After ‘The Twilight Zone,’ Rod Serling Created an Underrated TV Western

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Rod Serling aimed to create a mature and thought-provoking Western series with The Loner, which tackled topics rarely seen in traditional TV Westerns.
  • The mix of maturity and classic Western traditions turned off some viewers who were not used to the ambiguous and open-ended endings of the episodes.
  • Despite its short-lived run, The Loner featured fascinating character studies, particularly with the complex hero William Colton, who transcended the genre’s stereotypes.


While Rod Serling is best known for being the face and voice of the original incarnation of The Twilight Zone, it wasn’t the only television project the filmmaker undertook during the mid-1960s. Before he made Night Gallery, there was a brief moment where Serling set aside the macabre for a tried-and-true genre that he’d previously had little interest in at all: the Western. In 1965, Serling’s The Loner premiered on CBS, but its lifespan would be tragically short-lived. But why?

The Loner

A wandering ex-soldier encounters various problems wherever he visits in his travels.

Release Date
September 18, 1965

Creator
Rod Serling

Cast
Lloyd Bridges , James Whitmore , Leslie Nielsen , Katharine Ross

Main Genre
Western

Genres
Western

Seasons
1


Rod Serling Wasn’t Happy With TV Westerns

While Rod Serling wasn’t explicitly known for his work on Hollywood Westerns (though he did write the 1958 feature Saddle the Wind), he did have some opinions about how the genre was handled in the 1950s and ’60s. During that time, shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp reined supreme on television, offering a pacified interpretation of the Old West that fell into recurring clichés and historical inaccuracies that plagued the genre. As a result, Serling wrote “Showdown With Rance McGrew,” a 1962 Twilight Zone episode that poked fun at many TV Westerns at the time.

“It seems a reasonable conjecture that if there are any television sets up in cowboy heaven and any one of these rough-and-wooly nail-eaters could see with what careless abandon their names and exploits are being bandied about, they’re very likely turning over in their graves — or worse, getting out of them,” Serling notes in the opening narration for the episode. His thoughts on adaptations of characters like Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid were quite clear. Ironically, this wasn’t the only Western Twilight Zone episode ever produced, but it was arguably the most imaginative. No wonder then that, when The Twilight Zone was canceled two seasons later, Serling revisited the concept within the context of a more serious television Western.

With The Loner, Serling aimed to make an “adult Western,” highlighting mature issues in the traditional Old West setting. With actor Lloyd Bridges (yes, of Airplane! fame) as the show’s frontman, playing the fictional ex-Calvary officer William Colton, The Loner tackled such topics as the horrors of war, religious pacifism, racial prejudice, survivor’s guilt, and many others that weren’t often authentically portrayed in depth on shows like Wagon Train. But that didn’t mean that The Loner couldn’t be fun, too. “The Sheriff of Fetterman’s Crossing” was a semi-parody of the infamous Gary Cooper flick High Noon, which had quite the reputation at the time. Still, The Loner was generally more mature than its contemporaries, which is likely what led to its downfall.

Rod Serling’s Western Series Was Considered Too Mature

William Colton (Lloyd Bridges) gets into a fight at a bar in 'The Loner'
Image via CBS

Not everyone took well to the mix of maturity and classic Western tradition that Rod Serling was attempting to marry here on screen. While that might’ve been all fine and good for theatrical Westerns with a limited runtime, a long-form series following a classic Western hero needs to be one or the other, right? Part of what made The Loner unique was the often ambiguous or neatly unwrapped endings (which Serling perfected on The Twilight Zone) that stood in stark contrast to those of traditional TV Westerns, which always needed a definite resolution. But this turned audiences off of William Colton, not because the character wasn’t compelling, but because it wasn’t what they were used to.

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“If the network wanted a conventional Western with an emphasis on violence and action, it should have hired a conventional Western writer,” Serling told The Philadelphia Bulletin after production was stalled due to a “lack of violence.” “The initial idea of the series…was that it was to be a thought-provoking, meaningful human drama with a Western flavor.” Evidently, this wasn’t enough for CBS, or for critics, whose responses to the series were generally mixed. While ratings were steady at first, The Loner was eventually canceled after audiences stopped tuning in, having aired only 26 episodes in total, 15 of which were written masterfully by Serling himself.

“Unfortunately, what Mr. Serling obviously intended to be a realistic, adult Western turned out, judging from the ratings, to be either too real for a public grown used to the unreal Western or too adult for juvenile Easterners – we hesitate to say which,” wrote Cleveland Amory for TV Guide. “This is a pity because there are fine episodes here.” Amory is right, there are some real fine episodes in The Loner‘s catalog, such as “The Vespers,” in which Colton meets a fellow Civil War vet who has since turned to the ministry, forsaking violence in all forms until he’s attacked by those hurt by his actions in the war. Or the two part “The Mourners for Johnny Sharp,” in which Colton meets a dying young gunfighter (played by Bridges’ real-life son Beau Bridges) who vows to pay back the one who killed him from the grave.

William Colton Is an Unsung Western Hero

If The Loner knew how to do anything, it was fascinating character studies that feel as relevant today as they did at the time. No doubt, Rod Serling’s time in World War II must’ve influenced the way he wrote William Colton, who was brought to life by Lloyd Bridges, who previously appeared in A Walk In The Sun, Little Big Horn, and even High Noon. “It has bugged me quite a bit, that the guy doesn’t have any definite background, other than the Union cavalry – even more that he isn’t definitely headed anywhere,” Bridges explained prior to the show’s premiere (as noted by the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation), “But Rod keeps telling me to let him worry about the character, just to trust him. And you know something? I do.”

Despite the show’s sudden-but-inevitable departure, Bridges was right to trust Serling with the character. Although the 11 episodes not written by the former Twilight Zone star are a mixed bag, those penned by Serling turned William Colton into a complex hero who was more than just a shiny “do-gooder.” Instead, his tortured past formed his complicated present and highlighted the enigmatic nature of life and legacy that the show fought to cultivate. The Loner might’ve been made at the wrong time, but William Colton is a character who transcends the genre and proves that the Western (particularly the television Western) can be a lot more than just wooden gunfights and moral lessons.

For years, The Loner remained nothing but a brief blip in the careers of those who worked on it. The thrilling Western was quickly forgotten and for years only bootleg copies of the show’s 26 episodes could be found. It wasn’t until 2016 that Shout! Factory secured the rights to release The Loner as a complete set on DVD, which sparked some revived interest in the series. Called a “Thinking Man’s Western” by Tony Albarella, Vice President of the Rob Serling Memorial Foundation, The Loner remains an underrated and undervalued Western series that might’ve had better luck a decade later, but remains a cherished sidestep in the TV Western chronology today.

The Loner is available for purchase on Amazon.

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