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11 things you never knew about 'The Big Valley,' TV's greatest Western with a female lead

The Barbara Stanwyck series has links to 'Gone with the Wind,' 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Airplane!'

Image: The Everett Collection

Westerns are known for their rugged cowboys, leather-clad men who can punch, shoot and ride. It's a traditionally masculine genre. That being said, Westerns have given television some strong female characters. Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke immediately comes to mind. It is however rare that a TV Western centers around a woman.

The syndicated Annie Oakley told the tale of the famed sharpshooter in the late 1950s, with Gail Davis in the lead role. Otherwise, The Big Valley stands as the epitome of the female-led Western. The series chronicled the saga of the Barkley clan, a wealthy family led by a widowed matriach in Stockton, California, in the late 19th century. Victoria Barkley stood tall and tough, displaying just as much grit as her sons Nick and Heath.

There was no better actress to play Victoria than Barbara Stanwyck. At one point, in 1944, the Hollywood legend was the highest-paid woman in America. Beloved by audiences and the industry, the actress commanded attention in breaktaking films like Double Indemnity.

The Big Valley also featured young Linda Evans, who clearly studied from the master on her way to Dynasty. Alongside those two wonderful women were macho icons Lee Majors and Peter Breck, playing Heath and Nick, respectively. The show offered the perfect balance of action and drama. It's no wonder the 1965–69 series garnered such a devout, diverse fanbase.

Let's take a deeper look into The Big Valley.

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1

Barbara Stanwyck earned several awards for her work on the series.

After the first season, Stanwyck nabbed the Emmy for Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.  She earned nominations the next two years, too. In 1967, Photoplay magazine also named her America's favorite TV actress.

2

Linda Evans lived a block from Barbara Stanwyck and called her "Mom."

On set, Stanwyck and Evans had a mentor-apprentice relationship that grew into something closer to familial. According to a People magazine profile of the actresses, the two ended up living down the street from one another. Years later, when Stanwyck appeared on Dynasty, Evans still called her former costar "Mom." Stanwyck noted, "The first season on The Big Valley, Linda didn’t always listen to me and I didn’t like that. But the second season we spent a lot of time together and she did better. That is, once she stopped giggling.”

Image: The Everett Collection

3

Peter Breck reportedly had the fastest gun draw in Hollywood.

Brek was no stranger to the saddle. In fact, he had previously starred in Black Saddle, playing a gunfighter-turned-lawyer. According to Wildest Westerns magazine, Breck was purportedly able to draw his gun in 16/100ths of a second, making Nick Barkley the fastest draw in television history. Though perhaps not in this clip.

4

A cast member had to leave the show after being drafted in the Army.

Yes, there was once another Barkley boy early on. Eugene, the youngest Barkley, appeared in a handful of episodes. Played by Charles Briles, Eugene was an excitable medical student studying at Berkeley. He popped up sporadically throughout the first season. Briles then received his draft notice. Producers wrote the character off the show, explaining he went off to med school. His name was mentioned just once again. Briles volunteered for the California National Guard and was on duty for the 1965 Watts riots, according to his obituary.

5

They recycled a costume from 'Gone with the Wind.'

Barbara Stanwyck was at one time considered for the lead role Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. That may not have come to fruition, but a piece of the timeless Civil War film did follow her to The Big Valley. In "The River Monarch," Nick's girlfriend wears a knit gray jacket with red trim. The same coat had previously been worn by Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind.

6

There were two attempted spin-offs.

The Big Valley was never a major ratings hit, despite its loyal following. Nevertheless, producers twice tried to create spin-offs with backdoor pilots. The episode "Rimfire" was to set up a series starring Van Williams as Sheriff Dave Barrett, pictured here. More interestingly, "The Royal Road," a story about a visiting Indian prince, was meant to set up a series starring Sajid Khan,who would have become one of the rare Indian leads on American television.

Image: The Everett Collection

7

Singer Lou Rawls made his acting debut on the show, in an episode scripted by one of TV's first black writers.

The Big Valley was a progressive series. Robert L. Goodwin, one of the first black screenwriters in American television, who had broken into the industry writing for Bonanza, penned the script to "Joshua Watson." Soul singer Lou Rawls, who had recently rocketed up the pop charts with "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," made his acting debut in that episode, uttering the great line, "Ain't a horse that can't be rode; ain't a man that can't be throwed."

8

They kept Lee Majors from starring in 'Midnight Cowboy.'

Majors was set to star as Joe Buck in the acclaimed Dustin Hoffman film. However, The Big Valley was renewed, and Majors could not get out of his contract. Thus, the role was given to Jon Voight. Who knows if we would have ever gotten The Six Million Dollar Man if Majors had been allowed that cinematic showcase?

9

Regis Philbin appeared in an episode.

Yes, Regis is far more than a talk show host, game show host and singer. He acted a bit, too. Philbin's personality pops off the screen when he appears in "The Challenge." The Big Valley packed in a bunch of guest stars, from Richard Dreyfuss and William Shatner to Milton Berle and Cloris Leachman.

10

There a reference to the show in 'Airplane!'

In the classic 1980 comedy, the kooky, exuberant air traffic controller Johnny (Stephen Stucker) makes a passing reference to The Big Valley. It happens when Lloyd Bridges' character recalls a pilot who once cracked. Johnny blurts, "It happened to Barbara Stanwyck!" before mimicking, "Nick, Heath, Jarrod – there's a fire in the barn!"

11

A reboot with Susan Sarandon was put on ice due to fraud.

Indeed, all properties from Hollywood's past are ripe for a remake. In 2010, a cinematic reboot of The Big Valley was put into motion. Susan Sarandon was first attached to the role of Victoria Barkley, later followed by Jessica Lange. However, a couple years later, the project was indefinitely shelved after the film's would-be director, Daniel Adams, was indicted for fraud due to work he had done on two prior movies, The Lightkeepers and Golden Boy.

Image: The Everett Collection

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