The TV series was based loosely on the Hill Ranch, which was located at the western edge of Calaveras County, not far from Stockton. One episode placed the Barkley Ranch a few hours’ ride from town, while another has Jarrod riding past a Calaveras County sign on his way to the TV series’ ranch. The Hill Ranch existed from 1855 until 1931, including almost 30,000 acres; and the Mokelumne River ran through it. The source is from an episode in which Heath is on trial in a ghost town with another man (played by Leslie Nielsen) and tells the judge how much land they have. Lawson Hill ran the ranch until he was murdered in 1861. His wife Euphemia (aka “Auntie Hill”) then became the matriarch. During their marriage they had four children, one daughter and three sons. Today, the location of the ranch is covered by the waters of Lake Camanche. A California state historical marker standing at Camanche South Shore Park mentions the historic ranch. The set used to film the exterior of the Barkley Mansion stood on the backlot of Republic Studios from 1947 until 1975.
In the first episode, “Palms of Glory,” the grave of Thomas Barkley (1813-1870) is shown after it is commented that he fought the railroad six years ago, establishing that the show was initially set no later than 1876. At the beginning of the same episode, Jarrod Barkley and the other actor on the train indirectly say that the year is 1876.
In “The Odyssey of Jubal Tanner,” Jubal states to Victoria Barkley that he has been gone 30 years since his wife Margaret Tanner’s death, her grave marker showing that she had died in 1854; this appears to indicate that the series starts in 1884. However, in another episode, a newly dug grave has a marker with the year 1878, so the best that can be said is that the events of the series take place sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s. The dug grave appears at the beginning of the episode “The Long Ride,” in which a friend of Audra Barkley was killed, and where the grave clearly shows 1878, which would make her 23 at the date of death based on the grave showing 1855 as the year of birth. In the episode “They Called Her Delilah,” the telegram Jarrod received from Julia is dated April 27, 1878.
The Big Valley
- Victoria Barkley, portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, was the widow of Thomas Barkley. She was the head of the wealthy, influential Barkley family who lived in 19th century Stockton in California’s Central Valley. She was the main character of the series. Victoria Barkley was the owner and head of the Barkley ranch. In fact, Stanwyck’s refusal to portray Barkley as fragile was controversial at the time. Barkley’s husband had been killed six years prior to the beginning of the series. Victoria Barkley loved and was proud of all her children, including her late husband’s illegitimate son, Heath, whom she would refer to as “my son.” Stanwyck, who went from the refined, elegant lady of the manor to a jean-clad cowgirl as tough as any cowboy, appeared in the most episodes for a total of 103 of the 112 episodes. Her episodes were often surprisingly hard hitting, seeing her character either locked away in a lunatic asylum to prevent her testifying as eyewitness at a murder trial (“Down Shadow Street”), or taken prisoner in a prison wagon to replace a dead female convict (“Four Days to Furnace Hill”), or trapped underground following a cave-in (“Earthquake”).
- Jarrod Thomas Barkley, the eldest son, was a respected attorney. Richard Long played the role of the educated, refined and calmer of the Barkley sons who handled all of the family’s legal and business affairs. While Jarrod preferred the law to settle disputes, he was known to resort to frontier justice and violence when necessary. He was briefly married in one episode (“Days of Wrath”) only to see his new wife murdered, with a bullet intended for him. An enraged Jarrod lost his calm, genteel mannerisms, then relentlessly tracked down the killer. He was in the midst of killing him with his bare hands before he was stopped by Nick and Heath. Long appeared in 96 of the 112 episodes.
- Nicholas “Nick” Jonathan Barkley, the hot-tempered brawling younger son who managed the family ranch, was portrayed by Peter Breck. Well known for his black leather vests, large black hat and black leather gloves, as well as his loud and brawling demeanor, he was notorious for getting into fist fights. At times, he would fight with his brothers as well, though underneath the gruff surface he was warm and caring, had a fun-loving carefree side and a great sense of humor, and loved his family deeply. Breck appeared in 101 of the 112 episodes.
- Audra Barkley, played by Linda Evans, was Victoria’s only daughter. Audra was somewhat self-absorbed, bold, and forward. Far from demure, she performed daring stunts and rode astride, like her brothers. Audra, like Nick and Eugene, was initially leery of Heath’s story that he was her father’s son. Early on, she unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Heath so as to expose him as a fraud. Later, however, Audra and Heath became very close as a real brother-and-sister bond developed between them. She also had a caring side, displayed by tending to children from the local orphanage. A few episodes dealt with her romances, one notable episode being “My Son My Son” in which Robert Walker Jr. guests as a suitor who proves to be mentally unstable. During the show’s final two seasons, Evans’ appearances were reduced because she wanted to spend more time with her husband John Derek.
