It’s a rare experience for one of my gray hairs and reverence to watch a beloved childhood TV show and discover that it’s actually better than remembered. But such is the case for me with Yancy Derringer, a 1958-59 show that’s technically classed as a Western. It’s not really, though, because it’s set in New Orleans and the action is mostly urban. You could make a case that it’s really historical Noir (of course, I see Noir under every bed).
The eponymous hero, Yancy (played by stunt man and actor Jock Mahoney), is a scion of New Orleans’ elite society, a Confederate veteran, who returns from a sojourn in the Wild West to find that his riverboat is in someone else’s possession, along with the old family plantation, and his mansion (the same one they used in Gone With the Wind, by the way) has been turned into a casino.
Burning with anger at the local criminal element, Yancy gets an offer that you’d think anyone could refuse, from the federal administrator of New Orleans, currently under martial law. This man is John Colton, played by a Scandinavian-American actor named Kevin Hagen. He wants Yancy to be his (unpaid) “underground agent,” keeping tabs on the illegal side of life in the post-bellum Big Easy. Yancy, who like most 1950s TV heroes can apparently subsist on danger alone, agrees, because he cares about his city.
This perilous life is made safer by the fact that he comes equipped with full-time personal security. This is in the person of Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah, a Pawnee chief who (according to the story line) once saved Yancy’s life, and is now obligated by tribal tradition to protect him forever. Pahoo, though he never speaks and communicates only through sign language, is one of the highlights of the show. Immobile and impassive as a cigar store Indian much of the time, he still manages to command our attention, and when he springs into action he’s silent and deadly. He’s played by X Brands (his real name), a German-American actor who played a lot of Native Americans. But his costume is far more authentic (to my eyes) than anything we generally saw in old Westerns (I wonder if it wasn’t copied from a George Catlin portrait or some such), and, at least according to TV lore, his sign language is correct. Real Native Americans praised his performance. It’s particularly fun to watch Brands and Mahoney work together in action scenes – they’re a smooth tag team, perfectly in synch.
During the first episodes, Yancy is the archetypal impoverished aristocrat, subsisting on gambling winnings, skipping meals sometimes, but always impeccably dressed, usually in a white suit. He’s as smooth with the ladies as James Bond, and there’s a fresh flirtation in every episode. His chief companion, however, is Madame Francine, played by Frances Bergen (wife of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and mother of Candice). Madame Francine’s business is ostensibly a gambling house, but it’s full of beautiful girls, and this is New Orleans, so we all know what was going on. But you didn’t mention such things on TV in the ‘50s.
The series was created and partly owned by a husband and wife team, Richard Sale and Mary Loos. Sale had an amazing career, starting as a pulp writer and eventually becoming a Hollywood script writer and director. Mary was the niece of legendary screenwriter Anita Loos, but had a formidable career herself. Their sensibilities are visible all through the series – minorities are treated with unusual respect for the time, and women play strong parts. The scripts are generally sharp and clever, considering the limitations of the medium and the time constraints of the half-hour format.
A nice feature is that Yancy Derringer anticipated today’s miniseries. The show kept continuity between episodes – if Yancy mentions in one episode that he’s taking the train to Nevada soon, the next installment will show him on the train. Several minor characters return more than once. Previous events do not disappear, but are recalled and remarked on.
Yancy Derringer was a ratings success, and was on track to be renewed for a second season. Then, according to legend, the network tried to get a piece of the ownership, the owners refused, and negotiations collapsed. However, in those days one season meant 34 episodes. So you can have a pretty nice marathon by streaming it on Amazon Plus – though they omit one episode because (apparently) a good print of it no longer exists. You can see them all if you buy the DVD set.
I finished streaming it today. And had a very good time.
By the way, the first time I heard the expression “I’m your huckleberry,” popularized by Val Kilmer in Tombstone, was in the pilot episode of Yancy Derringer.