Oklahoma can take some pride in the fact that one of its most famous sons is one of those rare actors who made the transition from TV to movie success, and was able to
And many of James Garner’s most interesting roles have come from the small screen throughout his career, from the Voice of God in the animated series “God, the Devil and Bob” (2000-2001) to the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in “First Monday” (2002), not to mention his star-making turn as the irrepressible frontier gambler Bret Maverick in the 1950s, and his hugely popular portrayal of easygoing, trailer-dwelling ex-con-turned-private-investigator Jim Rockford in “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980), who was really a 20th-century version of the violence-abhorring Maverick.
But few of Garner’s TV characters were more fascinating and fun to watch than his pacifist sheriff of a wild and woolly 1914 Arizona town in “Nichols,” a Western dramedy that lasted a single season (1970-71) on NBC. The series, created by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Frank R. Pierson (“Cat Ballou,” “Cool Hand Luke”), was tailor-made for Garner, once again casting him as the kind of likable, reluctant hero who’d rather outfox or flee than fight the bad guys, although he was anything but a coward when cornered by brute forces.
The pilot of this 24-episode series finds a battle-weary Nichols returning after 18 years in the army to the hometown that bears his family name, only to find that his relatives have been cheated out of their land, his mother has passed on, and things are now run by the powerful Ketcham family, headed by a tough rancher matriarch (Neva Patterson).
Nichols immediately gets crossways with Ma Ketcham’s bully of a son, Ketcham (no first name given, played by John Beck), especially when the town’s pretty barmaid Ruthie (a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder) takes a shine to the handsome, peace-loving new man in town. A destructive barroom brawl ensues, and Ma Ketcham — who sees a need for intelligent and capable law enforcement in town, and someone to control her unruly son — decides Nichols will have to pay for damages to the saloon by serving as sheriff for 30 days.
Nichols suggests that “compulsory cannibalism” (requiring people to eat whoever they kill) might solve the problem of rampant gunplay, but Ma doesn’t buy that solution and Nichols is forced to pin on the badge — but he refuses to carry a gun.
This leads to a number of amusing situations when Nichols must resort to charm, cunning and the slick con rather than Colts and carbines to bring all manner of crooks and gunmen to justice. The turn-of-the-century setting heightens interest as we find Nichols traveling by automobile or motorcycle more often than horseback, and accepting the fading of Wild West ways more readily than the ruffians who surround him (including his untrustworthy deputy Mitch, played by future “Rockford” sidekick Stuart Margolin).
Unfortunately, most TV viewers were not intrigued, which led Garner to choose an unprecedented and devilishly clever way of bidding farewell to his character in the final episode. The actor has often cited “Nichols” as one of his favorite creations, and it’s certainly one of his least known, since this unique series has seldom been seen since its initial run. The uninitiated are in for a treat when they check out this 5-DVD set from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection.
— Gene Triplett