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–The Rifleman

Though there was a huge boon of Westerns on TV during the fifties and sixties and therefore plenty of reruns of said Westerns, I am rather ambivalent to most of them, using most of them as background noise on the afternoons I’m not working a day job. However, a couple of them have captured my heart and one of them is The Rifleman.

The Rifleman

The Rifleman features Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and his son Mark (Johnny Crawford) building a life in the town of Northfork in the New Mexico territory back before New Mexico was a state and the 20th century was a thing. Lucas’s expertise with a rifle proves to be a valuable asset to Marshall Micah Torrence (Paul Fix) as they both try to keep some law and order in the Wild West.

"C'mon, Micah. We got some lawin' to do."
“C’mon, Micah. We got some lawin’ to do.”

The town had it’s share of familiar faces over the years. Hope Summers, Billy Quinn, Patricia Blair, Joe Higgins, Joan Taylor, and Harlan Warde all played recurring characters during the run of the show. Guest stars included: frequent TV guest stars John Anderson, Richard Anderson, Dabbs Greer (who played a different character in back-to-back episodes; I had to look it up when I first saw it to make sure Me-TV wasn’t airing them in a funny order or it was a season finale/season premier and it wasn’t), Kevin Hagen, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, John Dehner, and John Hoyt; lovely ladies June Allison, Agnes Moorehead (as a really fun character), Grace Lee Whitney, and Patricia Berry; Michael Landon and Dan Blocker before they were on the Ponderosa;  Robert Culp, Martin Landau, and Robert Vaughn before they were spies; James Drury before he was the Virginian; Ellen Corby before she was a grandma;  Frank DeKova before he was a chief of the Hekawi; Adam West before he was Batman; Lee Van Cleef, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, and Denver Pyle (because I think it was a law that they had to be on every Western TV show);  some nobodies like Dennis Hopper, Sammy Davis Jr., James Coburn, Buddy Hackett, and Lon Chaney Jr; and Robert Crawford Jr (Johnny’s brother) and Jeff Connors (Chuck’s son).

(You have no idea how many people I left out. Watch the show to see a whole lot of familiar faces, many of them very young.)

North Fork, like many old west towns in these shows, is a magnet for some real jerks. Bank robbers, kidnappers, gunfighters, murderers, thieves, cattle rustlers, bullies. Naturally, this sort of thing leads to trouble and many times that trouble was solved with Lucas’s rifle. But! That wasn’t the lesson Lucas taught his son. He taught the boy that the rifle was the last resort and it was never something he wanted to use.

This sort of thinking, however, did not apply to anyone messing with Mark. Over the course of the series, Mark got kidnapped or taken hostage, I don’t know, more times than any normal boy is kidnapped/taken hostage during their years between 10 and 15. A few times a season, at least. Anyway, whenever someone threatened/kidnapped/hostaged Lucas’s boy, the shit hit the fan and then Lucas hit the bad guy. Repeatedly. Maybe choked him. Stomped him. Kicked him. Hit him some more.

The backbone of the series really wasn’t Lucas shooting bad guys; it was his relationship with his son Mark. As a widower, he did his best to raise his son right. And he loved his son, that was very clear. He protected him (when he wasn’t getting kidnapped and such) and educated him in the ways of morals and values. For a man that used his gun every episode, he wasn’t keen on his son picking up one of his own too soon. And just as the show didn’t shy away from morals, it didn’t shy away from father-son affection, either. There’s never any doubt that Lucas loves his son and he’s not afraid to show it.

Try getting away with that today. Folks would be hollering “sissy”.

I don’t think it would be smart to take that attitude with the rifleman.

Father and son. They can't be beat.
Father and son. They can’t be beat.