When you look back on the iconic TV westerns, a female character rarely leads the story. Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger; they all center on a male-led cast. But The Big Valley went against the norm and centered on a female lead, proving that women can also rule the wild west.
The show was loosely based on The Hill Ranch, a real California ranch that was around from 1855 until 1931. It followed the Barkley family, who was one of the wealthiest families in Stockton, California. The show had a strong run on ABC from 1965-1969 and maintained a steady fan base.
The Strong Matriarch
Barbara Stanwyck stars as the head of the Barkley family after the death of her husband, Thomas Barkley. Victoria Barkley really set a precedent for strong female leads in television. When the show aired in the mid-'60s, it was considered a controversial choice for Stanwyck to play Victoria her way. She wasn't going to be a weak woman who was only put in charge of the Barkley Ranch because her husband died. She was going to be a force to be reckoned with who would inspire future women in entertainment to do the same.
Victoria led the TV series and was frequently involved in action-packed episodes. She spent an episode on a prison wagon, went undercover in a women's prison, and was even locked away in a lunatic asylum. During the TV series, she goes from wearing a dress to roughing it in jeans, just like any other cowboy working on the ranch. This was undoubtedly a choice led by Stanwyck. She did what she needed to do to take care of her home as well as her children -- Jarrod Barkley played by Richard Long, Nick Barkley played by Peter Breck, daughter Audra Barkley played by Linda Evans, and her late husband's illegitimate son she welcomed as her own, Heath Barkley, played by Lee Majors. Youngest son Eugene plays a minor role in the show.
Her role as Victoria won Stanwyck an Emmy Award for Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.
Inspiring The Next Generation
Linda Evans stars as Victoria's only daughter, Audra. Unlike other western shows, Audra was just as fierce as her mother, riding horses alongside her brothers. More importantly, she took cues from her onscreen mother. In an interview with People, Stanwyck explains how close the two women got during filming.
"The first season on The Big Valley Linda didn't always listen to me, and I didn't like that. But the second season we spent a lot of time together and she did better. That is, once she stopped giggling."
Twenty years before the show, Stanwyck was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood. She took her job very seriously and showed up to set ready to work. Evans learned how to play a compelling female character and got so close to Stanwyck that she even started calling her "Mom" off-screen.
Her role as Audra undoubtedly prepared her to go on and play another strong female lead on the TV show Dynasty years later.
The Big Valley came at the end of the big TV western craze. Though it received a poor time slot that would ultimately lead to its cancelation, the show represents a critical time for women. Barbara Stanwyck chose to represent her character in a way that really hadn't been done before. She inspired her onscreen daughter to also be bold and powerful on the screen, which would serve her future roles. And most importantly, it paved the way for future female characters in westerns to do more than just wear a dress.