Like many actors from the dawn of sound, El Brendel found himself mostly out of feature film work after 1944, so the opportunity to appear in television must have appealed to El somewhat as he would occasionally take roles in certain shows. “Destry” is one of those TV series that only lasted one season and was never heard of again, but it marked one of the last times El would appear on screen before his death on April 9th, 1964.
The series premiered on February 14th 1964 and ran on Friday nights for ABC TV at 7:30EST lasting only a scant 13 episodes. According to the Classic TV Archive website, “Destry” was shown in color, but I only have a black and white 16mm print, so that’s what you’ll see in the screen captures here. Starring handsome John Gavin, as the peace loving Harrison Destry, who also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus”, both in 1960, but would later leave film and television work behind with his appointment by President Ronald Reagan to the post of Ambassador to Mexico in 1981.
The premise of the television show probably resembles the 1932 version of the feature film “Destry Rides Again” rather than the better known 1939 picture of the same name starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, but most viewers will probably see the opening of the show and say the plot is more like ABC’s “The Fugitive”, starring David Janssen which premiered in 1963, than anything else. As spoken by Gavin at the beginning we get to hear what the show was all about:
“For some time now I’ve been riding all over the frontier hunting for the man who framed me and sent me to prison. I’ve never run across him………………yet.”
The episode El Brendel appears in, “Deputy For A Day” was shown on April 3rd of ’64 and here’s a quick rundown of what happens:
Eighteen years before the story takes places, the two Flanzig brothers come into the small, law abiding town of Newton and during an attempt of rob the bank, four citizens (the Mayor, banker, bartender, and the barber) and the sheriff capture the criminals and become the town heroes while the villains are sent to prison. Fast-forward eighteen years, the Flanzig’s escape and with the help of a few of their old gang goes back to Newton to get revenge. They have one of their lackeys head to Newton a few days before to spread the word the gang is coming back to take care of the whole berg.
At a meeting with the Mayor and the banker at the Sherriff’s office, a plan is formulated to convince Harrison Destry to help them defend their town. Harrison, the son of the Sheriffs friend Tom Destry (a rugged character who single-handedly cleaned up Abilene) is unlike his father as the Sherriff states the son takes after his mother and steers clear of fights and prefers a peaceful lifestyle. When Harrison arrives by stagecoach, the Mayor and banker try to convince him to stay in town by taking him over to the bar and buying him drinks and generally treating him overly nice to try to persuade him to stay in Newton.
Destry finds out that all his gear has been stolen (by one of the people trying to get him to stay) and at the Sheriff’s office, the group offer him the job of Deputy for $50.00 a day, plus all other perks, which he accepts. When he goes to the bar to celebrate he meets Sally, who is used by the group as the “pretty face” as another offering to try and keep him in town, but it’s all innocent as Sally’s a good girl.
Later, at the barbers shop, where Destry is getting a free haircut offered by one Olaf Olsen (played by guess who!), a customer lets it slip that the Flanzig's are rumored to be coming into town which gets him a first rate shave!
Even though the group tries their best to keep the truth from Destry, Sally eventually tells him about the Flanzig’s coming and their desire to kill all the lawmen first. Harrison then goes to the Sheriff’s office that eventually breaks down and confirms the rumor. The Sherriff then tries to convince Destry to stay and goes so far as to lock him up in jail so as to twist his arm and eventually Destry agrees to stay if the Sherriff can get a 20 man posse together, which they do, but everyone finally gathered leaves when they find out it’s not just the 2 Flanzig brothers are coming but the whole 6 man gang. This act in turn convinces the peace loving Destry to leave town as the Sherriff decides to stay and he is only joined by the same 4 citizens that captured the Flanzig’s eighteen years ago. As a “High Noon” stand-off takes place, Destry returns in the nick of time to save the day.
The supporting cast was also fairly strong with the sheriff, Joe Finster, played by veteran comedic actor Charlie Ruggles, but he seems off his game or just trying too hard to play a tough guy which makes his acting come off terrible. John Fiedler played the banker Bill Simpson, but may be best known in the role of Mr. Peterson on “The Bob Newhart Show” or cartoon fans may recognize him as the voice of Piglet from the Disney “Winnie The Pooh” series. Character actors J. Pat O’Malley, as bartender Whit Hansen, and John Abbott, as Mayor Jake Weatherby, round out the core cast. The role of Sally, picked up by Olive Sturgess, is a strange one as she just seems to totally disappear from the story midway through the episode and we get to see a pre-“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” Artie Johnson as the undertakers assistant.
If “Deputy For A Day” is any indication of the series on a whole, I can see why it only lasted one season. Although Gavin’s acting is fine, the supporting cast seems lost at times or maybe the quick television shooting pace did not suit their talents. Either way, it’s not that great of a show, but it is the last filmed appearance of El Brendel alive. Except that would not be the last of El on television, for on September 10th, 1965 an episode of "Vacation Playhouse" entitled “Down Home” would have El casted in the role of Late. Not much is known of this series other than it was made up of unsold television pilots that the honcho’s at CBS thought instead of running re-runs for the summer season, they would show productions they couldn’t sell anywhere else. Now I would LOVE to see “Down Home” but until a copy surfaces, we have “Deputy For A Day” to keep us company as the last “seen” Brendel appearance.
I have one interview with El during this period from the Sunday TV News Week (kind of a local TV Guide) from the week March 15th to March 21st. In the article El talks mostly about his early vaudeville career but he also states that Otto Preminger offered him a part in 1939’s “Destry Rides Again”, but other commitments prevented him from taking the role at the time, but he goes on to say about his acting in this “Destry” show, “it took me 24 years to find my horse……..better late than never”.