When it comes to geek entertainment, Westerns usually don't rank high on the list. Unless you're a film geek, the Western is a fossil, a symbol of a bygone era. But add a touch of science fiction, a dash of Steam Punk, the future co-creator of Lost, the future show runner of Warehouse 13 and a heaping portion of cult icon Bruce Campbell, and you don't just have a Western, you have the geekiest Western this side of the Rio Grande: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
The basic premise of Brisco was classic Western. Brisco County Jr. was a bounty hunter, seeking justice for the murder of his father, a federal marshal. The chief villains were John Bly and his gang, who Brisco pursued for most the show's only season. But Brisco wasn't just another sage brush epic, it was the Wild West, Fox style.
The Adventure Begins
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was the brainchild of screenwriters Carlton Cuse and the late Jeffrey Boam. Bob Greenblat, an executive at the then relatively new Fox television network, approached the writing team with the idea of doing an old-fashioned serial. Cuse was looking to make his mark in television and leapt at the opportunity.
“I was very intrigued by this idea and actually went out and watched a lot of old serials and basically found that the serials fell into one of two categories which were Westerns and science fiction,” Cuse said. “So basically I had this idea, 'wouldn't it be great to combine the two genres.'”
The task of writing the pilot fell to veteran feature writer David Simkins. Simkins began his career with New World Cinema, working on such movies as Adventures in Babysitting. While under contract with Warner Brothers, he developed an adventure serial set in the 1940s. The series didn't get picked up, but it brought him to the attention of Boam and Cuse, who hired him as an executive producer and writer. Simkins wrote the first draft of the Brisco pilot.
“Because I was coming from features, the script was kind of unproducable,” Simkins said. “A lot of action set pieces, a lot of special effects. I didn't really have a concept of television budgets and television schedules.” Simkins wasn't alone. Many of the people working on Brisco came from a feature background.
“None of us had previously done much in the way of television,” Cuse said. “We approached it from the idea of trying to be incredibly cinematic about it. We wanted to make it more like we were doing a mini movie every week.”
It's Every Actor's Dream to Play a Cowboy
When Bruce Campbell walked into the office of the casting director for a new Western series on Fox, he wasn't everybody's idea of a leading man. He was a relatively unknown actor, best remembered for staring in the Evil Dead series. He needed a way to stand out from the crowd.
“Actors all look for a way to leave an impression on casting directors to avoid getting lost in the shuffle,” Campbell said. “One audition piece for the show involved some fighting.” Campbell decided to fall back on a trick he and his old friend, director Sam Raimi, used to do in high school. He flipped himself head-over-heels.
“So I did that in his office, I flipped myself, and the casting director was like 'Oh, my God!.' He leaped out of his chair. He thought I was going to destroy the place,” Campbell said. “It made an impression to the point where at each subsequent audition, the casting director would go, “Hey, you're going to do that back flip again, right?”
“It was so unbelievable and cool,” Cuse said. “After seeing that, it was impossible to not imagine Brisco could be anyone but Bruce.” Cuse said Campbell deserves a lot of credit for the show's success. “A lot of the credit has to go to Bruce Campbell. I don't think any actor ever worked as hard on a series as Bruce did. From first call, which was usually at five in the morning Monday, until we finished shooting Friday, he was tireless. And then with his 36 hours off on the weekends, he would be doing publicity and promoting the show. He was so amazing. It was just a fantastic experience working with him. He kind of set the bar in many ways for what my expectations of what an actor could do were. We were so fortunate to have Bruce as the center of the show.”
Like many of the show's creative staff, Campbell grew up with Westerns. His mother was a fan of author Zane Grey and took Campbell to see some of the last John Wayne Westerns. As a result, Campbell was instantly drawn to the material. “I thought it was a very unique idea, he was a Harvard educated lawyer as well as a cowboy,” Campbell said. “I also liked all the modern day references. It was old fashioned and new fashioned at the same time.”
In the role of sidekick was Lord Bowler, played by the late Julius Carry. Lord Bowler was a tracker and manhunter who started out as rival to Brisco. But as the show progressed, the two became allies. “The character dynamic between Bruce and Julius was so great, and their scenes were so funny and so charged with good humor as opposed to ill humor, that it just sort of told us as we were writing the show that we should bring them more together,” Cuse said. “It was just a natural organic evolution based in large part on the way the actors related to each other.”
Simkins also felt that the interaction between Campbell and Carry was a large part of the shows success. “I don't think that Bruce's character would have been half as fun or half as interesting without Julius, as Lord Bowler, palling around with him,” Simkins said.
Kelly Rutherford played Dixie Cousins, Brisco's love interest. Rutherford worked out so well in auditions; her character was changed from a classic femme-fatale into one-half of a classic will-they, won't-they TV love story.
“In the original pilot, Dixie was always a femme-fatale. She never made a turn to the good side. She basically became the super villain at the end of the pilot,” Simkins said. “But once Kelly got cast, and we began to see where the role was going and where it could go and the sparks for romance, we adjusted her character in a way that made their relationship more plausible.”
