“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

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“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

Nearly forty years ago saw the premiere of the NBC Western series called “THE OREGON TRAIL”. Produced by Carl Vitale, Michael Gleason and Richard Collins; the series told the story about the westbound journey of an Illinois widower named Evan Thorpe and his family in the 1840s.

NBC aired a ninety (90) minute pilot episode of “THE OREGON TRAIL” in 1976. Rod Taylor portrayed Evan Thorpe, a widower with three children who had recently remarried. Blair Brown portrayed his newly married second wife, Jessica. Douglas Fowley portrayed Evan’s widowed father, Eli. And Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter portrayed his three children – Andrew, William and Rachel. Set during the year 1842, the pilot episode featured the Thrope family’s journey to the Oregon Territory from Illinois to as far as Fort Hall in present-day Idaho.

Another year passed before “THE OREGON TRAIL” returned to the television screen. A few changes had been made to the cast. Evan’s second wife Jessica had died and he found himself attracted to an Irish-born woman named Margaret Deviln, who was accompanying her gambler father to the west. In other words, Blair Brown had been replaced by Darlene Carr as the series’ leading lady. Eli had completely disappeared from the cast of characters. And Charles Napier had joined the cast as Luther Sprague, a former mountain man recruited by Evan to serve as scout/guide for the wagon train. At first, it seemed that the Thorpes’ destination had changed from Oregon to California . . . and back again. NBC aired six episodes of “THE OREGON TRAIL” before the latter was permanently yanked from the network’s line-up. The series faded into obscurity for thirty-three years, until the Timeless Media Group (TMG) released the entire series – the pilot and the other thirteen episodes – on DVD in 2010.

For the next five years, I ignored “THE OREGON TRAIL”, despite a deep interest in movie and television productions about mid-19th century western emigration. I was more interested in finding a DVD copy of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”, of which I owned a VHS copy. But eventually, I could not ignore “THE OREGON TRAIL” and purchased it at a reasonably cheap price. I must admit that I was impressed. It struck me as a decent series that featured excellent drama and some first-rate performances. Rod Taylor did a superb job in carrying the series on his soldier – which is not surprising. And he clicked very well with not only his two leading ladies – Blair Brown and Darlene Carr – but also with Charles Napier, Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter. The series also featured excellent performances from guest stars such as Kim Darby, Gerald McRaney, Stella Stevens, Robert Fuller, William Smith, William Shatner, Nicholas Hammond, Linda Purl, Claude Akins, Clu Gulager and Kevin McCarthy. The series featured story lines regarding racial discrimination, religious beliefs, Native American culture, military oppression and especially survival. I am not saying that “THE OREGON TRAIL” was perfect. But I believe that it was a solid television drama. So what went wrong? Why did it fail to draw viewers after six weeks on the air?

First of all, “THE OREGON TRAIL” had the bad luck to compete against ABC’s new ratings hit, “CHARLIE’S ANGELS”. But I suspect that in the end, the series’ premise – wagon train emigration – proved to be the series’ Achilles’ heel. If the Thorpes had spent the series merely traveling from one location to another, without any real fixed destination – for example, the 1960-64 series, “ROUTE 66” – perhaps the series could have survived. But the Thorpes had a definite destination – Oregon (or possibly California). If “THE OREGON TRAIL” had been an anthology series, like NBC’s “WAGON TRAIN” (1957-1965); and Rod Taylor’s character could have been some frontiersman that guided wagon trains across the continent on a yearly basis . . . perhaps it could have survived. But “THE OREGON TRAIN” was about a family’s westward journey to Oregon (or California). And Taylor did not portrayed a wagon scout. The traits behind this particular series made it difficult to last as a long-running series, let alone one that could last more than one season.

What made the premise for “THE OREGON TRAIL” even harder to swallow were the number of characters that the Thorpe train encountered during their journey. They encountered outlaws, Army personnel, mountain men, Native Americans, settlers, miners, etc. Encountering Native Americans and mountain men during a wagon train journey in the 1840s struck me as plausible. Encountering settlers, miners and Army personnel during that same period did not. “THE OREGON TRAIL” was set either in the early or mid-1840s. There were no non-Native American settlements between western Missouri and Oregon (or California) . . . at least as far as I know. The only Army outpost in this region was probably Fort Leavenworth, established in northeastern Kansas in 1827. Fort Kearny was established in 1848 and Fort Laramie became a U.S. Army post in 1849. I could see the Thorpes encountering outlaws in present day Kansas. But further along the Oregon Trail? I just cannot see it.

Despite these hiccups, I still enjoyed “THE OREGON TRAIL”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was able to list five episodes that truly impressed me, as shown below:

1. (1.01) “Pilot – The Oregon Trail”

2. (1.04) “Trapper’s Rendezvous”

3. (1.07) “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die”

4. (1.02) “The Last Game”

5. (1.11) “Evan’s Dilemma”

It is a pity that “THE OREGON TRAIL” did not last beyond thirteen to fourteen episodes. And it is even more of a pity that NBC lacked the good sense to either make it an anthology series or a miniseries. Oh well, I still have my DVD box set to enjoy.

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2 Responses

  1. Dear Lady Lavinia,
    I just stepped over your well written post about ” The Oregon Trail “.
    I appreciate it very much and enjoyed reading your interesting thoughts of it.
    ” Oregon Trail ” was and still is my favorit series. I first saw it december 1979, when it started here in germany. I was a boy, age 13 and me and my best friend were looking out for some new heroes to play after.
    We found them in Luther and Evan and we played it for many years,
    ‘ til we finally grow up to old to play. Luther immediately became my hero. I never my whole life forgot his first appearance on that bridge ending up taking a bath. šŸ™‚
    Unfortunatly ” The Oregon Trail ” had only one rerun here in germany
    and then disappeared from the screen and never came back. šŸ˜¦
    But Luther always stayed in my heart and I often wondered, if I would ever see him again.
    Today, here in germany we already have october 5th, is Charles fourth day of death. šŸ˜¦
    Few month back, I discovered, that finally, ” The Oregon Trail ” had been released on DVD, with new episodes, I’ d never seen.
    Luckily I found a shop, who sent it to germany for a very cheap price.
    It was so great to finally see my beloved heroes from childhood again and the series hadn’ t lost nothing of it’ s magic, quite the contrary.
    But today I also see it with a bit different eyes.
    Now it reminds me of the great childhood I had with my best friend,
    seeing Luther and Evan doing things, we played after.
    And more and more I’ m watching it, I discover a lot of new interesting facts and how solid and close to detail it was made, getting similiar thoughts on it like yours, you call so nice ” hiccups “.
    It would be nice to talk a little to someone, who enjoy the show as much I do, ‘ course I think, it’ s really worth it and of course I like to know, what so truly impressed you on that five eps. šŸ˜‰
    I would be glad to hear from you.
    My mail is luther77@t-online.de

  2. Dear Luther,

    I am glad that you enjoyed the article. I must admit that “THE OREGON TRAIL” proved to be quite a surprise for me. I had spent years looking for either the VHS or DVD copy of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”, to purchase. Then by chance, I discovered that a local electronics store was selling copies of “THE OREGON TRAIL”. I took a chance and purchased it. And I’m glad that I did. In the end, I really enjoyed it.

    By the way, I’m certain you must have discovered that Charles Napier, the actor who had portrayed Luther, had passed away some four years ago. Also, Rod Taylor, who portrayed Evan Thorpe, passed away nine months ago, four days shy of his 85th birthday. I’m sure that both actors will be missed.

    LadyLavinia

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