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Peter Breck, Nick on ‘Big Valley’, Dies at 82

Peter Breck, the actor who played Nick Barkley on ABC’s one-hour Western starring Barbara Stanwyck, The Big Valley (1965-1969), died in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada last Monday. He was 82. His death was announced by his wife, Diane, on the Big Valley fan forum Web site The Big Valley Writing Desk.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Breck, who appeared in movies such as I Want to Live! with Susan Hayward and as the father in Benji, for my online column in 2006. I found him to be nothing like his hot-tempered rancher character. He was kind and generous, talking about a range of issues for the short interview, which I conducted for Fox’s release of Big Valley‘s first season on DVD. He was also a regular on the TV Western Maverick starring James Garner. He ran an acting school in Canada with his wife after the couple moved there.

From my 2006 column and interview with Mr. Breck:

“For cinematic, larger-than-life television, The Big Valley cannot be topped. Starring five first-rate actors as a wealthy ranching family, the sweeping, colorful outdoors series depicts an idealized American West. Respect is earned, ranching is business, and cowboys are heroes. It’s rugged individualism in one rich, powerful family.

“The Barkleys own half the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870s. Widow Victoria is played by the indomitable movie star Barbara Stanwyck, eldest Jarrod, a San Francisco lawyer, by the late Richard Long, angelic Audra by Linda Evans (Dynasty) and half-brother Heath by a young Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man). Despite Heath being fathered by her late husband and another woman, Victoria welcomes him into the family with her head held high, in defiance of the community, which refuses to accept Heath as a Barkley.

“The Big Valley also features Heath’s rough, intemperate brother Nick, played by actor Peter Breck, who recalls the fistfights, the shootouts and the demanding stunts. In one episode, Nick drives a Mexican cattleman, played by Martin Landau, off Barkley land when he won’t remove an anthrax-infected herd. But Breck’s horse was spooked.

“I was dragged,” Breck remembered, speaking from his home in Canada. “Martin Landau was shooting over a rock and as I rode up, an explosion went off. I was over my mark, and Boom! The horse went on the wildest eleven seconds I ever had. At one point, I looked up and got it right in the bottom of my chin.” Another time, Nick and Heath encounter a rabid beast ready to pounce on the livestock. “It was a timber wolf,” Breck said. “They threw him off a rock and on to me and doubled the close-up with a German shepherd. We would rehearse it and the gaffers would get up there with him and throw him at me. The paws were going every which way.”

“That episode was “Night of the Wolf,” which memorably features director Ron Howard, already playing Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, as a boy who looks up to Nick. Other first season guest stars include Katharine Ross (The Graduate) as the beautiful Mexican aristocrat who is Heath’s first love, Charles Bronson as an alcoholic trapped in a collapsed church with Victoria following an earthquake and Beah Richards (Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) as a woman who helped raise bastard Heath.

“Like Gunsmoke, The Big Valley dramatized serious conflicts on principle—involving property rights, justice, racism—and, like the similarly structured Bonanza, the action centered on a family. There the parallels end.

“From its rousing opening score, the show conveys an epic feel, with gorgeous photography in southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County that lingers on wide vistas that give the moral dilemmas a broader canvass. The cast is easy on the eyes, too, whether Audra gallops across the landscape in her form-fitting Western wear to watch the wild Mustangs or the virile Barkley boys are on screen.

“The Barkleys’ idealism, evident in nearly every episode, is anchored in realism threaded with ironic humor. Each member of the family is unique—Jarrod is consistently rational, Nick is passionate, Heath is introspective, Audra is kind—and they are united by common values.

“Holding them together, insisting that each be treated as an individual, is Miss Stanwyck as their mother, an unwavering voice of reason and integrity and always with love. 77-year-old Breck, whose stage work spans Shakespeare, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and his personal favorite, Cyrano de Bergerac, said working with one of the screen’s brightest stars was a constant reward.

