Saddle bronc rider Stoney Burke (Jack Lord) is an up-and-coming contender on the early 1960s rodeo circuit. As the noble South Dakotan travels through the modern West on his quest to win the Golden Buckle, he has adventures (not all of which are rodeo-related), encounters a range of people, and sometimes finds himself in trouble. But he can always count on the help of his friends Ves (Warren Oates), E.J. (Bruce Dern), Cody (Robert Dowdell), and Red (Bill Hart). Actually, he can’t always count on the incorrigible scam artist Ves–it’s a good general policy to never count on Ves–but Stoney humors his childhood friend all the same, anyway.
I stumbled across this series earlier this year and enjoyed it so much that I asked Julie to purchase it. We have a running joke about how obscure some of my selections are whenever I do purchase requests, but after I’d laid out the merits of a nearly sixty-year-old show, Julie agreed to add it to the library collection. Thanks so much, Julie!
If you primarily know Jack Lord as the stern, hard-nosed McGarrett from the original 1960s Hawaii Five-O, you’ll be surprised by how friendly and good-natured Lord is as Stoney. This series predates Hawaii Five-O by several years, and one of its great strengths is its casting. Stoney’s posse of friends includes before-they-were famous Dern as matter-of-fact chute boss E.J. and Oates as the squirrelly Ves.
Beyond that, the episodes are chockful of guest stars that will be familiar to any fan of 1960s TV and film. Is that a pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy as a guest star in episode 2? Why, yes, it is. Ditto for a young Cloris Leachman and Harry Dean Stanton, a fairly young James Coburn and Robert Duvall, and too many famous character actors to list. It’s a gold mine for anyone who enjoys this era of media.
The show is not without its flaws. Character backstories are wildly inconsistent between episodes, a couple of episodes come across as badly dated to 21st-century sensibilities, and some of the story lines can be a touch repetitive. There are two episodes that deal with international espionage/thriller type plots. I don’t know why. They’re two of the creakier episodes.
But its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The show was an early effort by Leslie Stevens, the writer-director who brought the cult classic sci fi The Outer Limits to TV screens the following year, and he knows how to make good TV. The acting in Stoney Burke is excellent, and the writing in general is sharp. Courtesy of rodeo legend Casey Tibbs, the rodeo scenes have a veneer of authenticity that you don’t often see in pop culture depictions of the rodeo. The black-and-white cinematography is striking.
For all its struggles with pulling off espionage plots, the show does noir, Western, comedy, and character-driven drama very well. The show takes some time finding its way, but some of its final episodes ended up being its best work. The series finale is stunningly good and pushes into some surprisingly dark and gritty territory. It’s a shame the show was cancelled after only one season because I think Stoney and company had more stories to tell.
Its core cast is also one of its great strengths. Stoney Burke works best as a buddy show, especially when it combines that element with a deep dive into its rodeo setting. There was apparently tension on set between Lord and his talented costars, to the point that Dern exited the show midway through its run. Lord saw the show as a star vehicle for himself and allegedly resented the time the show spent on the supporting actors as a distraction.
I’d have to humbly disagree with Lord on that. Stoney is likable enough on his own, but the show excels when it allows its wholesome, idealistic hero to bounce off his friends who are a touch more cynical and quick-tempered (like E.J. and Cody) or are just more morally flexible (like Ves and Red) rather than when he goes it alone.
In fact, I’d have paid good money for a spinoff focused on Ves’s and Red’s shady adventures, which range from the truly inspired to the hilariously inept. Oates and Hart were good friends in real life, and they’re clearly having a blast any time their frenemy characters are allowed to cut loose on the show.
Stoney Burke is a unique little time capsule and one well worth visiting, especially if you’re a fan of Westerns or early 60s TV. I highly recommend it.
Have you ever watched Stoney Burke? What’s your favorite one-season show? What’s your favorite show from the 60s? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this item or to place it on hold.