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Most fans of the cult sit-com series TAXI think that the next smash
success connected to the writers, directors, and producers was CHEERS.
They are right - for CHEERS was a greater success than TAXI was. But in
between, in 1981, the same group tried a historical western sit-com
called BEST OF THE WEST. Although very clever and funny the series only
lasted one year. Somehow the forces that made TAXI and CHEERS work just
were not in the cards for this series.
There has been, at this time, only two spoof westerns that worked on regular television: MAVERICK in the 1950s and F-TROOP in the 1960s. The former had a marvelous satiric edge, enhanced by it's star James Garner's easy-going characterization. The latter had a good ensemble led by Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, Ken Berry, and Melody Patterson, as well as a healthy amount of slapstick. In between there had been other attempts at westerns mixed with comedy. That great series, BONANZA (on many occasions) demonstrated a wicked comic edge (frequently using the talents of stars Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon to unexpected results). GUNSMOKE had also been funny in some episodes centering on the character of Festus. Although basically serious THE WILD WILD WEST had comic moments connected to Ross Martin's disguised personalities. There was a series (which lasted a year) called PISTOLS AND PETTICOATS, that starred Ann Sheridan as the head of a family - all of whom were expert shots. Unlike BEST OF THE WEST, PISTOLS failed after a year principally because Sheridan died and left a gaping hole in the series. There was also LAREDO with Nevil Brand, and RANGO with Tim Conway in the late 1960
BEST OF THE WEST was the story of how Sam Best (Joel Higgins), his southern belle wife Elvira (Carlene Watkins), and their son Daniel (Meeno Peluce) go settling in a western community (it turns out to be in or near Colorado in one episode) after the American Civil War. Sam was a Union officer who met Elvira when he was forced to burn down her father's (it turns out to be Andy Griffith's) plantation. Now, twelve years or so after the war ended, they are moving to the great plains. The first episode shows how they have been rooked a bit by the man who sold them their homestead, Parker Tillman (Leonard Frey), who is the conniving swindler - rich guy in the series. Tillman's associate and henchman is Frog Rothschild (Tracy Walter). Actually for all his evil intentions, Tillman is somewhat inept. In one episode he is trying to unload a "worthless" gold/silver mine on two Norwegian brothers who are miners. It turns out, after he sells them the property, it is true that the mine has no gold or silver - but it is rich in copper! As for Frog, he tries to help his boss - despite his greatest problem: a lack of brains.
There were two other regular characters in the show: Valerie Bromfeld as Lanie Gibbs, and Tom Ewell as Doc Kullens. Lanie was a "Calamity Jane" type, and Ewell was a somewhat shakier (and more realistic) version of Milburn Stone's "Doc Adams" in GUNSMOKE. One late episode on the show had Ewell awaiting a mail order bride played by Betty White, who turned out to be a perfect match for him - but also turned out to be socially impossible (she was a prostitute). The concluding moments of the episode were wonderful, as they realize they have an hour before she leaves the town, and nothing to do - so why not do a little business with each other? As the episode ended, we see Ewell following White upstairs.
The episodes managed to capture the time period better than some more realistic shows. In one of them a railroad is trying to find the better route and has narrowed it between the town the characters live in, and nearby Denver. Frey keeps belittling Denver, even wondering who ever thought up such a stupid name for a city. In another moment that was particularly funny the four leads (Higgins, Watkins, Bromfeld, and Ewell) have the misfortune to be asked by Peluce, "What was the cause of the Civil War?" It happens to be his history homework.
Higgins starts off about the evils of slavery in the south, angering Watkins who says it was Yankee arrogance. This leads to an argument between them just as Bromfeld and Ewell show up. Bromfeld, born and raised in the west, talks about the rivalry of the older sections for the newly conquered western lands, while Ewell brings up the matter of economics and the high versus low tariff. In the end you have four grown-ups arguing a historical/political matter, and Peluce more confused than ever. So have American historians been since 1865.
An occasional visitor in the series was Christopher Lloyd as a gun slinger (originally hired by Frey to get Higgins), who turned out (fitting the series) to be a gourmet cook. There was also a marvelous moment when Chuck Connors (accidentally insulted by Higgins), demands satisfaction in a gunfight, which ends in the saloon - turned by Frey at that moment into a catered birthday party for a kid, with balloons descending on the heads of Connors and Higgins.
