Thursday, August 11, 2011

Episode Guide: Walking Tall

This is an updated version of a post on my old Tripod blog dated 4/17/06.

The cinematic saga of Buford Pusser began in the winter of 1973, when the now-defunct Cinerama Releasing Corporation released WALKING TALL, a crude, simplistic, violent R-rated drama about an ex-Marine and pro wrestler who returned to the Tennessee county of his childhood and single-handedly wiped out organized crime. Joe Don Baker played Pusser, who was elected sheriff of McNairy County after a severe beating by hoodlums left him scarred and near death.

WALKING TALL struck a major chord with rural audiences, who turned it into one of the year’s most talked-about and financially successful films. Pusser planned to portray himself in the 1975 sequel, but he was killed in a mysterious auto accident, and 6’6” Bo Svenson was enlisted to play the lawman who “walks tall and carries a big stick” in two movies and a short-lived NBC television series.

WALKING TALL, the series, premiered the same month that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th U.S. President, which may have been too soon. The Reagan administration’s black-and-white views on law and order were an influence on dozens of violent, high-octane Hollywood action movies, many of them starring macho men like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris. But when NBC debuted WALKING TALL on January 17, 1981, audiences were still in the sensitive grip of the Carter era and perhaps weren’t quite prepared for a single-minded law enforcer who eschewed the civil rights of the accused if they stood in the way of what he considered to be justice.

Svenson, a familiar face to TV audiences from schlocky TV-movies like GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN and SNOWBEAST, probably felt right at home with Sheriff Buford Pusser’s badge and “pacifier” (his term for the hefty four-foot club he carried in the back seat of his police car) in hand again. The show’s premise was just like that of the WALKING TALL movies in which Svenson had starred. He again was a widower who lived in McNeal (changed from McNairy) County, Tennessee with his father Carl (Walter Barnes, taking over for Noah Beery and Forrest Tucker), son Michael and daughter Dwana. McNeal was a small rural community where everybody knew everybody else, which didn’t make it as difficult as you would think for some of its citizens to get into trouble with the law and run afoul of Buford’s temper.

NBC scheduled WALKING TALL for 8:00pm Central on Saturday nights. Its CBS rival, the shortlived FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (also an action-oriented spinoff of a successful film), was no competition, but both series were slammed in the ratings by THE LOVE BOAT, which formed a Saturday-night juggernaut with FANTASY ISLAND for several years on ABC. After five episodes, the show was pulled, only to reappear six weeks later at 9:00pm on Tuesdays, where another smash ABC series, HART TO HART, buried it, this time for good. Only seven episodes of WALKING TALL were made, and all of them are available on DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star. Because I believe that no TV series should be forgotten, what follows is a somewhat comprehensive WALKING TALL episode guide. Print it out and keep it next to your remote.

Bo Svenson as Sheriff Buford Pusser
Walter Barnes as Carl Pusser
Harold Sylvester as Deputy Aaron Fairfax
Courtney Pledger as Deputy Joan Litton
Jeff Lester as Deputy Grady Spooner
Heather McAdam as Dwana Pusser
Rad Daly as Michael Pusser

Music: Edd Kalehoff
Cinematographer: William Gereghty
Editors: Bob Fish, Richard Freeman, Rod Stephens
Production Designer: Stan Jolley
Associate Producer: Stephen Cragg
Producer: Mel Swope
Executive Producer: David Gerber

“The Killing of McNeal County’s Children”
January 17, 1981
Writer: Stephen Downing
Director: Alf Kjellin
Guest Cast: Robert Englund, Charles McDaniel, Eric Stoltz, Whit Bissell.

Pusser investigates when two teenagers become brain-damaged after a few puffs of some powerful new PCP cigarettes. He threatens pusher Bobby Joe Wilson (Englund, later Freddy Krueger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and is nearly killed when Wilson’s home lab explodes, but still fails to stop the ring led by oily businessman Oliver Moss (McDaniel). Even Buford’s environmentally dubious strategy of assaulting Moss’ trucks and dumping their chemical contents onto the highway makes little dent in the drug’s onslaught of the local high school. It gets personal after two classmates (one is played by future star Stoltz) drug Michael Pusser’s drink with angel dust, which leaves him perched on the school roof thinking he can fly.

“The Protectors of the People”
January 24, 1981
Writer: Donald R. Boyle
Director: Daniel Haller
Guest Cast: Charles Napier, Jesse Vint, William Windom, William Sanderson, Otis Young, Dey Young.

This episode may have the show’s best guest stars, and Boyle (the show’s executive story editor) gives them an incendiary topic to bite into. McNeal runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan, mainly in the personage of vile Napier (the great character actor with the toothy grin), sadistic Sanderson (NEWHART) and store owner Vint (FORBIDDEN WORLD). In their repulsive desperation to make the county all-white, they attack a white teenage girl while disguised in blackface and then blow up a store owned by black businessman Otis Young (THE LAST DETAIL). It all gets terribly out of control when Pusser’s black deputy Aaron (Harold Sylvester) is framed for raping a white woman.

January 31, 1981
Writer: Paul Savage
Director: John Florea
Guest Cast: Chuck Connors, Edward Albert

Theo Brewster (Connors in a “special cameo appearance”) is shot by a guard during his commission of a bank robbery and taken into custody to Pusser’s jail, where he lies on life support. His sons--also his fellow bank robbers--plot to break him out by taking a local family and Buford’s father hostage.

