Bronco: The Complete First Season and Bronco: The Complete Second Season (Warner Archive, each a 5-disc set of 20 episodes, 2014)
Clint Walker, who played the title character of the popular TV Western Cheyenne, walked out in 1958 after reaching an impasse with Warner Bros. over his contract. In an attempt to fill Clint’s very big boots, Warner lassoed Ty Hardin to play a new Western hero, Bronco Layne. Bronco debuted on September 23, 1958, not as a freestanding show but as part of Cheyenne. Hardin was a smaller version of Walker (rugged, kind but tough, usually a loner, often shirtless) but certainly no mini-clone.
When Walker and Warner ultimately made peace, Hardin remained on the studio payroll, his show officially called Bronco during its second season. In both the 1958–59 and 1959–60 seasons Bronco alternated in its time slot with another Warner Western, Sugarfoot, starring Will Hutchins, and in 1960 those shows had a three-way rotation with Cheyenne. Warner sacked Sugarfoot the next year, but Bronco hung on until August 20, 1962. Yes, it is all rather confusing, but interesting television history to us early Warner Western buffs, and the bottom line for viewers (and no doubt for Warner) is that the studio shot 68 episodes. As a bonus on the first-season DVD, after each Bronco episode we get to watch a rather detailed preview of an “upcoming” Sugarfoot show.
Bronco Layne’s hat-tip to the Cheyenne character didn’t keep him (or the writers and directors) from borrowing behaviors from other Warner characters. In a season one episode he makes like Hutchins’ “Tom Brewster” in Sugarfoot by repeatedly choosing to drink milk instead of whiskey, and in season two’s “Game at the Beacon Club” he makes like one of the Maverick brothers (James Garner’s Bret and Jack Kelly’s Bart) by donning an elegant frock coat and matching wits with a female cardsharp.
Bronco is from the Lone Star State, as the theme song reminds us (Bronco, Bronco, tearin’ across the Texas plain/Bronco, Bronco, Bronco Layne/Born down around the old panhandle/Texas is where he came to fame/There ain’t a horse that he can’t handle/That’s how he got his name), but like all Warner Western heroes he gets around in the Old West. Like the non-Warner anti-hero Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams in The Rebel), Bronco must deal with his Confederate past (he was a captain for the graycoats). In season one’s “The Long Ride Back” his hometown believes he’s a traitor; and in season two’s “The Burning Spring” we learn how as a Rebel spy he had once blown up Yankee oil wells. A few episodes later Bronco recrosses paths with a Rebel guerrilla turned coldhearted postwar killer in the historically challenged “Shadow of Jesse James,” with James Coburn as Jesse. Bronco and Jesse are enemies but have mutual friends in Cole Younger and fiancée Belle Starr.
In season one’s “The Turning Point” Bronco befriends outlaw John Wesley Hardin (portrayed by Scot Marlowe), who is badly misunderstood (blame the self-righteous father, played by R.G. Armstrong). There’s an interesting connection: In real life our strapping hero was born Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr. in New York City, but he picked up the nickname “Ty” from his Texas grandmother before being slapped with the surname “Hardin”—yes, after the notorious Texas gunman—in Hollywood. Unfortunately, the episode misfires, with its relentless preachiness and distortion of history.
Somewhat better (though with equally distorted history) is the season two’s “The Soft Answer,” in which Bronco tries to help Billy the Really Not Such a Bad Kid put his violent Lincoln County past behind him and loyally serve a peace-loving sheep rancher (tough guy actor Leo Gordon cast against type). Much better is “Payroll of the Dead,” in which a schemer disguised as an Army major (played by character actor extraordinaire John Dehner) hires Bronco to take him to Sitting Bull in search of the “little green papers” Custer’s cavalrymen carried into the Little Bighorn “massacre.” We learn that Bronco at one point in his fictional past was called “White Rain” and lived with the Sioux. Cheyenne already had on record his upbringing with the Cheyennes. But we don’t believe Sugarfoot ever rubbed elbows with the Arapahos.