Actor, James Coburn, had many parts in TV Westerns both before and after his much acclaimed role as Britt, the expert with a gun and a knife, in the 1960 hit western, “The Magnificent Seven.” He was on “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Bat Masterson,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” and of course, “Bonanza.”
In his first appearance, “The Truckee Strip” (1959), Coburn plays Pete Jessup, who has an evil motive for wanting Luther Bishop to win a land dispute with Ben Cartwright. In his last appearance, “The Long Night” (1962), he plays Elmer Trace, an escaped convict. The weirdest one was his second appearance in “The Dark Gate” (1961) as Ross Marquette, a friend of Adam’s who becomes paranoid.
Besides the usual forces of good and evil in the Wild West, “Bonanza” touched upon many social problems throughout its run. They had criminals trying to reform and criminals pretending to reform. They dealt with racial prejudice against blacks, native Americans and Asians. There were characters affected by bullying, greed, jealousy, whether victim or perpetrator, and even rotten characters who just liked to mess with people for the hell of it. They had highly dysfunctional families dealing with alcoholism, over-protectiveness, child abuse and neglect. “The Dark Gate” was about sudden mental illness and domestic violence.
Adam and Ross Marquette are good friends until Ross gets it into his head that Adam and his wife, Delphine, are having an affair behind his back. Instead of confronting Adam, however, he beats the living daylights out of Delphine in a pretty gruesome scene. The show begins with that scene even before the opening song and credits. Ross won’t stop beating Delphine until she has no choice but to say that there is something going on with Adam Cartwright.
Right after this, Ben decides to send Adam over to Ross’ house to ask him for some help. Adam is in for a big surprise when he walks in to find his long-time friend armed and ready to shoot him.
Wanting to kill Adam and his wife aren’t the only faults of Coburn’s character. It also turns out that Ross has been engaging in criminal activities, rustling cattle, stagecoach robbery and even murder.
Back in 1961, of course, there were no warning on television shows or ratings so the episode was not rated R for violence, and I saw this before I was even a teenager. It did not scar me for life, though. We really didn’t take much notice of the social issues on “Bonanza,” much like the adult humor in many Looney Tunes cartoons went right over our heads. We just knew that none of the Cartwrights would ever do anything that was less than honorable. Besides, to be perfectly honest, violence was considered an acceptable reaction in many situations, not just in self-defense. These were the days of acceptable spankings and even teachers were allowed to rough kids up.
TV Land replays these episodes just as they were shown back in the day. As a matter of fact, most of these episodes are on youtube, including “The Dark Gate.”
James Coburn was a very versatile actor, adept at playing good guys and bad guys, and equally at home on the silver screen as he was on TV. At the time he passed away in 2002 from a heart attack, Coburn had 73 films to his credit. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1999 for his role in “Affliction” (1998). He had an even greater number of credits for his work in television. Ironically, he began his film career in a 1959 film called “Ride Lonesome” when he and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright) were outlaws. Just about everyone in “Ride Lonesome” later appeared in “Bonanza” except Randolph Scott, who never did television.