Hang in there: Then Came Bronson captured the spirit of the counterculture

Hang in there: Then Came Bronson captured the spirit of the counterculture

Scripted television has never done relevance well, and the hippie era was an especially ugly moment of disconnect between what was happening on the streets and inside the tube. Instead of greeting the peace-love-dope movement with respect or at least curiosity, cop shows like Dragnet and Ironside depicted hippies as drug-crazed freaks or—at best—naive, un-American losers. The Mod Squad were so laden with beads, Nehru, and tinted glasses that they could barely stand up, and yet they were narcs. Anyone under 30 and even halfway hip could only mock this nonsense, all of which is properly seen as camp today.

Then came Bronson. The closest that television in the ’60s came to capturing the counterculture with any accuracy was in a loose-limbed, short-lived series about an iconoclastic drifter. They called it Then Came Bronson. A pilot movie, broadcast during the spring before Bronson went to series, offered an origin story: Jim Bronson (Michael Parks), a young San Francisco newspaper reporter, watches a friend, Nick (Martin Sheen), commit suicide by jumping from an abutment of the Golden Gate Bridge. Shaken, he decides to quit his job and roam for a time, astride the motorcycle that was the dead friend’s prized possession. “I just want to see things. I just want to discover,” Bronson tells a friend. “Surprises—I like surprises.” A scene with the friend’s widow underlines the thinking behind Bronson’s impulsive decision: Nick, she explains, became depressed only after he got a steady job and put his life in order. He was happier when he was free. Another line of dialogue amounts to a Buddhist-inflected mission statement: “I don’t want to conquer the world. I don’t want to save it. I just want to see my part of it clear, you know. And that’ll be the end of it. Clear.”

Bronson was the creation of Denne Bart Petitclerc, who had been a Bonanza story editor and the producer of a television adaptation of the classic Western Shane. Then Came Bronson drew upon Petitclerc’s pre-Hollywood life as a beat reporter and a fishing buddy of Ernest Hemingway’s, whose literary estate Petitclerc represented after the famous novelist—like Jim Bronson’s pal—committed suicide. Like Bronson himself, Petitclerc had quit his job as a reporter to drive across the country and build a house atop a mountain in Sonoma, California. After a year, financial necessity forced Petitclerc to take another journalism job. The few scenes in the pilot that deal with Bronson’s career feel personal, if not exactly subtle: When Bronson’s editor (Bert Freed) orders him to put on a tie, stick to his beat, and shut up, it’s as if 10 years’ worth of pent-up resentment have been crammed into one brief rant. A more measured reflection comes later, when Bronson quietly describes the toll the job has taken on him. Reporters, he explains, always meet people at the worst moments of their lives.

Bronson came together in 1968, when an executive named Herbert F. Solow left the independent company Desilu (where he had developed Star Trek and Mission: Impossible) to revive MGM’s moribund television department. In his first year, Solow accomplished the impressive hat trick of selling a new series to each of the networks: the bland doctor drama Medical Center to CBS, the treacly comedy The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father to ABC, and Then Came Bronson to NBC. At least within that context, Bronson was an art-for-art’s-sake project, one that Solow had to defend before NBC executives who found it “uneventful and slow-moving.” Solow resorted to test screenings to convince them. Bronson benefited from demographics: It was, unsurprisingly, most popular with people under 35, at a moment when networks were beginning to place greater emphasis on attracting young viewers (who were thought to wield more buying power) than on total audience size.

The Bronson pilot was a far cry from the avant-garde, but it had an elliptical quality that was unusual for television. Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith wrote that it had “the feeling of a daydream, an idyll.” In a vital scene, later excerpted as part of the opening titles for each episode, Bronson pulls up alongside a station wagon and chats with the cheery businessman inside. “Taking a trip? Where to?” asks the man. “Wherever I end up, I guess,” Bronson replies. “Man, I wish I was you,” the driver says. At that point Petitclerc’s script gave Bronson a somewhat lofty response, but Parks recognized that it was too wordy and improvised the perfect exit line: “Well, hang in there.” The grimace on Parks’ face, expressing both sympathy and contempt, speaks volumes. Ultimately, it’s the station-wagon man’s own problem that he hasn’t broken free. Then Came Bronson, perhaps, would take the form of a how-to guide. “You could make this trip,” exhorted Petitclerc in an interview.

The pilot was episodic, and adorned with surrealistic moments: The romance that becomes the story’s through-line begins when Bronson observes a woman (Bonnie Bedelia) running along the beach, peeling off a wedding dress and tossing it into the surf. The runaway bride hitches a ride on the back of Bronson’s bike, and they become lovers. But the expected confrontation with the missing groom never materializes. Instead, the romance fizzles in a bittersweet exchange in which Bedelia’s character realizes that she is meant for a more conventional life than Bronson’s journey will permit.

