As I'm sure you're aware, the most popular American television shows in the '50's and '60's were Westerns. I'd never been a big fan of the classic period of Western films from the '30's-'50's until I took a course in the Appreciation of Westerns, which was my favourite class in university. However, I've never liked Westerns as a TV genre. I find them to be dull and predictable as they always seem to involve the self-righteous cowboy/lawman having a shoot out at the end with the guys in the black hats.
But there is one Western show that I love, mostly because it has as it's basis the one aspect that is sorely lacking in Westerns -a sense of humour.
Maverick (1957-1962) tells the story of two wandering poker players/occasional con men/jack-of-all-trades named Bret and Bart Maverick, played by James Garner and Jack Kelly. The Maverick brothers, more so Bret rather than Bart, are not the typical Western protagonists. They aren't heroes, nor are they anti-heroes and they certainly aren't villains, although they occasionally break the law. They are very definitely reluctant heroes. They usually save the day for someone, even though they were just in the random town because they were looking for a poker game.
Bret and Bart do not look or act like typical Western heroes. They wear snazzy waistcoats, clean suits and ruffled shirts. They rarely sport a gun because both are terrible shots and it would ruin the line of their suits. And Bret always wears a black hat, and we all know that's what the bad guy usually wears. They actively avoid getting into fisticuffs wherever possible, because they're cautious rather than cowardly. Plus, it's dashed difficult to get a suit cleaned and pressed in the Wild West. Not to mention a frilly shirt!
Maverick was originally supposed to be about Bret, who is the funnier brother. Remember when I did Comic Western month and I said that the characters that James Garner played in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter were Bret Maverick, but with different names? Well, that's because James Garner has brilliant comedic timing and facial expressions and is so good at playing this character that he kept reviving it. Anyway, Maverick proved to be instantly popular as soon as it aired and since filming a TV Western episode every week is so gruelling on an actor, the producers decided to give Bret a brother named Bart so that production could alternate between James Garner episodes and Jack Kelly episodes every week.
Bart is the slightly more serious brother and acts a bit more like the traditional Western hero, especially when it comes to women. The best episodes are when both Bret and Bart are both on screen, either working together or in competition with each other and you can see just how marvellous and funny the chemistry between James Garner and Jack Kelly is.
Every week, Bret or Bart usually find themselves in a situation where either their money has been stolen or they feel obligated to help someone (usually a pretty, but troubled young lady) or they find themselves stranded in a random town and need to come up with a scheme in or to raise some money to play in a high stakes poker game. The funniest episodes are when all three occur in the first act. Bret and Bart often find themselves in a moral dilemma where their desire to help someone with a worthy cause (or who's blackmailing them) gets in the way of their plans to a) make a profit and b) not get killed. They try to ensure that both will be the outcome of their plan, but they will always put part b ahead of part a. They aren't cowards, but "As my Pappy always said 'A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but one. A thousand to one is pretty good odds'".
Out of all of the reoccurring characters on Maverick, the most famous but least seen is Pappy, Bret and Bart's father Beau Maverick, the original wandering professional poker player. He taught his sons everything he knew about life and they are always quoting his aphorisms at opportune moments, "As my Pappy used to say..." For example: "faint heart never filled a flush" or "work is fine for killing time, but it's a shaky way to make a living" or "never play in a rigged game, unless you rig it yourself" or my favourite, "never cry over spilled milk... it could've been whiskey".
Maverick hasn't been released on DVD, but there are a few episodes floating around on legal DVDs. There are some episodes available on YouTube and as torrents, if you dig hard enough. And you can see it on repeats on certain channels. If you've heard of or seen the 1994 movie, James Garner is playing the exact same character of Bret Maverick, only older.
Here are some of the best episodes:
-"Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" -the most famous and most ripped off episode in which all of the reoccurring characters appear. The first half of The Sting is a reworking of this episode.
-"Pappy" -in which we meet the famous Beau Maverick, who looks an awful lots like James Garner.
-"According to Hoyle" -in which we meet a strong female gambler named Samantha, who is reoccurring and an equal match for Bret and Bart.
-"Duel at Sundown" -see a young Clint Eastwood fight with James Garner
-"Two Beggars on Horseback" -Jack Kelly's favourite and a superb Bret and Bart episode.
-"Gun-Shy" -a hilarious spoof of Gunsmoke
-"Maverick and Juliet" -in which Bret and Bart act out Romeo and Juliet over a poker game.
I found it very hard to find some clips of Maverick, so here are the best ones that I could find.
Here is a clip from a new PBS documentary series that I forgot to watch called Pioneers of Television: Westerns where it talks about James Garner and Maverick.
This is one of Bart being forced to look for someone in "Hadley's Hunters" where the stars of other Westerns make cameo appearances.
This is Bart and a lady friend/con woman trying to work together in "The Jewelled Gun"
This is James Garner getting into a fight with Clint Eastwood.
This is the only clip that I could find with Bret and Bart together.