“I’d get chills,” Breck explained. “She would look at me with those eyes and our characters had a bond. Barbara was a tiger.” Breck, who lost his only child to leukemia when his son was 28, lives with his wife of 46 years in British Columbia, far from Hollywood in more ways than geography. “I do miss the old Hollywood,” he told this columnist, “I’m not too happy with what’s there now. I did Jiminy Glick in La La Wood—they gave me the role of the head of the studio—and it was just a rush job. Everything’s too fast now and you can’t go bang-bang-bang and get a performance.” As an afterthought, he added: “They don’t make good movies anymore.”

“They do, however, make DVDs of good television shows—and Breck, whose horseback riding in the majestic show still rustles up the Old West, ought to be proud to know that The Big Valley is one of them.”

On Whitney Houston, Dead at 48

The shocking news that singer Whitney Houston has died at the age of 48 is just breaking. I may have more to say about her death as more becomes known, though I found this excerpt from an especially thoughtful Associated Press article by Nekesa Mumbi Moody particularly interesting:

“Her decision not to follow the more soulful inflections of singers like Franklin drew criticism by some who saw her as playing down her black roots to go pop and reach white audiences. The criticism would become a constant refrain through much of her career. She was even booed during the “Soul Train Awards” in 1989. Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?” she told Katie Couric in 1996. “You’re not black enough for them. I don’t know. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”

Though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I met one of her producers at a club in New York and heard wonderful things about her talent. I remember the thrill of hearing her fresh new music when it debuted with her self-titled album, pictured above. As her troubled career spiraled, I found myself wishing she would be her own “Greatest Love of All,” as she sang the song from The Greatest, and truly love herself. This is sad news. I last wrote about Whitney Houston – whose work was phenomenal and deserving of the highest praise – in a review of her last album, which is posted here.

Harry Morgan, 1915-2011

An American actor who was the son of Norwegian immigrants, Harry Morgan, has died at the age of 96, according to news reports. The man who portrayed Colonel Sherman Potter on the CBS television series M*A*S*H appeared in more than 100 movies, including as the judge in the film adaptation of the stage play Inherit the Wind with Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. For me he’ll be remembered foremost for playing policeman Joe Gannon to Jack Webb’s honorable Sgt. Joe Friday in the TV series Dragnet (1967). The series, based on real cases in the Los Angeles Police Department, was a counterpoint to the rising New Left. Dragnet was a clear, sternly dramatic repudiation of the cultural spread of the Hippies. Mr. Morgan’s Joe Gannon was an observer to the wrongs, caretaker to the victims, comrade to the hero, and a devoted investigator in pursuit of justice with regard to the Hippies’ most vile crimes and moral transgressions.

Though I watched it with my Korean War veteran dad, and found the writing intelligent and the plots often involving and sometimes poignant, I never looked forward to his show M*A*S*H, in which from 1975 to 1983 he played the commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in Korea during the Korean War. It was always so joyless and depressing and there was a resignation and defeatism about it that reflected the Korean War’s unresolved status and foreshadowed late 20th century American appeasement of our enemies. His character in particular represented pragmatism; the medical unit’s leader embodied the American anti-intellectual.

But Col. Potter was apparently Mr. Morgan’s favorite part, according to an interview for the Archive of American Television, and like his character, the Detroit, Michigan-born actor had a horse named Sophie; he raised quarter horses on a ranch in Santa Rosa, California. After playing varsity football and serving as senior class president, he attended the University of Chicago, where he studied law and theater, and he made his Broadway debut in 1937 in the original production of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. He moved to California in 1942, where he eventually signed a motion picture contract with 20th Century Fox. His movies include The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) with Henry Fonda, High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) with Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford, Inherit the Wind (1960), in which he played the small-town Southern judge hearing arguments against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the fictionalized version of the Scopes monkey trial, and the grand epic How the West Was Won (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and Debbie Reynolds. In that picture, Harry Morgan portrayed Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He also appeared in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) with James Garner and Walter Brennan, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) with Tim Conway and Don Knotts and the 1987 spoof of Dragnet featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. Harry Morgan lived in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr., 1919-2011

