Henry Fonda had one of the most illustrious careers in motion pictures and on Broadway but television was a more elusive target. In 1959 he embarked on a TV series called 'The Deputy', one of 25 or so westerns crowding the primetime schedule in 1959. Surprisingly, Fonda's series failed to crack the top 25 and never reached the ratings heights that 'Gunsmoke' or 'Maverick' attained.
The show was important not only for Fonda's involvement but it was the first TV series that Norman Lear co-created; he went on to produce 'All in the Family', 'The Jeffersons', 'Good Times' and so many other seminal sitcoms of the 1970s.
Timeless Media has just released the entire run of 'The Deputy' on DVD for the first time and, somewhat coincidentally, there's a new book out about Fonda's mostly forgotten horse opera. I spoke with Glenn Mosley, the author of 'Henry Fonda and The Deputy' from BearManor Media, a book that chronicles the Oscar winning actor's first foray into series' television.
Billy Ingram: I've never seen the show or ever read anything about 'The Deputy' and yet it was a big deal for a major star like Henry Fonda to launch a TV series in the fifties. For that reason alone I think this would be a fascinating story. Is it?
Glenn Mosley: It was to me, in fact what you described is the reason why I have a chapter in the book that's called, in question marks, "Fonda on TV?". This is the way that nearly everybody reacts when they hear the news, including me, when I discovered it. It was earlier for me, I was 15 years old, but that's what everybody says and that's what makes it interesting.
BI: Where was Fonda's career at this point?
GM: He had gotten back into the movie business 4 years prior with 'Mr. Roberts' after a 7 year absence. He had done 'Fort Apache' with John Ford in 1948 and then went to Broadway to do 'Mr. Roberts' and he did that for several thousand performances over three or four years. He even took that production on the road. He subsequently did another play on Broadway and it turned out he was away from pictures for 7 years. So 'Mr. Roberts' in some odd way was a comeback to the big screen for Henry Fonda. Subsequently he had continued making movies including a couple of pretty good westerns, 'The Tin Star' and 'Warlock' just prior to going into 'The Deputy'.
BI: Fonda produced the series, I understand he produced a film a couple of years earlier and swore he'd never do that again.
GM: He even produced an episode of 'General Electric Theater' called 'The Clown' based on the life of the famous clown Emmett Kelley. And the film that you referenced that he produced was '12 Angry Men' based on Reggie Rose's television play.
He was the co-owner of 'The Deputy' through his company Top Gun and had a lot of input into the casting and the production even though he wasn't around the show year round like the others were.
BI: Many of the major 1940's movie stars were looking to television in the '50s and '60s in hopes of a steady paycheck and being able to work from home but most weren't successful. For instance Joan Crawford and Bette Davis looked at someone like Lucille Ball and desired the same kind of job security she had. Was this the case with Henry Fonda?
GM: In Fonda's case, he was quite honest about it, he was lured in by the idea of having residuals that would pay out into the future. He described it as one of the few ways that an actor could make money in those days. He said it was like, "Raining gold." His agents sort of talked him into it a little bit.
He was not in the same situation as the actresses you describe including Barbara Stanwyck and others, the big, big Hollywood stars from the '30s and '40s. Fonda wasn't quite at that point. He might have been at that point a decade or so later when he decided to try another television series, 'The Smith Family', but he wasn't at that point when he tried 'The Deputy'. I just think there was a business deal on the table and he was intrigued and decided to give it a try.
BI: He did a lot of westerns did he enjoy acting in them?
GM: He liked them as long as they were about characters and not just what he described as, "They went that-a-way incidents." He was somewhat bemused by his public image of being associated with westerns the way that he was. He didn't consider himself a westerner. He said, "I'm from the mid-west, I'm not a cowboy." And of course he quite famously didn't like horses at all. He just preferred, I guess as any actor would, to do good westerns.
BI: The show was created by Norman Lear?
GM: The show was co-created by Norman Lear and a friend of his, Roland Kibbee, who also had a long and successful career in television. Not the giant of the industry that Norman Lear was and is but a very successful producer writer who worked on 'Columbo' and the first 'Bob Newhart Show' and did all kinds of television.
There are a lot of sources that claim 'The Deputy' is sort of a sequel to or a continuation of or a spinoff of Fonda's 1957 western 'The Tin Star' in which he starred along with Anthony Perkins. He played an embittered ex-lawman who had turned bounty hunter and Perkins was this young sheriff in the town that Fonda takes under his wing. So there's sort of the older guy / younger guy aspect to 'The Tin Star' that it shares with the television series but it's not the same at all, the two aren't connected beyond that similarity. In fact, Lear and Kibbee were inspired by an entirely different source than 'The Tin Star' in creating 'The Deputy'.
BI: Fonda was featured prominently in 6 of the storylines in the first season and 13 in the second?
GM: I count them a little differently, I took a little liberty with the number, but in terms of what are called "Fondas" and "non-Fondas" that is the correct number. It's 19 total over the two seasons, 6 and 13. In the episode guide in the back of the book I played with that a little bit because I thought there were three or four episodes in which his appearance was longer than just a page of dialogue or two and the scene was enjoyable or effective for one reason or another. So I kind of amended the "Fonda" / "non-Fonda" definition a little bit. But in terms of the Simon Fry character, Fonda's character, being involved in the story front to back there are those 19 episodes.
