The Big Valley Comes to DVD And It’s About Time

“The Big Valley” is finally coming to DVD and it is about time. “The Big Valley” was my favorite Western series from the 1960s for several reasons, not the least of which was a twenty-something Linda Evans and theme music that stayed with me for the rest of my life. “The Big Valley” also featured a fresh-out-of-acting school Lee Majors in his first role, and likeable Richard Long, an individual who died way too young. Throw in legendary Barbara Stanwyck as the head of the Barkley family and Peter Breck as brawling brother Nick, and “The Big Valley” became must-see TV long before the phrase was coined.

Telling the sagebrush saga of the wealthy Barkley Family in the San Joaquin Valley of California in the late 1870s, “The Big Valley” ran for 112 episodes from 1965 until 1969. The funny thing about “The Big Valley” for me was I rarely saw the show until it came into syndication, and I was able to watch it in the afternoons. “The Big Valley” had opening credits that couldn’t be missed, mainly because of the music and the shot of Linda Evans as Audra Barkley. My wife still kids me about how I must have gotten right up to the television screen to get a good view, and although I laugh, I don’t deny it. Something about those pretty blondes.

The premise of “The Big Valley” was that the Barkleys, who owned a huge ranch and were very powerful in California, welcomed into their family Heath, played by Lee Majors. Heath was the illegitimate son of now deceased Tom Barkley, the father who had a tryst a long time ago in another town but never knew about Heath. The first couple of episodes of “The Big Valley” deal with Heath coming to town to claim his birthright, and the clashing of characters over that. Heath is ultimately accepted as a true Barkley, and proves his mettle in one episode after another.

Barbara Stanwyck, who would receive three Golden Globe nominations for her work on “The Big Valley”, was the strong-willed matriarch of this bunch. She could be charming if she had to, but more often than not Victoria Barkley would wind up fighting alongside her sons. Stanwyck was a veteran movie star when she was cast in “The Big Valley”, and was 58 years old at the time. The four-time Oscar nominated actress immediately gave “The Big Valley” a big name, and today it is one of her most remembered roles. Barbara Stanwyck passed away in 1990 at the age of 82, forever etched in our minds for the part she played on The Big Valley.

Peter Breck was a guest star in more TV Westerns than one could count before landing the role of his life as Nick Barkley in “The Big Valley”. The epitome of the act first-think later type, Nick Barkley constantly clashed with Heath, but ended up respecting him. There were very few segments of “The Big Valley” that did feature Nick in a fistfight or trying to start one.

“The Big Valley” was really Breck’s only major starring role, as after it ended he once again became a guest star on several series. He opened up an acting school long after “The Big Valley” days and ran it for ten years. Now 77 years old, Peter Breck has acted as recently as 2004. But like Barbara Stanwyck, he will always be Nick Barkley from “The Big Valley”.

The calmest head in all of “The Big Valley” belonged to Jarrod Barkley. A lawyer, played by Richard Long, Jarrod could fight and shoot when he had to, which he usually had to, but would try to take the peaceful approach to start. Long was also a television veteran, appearing on such shows as “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip”. After “The Big Valley”, Rchard Long starred in another ABC series called “The Nanny and the Professor”. He died of a massive heart attack in 1974, only 47 years old.

Lee Majors began his long career on television in “The Big Valley” portraying the brooding Heath, an accomplished gunslinger with a heart of gold. Majors, who turned 67 in April, would go onto even greater fame as “The Six Million Dollar Man”, Steve Austin, and later in the 1980s’ “The Fall Guy”. He makes cameo appearances today, and was once married to Farrah Fawcett in a tabloid match made in heaven.

The gorgeous Linda Evans had a few roles as a teenager in various television series, when at age 23 she became Audra Barkley, the beautiful blonde tomboy who could ride with the best of them. After “The Big Valley” went off the air, Linda Evans made guest appearances on shows until she got her career-defining part as Crystal Carrington in “Dynasty”. She is now appearing opposite her Dynasty foil, Joan Collins, touring North America in a play titled “Legends”. Hard to believe that Linda Evans will be 64 this fall!

There was a fourth Barkley boy in “The Big Valley”, but he was sent to school “back East” and never heard from again after the first season. Charles Briles played Eugene, whose biggest contribution was saving one of the Barkley’s prized bulls from anthrax in an episode that guest starred Martin Landau. Like all of the Westerns of that era, “The Big Valley” had more than its share of big name guest stars.

Such Hollywood stalwarts as Ron Howard, James Whitmore, Warren Oates, Katherine Ross, Charles Bronson, Harry Dean Stanton, Bruce Dern, and Claude Akins all wound up on “The Big Valley” at one time or another. Napoleon Whiting, who played the Barkley’s housekeeper, Silas, died in 1984; Douglas Kennedy, Sheriff Fred Madden in “The Big Valley”, passed away in 1973.

“The Big Valley” would often focus its story on one of the brothers at a time, usually with the other two coming in at the end to find that they were too late; the gunfight had just gotten over. As in every series featuring bachelors, you did not want to be the love interest of one of the Barkley boys from “The Big Valley”. Jarrod actually got married in one episode, but naturally his bride was shot down by an outlaw that he then pursued for the rest of the story. Often the poor female love interest took a bullet meant for a Barkley, leaving “The Big Valley” in a sad and tearful death scene.

My personal favorite episode of “The Big Valley” centered on the creepy teen son of a local businessman, played by R.G. Armstrong. The actor portraying the boy was Robert Walker, who Star Trek fans remember as “Charlie X”, another teen who wanted to “Stay, stay, stay”. The son has a thing for Audra, as did I, but when he attacks her, he is shot and killed by Victoria. Jarrod then presents evidence of the boy’s prior bad acts to the now vengeance seeking father, who sulks away at the end. A great installment of “The Big Valley”, as was any that had Audra in it for more than five minutes. Hopefully my wife won’t be too suspicious when I ask her for “The Big Valley” DVD set for Christmas.

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