Will Rogers, Jr. starred in a 1954 movie called “The Boy from Oklahoma” as a young drifter and occasional cowpuncher named Tom Brewster who was studying law by correspondence course as he wandered the West of the late 1800s. He didn’t wear a gun, nor did he like using one, but he often tended to get into scrapes where firearms were involved and his true grit was tested.
It was a pretty good film directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and costarring Nancy Olson (“Sunset Blvd.”) as a local ranch owner and daughter of the recently-deceased sheriff, up against corrupt elements who were running a frontier town.
Only problem was, Will Jr., at age 43, didn’t really fit the “Boy” part of the title role. He just didn’t look very damp behind the ears.
Three years later, when the same studio, Warner Bros., was getting into series television, they came up with a show based on the Rogers film called “Sugarfoot,” which rotated every other week with the hugely popular Western series “Cheyenne,” starring Clint Walker. The actor cast as Tom Brewster was Will Hutchins, an unknown Los Angeles-born player who was much better suited to the role, being 27, blond-haired and able to portray a likeable, half-naïve, sometimes funny, seemingly non-threatening country boy who favored sarsaparilla (with a dash of cherry) over whiskey and was generally (and mistakenly) dismissed as a lightweight by men and women alike.
The first season of “Sugarfoot” is now available from the Warner Bros. Archives (warnerarchive.com) on a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) basis, which is great news for fans of ’50s TV Westerns that were really worth watching, and younger classic-TV buffs who might be curious.
What set “Sugarfoot” apart was the title character himself (“Sugarfoot” was his undeserved nickname, a term which meant “wimp” in Western parlance, at least as this series coined the word and defined it), who was all aw-shucks and easygoing, but whip-smart and ready for a fight with fists or shooting-irons when he was pushed too hard. The boyishly handsome Hutchins played him to perfection.
There were also guest appearances by future stars such as Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Slim Pickens, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and others.
These early Warner TV offerings were unusually well-produced for their time as far as small-screen values went, and in this case the star, Hutchins, was an actor who should have gone on to greater success, like other Warner TV contract players such as Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (“77 Sunset Strip”) Walker (“Cheyenne”), and, of course, Oklahoma’s own Oscar-nominated James Garner (“Maverick”).
But after “Sugarfoot” ended in July 1961, Hutchins’ career yielded few highlights. There were supporting roles in two Elvis Presley movies (“Spinout,” “Clambake”), a brief stint as Dagwood in a 1968-’69 CBS-TV version of the comic strip “Blondie,” and guest-shots on various series such as “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”
However, the single most memorable performance of his career was as a slow-witted young prospector named Colie in a low-budget, offbeat, Monte Hellman-directed Western called “The Shooting” (1965). His brilliantly-realized tragi-comic characterization managed to steal scenes from formidable co-stars Jack Nicholson and Warren Oates, and gave the few people who saw the film a glimpse of his true mettle as a performer. When it came to real acting, he was no “Sugarfoot.”
— Gene Triplett