That avoidance of traditional structure and conflict was Bronson’s most daring aspect, and one it remained dedicated to even after Petitclerc moved on to write screenplays. The two men brought in to oversee the weekly version of Bronson were squares, at least at first glance. As the line producer of Star Trek, Robert H. Justman had developed a reputation as an stern taskmaster when it came to budgets and deadlines, not above standing atop Gene Roddenberry’s desk until the procrastinating Trek creator finished a rewrite. Robert Sabaroff, a writer in his early 30s, claimed that he was an ex-CIA operative who had participated in the Bay Of Pigs incident. But both men embraced what was unconventional about Bronson, and spoke in terms that challenged the audience to try something different.

“We’re not interested in plot, but in character relating,” the producers told a reporter. Justman added: “Our production quality is not going to be smooth and slick… If it rains we’ll shoot in the rain. If two shots don’t match because of weather change, that’s all right with us.” One of the men even floated the term “tone poem.” It’s easy to imagine a network suit reading that interview, walking over to the network schedule on his bulletin board, and dropping the sticker for Bronson into the wastebasket.

Bronson went to great lengths to achieve a visual verisimilitude, shooting entirely on location—not all across the country, as Stirling Silliphant’s On the Road-inspired masterpiece Route 66 had done, but exclusively in the West, making Bronson a denizen of an overpowering landscape. Pegging roughly four episodes to each location, Then Came Bronson passed through the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, the deserts of Reno and Sedona, before ending up near where it started on the California coast. The music was of a piece with the breathtaking imagery. Justman, who had used George Duning on Star Trek and thought his music best-suited for “soft” material, hired the composer to write the theme. But—as was becoming commonplace in films, but not yet television—the series also featured a number of montages set to folk and country-rock tunes, written by prominent young songwriters including James Hendricks and Tom Paxton. Jim Bronson’s dress and his chariot (a red Harley-Davidson Sportster, fast but unpretentious) also contributed to the show’s authenticity. Clad in jeans, a turtleneck, a knit cap, and a brown leather jacket, Bronson looked nothing like a clichéd Central Casting hippie—but, as befits a character who stows his bed on his bike seat, he did often look like he could use a good bath.

There were certain precedents for Bronson’s peripatetic structure in ’60s television—The Fugitive, Run For Your Life, and of course Route 66. But if Route 66 was about men searching for adventure, Bronson was about a man searching for enlightenment. In the decade between the two series, Silliphant’s Kennedy-era optimism gave way to Bronson’s tentative recognition that something in our society, and in us, was broken. Bronson made even fewer concessions than the already unconventional Route 66 to television’s demand for incident, for jeopardy, and for violence. The gratuitous fistfights that were a major flaw in Route 66 never took hold in Bronson, whose hero was truly passive—a egoless practitioner of sideline diplomacy among each week’s guest characters.

The problem, of course, was that all of the things that made Bronson original also made it devilishly hard to write for. Though the producers never sold out and turned Bronson into a conventional action show, the scripts they did commission often felt slight and half-formed. “The Forest Primeval,” for instance, strands Bronson deep in the Los Padres National Forest after a bike wreck. His ensuing odyssey tries to be less of a rescue story than an existential commune with nature, but the script relies upon an obvious exchange between Bronson and a park ranger in the coda to spell out a pro-conservation message that should have emerged organically.

Logically, Justman and Sabaroff decided that youth-oriented material required young writers, and sought out novices like Thomas Y. Drake (a Canadian folk singer), Nancy Skiba (a producer at a Los Angeles radio station), and Robert L. Goodwin (an actor who became one of the first African Americans to have a substantial television writing career). In collaboration with the actress Lisabeth Hush, Susan Harris—the creator of Soap and The Golden Girls—sold her first produced script to Bronson, a lovely vignette called “The Ninety-Nine Mile Circle,” in which Bronson falls in with a wise old widower, Isadore Katz (David Burns), touring the country in a Volkswagen bus. Isadore meets a sweet widow (Paula Victor), and all signs point to love blooming between them. Instead, he thanks her politely for dinner, says, “I have your address,” and climbs back into the camper. Like his friend Bronson, Isadore is a man of the road. Harris and Hush had purposely sought out Bronson—“neither one of us knew how to write a television show,” Harris said, “and we picked the one that had the loosest stories, the one with very little structure”—and more than anyone else the pair cracked the show’s mandate to tell stories that were modestly scaled but sagacious and emotionally rich. The third-to-last episode broadcast, “The Ninety-Nine Mile Circle” was the mark of a show finding its stride, one that merited renewal—creatively, at least, if not commercially.

