A subversive Western with a dark sense of humour, Maverick soared to sixth place in the Nielsen ratings during its second season with a 30.4 share as well as winning an Emmy Award for Best Western Series in 1959. Starring the then relatively unknown James Garner as footloose frontier gambler Bret Maverick, shortly after joined by Jack Kelly as brother Bart, this hour-long series followed the duplicitous adventures and, more often, misadventures of the Mavericks in their pursuit of money and the easy life.
Starting out as a straight Western drama (the first three episodes, "The War of the Silver Kings", "Point Blank" and "According to Hoyle", were directed by feature Western auteur Budd Boetticher), the series soon developed a comedy streak after writer Marion Hargrove decided to liven up his scriptwriting work by inserting the simple stage direction: "Maverick looks at him with his beady little eyes." Other scriptwriters then followed suit. Garner, in particular, and Kelly joined in with the less-than-sincere spirit of the stories and Maverick took a unique turn away from the other, more formal and traditional Warner Brothers-produced Westerns then on the air (Lawman, Colt .45, Cheyenne and Sugarfoot).
The series was created by producer Roy Huggins and developed out of a story (co-written with Howard Browne) in which Huggins tried to see how many TV Western rules he could break and get away with; the script, ironically, was filmed as an episode of the "adult" Cheyenne series ("The Dark Rider") and featured guest-star Diane Brewster as a swindler and practiced cheat, a role she was later to take up as a recurring character, gambler Samantha Crawford, during the 1958-59 season of Maverick. "Maverick is Cheyenne, a conventional Western, turned inside out," said Huggins. "But with Maverick there was nothing coincidental about the inversion." The Maverick brothers were not heroes in the traditional Western sense. They were devious, cowardly card-sharps who exploited easy situations and quickly vanished when faced with potentially violent ones. A popular part of their repertoire for evading difficult moments was the "Pappyisms" that corrupted their speech. Quoting their old Pappy, and mentor, as a suitable excuse they were likely to come out with (when all else failed, for instance): "My old Pappy used to say 'If you can't fight 'em, and they won't let you join 'em, best get out of the county'."
Following the success of Cheyenne on ABC (from its premiere in 1955) the network asked Warner Brothers TV division to give them another hour-long Western program for their Sunday evening slot. Maverick premiered on 22 September 1957, and pretty soon won over the viewers from the powerful opposition of CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC's The Steve Allen Show, two programs that had been Sunday night favourites from the mid-1950s. With Garner alone starring in early episodes, Warners found that it was taking eight days to film a weekly show. They decided to introduce another character, Bret's brother, in order to keep the production on schedule. This strategy resulted in a weekly co-starring series when Jack Kelly's Bart was introduced in the "Hostage" episode (10 November 1957). With separate production units now working simultaneously Warners managed to supply a steady stream of episodes featuring either Bret or Bart on alternate weeks. Occasionally, both Maverick brothers were seen in the same episode, usually when they teamed up to help each other out of some difficult situation or to outwit even more treacherous characters than themselves.
The series also reveled in colourful characters as well as presenting wild parodies of other TV programs of the period. During the early seasons recurring guest characters popped in and out of the plots to foil or assist the brothers: Dandy Jim Buckley (played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), Gentleman Jack Darby (Richard Long), Big Mike McComb (Leo Gordon) and Bret's regular antagonist, the artful con-woman Samantha Crawford (Brewster). Among the more amusing episodes: "Gun-Shy" (second season) was a send-up of Gunsmoke featuring a hick character called Mort Dooley; "A Cure for Johnny Rain" (third season) spoofed Jack Webb's Dragnet with Garner doing a deadpan Joe Friday voice-over; "Hadley's Hunters" (fourth season) had Bart enlist the help of Ty Hardin (Bronco), Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), Clint Walker (Cheyenne), John Russell and Peter Brown (Lawman) all playing their respective characters from the WB stable of Western TV series (and with Edd "Kookie" Byrnes from Warner Brothers 77 Sunset Strip as a blacksmith); and "Three Queens Full" (fifth season) was a wicked parody of Bonanza in which the Subrosa Ranch was run by Joe Wheelwright and his three sons, Moose, Henry and Small Paul. In addition, two other episodes ("The Wrecker" and "A State of Siege") were loose adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson stories, albeit translated into the Maverick vein.
In 1960 actor James Garner and his Warner Brothers studio bosses clashed when Garner took out a lawsuit against the studio for breach of contract arising out of his suspension during the January-June writers' strike of that year. Warners claimed that it was justified in suspending Garner by invoking the force majeure clause in Garner's contract due to the writers' strike; the clause, in other words, meant that if forces beyond the control of the studio prevented it from making films, the studio didn't have to continue paying actors' salaries. It had been no secret at the time that Garner had wanted to be released from his contract ("Contracts are completely one-sided affairs. If you click, [the studio] owns you," he stated). Finally, in December 1960 the judge decided in favour of Garner. During the course of the testimony it was revealed that during the strike Warners had obtained--under the table--something in the number of 100 TV scripts, and that at one time the studio had as many as 14 writers working under the pseudonym of "W. Hermanos" (Spanish for "brothers").
Garner then went on to a successful feature film career but returned to series television in the 1970s with Nichols (1971-72) and the popular The Rockford Files (1974-80). He appeared as a guest star along with Jack Kelly in the 1978 TV movie/pilot The New Maverick, which produced the short-lived Young Maverick (1979-80) series, minus Garner; he also starred in the title role of Bret Maverick (1981-82) which he co-produced with Warners. A theatrical film version, Maverick, was produced in 1994 with Mel Gibson starring as Bret Maverick and Garner appearing as Bret's father; Richard Donner directed the Warner Brothers release.
As a replacement for Garner in the fourth season of the original series Warners brought on board Roger Moore, as cousin Beauregard, a Texas expatriate who had lived in England (a WB contract player, Moore had been transferred from another Warner Western series, The Alaskans, which had run only one season from 1959). When Moore departed after just one season another Maverick brother, Robert Colbert's Brent Maverick, a slight Garner/Bret lookalike, was introduced in the spring of 1961 to alternate adventures with Bart. Colbert stayed only until the end of that season, leaving the final (and longest remaining) Maverick, Jack Kelly, to ride out the last Maverick season (1961-62) alone, except for some early seasons' rerun episodes.
The series came to an end after 124 episodes, and with it a small-screen Western legend came to a close. Perhaps the ultimate credit for Maverick should go to creator-producer Roy Huggins for the originality to steer the series clear of the trite and the ordinary, and for not only trying something different but executing it with a comic flair.
Bret Maverick (1957-1960)........................ James Garner
Bart Maverick............................................... Jack Kelly
Samantha Crawford (1958-1959).............. Diane Brewster
Cousin Beauregard Maverick (1960-1961).... Roger Moore
Brent Maverick (1961).............................. Robert Colbert
Roy Huggins, William T. Orr, Howie Horwitz
September 1957-September 1961 Sunday 7:30-8:30
September 1961-July 1962 Sunday 6:30-7:30
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