June 13th, 2014
Why We Still Love The High Chaparral
Nineteen sixty-seven in the United States saw the country increasingly divided over Civil Rights and the Vietnam conflict. The following year, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be murdered in Memphis. The Viet Cong would launch the Tet Offensive, shocking both the Joint Chiefs and Lyndon B. Johnson, the Commander in Chief, with the truth of the enemy’s determination and resilience. Shortly thereafter, LBJ would announce his decision not to run again for the presidency. That summer, Democratic front runner Robert F. Kennedy would be tragically gunned down in Los Angeles.
Scenes of violence stayed commonplace on the nightly news: student demonstrations, race riots, war footage. Each evening’s news ended with tallies of the daily body counts from Vietnam.
We looked to television to escape. The Lucy Show was in its final season. Gilligan’s Island was nearing the end of its “three hour tour.” The starship Enterprise, in the midst of the three year run of the original Star Trek, ventured boldly where no man had gone before. Gunsmoke was a weekly staple as it had been since 1955; the Cartwrights of Bonanza continued that show’s run begun in 1959. And in 1967, The High Chaparral debuted, the long awaited second series from Bonanza creator and producer David Dortort.
With the INSP cable network currently exploring the feasibility of adding more original programming to the channel’s staple of classic TV reruns and family friendly fare, it is welcome news to High Chaparral fans that the network is considering producing a sequel to the series. The proposed show will be a “about the children and grandchildren of the original characters, and would include as many original cast as can participate,” according to Penny McQueen, who administers the High Chaparral Reunion web page and is the force behind the High Chaparral Reunions of devoted fans and remaining cast and crew, held annually at Old Tucson, Arizona.
Ginny Shook, co-administrator of the 2,000+ member High Chaparral Facebook page, recently posted the following news about Next Generation: “Guess who had a meeting to take a giant step forward into turning this dream to a reality? That would be Don Collier, Linda Cristal, Henry Darrow, [INSP] producer Mark Headley and Penny McQueen. Our beloved cast members are very enthused about the project. Nothing has been signed yet, but their interest and support means that besides a Next Generation of Cannons, Montoyas, and Butlers, it looks like we’ll also be able to experience the original cast as well, hopefully on a weekly basis…on our favorite channel, INSP.”
Pending funding for a pilot and the acquisition of sponsors, The High Chaparral-The Next Generation could become a reality. Of the show, Headley promises in an INSP press release, “This will be a return to the values that shaped the American West and this entire nation. There was never a grander time in human history.”
The original High Chaparral was last broadcast in 1971. Until recently, with its coming to INSP, the show was relatively unavailable. DVD sets sold by the High Chaparral Reunion are produced in the Netherlands, with all four seasons only recently becoming available in the U.S. through the Reunion. Episodes are posted on YouTube by fans such as BigJohnCannon, whose screen name pays homage to the show.
Why, nearly 50 years later, has The High Chaparral retained its appeal? Why does its ever growing Facebook page attract thousands of folks and its annual reunions, hundreds? After all, most of the original fans of the show, like most of its stellar cast and crew, have passed on. Most HC Facebookers were kids or teens when the show first aired. Many were not even born. True, thanks to INSP’s exclusive airing of the show’s reruns since 2012, The High Chaparral is gaining a new generation of fans. But why?
Better to ask, why not?
The High Chaparral is more than good. It’s great. “Magnifico,” as Manolito Montoya, my favorite character from the show, would say.
The High Chaparral was a pioneering show featuring a blended family (the Cannons and Montoyas), ethnic diversity, and a realistic, gritty setting. Shot partly on location in the Arizona desert and Old Tucson, the show offered reality not possible from a Hollywood back lot or soundstage. Indians played Indians. Latinos played Latinos. There were, as Buck Cannon would put it in season two’s “The Deceivers,” “good A-pach and bad white.” Sometimes the whites were the bad guys; the native Americans, the people of principle and honor, if fierce and courageous foes. Apaches never lied, except one rather nasty fellow called Soldado who stretched the truth…showing a facility with verbal loopholes to rival that of any modern trial lawyer in the first season’s episode, “Survival.”
There were Mexican bandits like Anthony Caruso’s El Lobo and Latino crooks turned political opportunists like Fernando Lamas’s El Caudillo, but the Montoya family was cultured, educated, well mannered, and much less dusty than the Cannon crew. No wonder the show was popular among Hispanics, too long underrepresented in Hollywood.
