‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’: Steve McQueen’s hit Western leads to big-screen stardom

As a warm-up, you might say, to our commitment here at Drunk TV—and believe me: “commitment” is the correct word—to reviewing every single episode of the massive new 440+ hour Gunsmoke: The Complete Series DVD set, we thought we’d look at some other titles from that golden era of TV Westerns. Today, it’s Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter classic, Wanted: Dead or Alive, which our friends at Mill Creek Entertainment released a few years back in a fun complete series set.

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Wanted: Dead or Alive, which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1961, is essential viewing for anyone interested in the progression of the Western genre on television, and of course, for fans of the King of Cool, Steve McQueen. Let’s look briefly at the series’ three seasons.

By Paul Mavis

Premiering in the fall of 1958, during the absolute heyday of the adult Western cycle on the Big Three networks, Wanted: Dead or Alive had a rather interesting gestation. Itself a spin-off from an episode of Trackdown, the less-successful 1957-1959 CBS Western series starring intense Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, Trackdown in turn was launched from an episode of the popular Four Star Productions Western drama anthology, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater. Vincent Fennelly, the producer of Trackdown, was looking to do a companion Western series based on the exploits of an underdog bounty hunter. Casting was critical, according to Fennelly; he needed an actor who could be sympathetic to the audience, since the bounty hunter’s profession—an outsider bringing in wanted criminals not for “justice” but for money, pure and simple—could potentially turn off viewers. When Steve McQueen’s agent contacted Fennelly, the suits at Four Star weren’t sure; they had in mind a big, strapping Western “hero” type like Clint Walker or James Garner. But Fennelly was immediately taken with McQueen’s vulnerability—not only physically (his slight stature), but also his sensitivity beneath his tough-guy New York “Method” actor hipsterness. McQueen won the part of Josh Randall, and when his one-shot Trackdown audition aired on March 7th, 1958, McQueen was given the go-ahead as the lead in Wanted: Dead or Alive.

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Centered on the adventures of Josh Randall, a tough, wily, but fair bounty hunter who roamed the Old West, Wanted: Dead or Alive avoided the common late 1950s TV template of surrounding a lead character with a “family” of sorts, whether it was a sitcom, with its obvious family setting, or even a Western, like Gunsmoke or Rawhide, where the extended family of supporting players offered the writers plenty of opportunities to keep the storylines fresh and interesting. Wanted: Dead or Alive would focus exclusively on the itinerant wanderings of rootless Randall. Prior to Wanted: Dead or Alive, the bounty hunter had largely been portrayed as a negative character in Western films and TV.

Steve McQueen in "Wanted: Dead or Alive" 1959 © 1978 Gene Trindl

Certainly by the 1950s, the notion of a loner going his own way, often against the interests of the law as well as society in general, was frowned on within a major strain in the American TV popular culture that demanded conformity and sublimation of the individual in support of perceived civic duties (no wonder so many characters at the end of these episodes try to get Josh to settle down in their little towns…to no avail). Often seen as a venal character with no scruples—basically not much different than a hired killer—the bounty hunter received a deliberate hero make-over with Wanted: Dead or Alive.

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In this first season, the producers and screenwriters weren’t always consistent in their references to Josh’s past and his reputation…but the outcome of each episode made it clear this bounty hunter had a heart of gold—a bounty hunter who was even willing to forgo his money if it would aid a client who was wrongly accused of a crime. Concerned with the here-and-now adventures of the two-fisted bounty hunter, Josh’s backstory is left deliberately vague. In The Favor, Josh tells a client how he was once a bank clerk, and how he realized one day that his job was nothing more than a prison (a nod to the nascent anti-establishment thread weaving through the popular culture at this time). In Fatal Memory, Josh seems to know the Rebel colonel he’s protecting, back from the Civil War days (was Josh a “true” Rebel in the Confederate Army of the South?).

