(Opening scene: busy city street...a harried businessman at a stoplight turns to his left, where a young man is revving his motorcycle, and asks...)
"Taking a trip?
"Taking a trip."
"Oh, I don't know...wherever I end up, I guess."
"Pal, I wish I was you."
"Really?...well...hang in there."
The businessman smiles wistfully and nods. The light changes, and off goes the laconic motorcyclist, gunning it out of the city, toward open space and adventure.
The cyclist is Jim Bronson. Although his economy of speech would not suggest it, he is freshly an ex-newspaperman.
Only a few days earlier, a friend, Nick, had lept to his death from a bridge, but not before asking Jim to buy back the motorcycle from his soon-to-be widow. Jim had originally owned and customized the bike, then sold it to Nick when he became a reporter.
Bronson began thinking about the meaning of his own life. He decided to quit the rat race, simplify, see the country, visit some old friends and discover what life would put in his path.
That is the premise of the 1969-70 NBC series, Then Came Bronson, starring Michael Parks.
Easy Rider was a hit in 1969, a movie about two young counter-culture cyclists looking for the "real" America. Perhaps Middle America was not quite ready for that story on the small screen, but "Then Came Bronson" expressed some of the themes of that movie in a way more palatable to the mass audience (the pilot movie was completed before Easy Rider hit the screen, so TCB was not an Easy Rider knockoff.)
The idea of getting back to basics was "blowin' in the wind" at that time. "Natural" food, ecology and hippie communes were other expressions of this philosophy. However, promotional literature assured us that "for the necessities of life, Bronson works". He owned only his motorcycle, his bedroll and the clothes on his back. Those clothes usually consisted of corduroy pants, black tee shirt, leather jacket, and watchcap (according to Michael Parks, he took this costume from the Jack London bio, Sailor on Horseback).
The two hour pilot movie told the story of how Bronson began his peregrination. Martin Sheen was Nick. Bonnie Bedelia played a runaway bride. After a rocky first meeting and some character-revealing incident, Bronson develops feelings for her that conflict with his need to continue his journey and come to peace with himself.
While Bronson and the girl were in a diner, a local yokel hopped on the bike and ran it directly off a ramp into the water. It was hauled out and painstakingly disassembled and cleaned up. Soon they were back on the highway.
By the end of the show, the two understand that their life paths must diverge. Good thing, or else there would have been no series!
One of the unique qualities of the show was the natural style of the dialog. Parks played the role in a soft-spoken way, and even mumbled some of the often-improvised lines. This added a more realistic, unpredictable feel to the show. Quentin Tarantino has said that Parks' performance in the series was "the most naturalistic acting I've ever seen on a TV show." (Parks plays the roles of Sheriff Earl McGraw AND Esteban Vihaio in Tarantino's recent film, "Kill Bill, Part 2".)
The motorcycle was almost a character itself. The deep, throaty growl of that 4-stroke Harley engine seemed to give voice to the dream of a life of simplicity and freedom.
One of the co-producers of the series was Robert H. Justman, who had just worked on the original Star Trek as associate producer ("ass prod", as TV folk abbreviate it). The Bronson credits reveal several other carryovers from the Star Trek crew as well.
Come to think of it, Jim Bronson and his bike were a lot like Jim Kirk and the Starship Enterprise. His arrival often brought long-standing local conflicts to a head. He helped iron them out (though in a more subtle fashion than Captain Kirk), then warped out down that "long, lonesome highway" at the end of the show.
"A Pickin' and A Singin'" - Bronson drops into a small diner/nightclub and meets a young songwriter. Bronson teams up with him to win a talent contest.
Michael Parks did the singing for this episode himself. He released three albums on MGM of folk/country-tinged songs, including "Mountain High" (written by James Hendricks) from this show, plus other standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and "Re-enlistment Blues".
Some of these songs showed up on the soundtracks of other episodes. One of the Hendricks songs, "Long Lonesome Highway", was the closing theme for the show and became a top 40 hit. Parks' voice was not commanding, but quite affecting. Elvis' band (James Burton, Ronnie Tutt and Jerry Scheff) backed Parks on the second album, albeit in a much more sedate style than they employed with the King. Excellent music.
While his situation is near desperate, he finds himself contemplating the wonders of the beautiful Big Sur redwood country. As the storm approaches, Bronson feels the power of nature and faces his own mortality. He hunkers down and keeps riding. Just as a posse on horseback is making ready to search for him, he rides, near exhaustion, onto their ranch.
Later, he talks with the ranger over coffee about the need to preserve this wilderness for his children. Humbled by his experience, he rides back down the trail to the highway.
This unique show lasted only one year on NBC, but has remained in syndication for the last 27 years.
I turned 53 (a prime number) November 30. My brother sent me a birthday card containing a reminder of a long-ago trip and my one encounter with network television.
In the summer of 1969, I took a train-bicycle trip to the Tetons. I rode the train from Iowa City to Victor, Idaho, changing trains in Omaha, Pocatello, and Idaho Falls. The last leg of the rail trip was by mixed train (a combined freight-passenger train, in this case, a freight train where passengers rode in the caboose). From Victor, I bicycled over the Teton Pass. Somewhere in the Grand Teton National Park, there was a sign announcing the filming of a new TV series, "...then came BRONSON." Shortly beyond the sign was an assortment of trailers and tents of the film crew. I must have been something of a sight, with a frame pack on my back, on my trusty Raleigh Sports, loaded with two full saddlebags.
As I was riding by, somebody on the film crew called over to me, asking whether I wanted to earn ten dollars. Of course I did. Ten dollars in 1969 was the equivalent of forty or fifty dollars today. I was ushered into one of the tents, where I signed a contract which, according to one member of the film crew, bound me to MGM (now Sony??) for the rest of my life. I rode past the cameras a couple of times, and that was that. Alas, the footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Had I been included, I'm not sure which episode I would have appeared on, but I don't think it would have been "Your Love is Like A Demolition Derby in My Heart." (Honest, there really was an episode with that title.)
Hang in there,
Another good site where you can order Bronson merchandise: ThenCameBronson.TV.
5/18/2008: Here's a new one: JimBronson.com.
"Of Saints and Sinners, and the Nearness of Faraway Dreams", about Bob's search for an episode of Nick Adams' 60s TV show about newspapermen, "Saints and Sinners" (see Nick in Tulsa circa 1960.). It sets up the next column:
"First came Saints, next came Sinners, then came Bronson", which deals with Bob's obsession with the "mother-daughter" episode of TCB:
"Then came those three little words: 'Takin' a trip?...'" and
"First came Bronson, next came Klitsner, then came Greene" (Stu Klitsner is the actor who played the businessman in the opening sequence...Bob Greene talks with him on the phone and can't resist recreating the famous scene).