The High Chaparral offered sensible examples of how to live in turbulent times. As protests against America’s involvement in Vietnam grew on the home front, High Chaparral presented the military as flawed but generally well-intended. “Blue bellies” may not always understand the Apache enemy, but they are willing to die bravely. Some officers are wise, others not so much…and they often pay with their lives or careers for their ignorance. Who can forget Colonel Biddle in “Ride the Savage Land,” who never makes it to his next post? While the buffalo soldiers in “Savage Land” meet a horrific fate, an award winning episode in the second season, “The Buffalo Soldiers” ends more happily, albeit no less heroically, showcasing dozens of talented young African American actors in the process. The High Chaparral featured more black characters as guest stars than any other TV western in my memory. Yes, there were black cowboys and even Indian cowboys in the “real” West, the latter group depicted in the first season’s episode, “Bad Day for a Thirst.”
The High Chaparral had international appeal. The five main cast members and the show won Bambis in 1970, the German equivalent of the Emmy. The appeal continues, if the numbers of international Facebookers in High Chaparral online groups are representative. Recently, reruns even returned to the UK.
The High Chaparral affirmed certainty and acknowledged absolutes in a time in which absolutes were questioned and uncertainty the norm. John Cannon maintains the rule of law is right, even when following the law involves considerable risk, as in “Mark of the Turtle.” Victoria is a woman of faith, praying to our Lady, attending mass, imploring God for guidance and wisdom. Mano, self-described as “religious in [his] own way,” asks his sister to “add” his “thanks” when John regains consciousness from a near fatal mishap in “Trail to Nevermore.” Buck Cannon realizes that Sister Ellie of the Salvation Army is offering something Mano and he truly need in “The Glory Soldiers,” and that hanging around with the likes of Father Sanchez in “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” and Padre Guillermo in “A Joyful Noise,” can only improve him.
The High Chaparral cowboys are gritty, dirty, flawed humans who womanize, drink too much, fight like heck, and are sexy as heck also.
All this brings me to why I love The High Chaparral. My reason is hardly profound. Henry Darrow was my first crush.
My friends fell for Mark Slade’s naïve and young Blue Cannon, and while I could certainly understand their affection for the blond heartthrob, bad boy Mano was my guy.
I was ten when the program premiered; we had recently moved to San Antonio, where the show, with its heavy cast of Latinos, was embraced by the city’s large Hispanic population. I had never seen a character like Manolito. Most Latinos in movies or television were bandidos, or worse, irrelevant or humorous sidekicks. Manolito was charming, rascally, brave when necessary yet ever ready to avoid a fight if possible. He loved his sister dearly yet filched her dresses and hats for his questionable girlfriends. He had great affection for the father whom he constantly disappointed, and whose overbearing demeanor must have made being the hijo of such a hacendado downright impossible. Mano was a thoroughly charming, complex character, the likes of which we have not seen since on the large or small screen, brought to life by the very talented Mr. Darrow. To a young girl, he was the embodiment of all that I would never want or dare to bring home to Mom and Dad but might dream about anyway. I even named a dog after him. Manolito and Victoria were our pet brother and sister pups: chihuahua mixes, naturally.
There was also Cameron Mitchell’s Uncle Buck. Who wouldn’t want an Uncle Buck in his corner? And Leif Erickson’s John Cannon…a man of character, integrity, confidence…stubborn enough to challenge the land, the Apache, and even a conniving father in law…and appealing enough to win the love of an aristocratic and drop dead gorgeous second wife. Speaking of Senora Cannon, who wouldn’t have adored Linda Cristal’s Victoria? Only a blockhead could resist. And Bob Hoy’s Joe and Don Collier’s Sam…the Butler brothers? Roberto Contreras’s humorous Pedro? The list goes on.
But for now, it’s seeking Henry Darrow that I intend to go. Jan Pippins, author with Darrow of the actor’s award winning autobiography, Lightning in the Bottle, says that Darrow, his wife Lauren Levian, and she will be at the Memphis Film Festival this June. We had already planned a trip to Atlanta. Tunica, Mississippi, the festival site 30 miles south of Memphis, will be a slight detour.
Well, okay, more than a slight detour…but why not? I have not yet been able to make it to the Mecca of High Chaparral fan events, the Reunion…so when else will I ever meet my first crush?
Who wouldn’t go out of her way to meet Manolito?
Thanks to INSP for resurrecting a remarkable show and introducing it to legions of new fans. Thanks to Penny McQueen and the Chaparral faithful, for whom the show never died.
Here’s to a New Generation!
Jane Rodgers is a freelance writer and editor from Rowlett, Texas.