Big John Cannon: Leif Erickson
Sam Butler: Don Collier
One of the most successful westerns on television for four years was The High Chaparral. It was the name given to the ranch owned and operated by the Cannon family in the Arizona Territory during the 1870's. Stubborn, determined Big John Cannon (Leif Erickson) was the patriarch of the family, and his driving ambition to establish a cattle empire in the rugged, Apache-infested land was the thrust of the entire show. To help him, he had his younger brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell), who could outdrink, outshoot, outfight, and when motivated, outwork any man alive. Big John's son, Billy Blue (Mark Slade), was a young man in his early 20's, whose mother was killed in the very first episode. After his first wife's death, John married Victoria Montoya (Linda Cristal), daughter of Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera), and heiress, along with her brother Manolito (Henry Darrow), to the Don's extensive cattle holdings south of the border. Manolito comes to the Cannon ranch and becomes a permanent part of the household.
In the very first episode, Buck and Blue ride into Tucson and hire the bunkhouse guys, led by Sam Butler (Don Collier), who is the ranch foreman and who becomes John Cannon's “left arm of the High Chaparral.” The rest of the bunkhouse consisted of Sam’s brother Joe (Bob Hoy), Reno (Ted Markland), Ira Bean (Jerry Summers), and Pedro (Roberto Contreras). Vaquero (Rudolfo Acosta) is also acquired in the first episode as household help. There were cast changes, most notably in the fourth season with the disappearance of Blue Cannon (Mark Slade) and Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera) and the addition of Wind (Rudy Ramos) and Don Domingo Montoya (Gilbert Roland). Ira Bean disappeared at the end of the first season, and both Reno and Vaquero disappeared at the end of the second season. All the rest of the cast remained for all four seasons.
This series was shot almost entirely on location in 100+ heat at Tucson, Arizona, which gave it a realistic atmosphere. The viewer could almost feel the heat and the dust after an hour with the Cannons. The scripts were way above average, and each episode had enough action to hold viewer’s interest. Nearly all the action sequences were coordinated by famed stuntman Henry Wills, and nearly every episode showcased a guest star of some repute. It was consistently in the top 20 of the national ratings, despite being lambasted for its excessive violence. In Europe, it was the top-rated show being imported at that time.
The series was also unique in another way. David Dortort, who was also the creative genius behind Bonanza, insisted on realism all the way. He built the house to specifications of 1870 Arizona using real adobe and materials native to the area. He hired real Mexicans to play Mexicans and real Apaches to play Apaches. One of the greatest coup in film history was the hiring of Nino Cochise, grandson of the fabled Cochise, to play the part of his famous grandfather.
Of the cast, Leif Erickson, Cameron Mitchell, Frank Silvera, and Gilbert Roland were veteran American movie actors, Rudolfo Acosta was a veteran Mexican movie actor, and Linda Cristal was well-known in both American and Mexican films. Don Collier was a veteran movie actor who also had his own successful television western Outlaws, as well a numerous television appearances as guest star in some of the highest top-ranking shows. Mark Slade came from the television series The Wackiest Ship in the Army. Bob Hoy and Jerry Summers were both stuntmen turned actors, and they continued working both sides of the fence their entire film career. Henry Darrow was an unknown, but he shot to fame in this series. Ted Markland was a well-known stand-up comedian before turning actor, and Roberto Contreras was well-known in both films and television as a character actor. Rudy Ramos was relatively unknown, but he shot to fame on this show. The cast was outstanding and worked well together.
Leif Erickson, Cameron Mitchell, Rudolfo Acosta, Frank Silvera, Gilbert Roland and Roberto Contreras have all died. Linda Cristal and Jerry Summers have retired. Mark Slade left acting in the early 1980's, and his whereabouts is unknown. The others are all still acting.
The High Chaparral aired from 1967-1971 on NBC.
High Chaparral Web Site
(Hint: You're already on it.)
(Text and photos by Sandy Sturdivant)
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