Huggins returned to the Western for the
last time in Alias Smith and Jones. Glen Larson (see Chapter
16) appeared in the credits as creator and producer, but the touch
of Huggins, who was executive producer as well as the supplier
of many of the storylines and an occasional writer (again as John
Thomas James), is evident. Hannibal Heyes (Peter Deuel) and Kid
Curry (Ben Murphy) are Western outlaws who are promised a pardon
by the governor of the Wyoming territory if they can stay out
of trouble for one year. (It is, of course, important to note
that, like the Maverick brothers, they have never killed anybody
except in self-defense.) The two adopt aliases--Smith and Jones--and
roam the territory in anticipation of their pardons. Trouble,
however, somehow manages to find them. As with Maverick, the emphasis
is on comic irony rather than heroic bravado. Alias Smith and
Jones is often read as a TV adaptation of George Roy Hill's
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968). Perhaps Butch
Cassidy is more correctly read as a cinema adaptation of Roy
Huggins's Maverick (1957).
excerpt from Glen Larson section, pp. 172-173
Having thus paid company dues for a decade, Larson's next project was his own. Alias Smith and Jones (ABC, 1971-73), created and produced by Glen Larson, was among the last TV Westerns to survive for more than a single season in prime time. In terms of form, the series can be seen in retrospect as a prototype of the cut-and-paste authorial style that would mark Larson's career, as well as a sounding board for many of his continuing thematic concerns and motifs. Borrowing the criminals-become-lawmen parable of It Takes a Thief and resetting it in the Western milieu of The Virginian, Larson fashioned a kind of television adaptation of one of the blockbuster box-office films of the period: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Roy Huggins (see Chapter 13) was Larson's boss at Universal, and his influence can be felt in the series as well.
The action of Alias Smith and Jones takes place somewhere in the Aristotelian middle of the Butch Cassidy story. Hannibal Heyes (Peter Deuel) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy) materialize in prime time as the video counterparts of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, two lovable, attractive rascals roaming the wide-open plains of frontier America. Sometimes the West is a garden and sometimes the West is a jungle, leaving suitably jagged boundaries between rugged individualism and reckless lawlessness for the episodes to explore.
The concept was, however, severely edited for television. Whereas Butch and Sundance attempt to simply walk away from their life of crime, Hannibal and The Kid receive more formal, state-sanctioned rehabilitation. At the beginning of each episode, we learn that the governor of the territory has secretly promised the boys a pardon for their many past crimes (no capital offenses involved, of course) if they can just keep out of mischief for a suitable period of time. Heyes and The Kid agree to these conditions, assuming new identities: Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. Unfortunately, their past keeps catching up with them in the form of trigger-happy bounty hunters, bullet-headed lawmen, and former associates-in-crime who have not quite seen the light.
Though Alias Smith and Jones was unable to achieve Top Twenty-five ratings in its Thursday-night time slot, the series did make a respectable showing opposite NBC's The Flip Wilson Show, a rare hit comedy-variety hour that was the Number Two-rated program of the 1971-72 season. Though Westerns were generally fading from popularity during this period, last-place ABC decided to renew the series, hoping to boost ratings by adding Sally Field, fresh from her triumph as The Flying Nun, in the role of Clementine Hale, another rogue-turned-Samaritan and the show's first female regular.
However, the most consequential change
to occur during the show's second season was anything but planned
by Larson. Peter Deuel was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot
wound to the head, apparently having committed suicide while watching
an episode of Alias Smith and Jones on New Year's Eve. Larson
scrambled to replace him, giving the role to Roger Davis, who
had been serving as the show's disembodied narrator. But the series
never quite recovered from this sudden shock and was canceled
in January of its second season. (In interesting, if somewhat
macabre, footnote to the incident, another of Larson's stars would
kill himself midseries, when Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot
himself in the head on the set of Cover-Up [CBS, 1984-85]; Hexum,
too, was replaced, but once again the series could not survive
the death of its star.)