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And that’s about all the background we’re given for the character this first season; any other nods to Josh’s past are confined to good or bad reports of his behavior from various sheriffs or outlaws (at various times this season, it seems the producers weren’t sure if they wanted Josh to have a nasty past or not, such as the episode, Rawhide Breed, where Josh apparently already knows how to get information from an Indian—torture—but won’t commit to doing such an act now). In Wanted: Dead or Alive, bounty hunters are still viewed suspiciously by the public (an outsider who rides into town, taking away relatives or neighbors and thereby casting aspirations on their town) and by the law (Josh gets paid ten times over to do the same duties a lowly town sheriff performs). So each episode already has a current of distrust running through it before the story begins: Josh has to prove himself as a “good guy” against a public that is prejudiced against his profession.

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Apparently, the producers of the series figured the best way for the audience to believe Josh wasn’t just in bounty hunting for the money…was for him to often give away his fee (or not even accept one in the first place, doing jobs out of his own sense of fair play). Much like the plethora of private detectives that would follow on the networks when the cowboy genre ran out of steam in the late 60s, Josh’s sense of moral and ethical duty far exceeds simple monetary concerns, with that dedication to doing the right thing without remuneration often putting him in harm’s way. Many episodes go out of their way, sometimes to the point of being slightly ridiculous, in showing that Josh is so even-handed, he’ll give anyone a second chance (The Bounty). I’m not sure any bounty hunter in the Old West would have lived very long with that attitude. In this first season, when he’s not volunteering to become a deputy for the various sheriffs he knows, he’s letting prisoners go according to his own moral code (The Giveaway Gun), or out-and-out breaking the law by letting a criminal off the hook (Ransom for a Nun). Still, regardless of the ameliorating contradictions put on the character, the notion of a rebellious “outsider” with no place to call home (and few if any solid friends) is well-maintained throughout this first season, an atmosphere aided enormously by Steve McQueen’s jangley, intense performance as Randall.

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By all reports—including his own—McQueen was “difficult” on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive from day one, harring producers and writers and directors to make the show the best it could be…while promoting himself into being a star with the power to shape his own image (he even fired his own horse—a story that made the rounds in Hollywood to the head-shaking delight of producers who didn’t have to work with McQueen). No production detail was too small for McQueen to take notice of—and change—nor was any line of dialogue sacred enough not to be changed to suit McQueen’s idea of who and what Josh Randall was (McQueen’s lack of formal education, along with his hidden dyslexia, necessitated his dialogue to be clipped and clean and spare…which only helped define the actor’s own image as a tough guy of few words).

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No doubt the decision to equip Randall with that “Mare’s Leg” sawed-off Winchester 1892 Model 92 carbine was intended as a gimmick, to help set apart the character and the series from the dizzying array of other Westerns on the tube in 1958; however, it works as character development, too. It’s an unconventional “outlaw” gun, packing more firepower than a pistol normally carried by a gunslinger, but more versatile than a bulky rifle. It’s a weapon that means business. It leaves no room for an error of judgment: when Josh pulls it and fires, the target is eliminated (he often uses it as a primitive, vicious club, too). The hefty, satisfying “ka-CHING” sound when he holsters it only reinforces the confidence the character essays: Randall knows his business, and since he can’t rely on anyone else or anything but his wits, he’s going to use a weapon that compensates (McQueen, who practiced for hours everyday with it, obviously delights in unslinging that mare’s leg and blasting away—he looks more natural with a gun than any actor working in Westerns at that time).

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With the preponderance of tough-guy talk (in the first episode, McQueen snarls at a bad guy, “You make a move and I’ll open you up from the scalp down,”), and a largely unsentimental approach to the weekly plots, Wanted: Dead or Alive remained a consistently hard-nosed, intelligent actioner this opening season, with recurring themes about distrust for authority run amok (Miracle at Pot Hole), the scourge of vigilantism (Rope Law), and the hypocrisies of law-abiding towns breaking down their social orders when threatened from without and from within, dominating the episodes. Importantly, and I would imagine this facility in switching tones owes something to the dramatic anthology antecedents from the Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, quite a few episodes offer up lighter, funnier fare, with McQueen doing surprisingly well with light comedy. A highlight in this vein would be the excellent Eight Cent Reward, a Christopher Knopf script from a John Robinson story, which finds Josh hired by a little boy to find…Santa Claus (one of my new favorites of Christmas-themed vintage TV episodes).

