When it was announced in 1962 that Universal would produce a weekly 90-minute color Western inspired by Owen Wister's 1902 novel
for NBC, there were plenty of skeptics.
An hour show, OK. But how many people would watch 90 minutes each week? It turned out that quite a few would. The Virginian went on to a nine-year run, and most of that time was ranked in the top 20 shows.
"We - Doug McClure and myself - thought it would work from the start," said James Drury, who played the title character. McClure, who died in 1995, played his pal Trampas.
"I wish Doug was still around to enjoy what's happening," Drury said during a telephone interview.
What's happening is that season one of The Virginian (Timeless, $79.98) will arrive Tuesday for the first time on DVD. It comes packaged in an attractive tin case and includes the initial 30 episodes on 10 discs. A bonus disc includes interviews with Drury and other members of the cast. Meanwhile, the series is airing weekday afternoons on cable's Encore Westerns.
The show features Lee J. Cobb as Judge Henry Garth, who owns the Shiloh ranch outside Medicine Bow, Wyo., during the 1890s. The Virginian is his foreman and Trampas and Steve Hill (Gary Clarke) are ranch hands. Roberta Shore is Garth's daughter Betsy.
Drury said the presence of Cobb in the cast made the show an easy sell to the network.
"They bought it just because Lee J. Cobb was in it," Drury said. "He was so famous for his work in [the play] Death of a Salesman and other roles, so we didn't even have to do a pilot."
Although The Virginian had its share of action, the series also was noted for strong story lines and its guest stars. Bette Davis, George C. Scott, Michael Rennie, Joan Crawford, and Ricardo Montalban were among the many veterans who appeared in the series, while soon-to-be-stars such as Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, and Harrison Ford also popped up.
"It was something special to go to the set every day and find out who you were working with," Drury said. "You'd try to learn as much as you could from them."
The Virginian also was noted for its opening theme, written by Percy Faith. "You listen to it and you realize that he captured all the visions of the West in that piece of music," Drury said.
The Virginian had numerous cast changes throughout its run. The constants during the nine years were Drury and McClure, who appeared in all 249 episodes.
The only thing fans won't find in the DVD collection is the Virginian's name.
"That's the way Owen Wister wrote it," Drury said. The Philadelphia-born Wister "made the Virginian a man of mystery, and I think that's part of the character's appeal. So no one knows his name, including me."
The Virginian was one of the longest-running Westerns on TV. Only Gunsmoke (20 years) and Bonanza (14 years) lasted longer.