Alias, schmalius. Judge Cynthia Boris says Alias Smith and Jones is the pseudonym to watch.
It was the end of an era on screen and off.
In the fictional world of Heyes and Curry, the old west was changing. Automobiles were replacing horses. Telephones were replacing telegraphs and banks were becoming more impenetrable. It was a tough time for bank robbers, but with a little ingenuity our heroes found a way to survive.
In the real world, the ever popular TV western was being replaced by hip cop shows such as Mod Squad and Mission: Impossible while All in the Family and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in were raising the bar for comedies. It was a tough time for heroes on horseback. But with a little ingenuity (and a large dose of humor) Alias Smith & Jones found a way to survive…even after a terrible tragedy rocked the show during their first full season.
This is the story of a very good show about two pretty good, bad men.
Facts of the Case
Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel, Gidget) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy, Winds of War) are two of the west's most notorious outlaws. Unfortunately, modern times are making it harder and harder to rob banks and trains and still get away clean, so our boys decide to give up their life of crime. They apply for the Governor's amnesty program and are given a green light—but there's a catch. Well, two catches. One, they have to stay out of trouble for at least a year. Number two? Until the amnesty is granted, the deal is a secret, meaning our heroes are still wanted men with a $20,000 price tag on their heads.
To keep their identities hidden, Sheriff Lom Trevor (James Drury) dubs them Smith and Jones and together they roam from town to town, trying to make an honest living while carefully avoiding the law. It's a long road, but our boys are determined to make things right.
It's witty. It's adventurous and it's not your average western. It's Alias Smith & Jones: Season One.
Alias Smith & Jones is one of my all-time favorite television series. I fell in love with it as a kid and it hasn't lost one ounce of its charm 35 years later. The primary draw of the series is the relationship between the two leads. Heyes and Curry are the yin and the yang. Heyes is the thinker, the planner, the one who keeps them reaching for the prize when it seems like an unlikely dream. Curry is the fast gun, the one with the temper—but also the one with the soft heart and the easy smile. On screen, Duel and Murphy had the chemistry of a Redford and Newman, though you won't really see it if you start with the series pilot.
The pilot movie (which is included on this DVD set) was done as a ninety-minute TV movie helmed by Universal staple, Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Hardy Boys, Knight Rider). Much more slapstick than the series itself, the movie has a Disney-esque feel to it as we see Heyes and his gang of screw-ups attempt to rob a train and a bank. The pilot is so humorous that it's hard to imagine these outlaws are much of a threat to anyone. The sense of danger to our boys is almost non-existent.
The show was picked up as a mid-season replacement in January of 1971, and Roy Huggins (Maverick, Baretta) took creative control of the series, personally writing dozens of the episodes under the pseudonym John Thomas James. With Huggins came a change in the feel of the show. The humor went from slapstick to witty, the drama ratcheted up a notch, and the chemistry between stars Duel and Murphy blossomed.
The second episode, "Exit From Wickenburg," is the best example of the series as a whole. In this episode, you see the smooth criminal side of the boys, the way they work together (Heyes as the brain and Curry as the muscle) and how truly formidable they are as a team. You see Curry's soft side as he gently explains to a young fan the downside of being "the fastest gun in the west" and the clever side of Heyes as he clears the casino of cheats and thieves. And there's real danger as someone tries their hardest to convince the boys to leave town. Add to that several great guest stars such as Susan Strasberg, Slim Pickens (Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) and Mark Leonard (Star Trek) and you have one of the series's best episodes.
Let's take a look at the rest:
• "The McCreedy Bust"
• "Exit From Wickenburg"
• "The Girl in Boxcar #3"
• "The Great Shell Game"
• "Return to Devil's Hole"
• "Stagecoach Seven"
• "The Man Who Murdered Himself"
• "The Root of It All"
• "Journey from San Juan"
• "Never Trust an Honest Man"
• "The Legacy of Charlie O'Rourke"
At the end of its short first season, Alias Smith & Jones was at the bottom of the ratings heap but the series was renewed for a second season. Young Ben Murphy was enjoying his newly found fame and teen idol status, but co-star Pete Duel had a lot on his mind. He was adamantly concerned about global issues such as ecology. He was unhappy with his own performance and career and he was facing a jail sentence for a serious car crash he'd caused while driving drunk almost a year earlier. In the end, Duel was given probation, a large fine, and he had his license revoked. Still, the studio was behind him. They hired a driver to get him to and from Universal and production began on season two. Interesting stories and great guest stars helped boost the ratings and Murphy and Duel appeared in issue after issue of gossip, teen and TV magazines. The show broke for Christmas in December and it looked like it was going to be a great new year all around.
