Nichols: The Complete Series, 24 episodes, six discs, 1,225 minutes, Warner Archive Collection, 2013, $59.99
As James Garner himself said in his autobiography: “Maverick and Rockford are basically the same character, but Nichols is different. He’s a free spirit and an independent thinker struggling to keep up with a fast-changing world.” It’s 1914 and Garner’s title character finally leaves the Army for his hometown of Nichols, Ariz., where he reluctantly becomes sheriff (actually his role is that of a town marshal) after learning that his family homestead and family are both gone. The characters that remain are a wonderfully eccentric bunch that Sheriff Nichols doesn’t try too hard to corral. Among them are town boss Ma Ketcham (Neva Patterson), her not-too-bright bully son Ketcham (John Beck), barmaid Ruth (young Margot Kidder) and Deputy Mitch (Stuart Margolin in a warm-up for his Angel character in The Rockford Files).
The good-natured sheriff wants to become rich, but of course that is not in the cards. Arizona was already a state by this time, but life in and around Nichols still feels like the frontier, even though the sheriff rides a belt-drive Harley-Davidson instead of a horse. Tired of fighting, he does not carry a gun, but he will use one when necessary—and as the series moved along it became increasingly necessary. Each episode is character-driven with unpredictable plot twists and wonderful dialogue. Director/Producer Frank Pierson, who earlier wrote the screenplays for Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke, created a quality Western so different from the norm and so ahead of its time that it never became a hit. Actually, it never got much of a chance, lasting less than a year, from September 16, 1971 to March 14, 1972.
At times antiwar commentary (the Vietnam War was still in progress) works its way into the show, and Nichols is clearly an early supporter of civil rights and the women’s movement. But nothing gets too preachy. Humor wins out in the end, even though there are some unexpected deadly serious moments, as in the episode “Gulley vs. Hansen,” when two feuding old-timers go through with a shootout. In the crackerjack episode “Peanuts and Cracker Jacks” a baseball game breaks out (for money, of course) in the desert between town residents and soldiers. Manager Nichols insists on playing the best players at each position, be they Anglo, Mexican or Indian, and the Army star pitcher is a black soldier portrayed by Don Newcomb, once a real-life top-notch hurler with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “The Specialists” plot involves Nichols and old Army buddies going to Mexico to steal gold from a bandit. It might sound familiar to Western fans, but there are naturally some unexpected turns before this poor man’s Wild Bunch completes its mission. In “Zachariah,” the action of con men, including Nichols’ uncle (portrayed by the great character actor Strother Martin), brings to mind certain episodes of Maverick. But that’s hardly a bad thing—Bret Maverick was Garner at his best, too. In “About Jesse James,” Sheriff Nichols hears the famous outlaw is still alive and has a price tag on his head too large for the sheriff to ignore. Each episode offers its own surprises, most of them friendly and gentle. The season’s last show, “All in the Family,” ended the series with a bang. “I was so angry and disappointed, I decided to kill Nichols off in the last episode,” Garner writes in his autobiography. Actually he could have come back for another season as his tougher revenge-minded twin brother, but NBC executives nixed that plan. “The cancellation about broke my heart,” Garner said.