He was always in character on the show, he narrated most but not all of the episodes. They had him narrate the episodes to give the appearance of deeper involvement by the character, that he's sort of overseeing everything even though you don't see him on the screen all the time. It is true that in the average "non-Fonda" episode of 'The Deputy' Henry Fonda will show up near the beginning and discuss things with his deputy, point him in the right direct, and then come back at the end of the episode as things were wrapping up.
BI: What were the ratings like?
GM: It wasn't one of the power hits of the time. It got respectable ratings, Saturday nights on NBC, and NBC appreciated the association with Fonda in that they even offered a third season but Fonda wasn't interested in continuing. NBC was starting to talk about making the show an hour instead of a half hour. This was about the time you'll recall that 'Gunsmoke' was moving to an hour, it was sort of the trend of the moment, the feeling being that maybe the half-hour westerns were becoming played out in the early-sixties. But Fonda said that would take a greater time commitment that he was willing to do.
What he preferred to do was just be there for 8 or 9 weeks or so in the summertime and then go off and do another play on Broadway and squeeze a movie in there too if he could. Doing 'The Deputy' for an hour was going to require more time than he was willing to commit to it. Read Morgan told me that 'The Deputy', because of Fonda's presence in it, could have run for a long time and maybe that's true.
BI: Was it popular in syndication?
GM: It ran in syndication for a long time, it popped up again most recently on TV Land. I think about ten years ago was the last time they ran it.
BI: When Henry Fonda returned to series TV in 1971 with 'The Smith Family', it was hailed as a milestone that such a fine actor would stoop to weekly television. Fonda played a police officer and family man in this half-hour dramedy from the creators of 'Family Affair' and 'My Three Sons'. Rounding out the cast were Janet Blair as Fonda's wife, Ron Howard as his teen son, with Darlene Carr and bubble gum sensation Michael-James Wixted as the younger kids. (Coincidentally, the theme song was 'Primrose Lane', a hit from 1959.) The series followed 'Room 222' and had that same "relevant" slant that nobody working in TV in 1971 seemed to understand. Still, the show made it into a second season for a total of 39 episodes that no one has seen since. I asked Glenn Mosley what he thought about that production.
GM: What was interesting about that show wasn't so much what I would have to say about it but what the people who made it said about it and they all said it was terrible.
I use 'The Smith Family' to complete the circle of 'The Deputy' because when 'The Smith Family' was premiering Fonda was sort of kicking the tires a little bit on 'The Deputy'. He even called it that, "Terrible old series I did over at Revue" and yet by almost any measure 'The Smith Family' was worse. I used that as an example of just how hard it is in the end to make successful, interesting, creative television because of the amount of it you had to produce, at least in those days.
I think If you had a Henry Fonda type signed to a series these days it's more likely that you would do 10 or 12 really good episodes, the 'Sopranos' model, rather than try to push out 39 episodes like they were doing in 1959 or even 24 episodes the way they were doing in 1971-72 with 'The Smith Family'. No one sets out to make a bad television show it's just very, very hard work because of the volume.
Read Morgan, when I interviewed him, made that point repeatedly. In fact I think he said, "They were shooting them out like a machine gun." You would shoot one episode Monday, Tuesday and through lunch on Wednesday and then you'd go have lunch and after lunch on Wednesday you'd start another episode. And this schedule was not what Fonda had been used to in the movies. It was far more intense, you couldn't do retakes the way you could in movies, you just sorta had to plow forward as best you could.
Having said that, I maintain there are several episodes of 'The Deputy' that are just great fun to watch, that are really entertaining. There are 3 in particular, three of the earliest "Fondas" that are favorites of mine at least. I was interested in the fact that they hadn't kicked them out overseas compiled into a movie as was common practice in those days.
If you take 'Badge For a Day' which is the one that Lear and Kibbee had written and a subsequent teleplay by Kibbee 'Shadow of the Noose' and a third episode by Herb Purdom called 'Hang the Law', those 3 are sort of like non-western westerns in that there's a lot of humor in them and a minimum of violence. And Fonda's great fun to watch, Allen Case is good in them. They have a different feel than other westerns of the period.
BI: What makes the story of 'The Deputy' important?
GM: Here was a fairly long segment of his career, this two year period, that hadn't really been written about and he doesn't even write about it that much in his book. I think there's three or four lines total in his autobiography and in all the books written about Fonda it's not mentioned. So I thought that by doing this I could fill a gap in the research about Fonda.
Another thing that was important to me was the connection with Norman Lear and that this was the first television series that carries the words 'created by Norman Lear' in the credits. In that sense it was an important stepping stone for Lear in terms of his career and what was to follow.
And the impact Roland Kibbee had on Norman Lear in those years in terms of understanding script writing and story structure and making a point with your script and so on. Lear told me he learned a lot from Roland Kibbee. For both those reasons I thought the book had a great deal of value and has a lot to say that hasn't been said before.