On December 31, 1971, the cast and crew were headed to the studio to begin another normal day. It turned out to be anything but normal. The news made it to the radio before most of them could be personally notified. Pete Duel had committed suicide the night before.
What happened that night has been reviewed and reviewed by experts and fans. There were rumors of murder or an accidental shooting, but Duel's girlfriend who was sleeping in the bedroom at the time said he'd been drinking. He was unhappy. She saw him take the gun from the bedroom drawer. He walked into the living room, she heard the shot and when she checked on him he was dead.
Duel's death shocked his co-workers, his friends, and his fans. A young actor at the height of his career, no one could fathom why he would do such a thing. And how odd was it to turn on the TV a few days later and see his boyish smile, hear his voice; see him carrying on as if nothing had happened.
As hard as it was for his fans to handle, the cast and crew of Alias Smith & Jones were faced with a horrendous situation. There was big money to be lost if the show shut down. The producers made a quick decision to replace Duel with Roger Davis, who had been the series narrator and a one-time guest star. Just three days after the death of his co-star, Ben Murphy had to give the performance of his life, delivering lines he'd rehearsed with Duel to Davis. The cameras began to roll for the completion of Season Two.
Since that day, the series Alias Smith & Jones has been indelibly linked with the tragic death of its star. Dragged out time and time again for Hollywood mystery documentaries and featured on the Hollywood Graveline Tours, Pete Duel's death eventually eclipsed the fame of the series that was his swan song. It's a shame, really. Alias Smith & Jones is some of his best work. He's simply magnetic on the screen and though it wasn't the kind of statement-making, life altering acting he'd always hoped for, it is warm and witty and wonderful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with many of the classic Universal TV shows, there are no special features on Alias Smith & Jones. Ah! But wait, you say. There's a commentary by creator Glen A. Larson. And again I say, there are no special features on this DVD set.
I appreciate that the show was made more than thirty years ago, but if you have nothing to say, don't bother sitting for a commentary track. Talking on the 90 minute pilot, Larson speaks less than fifty percent of the time. When he does, he mostly points out what you're watching on screen, ("see, they're both robbing the bank") and he enjoys identifying the various guest actors. There is a small patch where he discusses the true facts that led to them creating the story—but that's pretty much it. As for the two leads who are the show, he speaks about them for less than a minute, commenting on Duel's great talent and early demise and Murphy's likeability and later role in Winds of War. No behind the scenes secrets, no personal stories. I kept waiting for more and it never came.
I'm also perplexed by the lack of quality in the video transfer. With the exception of the 90-minute movies, Encore Westerns has been airing clear, bright, nearly perfect versions of these episodes. But the ones on the DVD are full of pops and scratches, and there are times when the voices don't seem to be in sync. These problems are minor and they don't detract from my enjoyment of the show, but it's still strange that they aren't just as good as the versions run on Encore.
Alias Smith & Jones is on my list of all time favorite television shows. The kind of show where I participated in the full fandom collecting memorabilia, writing fan fiction, participating in fan gatherings, the whole shebang. I am thrilled to see it offered on DVD.
If you're not a fan of westerns, don't let that put you off. This series has little in common with shows such as Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Though there is plenty of gun fighting, poker playing, and horse riding, I'd dub the series an action comedy that just happens to be set in the Old West. Watch it for Murphy and Duel, who make this one of the all-time top buddy shows.
This court finds Alias Smith & Jones to be guilty, but seeing as they're trying so hard to mend their ways, we'll let them off for good behavior.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on Pilot by Glen Larson
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