“Let’s do it.”
“Slow and easy.”
“All the way.”
“To the hilt.”
–the five heroes of Outlaws, each ready to go into battle together
Some people live in the past. There are large numbers who spend their spare time recreating different eras, whether it’s medieval times, the Revolutionary War, or the Victorian Era. That’s all well and good, but what would happen if you brought someone from the past forward to a more modern era? What mores and behaviors might we discover? And what attitudes would they bring with them, transported forward a century?
The romanticism of the Old West was a staple of early television, but westerns as a significant portion of the programming landscape died out after the ’60’s. Occasional revival efforts were made, but one show turned the idea on its head. In the 1986 CBS series Outlaws, viewers got to see how western attitudes coped in a modern society. Could their Code of the West, as exemplified by their quotes above, survive today?
Back in 1899, veteran lawman (and reformed outlaw) Sheriff Jonathan Grail (Rod Taylor) had finally cornered his former criminal group, now known as the Pike Gang. Lead by Harland Pike (William Lucking) and his hot-headed younger brother Billy (Patrick Houser), the four-man group had just robbed a bank, and they’d been trapped by a local posse in an Indian burial ground. Along with fellow members Wolfson Lucas (Charles Napier) and former slave Isaiah “Ice” McAdams (Richard Roundtree), the Pike Gang was ready to make a final stand against their ex-leader. As thunder rolled and the bullets were about to fly, a freak bolt of lightning engulfed the five of them.
“What in the name of all that’s holy was that?”
They awaken to find their weapons all useless from the electrical bolt, but weapons are the least of their worries. The storm gone, they all hear a low rumbling… which turns out to be a jet airplane taking off over their heads. Frightened by this unknown machine ( as even cars were a new invention back in 1899), they put their differences aside to discover what might have happened to them.
Arriving at the crest of a hill, they look down into the valley and discover Houston, Texas… but it’s the Houston of 1986, and they’ve been somehow transported into the “present day”. After the usual “fish-out-of-water” misunderstandings, they discover their loot, a saddlebag full of double eagle solid gold dollars, is now worth a fortune… and it lets the group set themselves up with a new place to live, and no worries about income. But what will they do in the modern day?
“If we hadn’t rode that lightning bolt from 1899 to now, we would have shot each other to death. Or you would have hung. And there would have been no future at all. And no wonderment like that. It don’t happen without a good reason.”
The group may have been Outlaws at one time, but Grail and the Pike Gang’s legacy as bank robbers is long forgotten in the past. They decide to create new lives for themselves, with something other the word “Thief” written on their tombstones. It turns out their frontier skills are actually useful, and their Code of the West still has a place in modern day. Between a lawman, a bunch of former crooks with an old west sense of justice, and an occasional excuse for a bar fight, Houston has their very own new set of Outlaws. The group forms the Double Eagle Ranch Detection Agency, using their old-school ways to hunt down lawbreakers in a new century.
After they move into their new ranch, they meet their neighbor, Maggie Randall (Christina Belford). She happens to be a Texas Deputy, and is initially suspicious of the new people next door. But she develops a fond relationship with them, despite their evasions about their past.
Grail is once again, ostensibly, their leader. The Pike brothers are both trying to figure out how they fit into this century, the elder with reason and the younger with emotion. Wolfson is a religious type, trying to determine how his belief system can adapt to all the changes in a society he doesn’t recognize in the least. And former slave Isaiah has suddenly entered a world of wonder, where racial equality is much more of a reality and man has traveled to the moon. But all five of these men soon realize that their future is bound up with each other, taken out of time. Outlaws by history, they are heroes by nature.
As I said, televised westerns were a staple of the early days of the medium. In the 1950’s and ’60’s, there were often at least one western broadcast on network television every evening, and many nights featured more. Production on a back lot was relatively inexpensive, and extensive use was made of the previous inventory of studios, where costumes and standing sets had been built for numerous feature films and 2-reeler shorts throughout the black-and-white movie era. It was a familiar path from those productions to television, and it’s no coincidence that the longest running live-action drama in history was the western Gunsmoke, which ran for 21 consecutive seasons. In the prime-time landscape of 1959, there were more than THIRTY westerns on the network schedule.
In an era of social change like the 1960’s, westerns still represented a more traditional way of looking at people, by romanticizing and reinforcing the “hero-and-villain” mentality many were still trying to hold on to in those turbulent days. When most homes still only had one breadwinner and one television set (and only three networks to choose from), shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Rifleman were popular fare, but change was coming.
The Big Valley aired in the late 1960’s, featuring Barbara Stanwyck as the feisty widow and leader of a ranching family. It began to break the mold of previous westerns by having a female lead, the equal of any man and better than many. In the real-world struggle for women’s equality, The Big Valley was a way to meld the two ideas of tradition and societal evolution on-screen, just as popular western High Chaparral used storylines featuring minority characters of Native American and Latino heritage as more than just the ciphers they’d been in previous series. Society was changing, and television was changing with it.
But there were still many for whom the future, in its romanticized way, was the past. And, if chosen well, there are lessons to be learned and behaviors to be modeled by those heroes of the Old West, which is what Outlaws was hoping to do. Although other shows may ultimately have found a way to showcase those ideas more popularly (the series Walker: Texas Ranger comes to mind), Outlaws was the only one which found a way to truly dramatize the transformation from Old West to New West, from the rough-and-tumble days of cowboys to the concrete canyons of a modern metropolis. They kept the Code of the West, and it didn’t matter if it was the Old West or the New.
