While fans of classic western series might reflect back on hits like Gunsmoke, The Big Valley or Rawhide, The High Chaparral should also be remembered as one of the greats. The show was created by David Dortort, who also created the hit series Bonanza, and aired in the late '60s -- a decade after most of the other great TV westerns. It ran on NBC for four seasons.
The show centered around "Big John" Cannon, played by Leif Erickson, who runs The High Chaparral ranch near the Mexican border in the Arizona Territory. His brother Buck, played by Cameron Mitchell, and his son Billy Blue or "Blue Boy" (Mark Slade) also work on the ranch with ranch hand Sam Butler, played by Don Collier, who had already starred in multiple John Wayne films prior to the TV show. The story is set in the 1870s and begins with Big John's wife, Anna-Lee, getting killed by an Apache Tribe.
John marries the much younger Victoria, played by Linda Cristal, who is the daughter of Don Sebastián Montoya, a neighboring Mexican rancher played by Frank Silvera. Despite their 30 year age difference, Victoria comes to love Big John and her brother Manolito (Henry Darrow), also comes to live with the Cannons. The marriage is part of an alliance between Montoya and Big John because Montoya owns the massive ranch on the other side of the Mexican border. Following the Apache attacks, they are able to negotiate a truce with the help of Montoya's men, using Manolito as a translator.
Billy Blue Cannon is at first incredibly against his father's marriage of convenience so close after his mother's death. The TV series also dealt with the aftermath of the American Civil War, which Buck and Big John both fought in -- on opposing sides. The fact that Buck fought for the Confederacy regularly comes back to haunt him throughout the show.
One of the most notable things about the show was that it wasn't shot in a Hollywood lot. It was actually filmed in Old Tucson in Arizona as well as Saguaro National Park. The stunning backdrops in the episodes are completely authentic. Sometimes the crew was even filming in triple-digit heat, so it was really like the Wild West out there. It also had a diverse cast with two Hispanic actors in lead roles on the show, portraying Victoria and Manolito Montoya.
Henry Darrow actually almost lost the part of Manolito because he decided to change his name. He was originally born Enrique Tomás Delgado, but was tired of being typecast. Creator David Dortort had written the part of Manolio especially with him in mind, but couldn't locate a Henry Delgado when it came time for casting. Luckily, Darrow was located just weeks before filming began.
As the show recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, some of the original cast and crew members reunited with True West Magazine to revisit their classic show. When asked about what got the show canceled, Production Manager Kent McCray had a theory.
"The death of Robert Kennedy changed the attitude of television. They didn't want to see people get killed, and that hurt us terribly."
Looking back, we can reflect on how The High Chaparral paved the way for authentic TV storytelling with its realistic outdoor scenery as well as setting an example for a diverse cast of lead characters that would go on to become fan favorites. By the end of the show, the storylines had already started to focus on troublemakers Buck and Manolito, who offered the most comic relief in what was technically a serious western drama.
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