March 31, 1981
Writer: Robert E. Swanson
Director: Alf Kjellin
Guest Cast: Merlin Olsen, L.Q. Jones

Not a terribly original concept, but strong direction, particularly during the final act, and good performances make the episode worthwhile. NBC sportscaster and former Los Angeles Ram Olsen, just a few months before starring in his own NBC drama, FATHER MURPHY, is Webb McClain, an old friend of Buford’s who returns to McNeal County to renew their relationship. Unbeknownst to Pusser, however, McClain is an assassin who has been hired by mobster Jones to murder Buford. Svenson and Olsen play the tension perfectly, giving the incredulous idea necessary weight.

“Company Town”
April 7, 1981
Writer: Lee Sheldon
Director: Harvey S. Laidman
Guest Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Lane Bradbury, Art Hindle, Claude Earl Jones

Leaving his regular supporting players behind, Pusser travels to a mining town to investigate the disappearance of a miner who had been riling his employers with talk about low wages and unsafe working conditions. Learning of other missing mining workers with similar rabble-rousing backgrounds, Buford follows the trail of bodies all the way up to the mine’s owner, James Clausen (Bellamy), and his hot-headed son Stuart (Hindle).

“Deadly Impact”
April 14, 1981
Writer: Gregory S. Dinallo
Director: Alexander Singer
Guest Cast: Gail Strickland, Ken Swofford, Richard Herd, James Whitmore Jr.

Credit director Singer and guest star Strickland for pulling off a late-in-the-game story twist that provides this episode with an effective dramatic punch. It smells like SILKWOOD when chemical plant employee Strickland suspects her boss of authorizing illegal dumps of toxic wastes into the nearby river. After she’s nearly run off the road, Pusser protects her from further attempts on her life by putting her up with Carl and the kids at his house, where his relationship with her turns from professional to personal.

“The Fire Within”
June 6, 1981
Writer: Lee Sheldon
Director: Phil Bondelli
Guest Cast: James MacArthur, Ed Nelson, Lance LeGault, Anthony Edwards, John McLiam, Richard Venture

MacArthur, a veteran of eleven seasons on HAWAII FIVE-0, exchanges his badge for a collar in this “special guest star” role as Father Adair, a new priest who takes the confession of a dying criminal. His vows prevent him from telling Pusser any information about what the man was involved with, namely a gunrunning operation masterminded by McNeal County real-estate agent Ed Campbell (Nelson). Look for future ER star Edwards as a horny teenager.

After WALKING TALL’s quick cancellation, star Svenson continued to rack up an army of television and film credits. Many of them were in exploitation movies such as NIGHT WARNING (in which he played a homophobic cop) and the Italian THUNDER WARRIOR (he also reunited with Charles Napier in the Fred Olen Ray ALIEN-ripoff DEEP SPACE), but his best TV performance of the era was a memorable turn in MAGNUM, P.I.’s third-season premiere as Ivan, a KGB agent who had tortured Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) in Vietnam and murdered Magnum’s friend Mac in Hawaii. The final confrontation between Magnum and Ivan was quite a corker and is probably the series’ finest moment.

Brian Dennehy played Buford Pusser in A REAL AMERICAN HERO, a CBS movie that aired in 1978, The Rock starred in a 2004 WALKING TALL remake that had nearly nothing to do with the original films or the Buford Pusser legend, and Kevin Sorbo (HERCULES) played Pusser in two direct-to-video sequels to the Rock movie.

The seven one-hour television episodes on DVD are nothing like TV crime drama at its finest, but its realistic location shooting (all in Southern California, it appears), fine actors, sharp action scenes, and committed, passionate lead performance by Bo Svenson, who could usually be counted on for one deeply felt monologue per show, make it an appealing curiosity for cop-show fans.


wayne d. dundee said...

I never got a chance to see the Walking Tall TV series as I was working nights during that period. But this review sure makes me want to check out the DVD. Yeah, I can see Bo Svenson in the role --- filling it as well and possibly better than any other actor who followed Joe Don Baker. (I agree, by the way, that the original film was somewhat crude and simplistic --- but it was still damned powerful and memorable.)
Anyway, you've succeeded in making the TV series sound intriguing. The cast of guest stars seems pretty impressive, too.
Ironically, your mention of Svenson in the role of Ivan in the impactful "Did You See The Sunrise" episode of MAGNUM PI is the second time today I've seen that role/episode covered in a blog. Check out David Cranmer's post this date to see more.
Good entry --- excellent and thorough coverage of the whole WALKING TALL theme.

Zwolf said...

One episode - "Kidnapped" - has one of the funniest action scenes ever to appear on a TV show. Some guys pull off a robbery and jump in a car and take off. Pusser runs after them (with a weird, goofy look on his face), fires his gun down an alley they left several shots ago, then stops a driver, says "I need your car, police business!" He jumps into it, tears out and turns down what appears to be the wrong street, and then promptly (and for no reason) runs the car onto the sidewalk to plow through a bunch of garbage cans, then turns a corner and rams a pickup truck. Then he gets out and asks a lady if she's okay. I fell out laughing for ten minutes when I saw that. "Quick, give me your car, so I can destroy it for no reason whatsoever! It's okay, I'm a sheriff!"

Greg said...

I watched this show when I was a naïve 16 year old and remember really liking it. I'm not sure what I would think today, but in my mind Bo Svenson will always be the only Buford Pusser. He was righteous, physically intimidating and when he said he was gonna hurt someone you really believed he was going to do it. That said, I agree that his best role was Ivan in Magnum PI. He played the evil KGB colonel with such hateful malice that I couldn't help but delight when Magnum killed him in cold blood.