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Wanted: Dead or Alive‘s 8:30pm timeslot on Saturday nights—back when Saturday night wasn’t a ratings’ graveyard but a jackpot of family viewing numbers—practically guaranteed the new show would be a hit with viewers. Immediately following Perry Mason in its sophomore season, Wanted: Dead or Alive and Perry Mason delivered a severe blow to NBC’s once-mighty The Perry Como Show, knocking it out of the Nielsen Top Twenty, with Perry Mason coming in 19th for the year and Wanted: Dead or Alive besting that, registering a strong 16th most-watched series out of all shows that year (a sizeable achievement for a new show). With almost no other competition on the other channels other than Como (ABC could only muster The Dick Clark Show, Jubilee, U.S.A., and Lawrence Welk’s Dodge Dancing Party as counterprogramming), CBS’s killer Saturday line-up made families stick around for the entire 3 ½ hour block, including two other huge Westerns: Have Gun, Will Travel (3rd for the year) and Gunsmoke (the number one show on television for the second year running…and for two more following seasons, as well).

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Wanted: Dead of Alive‘s ratings would climb even higher during its second season. Terrific episodes vie with some questionable change-ups in the sophomore season of Wanted: Dead of Alive; obviously someone was experimenting with the format at this point. With the series’ basic premise firmly established in the previous 36 episodes, now all the writers had to do was plug Josh into a tightly-written Western playlette, and the show moved on its own. Several of the episodes here this second season rank as series’ bests. Breakout gives us an early look at the future “Tunnel King” McQueen as he busts out of a territorial prison. The Hostage is an excellent example of the series’ willingness to slam small-town hypocrisies, showing the good citizens of a village turning on Josh when he won’t volunteer to help them out (the ending is great when McQueen tosses their tin star, a la High Noon). Bad Gun sports a funny turn by the always good King Donovan as a persnickety gunsmith who shows a lot of guts during a showdown with some bad men.

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Tyrant is a series’ best, with R.G. Armstrong chilling as a fascist sheriff who takes over a town. Man on Horseback is a trim little actioner featuring Jay Silverheels as an Indian tracked by Josh, while Chain Gang is an excellent prison saga with old pro Ted De Corsia. The Most Beautiful Woman is a haunting, strange entry, with Arthur Franz quite good as a man trying to understand why his fiancé won’t see him anymore, while Black Belt points the way to Kung Fu as Robert Kino karates his way through the Old West.

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Now, no one can blame CBS for highlighting in the very first two episodes of the season the appeal Wanted: Dead or Alive had with young kids and their families. McQueen’s fast action on that Mare’s Leg—as well as the solitary nature of the Josh Randall character—had captured the imaginations of kids all across the country the first season, so it’s not surprising that The Montana Kid and The Healing Woman show Josh in an almost paternal role as a sage, caring mentor to a little lying card sharpie, and a surgeon’s assistant (for god’s sake) during an emergency appendectomy. The third episode has a brief interlude where Josh stops a fight between some kids, but this funny little comedy (The Matchmaker) is more notable for McQueen’s own experiments in his delivery (and for some reason, showing Josh drinking milk—remember that kids: Josh drinks his milk, too).

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I remember reading in a McQueen biography, years ago, that he would studiously gauge (with his wife) his performances in Wanted: Dead or Alive, and adjust them according to what he thought maximized audience identification. I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve in this and other episodes before either he himself decided to bank it down or someone told him to, but his strange, gorping delivery in this and other episodes in this first half of the season is odd, indeed (he’s particularly annoying in Estralita). Speaking with an exaggerated drawl (he’d keep a semblance of that drawl for the rest of the series—something he didn’t have in the first season, where his diction was unaccented and quite clipped), McQueen goes for “big comedy” a few times and falls flat on his face. Only when he drops back after a few episodes, and keeps it simple, does he become funny again (the excellent Bad Gun).

