Before the premiere episode of the classic western television series Wanted: Dead or Alive, nobody knew who Steve McQueen was. Sure, the 28-year-old fledgling actor had trained in New York at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse as well as The Actors’ Studio, had his big screen debut in Paul Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me in 1956 (a bit role as a knife-wielding thug) and received good reviews for his performance in A Hatful of Rain on Broadway.
But then McQueen filmed the cult favorite science fiction movie The Blob during August 1957. Although the film wasn’t released until after Wanted, former actor/then producer Dick Powell (his company, Four Star Television, ultimately produced the series) viewed a rough cut and liked what he saw in McQueen’s nuanced performance.
So the actor was quickly offered a role in Trackdown, another western series starring Robert Culp of future I Spy fame. Filmed in February 1958, this episode (entitled “The Bounty Hunter”) introduced the character of “Josh Randall,” a tough individual who never quit until he had brought his quarry in.
With favorable fan reaction, one of the earliest spin-off series was born, and Wanted: Dead or Alive commenced filming its debut episode in July 1958. And from the start, McQueen’s legendary temper, stubbornness and insecurity resulted in the firing of three stuntmen and a horse!
A Rising Actor – Michael Landon
Titled “The Martin Poster,” the episode featured a 21-year-old rising star, Michael Landon. Roughly one year before he shot to superstardom in Bonanza, Landon had already filmed 30 guest appearances on television shows and the occasional movie.
Interestingly, both McQueen and Landon shared several common traits: cult science fiction films and television westerns launched their respective careers. For Landon, it was the campy horror film and box office hit I Was A Teenage Werewolf, released in July 1957 by the low budget American International Pictures.
Werewolf actually introduced him to audiences a full year before McQueen’s The Blob, but Landon had been unable to capitalize on that success with another stand-out role.
Later during the debut season of Wanted in March 1959, Landon made a second appearance in “The Legend” episode, thus ending his early association with McQueen.
Another Memorable Guest Star – Nick Adams
“The Martin Poster” boasted another familiar guest star with Nick Adams. He enjoyed strong supporting roles (easily more than his costars up to that point) in Rebel Without A Cause, Picnic with William Holden, Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable and Doris Day, and No Time For Sergeants with Andy Griffith.
Friends with James Dean and Elvis Presley, Adams was likely searching for a breakout leading role when he appeared with McQueen and Landon. Fortunately, that came the following year when he starred as “Johnny Yuma” in The Rebel western series. Adams later reunited with McQueen in the underrated war drama Hell Is For Heroes in 1962.
After receiving a Best Supporting Actor Nomination for his role in the courtroom drama Twilight of Honor the next year, Adams’ career took a nosedive, and after starring in the very low-budget movie Mission Mars, he was discovered dead in February 1968 of an apparent suicide caused by prescription drugs. Adams was only 36 years old.
Other Character Actors – And Was That Warren Oates?
If you notice, Dabbs Greer portrays “Tom Wade,” the citizen who is forced to retrieved Randall’s horse. Appearing in over 300 character roles in his amazing 54-year career, Greer finally found wide-spread recognition in 1974 when Landon asked him to portray “Reverend Alden” on the long-running Little House On The Prairie.
Vaughn Taylor is the wise-cracking town doctor (he steals his scenes quite effectively) who is shown no mercy by Adams’ character. Taylor was a mainstay of film and television (particularly westerns), portraying various town citizens who were often world-weary and refused to help the protagonist during the ’50s and ’60s.
His best-known role was likely in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where he portrayed Janet Leigh’s boss. You can also spot him in Don Knotts’ The Shakiest Gun In The West or Truman Capote’s unsettling In Cold Blood.
The gentleman who questioned Randall in the marshall’s office was character actor Robert Anderson. He appeared in various minor roles in many classic television westerns, including another debut episode – on television’s longest running western, Gunsmoke, in September 1955.
On that occasion (“Matt Getts It”), Anderson was the marshall gunned down just before Matt Dillon was almost killed by a very fast gunslinger. The villain had to be close to his target as he never took time to aim.
Jennifer Lea is the sister of the bad guys, and her short scenes with McQueen are ably delivered. Her career, almost exclusively relegated to television westerns, only lasted ten years and less than thirty roles before she disappeared after a 1968 episode of the comedy series Family Affair, starring Brian Keith and Johnny Whitaker. Perhaps she got married or found a new line of work. Anyway, I didn’t recognize her.
Interestingly, IMDB lists Warren Oates in an uncredited role in “The Martin Poster.” If true, it would only have been the revered cult actor’s sixth screen role, but after viewing the episode twice, there is no trace of Oates. A crowd scene lasting less than thirty seconds during the episode’s first act is the only possible place where Oates could be.
“The Martin Poster” Synopsis
Tautly directed by Thomas Carr, who worked on over 100 B-westerns and television series (including one quarter of Wanted‘s episodes and later 28 episodes of the popular Rawhide, starring Clint Eastwood), “The Martin Poster” opens with Josh Randall riding into the dusty town of Las Tunas to chat with the marshall about one of the notorious Martin Brothers (Adams).
Turns out, both brothers (Landon and Adams) are escaping from jail, and Josh must track them down with the aid of his specialized .30-30 Winchester Mare’s Leg. Without giving too much of the well-written 26-minute story away, there is plenty of action and exceptional acting.
Landon is in pain and definitely skinny throughout “The Martin Poster,” his best scene coming near the end when McQueen confronts him at his sister’s farm. Nick Adams had more lines than Landon and wore a cool cow-hide colored vest, although Landon’s name was billed over him in the end credits.
Josh Randall, Bounty Hunter
In viewing the episode 53 years later, one must realize that McQueen didn’t fully inhabit his character “Josh Randall” until a little later, so his acting may not be as natural in “The Martin Poster” as later episodes.
But Randall was tough when he needed to be, yet gentle and kind around women and kids. In this episode, as well as others, the bounty hunter anonymously donated part of the reward to the criminal’s family.
So even if he had the negative “bounty hunter stigma” attached to him, he was one of the good guys, although critics had a field day underscoring the often high level of violence.
Above all, you believed Randall was dangerous and wouldn’t stop until he captured his quarry. From the beginning, McQueen took his role seriously, altering scripts to reduce his dialogue and injecting realism into the fight scenes (he was a former Merchant Marine).
A Successful Western Series
By the end of the 1958-1959 television season, the show was in Nielsen’s Top 20 at #16, a remarkable feat for a brand-new show.
Airing every Saturday evening on CBS after Perry Mason (it’s such a shame that network television now views Saturday evenings as a graveyard for ratings-challenged shows), it would continue to remain popular until its three-season run ended in 1961. Wanted could have continued for at least two more seasons if McQueen hadn’t been itching to jump head-first into motion pictures. His role in 1960’sThe Magnificent Seven proved he was more than ready.
Wanted: Dead or Alive is easily available on DVD, and the complete 94-episode show can be purchased at an unbelievable cheap cost of $12 on Amazon.com
Or simply view “The Martin Poster” (in original black and white or colorized format) by clicking on the video attached with this article. It’s a great opportunity to witness two legends early in their respective careers.
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© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2011. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without contacting the author.