The Dakotas

L-R:  Mike Green, Larry Ward, 
Jack Elam, Chad Everett

 Marshal Frank Ragan:  Larry Ward  
Deputy Del Stark:  Chad Everett  
Deputy J. D. Smith:  Jack Elam  
Deputy Vance Porter:  Michael Greene

One of the last of the hour-long television Westerns produced by Warner Brothers was The Dakotas.  It was set in the period of the post-Civil War, and actually had its beginning in an episode of Cheyenne, which was telecast on 23 April 1962.  In this episode, “A Man Called Ragan,” Dakota Territorial Marshal Frank Ragan rides into Stark City to see his buddy Johnny Wilson, but cattle baron Ben Stark tells Ragan that Wilson has disappeared and that Ragan had better do the same.  This is probably one of the only episodes where Clint Walker, as Cheyenne Bodie, does not appear.  This episode was so popular with the viewing audience that Warner Brothers launched it as a separate series beginning 7 January 1963.

The Dakotas detailed the efforts of Marshal Ragan and his diverse crop of deputies to maintain law and order in the vast, unruly Dakota Territory, an area which spanned both North and South Dakota, Idaho, and a great deal of Montana and Wyoming.  Although the scripts were tough and unrelenting, usually featuring one of the four cast members prominently from week to week, the marshal and his deputies were basically a study in contrasts.  The series was ruthlessly honest in character, as well as in depiction of the times.  It presented the West as a hard and demanding place, where the rapidly growing population of the Dakota Territory struggled to build a world in a terrorized land.  The deputies were portrayed to be earning $40 dollars a month, a large-enough paycheck for the times, but only having a potential life-span of 3 years.  They lived hard.

Marshal Frank Ragan was the leader, a man totally dedicated to the law.  Deputy J.D. Smith was a cynical, worldly ex-gunfighter, a supreme realist.  Deputy Vance Porter was a man of extreme qualities ranging from violent and explosive anger one minute to gentleness the next.  Vance was often too quick with decisions, too ready to take the world on by himself.  Deputy Stark was 23 years old, a young man with a great vision of the future, yet he was always willing to lay down his life to make his dreams come true. 

The demise of the series came because of Episode 18, “Sanctuary at Crystal Springs,” which aired on 6 May 1963.  In this episode, deputies Stark and Smith gun down two of the murderous Barton brothers, and the third Barton brother then takes the pastor of a church hostage.  It is Deputy J. D. Smith who manages to gun down the third brother in the church.  A lot of people took a dim view of a shootout in a church, and with the adverse mail pouring into ABC’s headquarters, the network dropped the show immediately.  Only one more episode aired…on 13 May 1963.

Larry Ward played Frank Ragan.  He went to Hollywood from Broadway as a writer, intending to sell to both films and television.  While discussing a film script with producer Jules Schermer, the producer thought Ward would be fitting for a part in another western being filmed, Lawman.   When it was decided to bring the character of Marshal Frank Ragan back from the Cheyenne series, Larry Ward was brought back to reprise the role.

Jack Elam came to The Dakotas as J. D. Smith, mostly because of his menacing looks.  He made the pilot episode of Lawman in 1958, and when the producers wanted a villain-type look for the ex-gunslinger lawman J. D. Smith, Elam was the only choice.  From 1950-1957, he had appeared in more than 70 films…in all of them as the villain.  Pinning on a badge was a real novelty for him.

Chad Everrett went under contract to Warner Brothers as a result of fine performances in Bronco, Surfside 6, Hawaiian Eye and Cheyenne.  He had been a former male model for college clothing, and he had just the right looks for the lady-killer Deputy Del Stark, which producers wanted in The Dakotas.

Mike Greene was the ideal choice for Vance Porter because of his 6 ft 6 inch height.  Born in San Francisco, he played football all through college, but his real dream was to become an artist.  For several years, he painted and exhibited in and around San Francisco…until the magic and glamour of Hollywood beckoned..  Arriving in 1958, he immediately started working in all the westerns, including Lawman, Cheyenne, Wanted Dead or Alive, and Outlaws, before being signed for The Dakotas.

(Text and photos by Sandy Sturdivant)

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