Cade’s County – A Gun For Billy

Directed by Richard Donner

Cade’s County – A Gun For Billy - (1971)

David Carradine, a friend of movie star Glenn Ford, once told me that in the late sixties, Ford gave his agents some specific marching orders. He wanted to do three pictures a year. He wanted to be paid 200,000 dollars a picture. And he didn’t care what they were. So naturally that led to some pretty mediocre, uninspired movies (Smith, Heaven with a Gun & A Time For Killing). Then Glenn decided to make the move to television. He started off with the quality TV movie horror film Brotherhood of the Bell, directed by one of my favorite genre director’s Paul Wendkos (in Once Upon a Time in….Hollywood it’s Wendkos who directed Rick Dalton in Tanner & The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey). Then in 1971, the man who was one of the most popular leading men of the fifties, starred in his own TV series. He wasn’t alone among former fifties and sixties big time movie stars moving to series TV. Rock Hudson (McMillan and Wife), Anthony Quinn (The City), Richard Widmark (Madigan) & George Peppard (Banacek) all followed him. But when Glenn Ford moved to the CBS fall line-up, he did it in a damn good show called Cade’s County.

Cade’s County was a modern day western show where Ford played Sam Cade, the Marshall of a desert community called Madrid County. Where exactly Madrid County was located (New Mexico, Arizona, California), was never clarified.
Ford moved through his last few pictures with conviction, but without passion. But the excitement of Ford headlining a television series was the real deal. And the seasoned charming man of action rose to the occasion. CBS put a lot of effort and money into bringing the movie star to the tube in style. It had the best episodic directors of the time, Lee Philips, Robert Day, Reza Badiyi (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s stepfather), David Lowell Rich, and Leo Penn (Sean’s dad). And a gallery of big name guest stars all playing colorful characters, Darren McGavin, William Shatner, Martin Sheen, Cameron Mitchell, George Maharis, and the star of the episode under discussion, singing star and actor, Bobby Darin (two years before his death). Darin’s episode, A Gun For Billy, is not only considered the best episode of this fondly remembered show, it’s considered by many to be one of the best episodes of an action series of the seventies.

It’s one of those TV episodes that if you saw it when it aired, like I did with my dad, you never forgot it. Bobby Darin plays Billy Dobbs, a man released from prison after serving eleven years. While in prison Billy turned into a schizophrenic who thinks he’s the western outlaw Billy the Kid. The opening of the show gets my vote for most dynamic opening teaser of a TV series of the seventies, if not of all time.
Billy, wearing period western cowboy duds, crests a hill on horseback, singing a little cowboy ditty to himself (Oh lord what a mornin’, oh lord what a mornin’, oh lord what a mornin’ when the sun begins to shine). He dismounts his steed and removes from the back of his saddle, what appears to be a long rifle or a buffalo gun, wrapped up in a blanket. Then the camera cuts behind him, and we see Billy’s on the hill looking down on a modern empty highway road, with a lone armored car moving his way.
As he continues to sing to himself, he squats down on his haunches, and unwraps the blanket, but we don’t see its contents below frame. Then finally Billy rises to a standing position and raises the weapon he just unwrapped.

Only it’s not a rifle…it’s a bazooka!

Then he fires a rocket into the armored car, putting a big hole in the side, and blowing the damn thing right off the road (he stole the bazooka from a gun collector, as well as a pistol owned by the real Billy the Kid). Then he mounts back up on his horse, and proceeds to rob the fallen armored car as if it were a stagecoach. Then rides off with thirty thousand dollars (this is such a damn good idea I’m surprised another screenwriter hasn’t used it again. Or nobodies tried it in real life). Billy’s plan is to get his wife back (The High Chaparral’s Linda Cristal), and kill the man who sent him to prison (Close Encounters Warren J. Kemmerling), and pull off a daring train robbery. However upon arriving at his former wife’s house (who wants nothing to do with him), he realizes he has a son she never informed him of (none other then a pre-Tiger Beat stardom Leif Garrett). So he snatches the boy, and proceeds to live out the life of Billy the Kid as he sees it (his schizophrenia is explained to Cade by a prison psychiatrist played by a pre-Bosley David Doyle), with Ford’s Sam Cade hot on his trail tracking him down. By the time the two meet at the climax, in an old fashioned western showdown, this bonkers Billy the Kid thinks Cade is Sheriff Pat Garrett (I’m gonna’ git’ you Big Casino!). Billy Dobbs is one of the best characters that Bobby Darin ever played. Darin had a pretty impressive movie career. He did his fair share of light comedies (I really like the movies he did with his wife Sandra Dee), but unlike Pat Boone, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Tommy Sands, Darin (like Frank Sinatra), was given the opportunity to play some challenging parts. He’s fantastic in John Cassavetes first studio feature, Too Late Blues, as the cowardly Jazz musician, and opposite Sidney Poitier as the American Nazi party fascist in Pressure Point.  Apparently, when he made Don Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes, him and Steve McQueen hated each other. Hollywood columnist James Bacon quoted Darin as saying in reply to the statement that McQueen was his own worst enemy, Not while I’m alive he ain’t.

A Gun for Billy was written by Anthony Lawrence one of the best episodic TV writers in the business. He also wrote another excellent episode for the Kurt Russell and Tim Matheson western series The Quest, titled Seventy-Two Hours, guest starring Cameron Mitchell in one of his best performances. As well as writing Roustabout, one of my favorite Elvis Presley movies, and Elvis: The Movie with Kurt Russell. A Gun For Billy would be directed in dynamic fashion by Richard Donner six years before he’d helm The Omen. Donner directed a lot of good episodes of fun series in the sixties and seventies (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. & Baynon), but A Gun For Billy would be his best directed work till he directed The Omen.

You can watch it tonight on YouTube.

Watch the Episode

Read Next