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.

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Rerun Junkie–Gunsmoke

It’s the longest running western. It’s tied for the longest running prime-time drama (thanks, Law & Order). Twenty years is a long time on the air and 635 episodes is a lot of episodes.

Twenty years also means different opening credits.

Twenty years also means different opening credits.

Set in Dodge City, Kansas, Gunsmoke is the story of Marshall Matthew Dillon (James Arness) as he tries to bring justice to the Wild West. Assisted over the years by friends Doc (Milburn Stone), Chester (Dennis Weaver), and Quint Asper (Burt Reynolds), deputies Festus (Ken Curtis), Thad (Roger Ewing), and Newly (Buck Taylor), and the saloon owner Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and her bartender Sam (Glenn Strange), Matt faced off against a host of bad guys, troubles, injuries, moral quandries, and injustice.

And let me tell you, there was plenty of all of that. I haven’t seen every episode of this show. Probably haven’t even seen half of them (and it started out on the radio with William Conrad as the voice of Matt Dillon, so the saddle bag of history overflows). But I can tell you that they did not skimp on the drama, nor skirt some of the heavier issues. In addition to the usual robbery, revenge, and death you expect on a western, the show had episodes involving rape, white slavery, racism, bigotry, abuse of all kinds, greed of all kinds, murder of all kinds, and that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head. I think every one of the main cast was falsely accused at one point in time and a few even faced the rope, only to be saved at the last minute. I know Festus was nearly hung on several occasions, head in the noose and all before he was saved, and when he was saved NO ONE EVER APOLOGIZED. Really. Nobody ever bothered to be like, “Hey, sorry we nearly killed you. Our bad.” Nothing. I think if you nearly hang someone  and then find out he’s innocent just before you kick the horse out from under him, you should at least have the decency to say you’re sorry. But that’s just me.

This is the cast configuration I know best. See the smiles? The Wild West wasn't a total downer.

This is the cast configuration I know best. See the smiles? The Wild West wasn’t a total downer.

Not every episode was heavier than a blacksmith’s anvil. Many of them were light and quite funny. Typically, anytime Festus was heavily involved, especially if any member of his family showed up, it’s going to be a good time. Festus episodes tend to be my favorite. But no matter what the nature of the episode is, any conversation between Festus and Doc is going to be gold.

Gunsmoke is one of those shows that could have a post of it’s own on just the guest stars. That’s what happens when you’re on forever. Everyone ends up on your show. But here area  few I find worth mentioning: familiar names Nick Nolte, Gary Busey, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfus, Jodie Foster, Diane Ladd, and Charles Bronson; Bruce Dern, Royal Dano, John Dehner, John Anderson, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Harry Carey Jr, and Claude Akins, who were required by federal law at the time to appear in every western TV show; my favorites Ross Martin and Joyce Jameson; J. Pat O’Malley, Nehemiah Persoff, Virginia Gregg, and Vitto Scotti, who were required by federal law at the time to be in every TV show; Kurt Russell and his daddy Bing; Buck Taylor’s daddy Dub; Brock Peters, Cicely Tyson, Yaphet Kotto, and Keye Luke; Ron Howard and his brother Clint; John Saxon, Sid Haig, and Richard Jaeckel; and leading ladies Bette Davis, Vera Miles, Margaret Hamilton, and Gloria DeHaven.

This isn’t even the tip of the ice berg. It’s a mere clump of snow on an ice planet.

Like many of my reruns, I started watching Gunsmoke because there was nothing else on. Having seen episodes from the last eight or nine seasons multiple times now, I can see why this show was on the air for so long. There was always a problem to be solved, a danger to overcome, a gunslinger to tame, a thirst for revenge to quench. This show had it all, right down to the romantic tension between Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty (how scandalous!).

Dodge City may have faced drought a time or two, the drama well never ran dry.

Bless Festus, his mule, and his abused hat.

Bless Festus, his mule, and his abused hat.