A lonely man drifts into town. So begins countless westerns written for the page and made for the screen. But this one’s a little different. This time that lone soul isn’t a gunslinger making his bones, a mysterious man trying to escape his past, or a bounty hunter looking for a payday. This man is a cowpuncher looking for work, a hot meal, and a drink or six. By his side, his trusty golden retriever—which he sometimes calls Brown, sometimes Dog.

Brian Keith and Spike posing for a promotional photo. Image courtesy NBC TV.

So opens the TV series, The Westerner—now available to stream on TubiTV—a short-lived series from 1960 following that lonely cowboy, Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith), as he drifts from town-to-town, along the Texas-Mexico border, gathering up friends and work, losing them just as easily as he finds them. Thirteen episodes were shot and aired from 1959 to 1960, all of them the brainchild of creator and producer Sam Peckinpah.

Though somewhat out forgotten these days, Peckinpah is one of those titans of American cinema. Like a lot of filmmakers of his generation, Peckinpah got his start in television before moving on to the silver screen, where he engendered the money-men’s respect with Ride the High Country (1962), trashed it with Major Dundee (1965), and came back with genuine game-changer, The Wild Bunch (1969). Off and on success and critical acclaim followed—as did a fair amount of controversy and hard living—but Peckinpah’s place in American images was solidified.

That makes the obscurity of The Westerner all the more curious. Granted, the western as the American genre has fallen considerably in recent decades, but back in the 1960s, America lived off of westerns—in print, in the cinemas, and on TV.

The Westerner fits nicely into that cycle, though it is a little moodier than fan favorites like Rawhide and Gunsmoke. Some episodes, particularly Ghost of a Chance, feel almost like sci-fi akin to Star Trek. Others, like BrownThe Courting of Libby, and The Painting—all featuring John Dehner as Burgundy Smith—are comedies loaded with witty repartee, drunken brawls, and a chemistry between Keith and Dehner so good it’s a shame they didn’t work together more often.

John Dehner and Brian Keith in The Westerner.

But back to the idea of the western as sci-fi: Between every town Blassingame rides from and to is hostile territory. Not because it’s populated by Native Americans—they’re more an off-screen presence in a few episodes—but because the weather is harsh, the resources are minimal, and the bandits are plentiful. Brown (Spike, the famous pooch who played 1957’s Old Yeller) is a trusty companion but not much help when it comes to defense. For that, Blassingame has his trusty six-shooter, a weapon he knows how to use but one he’d just as soon leave in the holster. Hand on the Gun, probably the series’ best episode, is concerned primarily with the cult of the gun when fancy-pants Cal Davis (Ben Cooper) joins Blassingame and fellow cow-hand Oresquote (Michael Ansara) on the range. Davis is an Easterner who dresses ostentatiously and can’t help but twirl his gun every chance he gets. Davis is the type that grew up reading western pulps and hearing about famous train robberies and gunfights on Main Street. He’s also a racist and learns that out here, it doesn’t pay to hate the man you’re working with. Or go waving your pistol around.

Like a lot of episodic television, The Westerner features solid set-ups and rapid payoffs. No episode runs longer than 25 minutes, though half could benefit from added minutes. But what Peckinpah proved with this flash-in-the-pan series was an approach to the western genre that went beyond the usual trappings. Blassingame makes for a good guy, likable, sympathetic, and moral. But the later episodes begin to tease out a background that may have led to darker territory had the series continued. Maybe similar territory Keith portrayed in Peckinpah’s feature debut, The Deadly Companions (1961), the tenuous brotherhood between Major Dundee and Captain Tyreen in Major Dundee. Maybe even the ties that bind Pike Bishop to Deke Thorton in The Wild Bunch. Whatever it was, NBC made sure that it never saw the light of day and The Westerner was pulled in late-1960. Peckinpah continued to dabble in television and work on scripts until jumping to features. But that’s a story for another day.

All 13 episodes of The Westerner are available to stream on TubiTV.