Gunsmoke – Vengeance Part 1 & Part 2 - (1967)
Gunsmoke was one of the most popular shows on CBS. But by the late sixties the star of Gunsmoke James Arness tried to appear on the show as little as possible. Even though by this time Arness only made guest appearances on his own series, the show was such a staple of the network it never affected viewership. So CBS let him get away with it. But one of the things that allowed CBS to do was build episodes around exciting name guest stars, and young exciting talent the network was possibly grooming for a show of their own. And if those promising young actors scored on their Gunsmoke, they were pretty much guaranteed a show of their own on the next CBS schedule. And future Lancer star James Stacy scored one of the best episodes in the entire run of the series. Which since Gunsmoke was one of the high quality shows of its day, is saying something. This episode from the thirteenth season was entitled Vengeance Part 1. It was written by Calvin Clements Sr., one of the great TV western episodic writers of his time.
And directed by Richard C. Sarafian a talented episodic TV director just before he made the leap to feature films with seventies cult classics like Vanishing Point & Man In The Wilderness (Barry Newman has become iconic as the Dodge Challenger driver Kowalski, with his button down white shirt opened up at the chest, and his curly white man-fro. But James Stacy would have been both way sexier and way cooler as Kowalski). Vengeance was a two part episode that along with Stacy guest starred John Ireland, Morgan Woodward, Buck Taylor (just before he’d join the show as Matt Dillon’s deputy Newly O’Brian), and Kim Darby one year before True Grit.
Stacy plays Bob Johnson, who along with his older brother Zack (Morgan Woodward) and his foster father figure Hiller (James Anderson) are saddle bums riding the range. They come across a wounded calf. One of the unwritten laws of the West was wounded calves are to be slaughtered so they don’t draw wolves to the herd. So as the three saddle tramps are slaughtering the calf, and preparing to enjoy themselves a free steak dinner, the small time cattle baron Parker (John Ireland), whose calf that was and whose land they’re on, rides up with his sons, his ranch hands, and his puppet sheriff (Paul Fix) in tow. The Johnson Brothers try to explain the situation. But Parker won’t listen to them, and deems them cattle rustlers. They shoot Hiller dead, shoot Zack paralyzing him, and shoot Bob wounding him and leave him for dead. With Paul Fix’s bought and paid for sheriff officiating over the execution making it all legal as pie (a bloodthirsty Oxbow Incident). Bob survives and gets his brother to the near by town of Dodge, where series star U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) presides. Marshal Dillon informs Bob that wealthy mean bastard Parker runs his own town, Parkertown, that was meant to rival Dodge as a municipality.
But where Dodge grew and became a stagecoach stop, Parkertown remained a one dog town run by a family of Wild West Borgias that people just rode through on their way someplace else. Marshal Dillon believes the Johnson Brothers and knows full well that Parker is a bitter bastard completely capable of doing what Bob claims.
The fact remains they were on Parker’s land. And even though Paul Fix’s sheriff of Parkertown, who presided over the execution, is a weak-willed puppet who does whatever his dictator-like boss tells him to, he is the legal lawman of Parkertown. And unfair as it is, the execution was legal. Marshal Dillon instructs Bob and Zack to sit tight in Dodge and heal up from their wounds, and let Doc (Milburn Stone) care for his bedridden brother.
But what nobody in either Dodge or Parkertown knows is Bob Johnson possesses a lightning fast gun hand. And while Bob knows he can’t just go out and kill Parker or his sons without swinging at the end of a rope for it, he also knows Parker’s hot headed son Leonard (Buck Taylor) has no idea how fast a draw Bob is. So Bob lures Leonard to town, and gets him to draw on him in the middle of Dodge surrounded by witnesses, legally shooting him dead in the street. Naturally Parker and his boys ride into Dodge, loaded for bear, and demanding retribution. Marshal Dillon informs the bloodthirsty low rent cattle baron what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. While legally he couldn’t interfere with the initial murder over the calf, because it took place on Parker’s land, neither can he interfere in this murder, because Bob has half the town as witnesses that he was defending himself. Nevertheless Matt knows full well Bob orchestrated the whole damn incident. And Marshal Dillon doesn’t appreciate saddle tramps coming into his town, and turning his main drag into a killing ground for their own private vendetta. So he informs Bob that as soon as his brother is well enough to travel, he wants them the fuck outta’ Dodge. Unfortunately Bob’s brother Zack will never leave Dodge. Because Parker sends an assassin in the night to murder Bob’s bedridden brother. While everybody knows Parker is responsible, proving it is another matter.
Another story line the episode includes is Bob’s burgeoning romance with an innocent young Dodge City girl played by Kim Darby. On the show Darby plays a sweet girl who falls in love with the troubled rascal Bob. And while filming the episode, sweet girl Kim Darby, fell in love with the rascal James Stacy. The two were married after filming and divorced shortly afterwards.
So when Bob is fit to travel he climbs atop his horse fixing to leave Dodge City and the territory. When he first entered the territory, he was a happy go lucky one of three. Now with the two men who represented his family dead and buried in the ground, he leaves the territory, alone, bitter, and Parker bloodthirsty. Marshal Dillon warns him to steer clear of Parkertown, put this behind him, and live a good life somewhere like Zack and Hiller would want. However before Bob can leave, the puppet sheriff of Parkertown rides into Dodge and passes on a message to Bob. He tells him he’s quit his position as sheriff, so for the time being their is no law in Parkertown. The Sheriff also informs Bob it was Parker who had his brother killed, and that’s why he’s quit and leaving. But he has one last errand to run for his bastard boss.
An invitation, a challenge and a dare to ride into Parkertown and face Parker and his men.
And as Vengeance Part 1 comes to a close, we witness Bob (all alone) riding into the shithole known as Parkertown, with Parker and all of men waiting for him.
Wow! What a cliffhanger!
When Vengeance Part 2 starts, also written by Clements and directed by Sarafian, it picks up right where Part 1 left off. And what follows is one of the best done shootouts I’ve ever seen in a sixties western television show. And you don’t have to wait, it just happens – Bam – right off the bat. The beginning of Part 2 feels like the exciting and satisfying climax of a damn fine seventies revenge western, not a Gunsmoke episode.
As far as the rest of Part 2 is concerned, I will say the remaining part of the show isn’t anywhere near as good as the opening scene. And if you’re familiar with the structure of Gunsmoke, it’s pretty obvious how the show must end. And that part is a big drag. But James Stacy is fantastic in this story. I’m sure every sexy young swingin’ dick in town, not already on a series, or starring in feature films wanted the part of Bob Johnson. David Carradine, Michael Parks, Tom Laughlin and Robert Blake would of all been terrific in the part as well. But once you see it, it’s hard to imagine anybody else other then Stacy in the part. The next year Stacy would do another hot damn guest star gig on Stuart Whitman’s amazingly good ninety minute CBS western series Cimarron Strip (the show only lasted a season, but ever single episode played like a terrific western feature film). Stacy’s episode titled, The Judgement, confirmed his star potential was no joke. And that same year his show Lancer went on the air on CBS. While Lancer was a good show, and Stacy’s slightly anti-hero character of Johnny Lancer/Johnny Madrid always remained recklessly roguish, once it went to a weekly series he was never the volcanically violent shady ass son-of-a-bitch he was on the pilot. Stacy might of worn the costume of Johnny Madrid, but he was pretty much reduced to a puppy dog who momentarily misbehaves. But on the Vengeance episode, Bob Johnson never has to reform or conform. And we the audience are on Bob’s side all the way down the line. Including when he goes up against Arness’ Matt Dillon.