Then came Michael Parks. A hot young television actor since the early ’60s, Parks bore a strong resemblance to James Dean and was insistently compared to both Dean and Marlon Brando by every reporter who profiled him. And while Parks did rely upon the Method tics of mumbling his lines and avoiding eye contact, his odd charisma had more in common with Steve McQueen. Parks was a reactor more than an actor, who did more with less dialogue and liked to make a funny face any time pretension threatened to creep into the material. Quentin Tarantino called his work in Bronson “the most naturalistic acting I’ve ever seen in a TV show.”

But Parks also had a reputation for being difficult to work with. He had been tried out as a movie star in several medium-sized and now-forgotten films, but Parks’ momentum collapsed after he refused a role in a remake of Beau Geste (rightly; it was a huge flop). That conflict triggered the end of a long-term contract with Universal and left Parks out of work for two years, apart from a few made-for-TV movies. Much as Petitclerc had done, Parks—who during this period endured the death of his wife and his brother by overdose and drowning, respectively—dropped out, settling with his family in New Mexico and later Ojai. Bronson should have been the ideal comeback vehicle for him. Instead, history repeated itself.

It is difficult, at a remove, to understand the precise nature of Parks’ epic conflicts with the bosses of Then Came Bronson. “Michael Parks was maybe the most professional of all the television actors I’ve worked with,” said Bronson casting director Joseph D’Agosta, who had directed Parks in local theater when he was an unknown. “All he wanted was to have creative input.” But Parks had a querulous personality and, at a time when A-list stars’ dominance of their TV series was less of a given than it is now, Justman was affronted by the actor’s persistent interference in matters of writing and direction. Parks also violated an unwritten rule by expressing his displeasure to reporters, who tended to find the actor so eccentric and off-putting that they gleefully abetted his self-immolation. “You’ve got to work very hard on every line—not to make them good, but just decent,” Parks said in a New York Times profile that described the actor as “a crazy mixed-up man-child.”

Parks’ ideas for Bronson were inconsistent—some good, some bad. Parks objected to a silly episode in which Bronson drove in a demolition derby, but he also saw as vulgar a strong, sensitive script (“…A Famine Where Abundance Lies”) in which a young widow and her teenaged daughter both fall in love with Bronson. For all his superficial similarity to Jim Bronson, Parks may have been out of sync with the show’s liberal, anti-establishment vibe. He told TV Guide that he was against welfare and for the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace (Parks later said he had been misquoted), and declined to cover “Mr. Tambourine Man” as the end title theme because he felt the song had a pro-drug message. On the other hand, Parks stood up for the pacificism that was essential to Bronson, refusing to bent to efforts late in the series’ run to toughen up his character.

Parks’ intransigence led to the early exit of at least one director and the dismissal of an associate producer, Philip Fehrle, who was seen as a spy for the studio. Another director caught Parks eavesdropping on his conversation with a guest star through an unattended pair of headphones. Parks would retreat to his trailer and, on more than one occasion, colleagues whom the actor trusted would be flown to the set to talk him down. Hendricks, the songwriter, went to Colorado, where Parks “wouldn’t answer the door for nobody,” and used his guitar to relax the uptight star. Music “really brought the best out in him,” said Hendricks, who produced the three albums that MGM rushed out during Bronson in an effort to turn Parks into a recording star. “Sometimes the acting brought the worst out in him.”

Although Solow, the MGM executive, disputes it, D’Agosta recalls in detail a last-ditch plot to replace Parks with Lee Majors (later the star of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fall Guy). Majors would have been introduced as a new but virtually identical character in the last two episodes, and then taken over as the show’s star had a second season been ordered. The plan fell apart when NBC, according to D’Agosta, “got cold feet” about rebooting a show that was already marginal in terms of popularity. After a strong start, Bronson’s ratings had slid precipitously. By November, the show’s competition on CBS, Hawaii Five-O, was beating it by a factor of more than 2 to 1. Had it not been such a troubled production, Bronson might have been a good candidate for a less competitive timeslot. According to Solow, the difficulties with Parks and the ratings were both factors in the show’s cancellation.

Bronson was a tantalizing near miss, less successful as a TV show than as an idea for a TV show. Uneven in its execution, it was robust in its philosophy, an articulate celebration of self-examination and rejecting the status quo ideas that were all but invisible on television during the period when Bronson was made. Bronson was also a dispatch from an alternate universe in which plot and action are nearly irrelevant, and only character and atmosphere matter. Shows of that nature go inherently against the forces that drive commercial entertainment. They rarely happen and they never last long, and they’re worth celebrating any time they do struggle into existence for a short moment.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder.

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