Filming the Pilot Episode of TVs "The Rebel"
In 1959 I was a 16-year-old stuntman-gunfighter working for B-Western movie star Ray “Crash” Corrigan at his Simi Valley movie ranch, Corriganville. One day a Hollywood motion picture company rolled into town. It was not your usual movie company; this was a brand new production team called Fen-Ker-Ada Productions, founded by producer-writer, Andrew J. Fenady; director, Irvin Kershner; and actor, Nick Adams. They were about to commence filming on a pilot for an exceptional new Western television series – one with an extremely appropriate title for the 1950s: “The Rebel”.
James Dean had become a smash hit with the younger set playing a teenage malcontent in director Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause”. Every male teenager, including myself, tried his best to look and act just like James Dean. That was mainly because every teenage girl wanted to ... well ... you know what I mean. Television was crying for a show that could grab these teenage Dean devotees, and the first people to come up with a decent premise were Andrew J. Fenady and Nick Adams (who had been a personal friend of Dean’s before he died and had also played a small part in “Rebel Without a Cause”). Their protagonist was a youthful Confederate Civil War veteran, with the name, Johnny Yuma. Yuma was a passionate young man with aspirations of becoming a professional journalist. On the advice of an experienced newspaper publisher he encounters in the first episode (the pilot), Johnny Yuma begins keeping his own journal, in which he describes his personal everyday encounters, situations, activities and adventures – all this so he might gain a better understanding of the human condition while at the same time honing his skill as a writer. Years later, Andy Fenady would tell me the concept had come to him when he recalled reading Hemingway’s “Adventures of a Young Man” as a youth. Fenady had identified with the novel’s protagonist: a young man by the name of (ironically) Nick Adams, who roamed the country journaling about everything and everybody he came in contact with, hoping it would help him in becoming a journalist. The Hemingway novel had been so important to the young Andrew J. Fenady that one of his very first jobs in Hollywood before he became a producer was as an assistant to legendary Los Angeles television journalist, Paul Coates.
My Corriganville stunt-fight partner Ed Mohler and I decided to head out to the ranch on “The Rebel’s” first day of shooting. Of course I was still in high school at the time and was expected to be in class on weekdays. But during that period I was rebelling myself: I was ditching school every day in hopes I might land a job on some Simi Valley ranch as a real working cowboy.
Because we were both weekend employees, Ed and I made it through the main gate without a hitch; plus we were always dressed in our Western style outfits, so we knew we would blend in with the extras who were working with the company on the Corriganville Silvertown Main Street. If we wanted a snack or something to drink, we went to the Frontier Café and ordered what we wanted. No questions were ever asked because the kitchen workers were the same ones who were there on the weekends. The Frontier Café, mainly a weekend concession, had been commissioned by the movie people to serve them lunch. So, when the time came, Ed and I were allowed to slip through the chow line with the cast and crew. Ed and I did that a lot during the short time I was skipping class – until I got caught, and was forced to return to school. We’d find a shooting company either at Corriganville, the Iverson Ranch down the road, or The Bell Ranch nearby. We’d start by making friends with the extras, stuntmen and wranglers, and by noon they would invite us slip into line and join them for a hot meal. This happened more than a few times. Ed and I never starved.
“The Rebel” was unique in that the lead character, Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams) wasn’t a large man like most of the other TV Western stars of the day. Nick was five-foot eight or nine; a far cry from Clint Walker’s Cheyenne Bodie. Clint stood six-foot five. And most of the other series stars were well over six feet. This was the reason Johnny Yuma was perceived by the audience as “just one of us,” and also made it more plausible when Johnny Yuma was challenged by the bad guys. Somehow, when Clint Walker was confronted by a villain of normal size it never seemed like much of a threat. But Nick (as Johnny Yuma), when faced with the same situation, was believable. He took on difficult odds; odds that to most men would be overwhelming. Even so, by show’s end Johnny Yuma always came out the winner. Yuma wasn’t always looking for a fight; he had his pensive moments too. But he did wear a Confederate cap. That would always attract a lot of attention – usually from a gang of local desperados, or some unscrupulous scoundrel.
In one scene Ed and I witnessed during the filming of the pilot, Johnny Yuma enters a small town, and when he goes to a nearby trough to water his horse he’s confronted by a man who has no love for the Confederacy. Several words are exchanged (I have forgotten the exact dialog), followed by a short fist fight. The antagonist is finally knocked into the watering trough and when he comes up sputtering he is looking down the barrel of Johnny Yuma’s cap and ball pistol. “You ever call me that again,” vows Yuma, “I’ll blow you eyeballs out ... both of ‘em!” Nick Adams’s precise delivery – A.J. Fenady’s profound words.
Even though Adams spoke with a recognizable New Jersey accent, he was still quite believable as this determined young rebel with a cause. That led some to believe that Adams was not only James Dean’s best pal, but also blessed with Dean’s talent as well.
The pilot sold immediately, and soon they were back at Corriganville filming more episodes. I stood by on a few of those too, but none was more exciting than when I first saw Johnny Yuma in action.
Nick Adams was “The Rebel” – Andrew J. Fenady put the words into his mouth. Together they created Johnny Yuma. And together, they made the series into a very big hit.