The Big Valley ran on ABC-TV from 1965-69, generating 112 episodes. Barbara Stanwyck heads the clan as matriarch Victoria Barkley, with Richard Long (Jarrod Barkley), Peter Breck (Nick Barkley), Lee Majors (Heath Barkley) and Linda Evans (Audra Barkley) rounding out the regular cast.
Set in California’s San Joaquin Valley of the 1870s near the growing city of Stockton, The Big Valley debuted on September 15, 1965. Along with Gunsmoke (1955-75) and Bonanza (1959-73), The Big Valley is considered to be one of the Big Three in TV westerns. Here is a potpourri of interesting facts and TV trivia surrounding The Big Valley…
1. Charles Briles appeared in eight first season episodes as youngest brother Eugene Barkley. His character was later written out of the show – the storyline had him away attending law school – when the 19-year-old Briles was drafted into the United States Army in June 1965.
2. Richard Long’s lawyer character – with offices in Stockton and San Francisco – was named Jarrod Thomas Barkley. The middle name of Thomas came from his deceased father, Tom Barkley. Tom Barkley’s avenger was an old cuss named Handy Random (James Whitmore), who appeared as a hired gun specializing in range wars in “The Death Merchant” (2/23/66).
3. Jarrod, Nick and Heath Barkley had all served in the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-65). Nick had been a captain, Jarrod had been stationed in Washington, D.C. where he had been in intelligence and Heath had seen action at Chickamauga.
4. The idea for The Big Valley began with Lou Edelman, a producer on The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960-62). For two years Edelman had tried to interest the TV networks in a western series starring Miss Stanwyck, but his efforts came to no avail. In late 1963 Edelman sold the property to the producing team of Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and Arnold Laven, who struck a deal with ABC in late 1964 to bring The Big Valley to television.
5. Barbara Stanwyck originally voiced misgivings about playing Victoria Barkley. As originally conceived by Lou Edelman, Stanwyck’s proposed character was just a little too tame for her. “I’m a tough old broad from Brooklyn,” she informed the producers. “Don’t try to make me into something I’m not. If you want someone to tiptoe down the Barkley staircase in crinoline and politely ask where the cattle went, get another girl. That’s not me.”
6. Like many television shows of the era, The Big Valley was cranked out in assembly line fashion. Each hour-long episode (with commercials) was filmed in approximately six days, averaging 12 pages of script per day. The series was in production for nine months every year, followed by a three-month hiatus. Hours on The Big Valley set were long, with cast and crew usually up at four in the morning, with filming sometimes lasting until nine at night.
7. Said Barbara Stanwyck of The Big Valley’s production schedule: “We do twenty-six shows in twenty-six weeks, twenty-six very fast movies, and no one bothers counting the hours. The script is here, the cameras are there, and you are here. Late afternoons you feel you’re so hot and tired – particularly on those hot locations – that you just can’t do a thing. But somehow you always do. At night, you have a pot of soup and go to sleep. It’s a brutal life.”
8. Hollywood stuntmen and women were used extensively in The Big Valley – producers couldn’t risk serious injury to the show’s stars – particularly during the many fight, difficult horse riding and bronc-busting scenes. The stuntmen are rather easy to spot, with the camera going into a long shot during the violent fracas and then returning to a closeup view of the actor in the tamer proceedings. Nick Barkley’s numerous saloon fights serve as a fine example of a stunt double being employed for Peter Breck and his flowing dark hair.
9. Barbara Stanwyck, by virtue of her vast Hollywood experience, was considered “the Queen” on the production. One time, when an assistant director was unable to bring order to the set, Queen Barbara (all 5’3″ of her) stepped up and yelled “Qui-et!” in her booming, trademark voice, whereby the sound stage fell into dutiful silence.
10. Barbara Stanwyck had taken young Lee Majors under her wing during the show’s first season because of his lack of experience. When Majors and guest star Peter Haskell returned late from lunch one day, Stanwyck lit into Majors, reminding him of her passion for punctuality.
11. Barbara Stanwyck also lent her experience to Linda Evans. During rehearsal, when it was determined that Evans’ character, Audra, needed more presence in a scene, Stanwyck told the young actress that she would show her the inside ropes in achieving that goal. “As the rehearsal went on,” Evans recalled for People magazine in 1990, “I waited for an explanation from Stanwyck about ‘presence,’ but she didn’t say anything. I had to walk in this door and walk into the scene, but she didn’t come over. Finally the director said, ‘Action!’ She came over behind me just as we were supposed to walk in the door. I thought, ‘When is she going to tell me what to do?’ Then, as I opened the door, she picked up her boot and kicked me in the butt! I went flying onto the set with my eyes wide open and she said, ‘Now, that’s presence.’”
12. Cast members of The Big Valley appeared on the cover of TV Guide twice: February 26, 1966 and July 20, 1968.
13. The Big Valley premiered on Wednesday night, September 15, 1965, with the episode “Palms of Glory. Network competition in the 9-10PM (ET) time slot was Green Acres and The Dick Van Dyke Show on CBS and Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater on NBC. Preceding The Big Valley on ABC in the 8:30PM time slot was Gidget starring Sally Field. The Big Valley moved to Monday nights, occupying the 10-11PM (ET) time slot, in July 1966. And there it stayed until its final episode on May 19, 1969.
14. Variety previewed The Big Valley on September 22, 1965: “The Big Valley registers on the home screen as Bonanza in drag. It’s a direct variation on the proven theme only with a femme (Barbara Stanwyck) at the head of the clan, a daughter included in the offspring, and of course, the name is changed to Barkley…There is good reason to expect it to command a respectable audience. The acting is strong, the cast attractive, and the production coffers opened wide, at least on the preem (premiere).”
15. Deceased The Big Valley cast members are Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), Richard Long (1927-1974), Peter Breck (1929-2012) and Napoleon Whiting (1910-1984). Whiting played the Barkleys’ black servant/chef Silas in 36 episodes.