Outlaws Creator Nicholas Corea was a former Marine, decorated with the Purple Heart in Vietnam. He developed an extensive a television career, having produced and written for a wide variety of programs. As a writer and consultant for Walker: Texas Ranger, he wrote what is considered to be one of the best episodes of that series, Brothers in Arms. (He also created The Oregon Trail for television, and clips from that series were used in a flashback for the characters of Grail and Pike in Outlaws, as it had featured actors Rod Taylor and Charles Napier.) No matter what era or arena, his characters often had the heroic sensibilities of a traditional western hero, whether presented in the futuristic context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, flying in a fighter squadron on WWII drama Baa Baa Black Sheep, or as seen in the loner of Dr. David Banner on The Incredible Hulk. In Outlaws, he combined all of these heroes into characters no longer in their own time, but still in possession of their own morality, their own sense of justice, and their ability to create their own future, no matter how long ago their past actually was.
To Nicholas Corea, these are the true lessons of drama and humanity: that we each have, at our core, the ability to transcend place and time by treating ourselves and each other with honor, respect, and dignity, to protect the innocent, and to find justice for all. While westerns may have had their place in telling that tale, his career proved the setting really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 1899 or 1986, in the Old West or the New, it’s all about the character of the people. It’s about living according to the Code of the West.
ROD TAYLOR (Jonathan Grail) is known by SF fans for his starring role in George Pal’s legendary version of H.G. Wells The Time Machine. He also had a major role in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. His television presence has been featured on this site before, for his lead role in Masquerade, plus the series Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, and Falcon Crest. He recently played Winston Churchill in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds.
WILLIAM LUCKING (Harland Pike) has had a long and illustrious career in acting, starting in the late ’60’s. His adventures in western include appearing on Bonanza, The Virginian, Lancer, and Gunsmoke, and he was also on numerous other shows. Just prior to Outlaws, he was one of the lead military men to be seen chasing The A-Team during their first season, and most recently he’s returned to his “outlaw” ways as a regular in the biker gang featured on Sons of Anarchy.
PATRICK HOUSER (Billy Pike, Jr.) had a short film career, mostly noted by roles in silly movie comedies aimed at teen audiences. His movie roles included Weekend Pass, Hot Dog… the Movie, and Spiker, each of which allowed him to display his athletic talents as well as his acting ability.
CHARLES NAPIER (Wolfson Lucas) is known for his craggy face and gravely voice, which served him well in The Oregon Trail and as a recurring character on B.J. and the Bear. That voice also led him to a career in animation, speaking for characters in shows like The Critic, Men in Black: The Series, and God, the Devil, and Bob. In movies, he’s known for playing Sylvester Stallone’s nemesis in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and although it was never publicized widely, he provided the growls and roars for The Incredible Hulk in the ’70’s TV series.
RICHARD ROUNDTREE (Isaiah “Ice” McAdams) essayed the title character in the 1971 movie Shaft, probably the best known “blaxploitation” movie ever made (and certainly the most popular). He appeared again in multiple sequels, plus starred in a tv series of the same name. A recurring character on numerous series like Beauty and the Beast and Roc, he returned to lead roles in 413 Hope St. and Soul Food. Most recently, he’s appeared on episodes of Heroes and Diary of a Single Mom.
CRISTINA BELFORD (Maggie Randall) is also credited as “Christine” Belford, and has made a career out of “recurring” characters. Most notably, she was featured as the on-again off-again love interest on Banacek, as well as acting on multiple episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Silver Spoons, Wonder Woman, Dynasty, and the original Beverly Hills 90210. She grew up in Amityville N.Y., and actually lived in the famous Amityville Horror house prior to the events that led to it supposedly being “haunted”.
Despite its unique premise, Outlaws doesn’t really have that much of a presence online, and as an 80’s show made before the advent of widespread DVD releases (and the accompanying contracts allowing such for music and other performance rights), the show isn’t commercially available anywhere. Thankfully, it was new enough (and different enough) to get the taping treatment done by fans during its original run, especially those of Rod Taylor and his genre work, and so bootlegs are reasonably found. Surprisingly, more of the older era of westerns are available, probably due to their existence on film rather than the video tape medium thought of as “cutting edge” in the 80’s. Just one more instance where older tech was better than “modern”, a theme Outlaws knew well.
Maggie: “Who are you?”
Grail: “Outlaws. Outlaws who’ve seen the light….”
There is a reason why westerns as a genre died out on television. The changes of society, such as the evolving roles of women and minorities, were reflected in the popular television of the day. The idea of the western gunslinger hero and his lonely prairie was not one a vast majority of viewers could identify with and reconcile those social changes. Even the series that do occasionally try to revive the western genre have to provide a different spin for a more modern time, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Little House on the Prairie. The western hero, as well as the western villain, may be archetypes, but more recent audiences typically demand a bit more gray area than the “white hat” and “black hat” the cowboy period expresses so well. Those days are gone, as are the westerns that portrayed them.
But some things really never change, and those parts of the western are still what attracts some to their adventures. There’s a reason the idea of a Code of the West lives on. The idea that justice is part of what makes a person good, and that there are still right ways and wrong ways to treat other people, aren’t just western ideals, but human ones. It’s sometimes too easy to forget these ideals in a complicated and frantic world, and perhaps we just need a good reminder once in a while. I’d like to believe that’s where shows like Outlaws come in. They’re not presenting a way of life that used to be better… they’re presenting a way of life that should be eternal. Good people, with good hearts, are always heroes… even when they’re Outlaws.
2-hour pilot and 11 hour-long episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: December 28, 1986
Final aired episode: May 2, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? The pilot aired as a CBS Sunday Movie, before the series settled into its regular slot on Saturday @ 8/7 Central.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.