TV pilot in color and best possible quality. First time on DVD!
During the 1957-'58 TV season I was doing a TV series called 'Boots and Saddles - The Story of the 5th Cavalry' for NBC-TV. I played the lead trooper in the series in about a third of the episodes. Michael Hinn, a fine character actor played the part of the chief scout. Michael and I had the same agent and we talked a lot when we were on location in Kanab, Utah and again back in Hollywood, where we shot interior scenes. He expressed an interest in producing and directing for TV and movies and said he and his wife, who was a writer, had some ideas for possible series consideration. A few years went by and we went our separate ways, doing roles in many TV shows and movies but we stayed in touch.
One day I got a call from Michael wanting to know how to contact Johnny Cash. He and his wife had come up with an idea for a TV series with each episode based on a hit song. He wanted to produce a pilot with Cash, using Johnny's hit song from 1959, Don't Take Your Guns To Town, as the theme. If that worked out, he wanted to do a show with Jimmy Dean’s Big Bad John as the theme and go from there with enough theme-based shows for syndication or TV network release.
Michael contacted Cash and presented him with the idea for the film. Cash was offered the lead based on a character similar to the famous western gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin. He agreed to do the pilot and Hinn set about rounding out the cast. The second character was very important, and for the part of 'Billy Joe' Hinn was able to sign Dick Jones, a veteran of over 400 films and TV shows. Jones had starred in the 'The Range Rider' and 'Buffalo Bill, Jr.' TV series for Gene Autry's Flying-A productions. The remainder of the cast was assembled to fill out the script.
I was signed to play one of the cowpokes, along with my roommate for many years on the Johnny Cash Show, Gordon Terry. Cowboy movie star and recording artist, Eddie Dean, was signed as the trail boss and singer-songwriter-guitarist, Merle Travis, was signed as the camp cook. Veteran stuntman, Whitey Hughes, took the job as the bartender, young actress, Karen Downes, as a dancehall girl, and Jimmy Wilson, who’d played piano on a lot of Cash's records and many Sun Records sessions came on board as (what else?) the piano player in the saloon scene.
At the time, Jimmy was married to Barbara Cohen, daughter of Nudie, the famous rodeo tailor, who made all the fancy outfits for nearly everyone in Hollywood and Nashville. For the funeral scene, Travis suggested that Hinn get singer-songwriter Wesley Tuttle, who was in real life an ordained minister. Everyone liked that idea and Wesley signed on.
We filmed the entire show on a soundstage in Hollywood that had been used for the 'Wild Bill Hickock' TV series, starring Guy Madison and Andy Devine. Michael produced and directed from his wife’s script. Shooting went smoothly over a 3-day period and the basic half-hour show was completed. Hinn then tried, unsuccessfully, to find a market for the TV show and finally decided to go back and shoot a bit of additional footage, featuring Walter Brennan's son, Andy, as the host of a theatre inviting everyone in to enjoy the show. Gene Autry's longtime musical conductor, Carl Cotner, scored the film and added some finishing touches to the extended product. Hinn kept shopping the film around Hollywood and finally got a deal with Crown International, who was looking for a short film to fill out time for some of the epic films that ran over 3 hours and where a full length second feature would make the program too long. So ‘The Night Rider’ was released as a 'Featurette' and played quite well in drive-in theaters and smaller venues, especially in the South where Cash maintained a huge fan base.
For years, I carried a clipping from a newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama with a headline, "'The Night Rider' starring Johnny Cash" in huge letters and then under that in very small type, "also Kirk Douglas in 'Spartacus'". Cash would later star with Douglas in 'A Gunfight' and I don't think he ever showed Kirk that advertising, as 'Spartacus' had cost millions to produce and 'The Night Rider' was done for a few thousand dollars.
I guess a lot of people did see 'The Night Rider' over a period of years as I have been asked about it by lots of fans at western film festivals I have attended. Dick Jones, Whitey Hughes, Wesley Tuttle and I did many of those festivals together through the years and we always had fun remembering the making of 'The Night Rider'. It was a chance to do a movie with many old friends, several of whom have now passed away. For me, it has a special meaning: I made 37 TV films and feature westerns, this was the last.