The cast of the High Chaparral

While researching any number of topics, it’s easy to get distracted, which may be one of the reasons why it has taken 3 years (3 YEARS!!!) to get this far with AML.

This is one of those distractions. Writing about my husband’s great-uncle, I found myself thinking about the TV series, The High Chaparral. The show was running about the same time as the La Alianza revolution in New Mexico.It was one of the few shows, then or now, that prominently featured cast members that were Hispanic.*

Google the title and you’ll come across this nifty web site, an obvious shrine to the series. Much of the
information is as I remember it, although I didn’t know that the same person who created Bonanza also created The High Chaparral.

The plot was interesting and romantic, especially since many of the historical details are compelling, if not somewhat accurate. An Arizona rancher, new to the area and recently widowed, is forced into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a Spanish Land Grant patriarch. Victoria, played by Linda Cristal, was smart, educated, and gorgeous. She brings along her brother, played by Henry Darrow, who was eye candy before the term eye candy was even invented.

The portrayal of the neighboring Apache tribes was not only sensitive but also pretty darn good.

I loved this show, but when it was cancelled I was in college and probably didn’t pay much attention. The late ’60s into the ’70s were turbulent times, Cesar Chavez and Russell Means were both doing their thing, the awareness of Hispanic and Native American issues were boiling over in some areas of the country. The premise of the show also didn’t follow the tried-and-true shoot ’em up Western. Perhaps all of these factors – or none of them – led to the show’s end.

Why was it cancelled? The editor of the High Chaparral Newsletter weighs in with some inside info…Why was an innovative, award winning, successful television show cancelled when it was in the top 25 Nielson ratings?The assassination shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy did more than throw the United States into shock. Those murders created a national demand for action, and in that year of 1968 President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order creating the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

The Commission’s final report to President Richard Nixon would influence social policy for decades.Standing out in a list of employment, education, hand gun control and social service recommendations was an indictment against TV. The commission linked violence on the street with violence on the small screen. National news articles discussing the ‘problem of violence’ needed an example to hold up, something the public and pundits could hang on to and picture in the midst of the rhetoric.

“High Chaparral” began to appear in UPI and AP wire stories and local newspapers as an example of out of control violence. The kind that was ruining society and the minds of the next generation.While the theory “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” may sound good, in this case sponsors and the network weren’t convinced. As the no-violence drumbeat grew louder, money grew tighter. So did controls on scripts. A Toldeo News article openly describes the limitations as ‘silly’, then quotes star Leif Erickson. “No horsefalls,” said Erickson. “If a guy is thrown by a horse, we must show him get up and walk away. When you draw a pistol, you don’t point it, you hold it sideways. If anybody’s shot, it’s by accident.”

Producer Kent McCray has estimated High Chaparral averaged $225,000 an episode to produce, compared to $200,000 for a Bonanza episode. It was one of the most expensive television shows in production and the money shows on screen – location sets, big scenes with herds of cattle, battles with comancheros and Apache. The location itself – Tucson, Arizona, challenged the cast and crew with cactus, 120 degree heat, sunstroke, and rattlesnakes

By the third season, a careful viewer can see the impact of budget cuts made by a nervous and money conscious NBC, with scenes shot on a soundstage masquerading as the Cannon ranch house and yard. The show was in a transitional period that happens to long running shows, trying to re-define itself and find new footing after personnel changes that included the loss of Mark Slade/Blue Cannon (and other supporting characters due to budget cuts) and the addition of Rudy Ramos/Wind.

Things were starting to gel but weren’t quite set.

High Chaparral had started slow out of the gate but built an audience and held decent ratings. Critics called it ‘innovative’ and ‘ground breaking’. Emmy awards were won. In its timeslot on Sunday evenings after Bonanza the show held a secure audience slice. Then in a fit of shuffling NBC moved it from Sunday evenings after Bonanza to Friday nights. A hefty piece of the fan base (young, hip kids out on dates, at ball games or movies) weren’t staying home on Friday nights to watch TV. A series of pre-emptions for special events or Friday night movie of the week, some back-to-back, left audiences wondering if the show had disappeared. Ratings fell lower. Then lower.

Creator David Dortort was an innovative producer who knew what the American public liked. He excelled at historical research and had a passion for accuracy in an entertaining medium. But he wasn’t known as a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. His tremendous success with Bonanza and again with High Chaparral built a reserve of clout in a success-oriented business and he wasn’t known for being shy about using it.  He’d stepped on a few toes…which is common in an industry that has lots of sensitive toes waiting to be stepped on. When his new child, his High Chaparral, started to look like a target, there were old acquaintances who were happy to think about payback.

So although few on the show saw it coming, it was most likely a perfect storm of events. NBC lost sponsorship money. They had to cut costs. High Chaparral was their most expensive show. It had taken a downturn in the ratings because of their own bad programming decisions, and no one likes to admit to bad choices. The show was under public scrutiny and criticism on a national stage because of the social focus on television violence, which made NBC look bad. David Dortort had few friends and more enemies at the network who were in a position to make the decision.

When the time came one Dortort show was going to be cancelled – Bonanza or High Chaparral. The scales were not in favor of High Chaparral.

Penny McQueen
Editor, The High Chaparral Newsletter
President, The High Chaparral Reunion, Inc.

*The comedy series Chico and The Man was airing in the mid-70s, it lasted for four years and starred Jack Albertson and Freddie Prinze, who killed himself while the series was still in production.