“If you can put a number on it, then you know something,” the late Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., who died earlier this month, reportedly said his father once told him. If you use or refer to metrics, analytics and box office statistics, you are cashing in on Mr. Nielsen’s work, because he was president and chairman of the A. C. Nielsen Company founded by his father. The Nielsen Company pioneered gathering, reporting and analyzing consumer data and it still dominates such information in the entertainment industry, especially television. Arthur Nielsen, whose life began and ended in Winnetka, Illinois, became president of his father’s modest television statistics firm in 1957 and he was named chairman in 1975. According to newspaper obituaries, he took the business from making under $4 million a year to $680 million in annual revenue. The World War 2 veteran, who served as a major in the Corps of Engineers, was assigned during the war to construct a building that would function as a place to operate a machine. The machine’s purpose? To generate highly complex tables that would calculate for accuracy the metrics of firing huge artillery guns. Nielsen was fascinated and became a passionate exponent and innovator of what the company called a “measurement science.” Among those innovations are of course the famous Nielsen ratings that continue to define, frame and shape television markets. Whether they know it or not, future practitioners and pioneers in entertainment industry statistics analysis, such as my former business partner, Box Office Mojo founder Brandon Gray, gained enormous value from Mr. Nielsen’s work. He leaves behind much more than the world’s leading market research business. Art Nielsen, as he was known to his colleagues, ran, fostered and kept re-creating a technology-based business that advanced our understanding of the arts and business. Gaining knowledge of what people choose to consume helps us learn why they consume it, which helps artists produce richer, more compelling work for people to consume. By taking measure of what people consume, Nielsen’s distinguished career improved both the art of business and the business of art.

Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

One of America’s greatest businessmen died today. Apple founder and Chairman of the Board Steve Jobs was in his prime, and he went out on top of the world, exiting gracefully if prematurely due to pancreatic cancer amid a chorus of passionate expressions of love and admiration for his breathtaking achievements in business, technology, and the arts. I can’t add to the countless tributes, posts, and deeply felt bows to this American hero, and I’ve already posted about Apple here, so I’ll simply say that this longtime Apple consumer, who began using Apple’s products at a California newspaper where I was writing ad copy and designing ads before hustling my way into a writing assignment (a feature on the 50th anniversary of The Fountainhead), learned of my hero’s demise in an Apple Store in Century City, California. The location and setting, a rainy, autumn afternoon where steel towers meet the sky in an urban landscape predicated on the union of form and function, seems fitting. I had been taking a brief tutorial on Apple’s new business service, Joint Venture, from Gustavo, with another Apple associate, Chadwick, who later confirmed that Mr. Jobs was gone. I’d already been briefed on the forthcoming Apple iPhone 4S, and watched a clip from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape on AppleTV, and I was exiting the store, the busiest enterprise in the complex, when I noticed his image on a MacBook with his name and birth and death dates. When Chadwick told me, we shared a moment of sadness and I went off to be alone. With America in its darkest days, with capitalism being destroyed by our government, and with mobs of vacant hippies occupying Wall Street, Los Angeles and Boston, threatening to tear down business, the rich, and the productive, I thought: here was a man who took on the whole world and won, with honor, self-interest, and excellence and on the merits, in every sense. He brought us together, in newsrooms, stores and coffee shops, and on social media, and he knew the supremacy and simplicity of what it means to be left alone. Saying thank you isn’t enough for what he did. Steve Jobs deserves something deeper, like a prayer. Today, he died, and I am glad I was in a place he created when I heard the news. But I think I will always feel like those stores, and the neat rows of products made by the company he created, are an embodiment of something larger than life, something sacred, and something real, made by him. Steve Jobs.