A rabid wolf and Ronny Howard made for one of the best episodes of The Big Valley

Peter Breck always seemed to get the exotic animal episodes — with good reason.

Did you ever notice that Nick Barkley had bad luck with animals on The Big Valley? A cougar mauls him in "Run of the Cat." He's tricked into taking a bunch of sheep as a poker debt in "A Flock of Trouble." He traps a bird of prey in "Cage of Eagles"… which leads to a man (Pernell Robert) blowing up a mine atop him. And, in "Night of the Wolf," a rabid wolf mauls him.

There was a reason that character seemed to get all the exotic animal episodes. The actor behind Nick Barkley had a way with creatures.

"Generally, when there were more unusual animals involved, I ended up getting those shows. Perhaps the producers felt I worked well with critters," Big Valley star Peter Breck once wrote in "Cut 'Em Off at the Pass," his column in Wildest Westerns Magazine.

"In fact, a few years prior, I had a Collie for a co-star in a family film called Lad: A Dog…" Breck said. "Actually, I have always owned animals. Humans can learn a lot from 'em. To me, one of the most interesting episodes of The Big Valley involved my Nick Barkley character and a carnivorous mammal. It was called 'Night of the Wolf' which aired on December 1, 1965."

The Everett CollectionBreck shows his way with dogs in 'Lad'

Indeed, this early episode in season one, just 12th overall in the long-running series, remains a memorable standout. Why? Rabies and Opie.

In the opening scene, Nick and brother Heath are camping at night when a wild wolf pounces on the older Barkley son. It's a genuinely startling moment. So how did they pull it off?

"It was a timber wolf," Breck explained in a 2006 interview with Scott Holleran. "They threw him off a rock and on to me."

Nick rolls about on the ground with the animal latched onto him. That shot, however, was a more common canine.

"[They] doubled the close-up with a German Shepherd," Breck said. "We would rehearse it and the gaffers would get up there with him and throw him at me. The paws were going every which way."

Thinking he is dying, Nick wanders away from the Barkley homestead in Stockton, seeking peace in his last days on earth. (Obviously, he does not die.) In his journey, he comes upon a kind widow named Julia (Nancy Olson) and her boy Tommy (Ron Howard). Nick bequeaths his spurs to the kid. The two actors, a quarter-century apart in age, share a tearful goodbye. The scene leans on the precocious acting skills of young Howard.

Certainly, Mayberry fans were no strangers to the range of "Ronny." He was still in the midst of his run on The Andy Griffith Show. The child star did get to rarely appear on other shows here and there during his time on The Andy Griffith Show. Aside from this episode, he took small guest roles on Route 66Dr. Kildare and The Fugitive.

As for Peter Breck, he continued to show off his skills with dogs. "After The Big Valley, [I worked with] a wonderful mutt in the children's classic Benji," he wrote in Wildest Westerns. "I played a doctor who worried the tramp dog might have some kind of rash or sickness, kicked Benji out of the house — and was booed by everyone in the audience!"

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stephaniestavr5 7 days ago
METV can correct another website's mistakes, but a good portion of the time, not their own. I am referring to the sentence: "Perhaps the producers felt I worked well with critters." On the Wildest Westerns website, the sentence actually read: "Perhaps the producers filet worked well with critters." That sentence conjures up a rather disturbing picture of Good Old Nick Barkley "handling the critters!"
MrsPhilHarris 7 days ago
How on earth did he survive rabies?
That is a very good question. Though it is not 100% fatal it's way up there. Rabies vaccine not even discovered until 1885. You more or less need to take the vaccine before the total effects kicks in.
Rabies was virtually 100% fatal back then, so either the wolf didn't really have rabies or Nick wasn't exposed to the wolf's saliva somehow. If Nick showed symptoms, he had rabies and would die.
Bowl300 7 days ago
I love The Big Valley! This episode was great. Ron Howard was a fantastic child actor. Was great in emotional scenes. One of the best Andy Griffith episodes was when Opie accidentally killed a mama songbird with his slingshot. His acting in that episode was some of the best acting I've ever seen.
harlow1313 Bowl300 7 days ago
My favorite scene is the last one.

Opie Taylor : The cage sure looks awful empty, don't it, Pa?
Andy Taylor : Yes son, it sure does... but don't the trees seem nice and full?

The camera pulls back to show a sky view of the father, son, and Taylor yard below, and we hear all of the chirping birds.
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