Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Outcasts, "Three Ways to Die"

“Three Ways to Die”
October 7, 1968
Starring Don Murray and Otis Young
Guest-starring James Gregory, Paul Langton, Dub Taylor, Christopher Stone, Bill Quinn, Stuart Nisbet, Todd Martin, Gene Tyburn, Gene Dynarski
Music by Hugo Montenegro
Created by Ben Brady and Leon Tokatyan
Executive-produced by Leon Benson
Produced by Jon Epstein
Written by Edward J. Lakso
Directed by Josef Leytes

THE OUTCASTS is virtually forgotten today despite the fact that it holds an important historical distinction in network television. It was the first western series to co-star a black leading man, three years after Bill Cosby became TV’s first black leading man in a dramatic series in I SPY. (Note: Raymond St. Jacques was a regular on RAWHIDE in the 1965-66 season, but in a small supporting role — not the lead.)

Otis Young was 36 years old with some television guest shots, a couple of insignificant movies, and several Broadway shows under his belt when he landed the role of Jemal David opposite white Don Murray (BUS STOP) in THE OUTCASTS. Young is better known for starring opposite Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid in the excellent 1973 film THE LAST DETAIL, which didn’t give his screen career the boost it deserved.

In the pilot for THE OUTCASTS, imaginatively titled “The Outcasts,” Young’s Jemal David is a former slave turned bounty hunter who encounters Murray’s Earl Corey, an angry ex-Confederate soldier who lost his Virginia plantation to his Union-fighting brother. On foot and without a job, he (very) reluctantly teams with David to capture a fugitive who has infiltrated a Union wagon train commanded by a corrupt lieutenant (Burr DeBenning). Calling each other “boy” and “boss,” Corey and David don’t like each other much, but they do come to respect each other, and they end the episode riding off together.

“Three Ways to Die” finds David and Corey riding into Spanish Wells, where the dying wind informs them they’re in serious need of a bath. A skirmish in the barbershop with young Tom Jeremy (Christopher Stone) lands David in the jail of sheriff John Giles (James Gregory), a self-righteous man with a secret in his past that Jeremy seems to know. Jeremy is beaten to death during the night, and Giles’ story is that David did it during a card game. We know David was slugged while he slept, and with Corey’s help, the two escape across the burning desert to face the sun, snakes, not enough water, and a pursuing posse.

I don’t know what the three ways to die are — not the only confusing element of Edward J. Lakso’s teleplay — but as an action piece, the episode is strong. Gregory is fantastic as the obsessed lawman chasing his white (and black) whales, and director Josef Leytes found a properly desolate stretch of sand in which to film. Hugo Montenegro’s score is unusually jazzy for a western, but it sounds as though he was going for a Morricone feel (he, in fact, had a hit single with Morricone’s theme to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY).

THE OUTCASTS would seem to have had a tough enough row to hoe, thanks to its controversial subject matter, but ABC did the show no favors by slotting it in a very competitive Monday timeslot. CBS owned Mondays that season, and opposite the one-two comic punch of the tame but popular MAYBERRY R.F.D. and FAMILY AFFAIR, not to mention NBC MONDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES, THE OUTCASTS was not a success. Citing the show’s violence, ABC cancelled THE OUTCASTS at the end of its first season after 26 episodes.

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