- Heath Barkley was the illegitimate son of Victoria’s late husband, and he literally had to fight his way into the Barkley home. Lee Majors portrayed even-tempered but rough and tumble Heath, who was often angry and aggressive throughout the early episodes due to his belief that Tom Barkley had abandoned his real mother after she became pregnant. In truth, Tom Barkley never knew about Heath, as Heath’s mother had never told him, and never told Heath until she was on her deathbed. Heath gradually gained acceptance from the rest of the Barkley clan as the first season progressed until he became as much a “Barkley” as the rest of the family, and his love for them became equal. Heath came to call Victoria “Mother” when speaking to her directly and about her with his siblings. Although Nick was initially leery of Heath and felt he had to test Heath’s mettle, Heath proved himself worthy of Nick’s acceptance, and eventually Nick seemed to grow even closer to Heath than he was to Jarrod, perhaps in a sense due to Heath having more in common with him than Jarrod did. In the series’ season-two premiere, one of a few episodes inexplicably taken out of the show’s initial syndication runs, Heath met Charlie Sawyer (comic Buddy Hackett in a rare dramatic turn), a con man who claimed to be his actual father (the final moments show him admitting he did romance Heath’s mother, but left her years before she gave birth). In the same episode, Beah Richards returns as Hannah, the black quasi-nanny who helped raise Heath after his mother’s death. Majors, who was initially very blond-haired but gradually got darker as the show continued, appeared in 95 of the 112 episodes.
- The youngest Barkley son was Eugene, a medical student studying at Berkeley, played by Charles Briles. Like his older brothers, he was known to have a temper as seen in the Season 1 episode “Boots with My Father’s Name”. He was seen sporadically in only eight first season episodes and then episode 21, on a return from college. Then he was written out. Only once was his name ever mentioned again.
- More Barkley family lore: In one episode, when Victoria is absent, it is explained that she is visiting her unnamed sister in Denver. In the episode “Image of Yesterday,” it is revealed she almost married a dreamer named David Wincup (Dan O’Herlihy) before settling down with her husband.
- Douglas Kennedy, formerly of Steve Donovan, Western Marshal appeared 23 times as Sheriff Fred Madden.
- The regular cast was rounded out by Napoleon Whiting, as Silas, the Barkleys’ majordomo. In several episodes, his character was called on to help the show comment on the trauma of slavery (“Joshua Watson”), life for blacks post-Civil War (“The Buffalo Man”) and finding meaning in his own work for the family (“Miranda”).
Despite the show’s popularity, the series’ ratings never made the top thirty in the yearly ratings charts. The Big Valley was canceled in 1969 as the TV western craze began to fade out to make room for more modern shows. In Ella Smith’s 1973 biography, “Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck,” Smith noted that The Big Valley had been cancelled by ABC mainly due to a poor time slot. In better times, the series had been enough of a hit to outlive various time slot rivals during its run (mainly on Monday nights at 10 p.m.), including The Jean Arthur Show, Run for Your Life and I Spy. According to Broadcasting magazine (September 27, 1965), its debut episode (actually Wednesday at 9 p.m., where the show aired for half-a-season) placed 39th in the Nielsen ratings for the week of September 13-19, 1965.
The Big Valley was also ranked as one of the top five favourite new shows in viewer TVQ polling (the others were Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space and F Troop). Early into its second season, The Big Valley was still a mid-range performer, placing 47th out of just 88 shows during the week of October 28, 1966, which was higher than such shows as That Girl, Daniel Boone, Petticoat Junction, and The Wild, Wild West. Even so, The Big Valley was popular enough to warrant at least three TV Guide covers. It also acted as a launching pad for two projected spin-offs from special episodes. A 1968 episode guest starring Van Williams was meant to lead to a Rifleman-like series titled Rimfire. A March 1969 episode, The Royal Road, guest-starring heartthrob Sajid Khan as a young rogue, was also hoped to lead to a series. But by that year the rising popularity of CBS’s The Carol Burnett Show — and vocal complaints by Joey Bishop, ABC’s late-night talk show host, that the show’s faltering ratings weren’t helping to provide his program with a proper lead-in — ultimately led to the drama’s demise. In syndication, The Big Valley would prove exceptionally popular in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.
In the 1980 comedy film Airplane!, the wacky air traffic controller Johnny, played by Stephen Stucker, paid homage to Valley? ‘s penchant for big drama in one of his many asides. After Lloyd Bridges’ character frets about a pilot who cracked under pressure, Johnny says: “It happened to Barbara Stanwyck!” and “Nick, Heath, Jarrod – there’s a fire in the barn!” The Big Valley has also seeped into the darker cinematic subconscious. In Bug, an acclaimed 2006 thriller starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as drug addicts, their characters spiral into a hallucination that leads them to imagine tiny bugs have invaded their dwelling, with one referring to the little critters as “matriarchal aphids” that act “like Barbara Stanwyck in Big Valley.”
