday nights at 9:30pm ET, the series was up against two of the top-rated shows on TV: Have Gun Will Travel (in its second season) at 9:30pm and Gunsmoke (in its fourth) at 10pm, both on CBS. Despite Montgomery’s star power, viewers did not flock to Cimarron City and the series consistently struggled in the ratings.
7. Smith met his wife in Cimarron City.
Smith met 21-year-old Luana Patten when she guest starred on the fourth episode of the series as Elizabeth, the daughter of John Dehner’s character. (Rockford and Lane rescue her when she’s kidnapped by a band of outlaws.) Smith and Patten began dating soon after, announced their engagement in December of 1959, and married in June of 1960. (They would divorce four years later.) Montgomery’s wife – singer Dinah Shore – also made a guest appearance as a Cimarron City townsperson, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the December, 1958 Christmas episode.
8. Dan Blocker played two characters.
In the second episode of the series, Matt Rockford is taken prisoner by a family of silver mining gangsters led by Dan Duryea. Dan Blocker plays Carl Budinger, the sadistic jailer who meets his maker when Rockford throws molten silver at him. Producers must have liked Blocker because he returned two episodes later as Tiny, a previously unseen Budinger brother who becomes Matt’s ranch hand. In his second incarnation, Blocker’s character was an affable good guy who packed a powerful punch – not unlike Hoss Cartwright, a character he would play on Bonanza for the next 13 years.
9. Montgomery and Totter quit the show.
Totter grew frustrated with her limited presence on the show and left after 21 episodes. As Montgomery was essentially elevated to solo lead, Smith’s screen time also diminished, and he didn’t appear in two of the final four shows. Montgomery wasn’t happy either. According to his autobiography (as quoted on the website Western Clippings), he left the series after the first season and went on to sue MCA. He and NBC won a shared judgment of $240,000, but that victory came with a catch. “I was told I’d be blackballed in the business,” he wrote. “And for the next 15 years I was, at Universal.” He didn’t work for the studio again until an appearance on The Six Million Dollar Man in 1974.
10. Where’d they go after Cimarron City?
When Cimarron City concluded its run in 1959, John Smith took on the starring role of Slim Sherman in the Western series Laramie, also produced by Revue for NBC. He had good company, with more than 130 actors and behind-the-scenes personnel making the move along with him. Smith retired from acting in 1978 and died in 1995. Totter was a frequent guest star on TV throughout the 1960s and scored a recurring role on Medical Center from 1972 until 1976. Her final performance was on Murder, She Wrote in 1987. Totter died in 2013 at age 95. Montgomery worked actively (though not at MCA/Revue/Universal, see above) for another 15 years, often producing and/or directing his own projects. He died in 2000 at age 84.
11. Bonus! Montgomery survived a murder attempt.
Four years after Cimarron City ended, Montgomery was nearly murdered in his bedroom. A 37-year-old woman who had previously worked as his maid broke into his home with a pistol and took a shot at him. She missed (barely) and Montgomery restrained her and called police. In the trial, it was revealed that she and the actor had had an affair during her employment. “No one loved him like I do,” read a suicide note police found in her purse when she was arrested. Happily, the former hero of Cimarron City survived what was almost Old West-style vengeance.
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