As you can see it was a wild comic show - but like HE AND SHE and other good shows it did not pick up an audience, and if was canceled after a year. I don't even think it has been shown in reruns.
This show was surprisingly good for the time period that it was on. The
cast was more than acceptable and the premise was cute (essentially, it
a PC Blazing Saddles for the prime-time set). Tracey Walters was great as
Frog (I'm Frooag... my mother still says that sometimes).
My only disappointment is that shows like this (and maybe Quark) do not seem to have caught the eye of either Nick at Nite or TV Land. Now I know for a fact that they were playing My Mother the Car at some point on those channels (I saw it), but they seem to ignore some of the truly fine quality shows of the '70s. Oh well, it is worth seeing if you get a chance.
This was every bit as good as "Cheers" and "Taxi" from the same
writers. Pity it wasn't as successful.
Every western show cliché you can think of was here. And they surrounded it with as many gags and puns as possible. Like Monty Python or the 'Airplane' movies, you had to be careful. Jokes came so fast sometimes, you might have missed a few.
Joel Higgins' deep bass and OTT 'white hat' acting was perfect. And the late Leonard Frey as the sleazy business man was just as great. And of course who could forget Frog.
Best line? Best: "Mayor if it was your wife you'd pay the ransom right?" Mayor: "They gonna kill her or just torture her a little." A DVD release is deserved.
Who could forget dialogue like this?
"What's your name?"
"...People call me 'Frog' "
"What's you're real name?"
"...Frog. That's why people call me it."
In the late '70s the proliferation of Westerns and Old-West shows came to a grinding halt as "Rawhide", "The Virginian", "Bonanza" and even "Wild, Wild West" (to name a few) lost popularity as the new generation of viewers could no longer remember the Law of the West, let alone identify with the themes.
"Best of the West" was a worthy attempt at assimilating good clean sitcom humor with glimpses of a close, but bygone era. Alas there are only so many ways to keep fresh such a plot summary before being outscripted by more modern themes (Greatest American Hero), classic "good guys always beat bad guys" shows to come like A-team, good American style fun of "Cheers", or your atypical family sitcom with a twist like "Different Strokes" and Joel Higgins' migration to "Silver Spoons".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
***SPOILERS***YOU WERE WARNED***
If it had lasted another season, we'd have a lot better chance to see it in reruns. As it is, I doubt we'll ever see it, again.
Of course, my memories of this show are a little fuzzy, since I was over twenty years younger, but I do know my whole nuclear family enjoyed it. The theme song was a take-off from the song for Bat Masterson.
I only recall two specific scenes, from the show's short run.
1) Elvira trying to sweep the floor clean, until Sam informs her it's a dirt floor.
2) Sam trying to get someone to babysit, and finally settling on the inept local 'outlaws'. When they inform him that they can't make an honest dollar, he lets them 'rob' him of enough money to pay for babysitting - while they have him at gunpoint, they put the rest of the money back in his pocket.
A real shame that we'll probably never see this on DVD.
I was about ten years old when this show was on and that was probably
the primary demographic. As I learned later in broadcasting school, the
time period this show was produced in was the era of a Reagan
administration mandate that there be "family programming" in the
7:00PM-9:00PM block on all networks. This is what resulted in the
low-grade but "fun" programming like Spencer, Different Strokes and
Best of the West. I'm not saying that this was bad, but if was
definitely not the best programming. For a six to ten year old this
would have been acceptable entertainment and would have made them feel
"grown up" for watching something after 8:00PM.
The show has many glaring misrepresentations of the old west, but what do you expect from a family friendly sitcom? Family friendly often equates to sanitized of most truth. The most memorable character from the show is without a doubt, Frog. Something about the actor reminds me of William Sanderson who played the Larry character in Newhart (I'm Larry, this is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl). They both had the same kind of bumpkin delivery in their roles with a pinch of weirdness. Tracy (the actor who played Frog) also appears in the classic film Repo Man as a possible alien. Playing up on his strangeness.
It is quite unfair that this program is not on DVD for those who wish to see it as all the episodes could fit on one or two DVDs and wouldn't really need any special features. Also surprising that it isn't on TV Land, Nick at Night or even AOL's In2TV.
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