Rerun Junkie–They Didn’t Have Native Americans Back Then

As I discussed in a previous post, all of your favorites are problematic. All of my favorites, too.

One problematic aspect of reruns that’s probably the most glaring is the racist casting. White actors playing non-white roles has been common place for decades and was probably at its most popular in the Westerns of the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. That’s right. Those Native Americans were not actual Native Americans. Those Mexicans? If they had a speaking role, they were most likely not actually Mexican.

John Saxon played a Native American on Bonanza and a Mexican on Gunsmoke. Martin Landau played a Mexican on both The Rifleman and The Big Valley. Michael Ansara not only played a Mexican in a couple of episodes of Rawhide, but he was frequently cast as a Native American, including starring in his own short-lived series called Law of the Plainsman playing Deputy Marshal Sam Buckheart, a character he originally played on The Rifleman.

Sadly, one of my favorites, F-Troop, was notorious for casting white actors as their Hekawi tribe members. Frank DeKova, Don Diamond, Edward Everett Horton (who also played a Native American chief on an episode of Batman), J. Pat O’Malley, Jamie Farr, hell even Don Rickles all played Native Americans. It seemed comedic timing was more important than racial accuracy. Not that there aren’t funny Native Americans; but back then, they didn’t even bother to look for them.

Of course, Native Americans and Latinos/Latinas weren’t the only ones having white actors step in for them. Boris Karloff played an Indian Maharaja on an episode of The Wild Wild West. Wende Wagner played a native Hawaiian on an episode of Perry Mason, and her aunt in that same episode was Miriam Goldina, a native Russian. Jim Backus’s wife, Henny, played a native mother on an episode of Gilligan’s Island. Spoiler alert! Russ Grieve, who played her native husband, and Mary Foran, who played her native daughter, weren’t natives either.

Two of the most curious examples of racist casting I have ever seen happened on two of my favorite reruns, both of which I’ve mentioned before, but I’m going to mention again because they are worth mentioning at every opportunity.

In an episode of Hawaii Five-O called “Samurai”, Ricardo Montalban played a Japanese criminal. Yes, you read that correctly and aren’t you glad that you did. In the second oddest case of yellow face I’ve ever seen (we’ll get to the first one very soon), a very Mexican Ricardo Montalban had his eyes artificially slanted to play a Japanese man. Like, his accent didn’t change at all. And whatever they did to his eyes made him look less Japanese and more like an eye lift gone wrong. The entire effect is very disconcerting and I highly recommend you try to catch that episode because descriptions and pictures don’t do it any justice.

To make an already confusing casting decision even more curious, Hawaii Five-O was typically good at casting Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to play Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

The truly oddest case of racist casting I’ve ever seen, however, belongs to the pilot episode of The Wild Wild West called “The Night of the Inferno”. In this episode Victor Buono played Juan Manolo aka Wing Fat.

Yes, let me break that down for you.

White actor Victor Buono played a Mexican man in disguise as a Chinese man. It’s basically a turducken of racist casting and I can’t help but gawk at it because I have no idea how to even begin to process it. I suppose if you’ve ever watched the series, then you can agree that at the very least, it sets you up nicely for some of the more bonzo episodes of the show.

Thankfully, this sort of whatthefuckery is largely in the past and though racist casting does still happen (whitewashing Asians and Pacific Islanders is still unnervingly common), the backlash is swift and loud. A new normal has been and is being established and even if I don’t watch current shows all that much, I’m still all for it.

After all, one day those shows will be reruns.

Rerun Junkie–F Troop

John Wayne couldn’t patrol the entire Old West. Forts were established to help protect those wild areas. None were as funny, though, as F Troop.

...with a bang and a boom...
…with a bang and a boom…

The show revolved around Sgt. Morgan O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Cpl. Randolph Agarn (Larry Storch) working to make their side business profitable while keeping it secret and also keeping their favored Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry) happy and oblivious, while he tries to keep the enamored Wrangler Jane (Melody Patterson) enamored without being TOO enamored. O’Rourke and Agarn worked with the Hekawi tribe, led by Chief Wild Eagle (Frank DeKova) to sell souvenirs, but also to help keep up certain illusions with Captain Permenter at the fort.

Members of F-Troop included lousy bugler Dobbs (James Hampton), blind sentry Vanderbilt (Joe Brooks), and Alamo veteran Duffy (Bob Steele). Chief Wild Eagle was aided by his son Crazy Cat (Don Diamond), who was more than ready to take over, Smokey Bear (Ben Frommer), and Roaring Chicken (Edward Everett Horton).

Chief Wild Eagle drives a hard bargain.
Chief Wild Eagle drives a hard bargain.

The show featured many of O’Rourke and Agarn’s get-rich quick schemes, including buying a ghost town, trying to get dancing girls for the saloon, trying to rope a wild horse to sell, and just about anything if the Hekawi could be made to agree to it. And since this was a Calvary post, there were always inspections, transfers, training, and other such military-minded things that Captain Parmenter was always prepared for as he always carried his trusty army manual with him.

Folks that stopped by Fort Courage included: James Gregory; Arch Johnson; Mako: funny men Henry Gibson, Don Rickles, Harvey Korman, Paul Lynde, Milton Berle, and George Furth; my forever favorite guest star J. Pat O’Malley; Catwomen Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar; John Dehner; Zsa Zsa Gabor; Jaques Aubuchon (Boris!); Pooh and Baloo…I mean Sterling Holloway and Phil Harris; cowboys Jack Elam, Victor French (who I didn’t even recognize!), and Don ‘Red’ Barry; Vic Tayback; Jamie Farr (not in a dress but it’s this gig that led him to wear one); Mary Wickes; Jeanette Nolan; Pat Harrington, JR; and two of my favorite people Vincent Price and Joyce Jameson. Ivan Bell, John Mitchum, and Jimmy Horan also had recurring roles as troopers.

Let’s just get this out of the way right here. The show ran for two seasons in the 60’s (’65-’67). Political correctness hadn’t been invented yet. They called the Indians…Indians. In fact, they even use the word “redskin” in the theme song that was used the first season. None of the people playing Indians are Indians. This was commonplace at the time. Don’t let this detract from the show.

This is a show like Gilligan’s Island in the sense that it is quite silly, but it’s incredibly funny and probably wouldn’t have worked without this particular cast. Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch are brilliant together, their delivery and timing spot on. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing the exact same scenes and having them be as funny. Ken Barry is a bit overshadowed because of this, but his Captain Parmenter is just as much fun and the interactions with Melody Patterson’s Wrangler Jane are both sweet and hilarious. Even though Frank DeKova and Don Diamond are basically playing stereotypes with the speech patterns and stuff, they’re still funny without every joke being about them being Indian. There are a lot of jokes that you can see coming a mile away and yet you still laugh.

I’m telling you, it’s all in the delivery.

I remember first seeing this show when I was a little kid (it was on late at night with Laugh-In, The Monkees, and Get Smart), but I never gave it much of a chance. I should have, though. I’ve missed out.

I was kinda dumb for a kid.

Don't cry, Agarn. I was said it only lasted two seasons, too.
Don’t cry, Agarn. I was sad it only lasted two seasons, too.