The Big Valley – Western in a Big Setting

by Guy Belleranti
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Television's love affair with the western was waning in the latter 1960's, but a few new series were still able to capture audiences. One such series was The Big Valley. An hour long program in bright and bold color, it ran from 1965 to 1969 with 112 episodes being produced.

The Big Valley was similar to Bonanza in that the series revolved around a wealthy ranch family in the old west. However, while Bonanza concerned a widower and his three sons, The Big Valley was focused on a widowed woman and her sons and daughter.

Acting great Barbara Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the ranch's matriarch and owner. A spunky woman, Victoria backed down to no one and more than once had to chase off outlaws or hold them at gunpoint.

Her eldest son was Jarrod Barkley, a calm and suave lawyer. Jarrod was played by Richard Long.

Peter Breck played younger son, Nick. Nick was ranch foreman, and like Jarrod he was an honest man. However, Nick also had a tendency to be hot-headed (a little like Little Joe on Bonanza).

Linda Evans played daughter Audra. Beautiful and spirited, Audra could also be annoying and was at times a bit naïve.

Then there was Heath, played by Lee Majors. The first episode dealt with Heath's arrival at the ranch and his claim that he was the son of Victoria's dead husband by another woman. The family members are shocked by this claim and are at first cool to receiving him. However, it isn't long before they accept him as one of their own.

Not to be forgotten was another son, Eugene, played by actor Charles Briles. Eugene wasn't on the series for long, however. He was written out part way through the first season, with the excuse that he was going away to college. In real life the actor wasn't attending college at all – he had been drafted into the army.

In addition to the characters, The Big Valley was also notable for its lush landscapes. The setting was the expansive San Joaquin Valley and the nearby city of Stockton, California. The program often treated the viewer to beautiful outdoor "big valley" shots. Also prevalent was colorful clothing, especially the outfits worn by the Barkley women or women guest stars.

Indeed, The Big Valley differed from most other westerns in that two of the major characters were women. To be fair, there were other westerns with strong female characters (Gunsmoke's Kitty, for example), however this was the exception rather than the rule.

Other things that stood out and made the Big Valley "big" was George Duning's memorable theme song and the name guest stars. A few of these names included Milton Berle, Anne Baxter, Dennis Hopper, Richard Dreyfuss, Julie Harris, John Carradine, Colleen Dewhurst and Leslie Nielsen.

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