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Not easily dropped back is the inclusion of Wright King as apprentice bounty hunter, Jason Nichols, who is introduced in Jason, and continues on for nine more episodes (until he disappears in the last episode of the season, with no explanation). I’m not familiar with any backstory on this strange addition to the one-man cast of Wanted: Dead or Alive, but if I had to guess, I’d say either a producer or the network wanted to hedge their bets with McQueen (he was branching off into movies, and wanted to quit the show already by this early point), or someone genuinely thought the format needed tweaking. McQueen made no bones about being “difficult” with producers and directors on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive if he felt they were undercutting the show or himself, and considering the stellar ratings that improved over this second season, it’s not unheard of for a star to begin exerting some authority over the direction of the vehicle in which they’re starring. After all: his name was above the title. That means something in Hollywood.

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But there are ways of dealing with “difficult” stars, and one way is to bring in a potential replacement; perhaps this was the purpose of Wright King. It was no secret that McQueen only took Wanted: Dead or Alive in 1958 because his big-screen movie career was still mired in low-budget B outings. But once the Western hit it big right out of the gate, he immediately started attracting buzz and attention from big-screen filmmakers, first when he replaced Sammy Davis, Jr. in Frank Sinatra’s war epic, Never So Few, and then again for director John Sturges’ in The Magnificent Seven, which began filming during this second season. Does that explain McQueen’s shortened scenes during the Jason Nichols’ episodes? Perhaps. Did the producers and network bring on King to make McQueen “behave,” or to have a ready-made replacement should McQueen bolt? Maybe.

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Or maybe someone truly believed the series would be better as a “buddy piece.” Unfortunately, if this last explanation was the case, it was a big miscalculation. King didn’t strike me one way or the other here as the enthusiastic newcomer to the bounty hunting business. Perhaps he would have worked in his own show, or on another Western. However, he has no place on Wanted: Dead or Alive, because the piece is so obviously designed as a solo effort. Indeed, the unique appeal of Wanted: Dead or Alive during its first and second seasons came from the star-power performance by McQueen as the loner bounty hunter who needed neither respectability nor security to do his job. His “Mare’s Leg” was his best friend, and he lived by his wits alone: he depended on no one. So why in the world would he need a goof like Jason, all of the sudden, to not only back him up but save him on several occasions? Thematically, it made no sense to loyal viewers of the series, with this new character Jason not adding to the worth of the program but instead devaluing its unusual lead character Josh. The final episode of the season, Pay-Off at Pinto, makes no mention of Jason, and when the series came back the next and final season, the character did not return. Thankfully.

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Staying in its Saturday 8:30pm time slot on CBS, Wanted: Dead or Alive climbed even higher in the ratings this sophomore season, registering an impressive ninth out of all shows on television during the 1959-1960 season, pulling along its lead-in series, Perry Mason into the 10th slot for the year, and elevating its lead-out, Mr. Lucky, to a respectable 21st for the year. CBS’ other powerhouse Saturday night westerns, Have Gun, Will Travel and Gunsmoke, maintained their identical rankings from the previous year, 3rd and 1st for the year, respectively, ratings they would maintain the following season, as well. Unfortunately, a schedule change for Wanted: Dead or Alive would spell ratings disaster for the series’ third season, providing an itchy Steve McQueen the perfect out to chase big-screen properties.

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There certainly isn’t a drop-off in quality of the final episodes featured here in Wanted: Dead or Alive‘s last season. Intriguing episodes pop up with regularity; McQueen seems as engaged as he was in the previous two seasons (good acting, that), and the show consistently mixes action-filled stories with humor and an agreeable sense of cynicism. Still…a viewer can feel that the show has pretty much covered all its bases by this point; any more seasons would have been repetitious. After all, there are only so many ways the producers and writers could work out the angle of having Josh be an outsider to the rapidly civilized West, one who still manages to escape personal commitments, before the whole process would play as mechanical and pat. What could be said about bounty hunter Josh Randall—a character somewhat limited to begin with because of his refusal to “enter” society or put his own emotions on display—was already covered by the 94th and final episode?

