"The Kid from Hell's Kitchen," a 1966 episode of "Death Valley Days," tells the story of 18-year-old William Bonney and how he met and gradually earned the trust of his mentor and father figure, the English rancher John Tunstall, in Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1877-78. Bonney tries to steal from Tunstall on two occasions, but each time the kindly Tunstall gives him a chance, recognizing that all Bonney needs is respect and decent treatment. Bonney rewards him by becoming a top hand at his ranch. At the time, Tunstall and his colleagues, Alexander McSween and John Chisum (spelled Chisholm in the show's credits), are in a business dispute with rival merchant Lawrence Murphy over government cattle contracts, which soon escalates into a lethal confrontation, the result of which so incenses Bonney that he takes matters into his own hands and responds with violence, thus beginning his career as an outlaw, soon to be known as Billy the Kid.
The show offers a rather simplified sum-up of the conflict between the two factions and leaves out a lot of other important figures from what would be known as the Lincoln County War, which left 30 men dead and had to be resolved by intervention from the territorial governor. Still, it's a well-acted, concisely told version of the central relationship in Billy's life, that between him and Tunstall. What I especially liked here was the abundance of screen time given to the other key figures in the conflict, McSween, Chisum, and Murphy, all played by strong character actors. English actor John Alderson plays Tunstall, who is clearly the most affecting character in the episode and the one who proves the bravest, not only in standing up to his enemies, but also for the potential good in Billy. Alderson played mountain man Hugh Glass in the "Death Valley Days" episode, "Hugh Glass Meets the Bear," a character later portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2015 movie, THE REVENANT. James Seay, a regular supporting player in movies and TV shows from the 1940s to the 1960s, plays McSween. Roy Engel, another venerable character actor, best known for playing President Ulysses S. Grant on "The Wild, Wild West," plays Chisum (a role played by John Wayne in a 1970 movie of that title), and veteran western heavy Lane Bradford plays Murphy, who is generally portrayed as a villain in filmed accounts of these events.
Billy is played by former child star Robert Blake as an angry, embittered young drifter leading a hard-scrabble existence until Tunstall takes him under his wing. Blake was 33 at the time, but he looked and acted young enough to convince us that he's Billy. Coincidentally, Robert Taylor, the Hollywood star who hosted the season of "Death Valley Days" in which this episode ran, once played Billy the Kid himself in the Technicolor MGM production, BILLY THE KID, back in 1941 when he was 29 and looked too old for the part, in my opinion at least.
I saw this episode on the Encore Western Channel, which runs two episodes of "Death Valley Days" back-to-back every weekday afternoon.
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