Sept. l5, 1965—Finding big-screen roles for women of a certain age in short supply, even for an actress of her proven range and box-office appeal, Barbara Stanwyck blazed a different trail with her typical fearlessness in the TV western The Big Valley, which premiered on this date on ABC. It culminated years of the 58-year-old star’s lobbying of TV execs to air a Western series with a woman at its center--a step they had been reluctant to take because of the view that Westerns were an action genre and women were soft, dainty things.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, the British Empire was ruled by Victoria; in the 1870s, in the world of this ground-breaking series, the area around Stockton, Calif., also had a regal widow with the same first name: Victoria Barkley, who inspired absolute devotion from her children, not least because she faced down anyone who threatened them or their sprawling ranch.
To American TV audiences who had never seen a tough, 50-plus woman as the central figure of America’s most venerable video genre, the Victoria of this Wild West must have been quite a surprise when she whipped a gun out on an unsuspecting villain. But anyone with even the most nodding acquaintance with Miss Stanwyck’s considerable film (and somewhat less ample TV) work would have known what to expect.
This, after all, was a star with 10 Westerns on the big screen, including Union Pacific, The Furies, and Cattle Queen of Montana. Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) should have given viewers an especially good idea what to expect. Even at age 50, Stanwyck, in her role as rancher Jessica Drummond, speeds past a coach carrying a U.S. marshall. “I need a strong man to carry out my orders,” she tells him later. “And a weak man to take them,” he replies, correctly.
Stanwyck had been nominated for four Oscars and gained an unparalleled reputation for versatility in such films as Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and Sorry, Wrong Number. But, after movie roles dried up in the late 1950s and Stanwyck transitioned into TV, many of her appearances were in Westerns on the youthful medium, such as Zane Grey Theater. It was not that great a stretch of the imagination to believe that, in a landscape in which self-reliance and independence were necessities, this toughest of screen heroines was well placed.
Even though she had won an Emmy for her prior foray into a network show, the anthology series The Barbara Stanwyck Show, the star had not felt comfortable as host and performer in the series, which only lasted one season.
In contrast, at the start of The Big Valley, Ms. Stanwyck (or, as she was billed in the opening credits, “Miss Barbara Stanwyck”) would appear in a petticoat in her room, or in high-necked satin as she descended her staircase, Loretta Young-style. But when you’re riding around a 30,000-acre spread—not to mention getting ogled by home invaders, kidnapped, thrown into an insane asylum on trumped-up charges, tortured and flogged by a village worth of villains—you’d better dress comfortably.
And so, Stanwyck’s Victoria would soon be donning leather jackets, pants and cowboy boots—a sartorial feminist manifesto. The actress was the central force field of the show, appearing in 103 of its 112 episodes—more than any other actor in its four-year run. The role brought her three Emmy nominations and one win.
It would be a mistake to think of The Big Valley as a simple horse opera a la Bonanza. There were, to be sure, dynastic elements to both, with a single middle-aged parent hoping to leave the family estate intact to adult children.
But, right from the start, dysfunction comes into play in the lives of the Barkley in a way it never did for the Cartwrights. In the very first episode, Victoria is astonished to discover that the late husband she mourns, Thomas, has sired a son out of wedlock, Heath—now showing up at the ranch as a hired hand, all seething resentment.
(Easily shocked viewers would have had heart attacks had network execs yielded to Stanwyck’s original suggestion: that Heath be the illegitimate child of Victoria, not Thomas.)
By the end of that first season, any hope that Heath might turn into something like King Lear’s scheming Edmund or Wuthering Heights’s brooding Heathcliff had been dashed, with the headstrong young man embraced by his stepmother and siblings alike.
In one sense, the Barkley estate—loud with the comings, goings, quarrels and reconciliations of three sons and one daughter, not to mention all that hired help—was an unfamiliar environment for Stanwyck. Her first marriage, to alcoholic comedian Frank Fay, ended after several years of his physical and emotional abuse. Her second marriage, to actor Robert Taylor, collapsed because of his adultery. Never close to her adopted son, she had nothing more to do with him when he descended into scandal as an adult.
But on the set, Stanwyck inspired the kind of fiercely protective feeling accorded a mother, as she had throughout her career. Crew professionals adored her: the woman they nicknamed “Missy” invariably arrived on set knowing her lines and was never so big that she couldn’t crack jokes with the lowliest of personnel. Fellow actors knew her as professionally and personally supportive. Linda Evans, for instance, who played daughter Audra on The Big Valley, would tell Larry King in a 2004 interview that Stanwyck’s tough exterior was a front “just to make sure you didn't find out what a softie she was.”
Back in 1890, historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier. It took more than three-quarters of a century more for the art form inspired by the frontier, the Western, to slip from the scene—and it happened so fast that nobody saw it coming. In 1959, there were 31 weekly westerns in prime-time television—including the premiere of the first one in color, Bonanza. But in 1969, when The Big Valley went off the air, the three networks stopped making new Westerns.
For a long time afterward, the memory of Barbara Stanwyck would depend less on her once-weekly TV episodes and more on the movies that had burnished her illustrious (albeit Oscar-less) reputation in the first place. (That is even considering her last Emmy-winning performance, in the 1983 TV miniseries adaptation of The Thorn Birds—as the elderly woman who, despite herself, carried a torch for the handsome young priest Ralph de Bricassart.)
Back in 2004, in her contribution to the Douglas Bauer-edited anthology PrimeTimes: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows, novelist/short-story writer Jayne Anne Phillips issued a heartfelt cry to “Bring Back Big Valley.” She wrote the essay when it was increasingly hard to find any trace of the show.
But there’s far less need to worry that the show won’t be seen or forgotten these days. In 2006, the series appeared on DVD. Such cable outfits as MeTV and Inspire have run it as part of their regular program schedules. And, for those wanting it in small doses, portions of episodes can be found on YouTube.
Even by the time Ms. Phillips had voiced her plaintive plea, Ms. Stanwyck had left her imprint on popular entertainment about the West. In 1973, the actress was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, in Oklahoma City, for “Outstanding Contribution to the West Through Motion Pictures.”
Not bad for a self-described “tough broad from Brooklyn.”