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In Voice of Silence, Josh encounters a sweet, sensitive deaf mute (well played by Carolyn Kearney), but the audience is already way ahead of the story: we know Josh will never respond to her obvious affection for him. When the episodes focus on action, Wanted: Dead or Alive still delivers the goods. In the excellent Epitaph, Josh can’t figure out why men do what they do for love, as he’s forced to blast a back-stabbing woman in the guts—a potent image for chivalrous 1960 network television. In The Looters, Josh gets the chance to gun down three criminals who use the chaos of a tornado’s aftermath to take over a town (he’s ultimately aided by a woman from the wrong side of the tracks who throws the hypocritical town’s gratitude right back in their teeth). And in Bounty on Josh, director Richard Donner (who helms several excellent episodes this season…before his friend McQueen had him fired!), isolates McQueen in some strikingly lonely, evocative frames as Josh experiences the terror of being not the hunter, but the hunted. When the bullets fly this third season, Wanted: Dead or Alive is as good as it gets.

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Humor, however, is still a welcome addition to the series this third time out. By this point, McQueen has left behind the obvious gorping he used at the beginning of the second season for a more assured, deft light touch (one forgets how funny McQueen could be; it’s a pity he didn’t do more comedies). But even McQueen’s comedic poise is sorely tested with the increasingly silly comedy episodes such as Baa Baa, where Josh is hired to find a sheep, or Detour, with Howard Morris, that plays out like an old smoker joke with the dirty parts scrubbed clean.

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However, opportunities within several episodes that could possibly have deepened our appreciation of the Randall character and his place in society, are missed this third season. A good example is The Choice, co-starring that old cowhand, Dick Foran, as a washed-up bounty hunter who refuses to retire. While the script adequately covers the notion of age catching up with the old bounty hunter, it does nothing to cross over and comment on Josh’s eventual predicament…which will be exactly the same. Whether the character limitation is a matter of time (there’s only so much you can pack into 25 minutes), or by deliberate omission (keep the bullets flying for the kiddies and let the brooding happen off-camera), it’s hard to say. But by this third season, it seems clear that the writers and the producers have given us as full a look at Josh Randall as we’re going to get.

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McQueen made no bones about wanting to leave the series by the second season. He even went so far as to stage an accident, on the advice of his agent, to get out of working (he cracked up his car—with his wife in it!—to force Four Star producer Dick Powell to let him shoot a movie). But a contract’s a contract in Hollywood—McQueen’s was for 5 years—and quitting one could have a devastating effect on an actor’s career (ask Farrah). Was Wanted: Dead or Alive moved from its killer Saturday night time slot to accommodate McQueen’s vocal displeasure, a move that guaranteed a reversal in its ratings’ fortunes? It’s doubtful, although someone connected with Four Star suggested that was the reason (apparently…everyone had had enough of working with Mr. McQueen).

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More likely, some programming executive thought the Top Ten Western could bring along its viewers to a less-popular night and the move was made…to less than successful results. Hoping to inject some Western ratings’ heat into their Wednesday night line-up, CBS moved Wanted: Dead or Alive to 8:30pm that night (just enough time for the kiddies to catch it on a school night), opposite the popular game show, The Price is Right on NBC. Unfortunately, the solitary draw of McQueen’s popular show wasn’t enough to pry viewers away from the one-two punch of TV’s second-most popular series, NBC’s Wagon Train at 8:00pm (no one was bailing half-way through an episode of that show to jump over to McQueen), and The Price is Right, which managed a remarkable ninth place finish against the once-mighty Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen’s show was knocked out of the Top Thirty altogether (it didn’t help that Wanted: Dead or Alive had a weak lead-in: the failed adventure series, The Aquanauts, with Keith Larsen and Jeremy Slate), and the series ended in March of 1961.

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McQueen stated for the record he was delighted the series was cancelled (bet the producers loved that gratitude), and after a few false starts at the box office with starring roles in Hell is For Heroes, The Honeymoon Machine, and The War Lover, McQueen would solidify his A-list career with the WWII epic, The Great Escape, in 1963. He would, though, when asked, give grudging credit to Wanted: Dead or Alive for making him a TV star, and setting him on the road to bigger success. He never mentioned all the people that worked on the show to make it a success, though….

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