As we continue the “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies,” we travel back to the frontier for Best of the West. Like the show we discussed in my last blog, When Things Were Rotten, this series was also a rapid fire of gags, puns, and one-liners.
Westerns ruled the airwaves in the 1950s, but with the demise of Gunsmoke in 1975, the cowboys shows had all ridden off into the sunset. The Best of the West made its debut in 1981. The show, created by Earl Pomerantz, was a parody of the previous decades of oaters. Civil War veteran Sam Best (Joel Higgins) moves his family from posh Philadelphia to Copper Creek at the western border in 1865. He was not your typical western hero—more of a city slicker.
A store owner by trade, he knew little about guns or fighting. After arriving in the town, he accidentally scares off The Calico Kid (Christopher Lloyd), one of the “bad guys,” and the townspeople lobby him to be their mayor.
Sam’s nemesis is Parker Tillman (Leonard Frey), who runs the saloon with a slew of other bad guys, most notably his sidekick Frog Rothchild Jr. (Tracey Walter). With Sam are his southern belle wife Elvira (Carlene Watkins) and his smart-alecky son Daniel (Meeno Peluce). Sam is also friends with the town doctor, Jerome Kullens (Tom Ewell), who is a bit of a lush.
Sam reminds me a bit of F-Troop’s Will Parmenter. He’s a likable guy placed in a situation that he did not pursue. Sam’s family is not happy in their new setting. They had gotten used to the comforts of a big city. Elvira is beside herself because she can never get the dirt off the floor, until Sam reminded her it was literally a dirt floor.
The plots on this show were a bit similar to many of the story lines we became familiar with from decades of westerns. In one show the doctor’s mail-order bride is described as having a vivid personality with a past to match. In one episode, Sam and Tillman try to convince the railroad company to connect with Copper Creek. Another example is when Sam shoots himself in the leg and the jail begins to fall apart, and the town reconsiders his ability to lead them, or the classic tale of Elvira and Daniel exploring a cave that is booby-trapped and ready to collapse around them.
The show never seemed to catch on with viewers. It was hard to fault the writers. David Lloyd, Sam Simon, and Earl Pomerantz were working together on Taxi, and they would go on to write for Cheers in 1982.
The show also had some amazing celebrity guest stars: Dixie Carter, Chuck Connors, Andy Griffith, Al Lewis, and Betty White.
For a while, parodies like Airplane! were all the rage, and maybe the fad had just played out.
Perhaps, western fans, with their fond memories of growing up with Bonanza and The Rifle Man, just weren’t ready to make fun of their childhood shows.
It was hard to find information about the show. As you can see in these photos, the majority of them came from imdb.com; there just aren’t many photos out there otherwise.
ABC didn’t outright cancel the show, but they took a lot of time trying to decide whether to renew it or not. In the meantime, Joel Higgins got tired of waiting and accepted the role of Edward Stratton on Silver Spoons. With the star gone and the ratings mediocre, the show ended after 22 episodes.
Silver Spoons would be the show that brought Joel Higgins success. However, he had an interesting career. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in advertising. He went to work for General Motors for six months. When he enlisted in the Army, his title was Special Services Sergeant in Charge of Entertainment. This role seemed to redirect his path. Post-Army life, he was busy with both television roles and theater performances. He also started a business with two friends. They wrote more than 200 jingles for a variety of products, including Kool-Aid, M&Ms, Schwepps Soda, and Coors beer, as well as several themes for shows such as Life with Lucy, one of Lucille Ball’s many shows.
His family members Carlene Watkins and Meeno Peluce never found their “Silver Spoons.” Carlene had been on The Secret Empire in 1979. After Best of the West, she would go on to be part of the cast of five more shows–It’s Not Easy, Mary, The Tortellis, Dear John, and Bob–none of which lasted very long. Peluce was part of the Bad News Bears from 1979-80 and later would land a regular role on Voyagers from 1982-83. He did make appearances on many shows, including Silver Spoons in 1984.
Many viewers seem to have fond memories of this show. If you want to see what the show was like, CBS-DVD released the show as a manufactured-on-demand DVD in 2017. While this series might not portray the best of the west, it certainly was not the worst of the west either.