Tales of Wells Fargo was a scripted Western anthology series set in the 1870s and 1880s which starred Dale Robertson as special agent “Jim Hardie.” The traveling detective known as the “Left-handed Gun” went from town to town to protect the stagecoach and freight wagon lines from bandits, kidnappers, gunrunners, and more. Robertson narrated the series and was frequently seen on-screen riding his horse, Jubilee, who belonged to the actor.
On December 14, 1956, Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars aired the episode, “A Tale of Wells Fargo,” with Robertson in the “Hardie” role. The episode was directed by Bernard Girad and written by Frank Gruber, based on a story that he wrote with Zane Grey. The story was inspired by the book, Undercover for Wells Fargo, which was written by real-life Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge.
Three months after the Schlitz “Wells Fargo” episode, on March 18, 1957, the pilot for the series Tales of Wells Fargo, called “The Thin Rope,” aired with Robertson again in the lead role. The episode featured Chuck Connors in the role of “Pete Johnson,” a bandit pretending to be fellow Wells Fargo-man, “Button Smith.”
Throughout the series, “Hardie” would travel across the west, coming in contact with historical figures and legendary outlaws. Some notable appearances included Charles Bronson as “Butch Cassidy”, Martin Landau as “Doc Holliday,” and Robert Vaughn as “Billy the Kid.” Other noteworthy guest appearances include, James Coburn, Michael Landon, Adam West, Dawn Wells, and early roles for future film stars Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen.
In the final season of the show, “Hardie’s” character settled on a ranch in San Francisco, taking on occasional assignments from Wells Fargo. Four supporting characters were added to the cast — Jack Ging portrayed “Hardie’s” assistant “Beau McCloud,” William Demarest appeared as ranch foreman “Jeb Gaine,” while Virginia Christine played “Ovie Swenson,” the widow who lived next door with her two daughters, “Mary Gee” and “Tina,” played by Mary Jane Saunders and Lory Patrick, respectively. Demarest was known for playing “Uncle Charlie” on the classic sitcom My Three Sons and Ging would go on to star as “Bull” in the popular 1980’s series, The A-Team. Christine would be remembered for her 21-year-turn as “Mrs. Olson” in Folgers coffee commercials.
The series was created by Gruber, Gene Reynolds, and James Brooks. Gruber was a novelist who was one of the “kings of pulp fiction” and went on to write screenplays for films like The Cariboo Trail and Warpath. Reynolds would go on to develop the TV series M*A*S*H and create the shows Roll Out, Karen, Lou Grant, and Mr. President.
Earl Bellamy directed 65 episodes of the series, adding to his long list of credits which included The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and The Lone Ranger. Other directors included Sidney Salkow (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Maverick), R. G. Springsteen (Bonanza and Daniel Boone) and Reynolds. The series was produced by Nat Holt, who would go on to serve as executive producer on the television shows Overland Trail, The Tall Man, and Shotgun Slade, and Earle Lyon, who transitioned into producing feature films like Cyborg 2087, The Money Jungle, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Prior to Tales of Wells Fargo, Robertson had starred in a string of Western films, including Return of the Texan, The Silver Whip, The Farmer Takes a Wife, and The Gambler from Natchez. He would go on to play “Ben Calhoun” in the Western series Iron Horse. Later in his career, he would have turns on Dynasty in the role of “Walter Lankershim,” and on Dallas, playing “Jerome Jeremiah ‘J.J.’ Starbuck.”
Tales of Wells Fargo was one of a few shows -- including Pony Express and Stories of the Century -- that featured special agents conducting investigations for a company. The program was also part of the wave of late 1950’s and early 1960’s adult Westerns, like Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Rawhide. In the 1958-1959 television season, seven out of the top ten series were Westerns. Tales of Wells Fargo ranked seventh that season, falling from third place in 1957-1958. The series dropped out of the top twenty in the 1959-1960 season, when the networks collectively aired a total of 32 adult Westerns in primetime. The rise in adult Westerns on television also ushered in an increase of violence and gunplay in the medium. In the mid-1950s, the first Congressional hearings were held in Washington, D.C. to address the issue of violence -- most commonly seen in Westerns, crime series, and action shows.
Tales of Wells Fargo ran for six seasons from 1957 to 1962 on NBC at 8:30pm. For the first five seasons the show aired on Monday nights with 30-minute, black and white episodes. In its sixth and final season, the series moved to Saturday nights at 7:30pm, expanded to a one-hour format, and was broadcast in color. The move put the show in direct competition with the hit series Perry Mason. After a change in management at Universal (the studio financing the series), Tales of Wells Fargo was canceled due to high production costs. The final episode aired on September 8, 1962.
- Amy & Nancy Harrington, Pop Culture Passionistas
TALES OF WELLS FARGO
Dale Robertson as “Jim Hardie”
Jack Ging as “Beau McCloud”
William Demarest as “Jeb Gaine” (season 6)
Virginia Christine as “Ovie Swenson” (season 6)
Mary Jane Saunders as “Mary Gee Swenson” (season 6)
Lory Patrick as “Tina Swenson” (season 6)
Nat Holt, Earle Lyon
First telecast: March 18, 1957
Last telecast: September 8, 1962
March 1957-July 1957, NBC, Monday 8:30-9:00 30-minute, black and white
September 1957-September 1961, NBC, Monday 8:30-9:00 30-minute, black and white
September 1961-September 1962, NBC, Saturday 7:30-8:30 One hour, color
Robertson, S. Bucking Hollywood. Page Publishing Inc., 2020.
Jackson, R. Classic TV Westerns: A Pictorial History. Citadel Press, 1994.
Brown, L. The Western Riding into View. New York Times, 1977.