Here are capsule impressions from season six of "The Virginian," another year of upheaval for the graying series, which still kept to a fairly high standard.
THE RECKONING -- Guest stars, Charles Bronson, Miriam Colon
Vengeance-minded outlaw chief holds The Virginian and Elizabeth Grainger captive, but his wife's near-term pregnancy complicates matters. Plucky Sara Lane butts heads with Bronson while fighting to save Colon's baby and Drury's bacon in solidly constructed episode directed by Charles S. Dubin and scored by Bernard Herrmann. Odd presence of street smart Charles Grodin, playing a taciturn, buckskin-clad heavy, isn't too distracting.
THE LADY FROM WICHITA -- Guest stars, Joan Collins, Rose Marie
Saloonkeeper conceals her past when she arrives in Medicine Bow to collect inheritance. Leisurely outing allows plenty of elbow room for spunky duo of foxy Collins and wisecracking Rose Marie, both very likable.
STAR CROSSED -- Guest stars, Tom Tryon, Lisabeth Hush, Kiel Martin
Ryker puts his badge on the line to help a still-wanted former outlaw go straight. Script packs enough twists into mild story to maintain interest. Enzo Martinelli's sun-kissed cinematography is noteworthy, as is the acting of Gulager and Tryon. Gulager was getting his fill of the TV series grind and was about to permanently remove Ryker's star.
BITTER AUTUMN -- Guest stars, John Anderson, Richard X. Slattery
Seething ex-lawman buckles his gunbelt after his wife is accidentally killed by a drunken drover whose diseased herd has Medicine Bow on edge. The flinty Anderson excels as the angry widower struggling to keep a lid on his boiling rage. Plotty episode's only other distinction is the debut of new series regulars John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan as Clay and Holly Grainger. Although the two troupers, a real-life couple, were abruptly shoehorned into the series because of Charles Bickford's failing health, they lost no time making themselves at home on Shiloh range.
THE BARREN GROUND -- Guest stars, Collin Wilcox, Jay C. Flippen
To atone for an unavoidable killing, The Virginian agrees to locate a dying rancher's long-lost daughter, who is living as an Indian. Tense buildup to final showdown atones for story lapses mostly rooted in Wilcox's stiff-necked performance. Episode is notable for surprisingly candid and self-critical comments by Drury's character, enabling a rare peek inside The Virginian's wall of reserve.
EXECUTION AT TRISTE -- Guest stars, Robert Lansing, Sharon Farrell
In a near-deserted town, gunslinger with a death wish is determined to prod Trampas into a duel. Grim story by ace TV western writer John Dunkel suggests more eerie intent than lackluster production delivers. Lansing's scarily convincing performance and creepy bits by Cyril Delevanti, Percy Helton and James Nusser offer teasing glances at what episode could have been.
A SMALL TASTE OF JUSTICE -- Guest stars, Peter Brown, Susan Oliver, John Lupton
Town treed by cowboy gang turns to The Virginian for law and order. Drury's clear reluctance to risk his neck for people with no backbones typifies episode's shrewd reliance on dramatic logic instead of frenzied gunplay. Brown, who normally played lawmen, revels in his bully boy character, and youthful, gravel-voiced James Gammon is fun to watch as Brown's top goon.
JED -- Guest stars, Steve Ihnat, Brenda Scott, Sammy Jackson
Trampas persuades old saddle partner to work at Shiloh, unaware he has become a volatile gunman spying for ranchers plotting against homesteaders. Stout acting gives routine story a big lift. Ihnat's portrayal of a bitter loner who reclaims his humanity is freshly thought out to the smallest detail, such as using both hands to grip his six-shooter. Stuart Margolin brings simmering heat to his role as an unctuous, slithery villain.
THE GOOD-HEARTED BADMAN -- Guest stars, Peter Deuel, John Larch
Elizabeth is fascinated by wounded outlaw being sought by his gang and stalked by a relentless bounty hunter. First-rate episode, written by Robert Van Scoyk and directed by James Sheldon, conjures perilous situation for Lane, McIntire and Nolan in a woolly, wind-whipped setting. Deuel is magnetic as the charming scoundrel, and Anthony Zerbe performs with his usual zeal as a slimy killer.
Stacey Grainger grows depressed after severe arm injury that won't heal disrupts a romance. Saving his best for last, Don Quine caps unremarkable recurring role with a poignant performance in artfully crafted episode directed by Leo Penn. Attractive role for blonde beauty Lee Kroeger as Stacey's fair weather sweetheart.
THE HANDY MAN -- Guest stars, Mel Torme, Tom Simcox
Secretive drifter befriended by Trampas is suspected of being a notorious gunslinger. Crooner Torme briefly put his songbook aside for acting and writing stint, and does respectable jobs on both fronts. Torme gives an effectively muted performance as the drifter, and his script provides a nicely shaded villainous role for Simcox and bright moments for Nolan and McClure, who has seldom been more ingratiating.
THE DECISION -- Guest stars, Kenneth Tobey, Monica Lewis, Ben Murphy
Proud sheriff quits for his worried wife's sake, but chafes at his new job as a Shiloh hand. The brick-topped Tobey, best remembered as the staunch hero in the horror classic "The Thing," lends seasoned authority to western story as comfortably familiar as a pair of old boots. Equally comfortable is the interplay of Drury and McClure, no less so at the end of season six than the beginning of season one.