Also among the cast were Christian Clemenson as Brisco's benefactor/boss, Socrates Pool, and Billy Drago as chief villain John Bly.
The Last Tango on Laramie Street
When Brisco began production in 1993, the Western was long past its prime. Most Western backlots were gone, forcing the crew to shot anywhere they could. The primary location for Brisco was Laramie Street, one of the last Western back lots. Blazing Saddles, Cheyenne and Maverick were just some of the Westerns filmed on Laramie Street. But by 1993 there wasn't much left of the once grand location. “No one used Laramie Street, and they hadn't for years,” Campbell said.
The lack of Western sets forced the crew to shoot anywhere they could. Locations included the Disney ranch in Santa Clarita, the Paramount ranch in Santa Monica and Vasquez Rocks. “It was a real sign of the times that as we were finishing our shoot, Warner Brothers was erecting a skyscraper that towered over Laramie Street,” Cuse said. “We had to shoot around it so you wouldn't see it in the shots.”
Not long after Brisco wrapped, Laramie Street was torn down to make way for office space and a new suburban backlot.
The West Meets the Future
If Brisco had just been another straight up and elegiac Western, it might not have made such an impression. Instead, the show blended elements, creating a unique vision. “The great thing about Brisco was that it allowed me to combine two of my favorite genres of filmmaking, which were Westerns and science fiction,” Cuse said.
The science fiction elements were woven into the show in a two different ways. The most prominent science fiction aspect of the show was the Orb, a mysterious object that transferred supernatural powers to whomever used it, including Brisco and Bly. “The Orb was something that did not exist in my original draft of the pilot, in fact it wasn't even discussed between Carlton and I,” Simkins said.
There was also “The Coming Thing,” a.k.a. the future. Brisco was set in 1894, a time when the west was ever-shrinking. An educated man, Brisco was always looking to the future. The show's writers gave him the future in the form of motorcycles, diving bells, fingerprint technology, machine guns and the famous rocket car seen in the opening credits.
The future was also personified by Professor Wickwire, an eccentric inventor played by John Astin. According to Cuse, “The Coming Thing” was more than just a way to for the writers to have fun. It tied into some of the deeper themes of the show. “Thematically, a lot of Westerns are about the death of the west,” Cuse said. “This was a way to put a more positive spin on that thematic. Brisco was a guy who was excited about what the future was going to bring.”
As the series played out, the heavier science fiction elements were dropped. The Orb was gone by episode 20 and “The Coming Thing” took on less significance as Brisco took on the feel of a more traditional Western. This switch was the result of both internal and network tinkering. “It was kind of a challenge and the network sort of vacillated back and forth on how much of the show should be Western, how much should be science fiction, how much should be comedic, how much should be dramatic,” Cuse said. “Over time we became much more enamored of the straight up Western elements of it.”
Brisco Rides Into the Sunset
Brisco debuted in August of 1993 as the lead in for Fox's Friday night lineup. The network had high hopes for the show. Fox executive Sandy Grushow famously remarked that if Brisco didn't make a star out of Bruce Campbell, he would eat his desk. Fox's other Friday night show was a paranormal police procedural considered a long shot for success. But while The X-Files would become one of Fox's biggest hits and run for nine seasons, Brisco never found much of an audience.
“When a show is a hit, everyone's a genius. When a show drops in ratings, the analysis begins,” Campbell said. “Should the scripts be funnier, maybe they were too funny. Maybe we need more action, but the show's already expensive.” In the end, Brisco left the air after just one season of 27 episodes.
The show's failure wasn't just felt by fans. Those who worked on Brisco were also sorry to see it go. A few years after the show was canceled, Simkins approached Grushow with another idea for a Western. “It was very well received by everybody under Sandy, and then when it landed on Sandy's desk he said, 'I'm never doing another Western again,'” Simkins said. “I think Brisco is a sore spot for him.”
While the show may have dampened network enthusiasm for Westerns, the people who made Brisco are eager to hope back into the saddle. “I would love to do another Western, I think they are just a great arena,” Simkins said. “The kinds of stories you can tell are just timeless. You can throw almost any kind of world into a Western formula.”
While Cuse said he would love to do another Western series, he isn't so sure it would find a receptive audience at today's networks. “I fear that networks and the cable channels are kind of fearful of Westerns. It's been so long since there's been a successful Western. I think everyone is kind of afraid of the genre,” Cuse said. “I don't think revisiting Brisco is the right idea. It had its time. But I certainly hope there is another Western in my writing future.”
For Campbell, making the show was long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, both creatively and personally. “I got a high school tassel in the mail from a kid who was going to commit suicide. But he saw an episode of Brisco and it made him feel so good he decided not to kill himself. So I guess the show did have a positive effect,” Campbell said. “If it saved one person's life, it was worth doing a whole damn show.”
Andrew Orillion is a former U.S. Army journalist turned screenwriter. He is currently working on a sitcom pilot about life as an Army journalist stationed in Germany.