Awards and nominations
In 1966, for her first season as Victoria Barkley, Barbara Stanwyck won the Emmy for lead actress in a drama series. She was nominated two more times (1967 and 1968) for her work in The Big Valley and earned three Golden Globe nominations as Best TV Star for the part as well (1966, 1967, 1968). And, on March 15, 1967, Stanwyck was named favorite TV actress at the Photoplay magazine awards, which aired as a special episode of The Merv Griffin Show (David Janssen of “The Fugitive” was named favorite TV actor). Richard Long helped present Stanwyck her Gold Medal at the event.
The Big Valley was also recognized during its run for its polished production. In 1966 and 1968, the American Cinema Editors (ACE) named Valley the year’s Best Edited Television Program (for the episodes 40 Rifles and Disappearance, respectively).
While The Big Valley is set primarily in and near the city of Stockton, the filming of the series took place in Southern California.
A bit of Hollywood history, Nick’s girlfriend in “The River Monarch” wears an open weave/knit gray coat with red trim that was worn by Olivia deHavilland as Melanie Wilkes in the Atlanta train station Christmas scene in Gone with the Wind.
In the episode entitled “The Jonah” (Season 4, Ep. 6, No. 92), strains of the Emperor Waltz can be heard playing in the background during the dance scene. If the series’ story timeline ended in the mid-1880s, then this would not have been possible given this waltz was composed in 1889. Another episode references “yellow journalism”, at least a decade before the term was coined.
In episode #70, “Explosion!”, a child in the orphanage is holding a Raggedy Ann doll decades before Raggedy Ann was introduced in 1915.
While sincere attention to period detail was paid to the drama in its first two seasons, the look of the series became more anachronistic with time. The blue or violet eye shadow, matching turtle neck sweaters and chic bolero jackets favored by Victoria and Audra, not to mention their comely hair styles, were more true to the groovy late 1960s than the show’s time-setting of the late 1800s.
The theme music was composed by George Duning, who also scored the pilot and four episodes; Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein and Joseph Mullendore also scored episodes. Paul Henreid, of Casablanca fame, directed a number of episodes.
Wilfred M. Cline, A.S.C., Technicolor Associate Cinematographer on Gone with the Wind (1939), was director of photography of several Big Valley episodes, together with Chas E. Burke, A.S.C.
© Image credit
Film columnist Patrick Goldstein reported in the Los Angeles Times in July 2009 that filmmakers Daniel Adams and Kate Edelman Johnson were producing a feature film version of The Big Valley with production to begin in April 2010 in New Mexico and Michigan. In 2012, the aforementioned film version of The Big Valley, which was to have first starred Susan Sarandon and then Jessica Lange in the role of Victoria Barkley, was put on hold indefinitely after the film’s would-be director, Daniel Adams, was indicted for fraud pertaining to two previous films and sued by investors in “Valley” who claimed foul as well.
Several episodes of the original TV series have been combined into concurrent running feature-length TV movies, while the notable two part episodes: ‘Legend of A General’ and ‘Explosion !’ have also been made into feature-length TV Movies. These have also been issued as TV Movies on DVD as a box set, along with seasons one and two.
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the first season on DVD in Region 1 on May 16, 2006. Season 2, Volume 1 was released on January 30, 2007.
On January 8, 2014, it was announced that Timeless Media Group (TMG) had acquired the rights to the series. They have subsequently released seasons 2 & 3 on DVD. The fourth and final season was released on October 28, 2014.
In Germany, all four seasons have been released as individual season sets, plus a complete four season box set in region 2 PAL format.
- ^ “They Called Her Delilah.” Can be seen on screen.
- ^ Westerns on television
- ^ “The Best of Johnny from Airplane! from AirplaneFan”. Funnyordie.com. 2008-10-09. Retrieved 2014-07-16.
- ^ Solomons, Jason (November 10, 2007). “Bug”. The Guardian (London).
- ^ Emperor or Kaiser Waltz, Johann Strauss II, 1889
- ^ “The Remake Watch: ‘Big Valley’ edition”. Los Angeles Times. 2009-07-15. Retrieved 2009-07-26.
- ^ Fernandez, Jay A. “Susan Sarandon eyeing ‘Big Valley'”. The Hollywood Reporter.
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- ^ “Movie Director Indicted in $4.7 Million Tax Rebate Fraud Case”. The Hollywood Reporter. December 12, 2011.
- ^ “Courthouse News Service”. Courthousenews.com. 2012-07-31. Retrieved 2014-07-16.
- ^ ab “The Big Valley DVD news: Revised Artwork No Longer Worth $12 Million”. TVShowsOnDVD.com. Retrieved 2014-07-16.
- ^ A Long-Awaited (and Complete) ‘Season 2’ DVD Set is Coming!
- ^ “The Big Valley DVD news: Revised Box Art for The Big Valley – Season 2”. TVShowsOnDVD.com. 2014-01-31. Retrieved 2014-07-16.
- ^ ‘Season 3’ is Now Scheduled: Date, Cost, Package Art
- ^ The 4th and ‘Final Season’ is Scheduled for DVD this Fall